Brian Ortega, Sean O'Malley and Mackenzie Dern all entered this past weekend with a ton of hype -- and some skepticism. Often, talented prospects fail to meet or exceed expectations, however that wasn't the case at UFC 222 in Las Vegas. All three impressed and provided a glimpse at what the future might hold for the UFC.
Of that group, who should fans be most excited about?
Okamoto: Pretty hard to not answer Ortega, right? I mean, Ortega's done it at this point. He's proven himself. You knock out Frankie Edgar and submit Cub Swanson in a three-month time frame, you done made it. Ortega will challenge Max Holloway for a UFC title in his next fight. O'Malley and Dern are still on their way.
In terms of a "superstar" ceiling in the long run though? There really is a fair argument for each one. They all have that 'it' factor, and they're all finishers, which counts for a lot. For the sake of discussion, let's assume they each have a similar level of success in the cage, which one would ultimately carry the most star power? I'm kind of thinking O'Malley -- but it's real close.
Rosenstein: I'll be honest -- UFC 222 was a pleasant surprise to me. I went into it thinking there were a couple fights worth watching and the rest was meh (at least for a pay-per-view). A few days later, having time to reflect, I'm now excited for the future of the promotion. All three top prospects impressed to varying degrees and gave fans a reason to get excited in the coming years.
The obvious answer for standout performance was Brian Ortega. He's getting a title shot next against another fighter with major star potential -- Max Holloway -- so for the sake of debate I'll choose one of the others.
Sean O'Malley brought it on Saturday night. I was a little bit hesitant of his hype, a guy nobody knew a year ago on the main card of a PPV, but he lived up to all of it. It was pretty badass to see someone with a fractured foot hopping around the Octagon and still trying to fight. He has the skill set and charisma to shine in this sport. As long as the UFC does not rush O'Malley -- let him steadily climb the ranks -- they have a future star on their hands.
Murphy: With its ongoing dearth of superstars, the UFC couldn't have asked for more at UFC 222 than this trio going 3-0. All are 27 or younger, and all are appointment viewing in their next fights.
By process of elimination, of the three, I'm most excited about Sean O'Malley.
Brian Ortega shares a division with Max Holloway, who's positioned for a long title reign, if healthy. Mackenzie Dern is a world-class grappler, but significant growth is needed in her striking and wrestling to make serious impact at strawweight.
Single-discipline specialists have a more difficult time than when Ronda Rousey was breaking barriers five years ago. And losses are far costlier in MMA than BJJ, where Dern was able to extend herself and grow through defeat without irreparable harm to marketability.
O'Malley looked -- dare I say -- McGregorian with his fluid, diverse, pinpoint-accurate striking and incomparable toughness in his win over Andre Soukhamthath. Once healed from his foot injury, upcoming fights will reveal how much further O'Malley has to go to hang with bantamweight elite. If close, Sugar Sean has a personality the UFC can market, drafting off his similarities to Mystic Mac.
Tamiso: With respect to O'Malley and Dern, who if handled correctly could be big stars for the UFC, Brian Ortega's performance against Frankie Edgar has me fired up about his future.
Not only is Ortega looking better every time he steps inside The Octagon, he's doing it against elite competition. He nearly submitted Cub Swanson in the first round of their bout in December, only to choke him out in the second. He showed off crisp, powerful striking to become the first person to stop Edgar. A title match against Max Holloway is next, and I can't wait to see it.
Ortega's life story is something every MMA fan should learn. From his rough upbringing, to overcoming challenges of his neighborhood through jiu-jitsu and fighting, Ortega, who trains at the Gracie Academy in Torrance, California said "if it wasn't for jiu-jitsu, I wouldn't be who I am today -- probably in jail or dead."