2013 is coming to a close, so let’s take a moment to acknowledge five of the most improved fighters in the UFC.
#1. Demetrius “Mighty Mouse” Johnson (3-0 in 2013)
I consider “DJ” to be the most improved fighter, as he has looked unstoppable in his last three title defenses against Joe Benavidez, John Dodson and John Moraga. Johnson ended 2012 by capturing the inaugural UFC flyweight title in a very close fight with rival Joe Benavidez at UFC 152. On December 14th at UFC on Fox 9, Johnson and Benavidez met for the second time and the outcome shocked everybody. The fight played out as a striking match, and Johnson looked significantly more confident in the exchanges. At roughly the 2-minute mark, Johnson cracked Benavidez with a beautiful right hand that knocked out his rival at 2:08 of the first round. Johnson deserves the #1 spot on this list as he really seems to have hit his stride in the flyweight division.
#2. Vitor “the Phenom” Belfort (3-0 in 2013)
Vitor Belfort has always been known as a dangerous striker, but his striking this year has been absolutely terrifying, as Belfort has finished all 3 of his opponents via knockout. His brutal knockout streak began on January 16th at UFC on FX 7 with a head kick knockout of Michael Bisping in Brazil. The savagery continued with a highlight reel spinning heel kick knockout of Luke Rockhold at UFC on FX 8. His knockouts of Bisping and Rockhold were flashy, but his knockout of Dan Henderson at UFC Fight Night 28 proved just how hard Belfort hits. Belfort’s fight with Henderson was short but sent a huge message. Belfort used his speed to overwhelm Henderson and dropped him with a perfectly timed head-kick, followed up with some heavy shots earning him the knockout victory at 1:17 in the first round.
#3. “Ruthless” Robbie Lawler (3-0 in 2013)
Since moving back down to the welterweight division, “Ruthless” has looked unstoppable. If MMA fans were polled and asked who they thought would be the most viable title contenders in the welterweight division, it is unlikely that Lawler’s name would be mentioned. His knockout win over Josh Koschek was shocking, as most MMA pundits believed that Koscheck would dominate Lawler with his wrestling, given Lawler’s difficulty with wrestlers. Lawler outstruck Koscheck on the feet and knocked him out with a knee and some hard follow-up punches. Lawler’s winning streak continued with a savage beating of Bobby Voelker at UFC on Fox 8 as Lawler knocked Voelker out with a head kick and more brutal follow-up punches. Lawler’s performance against the up-and-coming phenom Rory MacDonald at UFC 167 left no doubt that Lawler deserves to be considered a top contender in the UFC welterweight division, as he used great counter-wrestling to force MacDonald to stand with him, and shut down MacDonald’s gameplan.
#4. Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza (3-0 in 2013)
It wasn’t that long ago that Jacare was considered to be a one-dimensional BJJ fighter that was too reliant on his ground skills to make it to the elite of the sport. Jacare has definitely proven that he is dangerous in the striking department. Jacare put some devastating combos together at UFC Fight Night 28, as Jacare TKO’d the extremely durable Yushin Okami. Souza has some great natural power that was shown periodically throughout his career, but his striking has significantly improved, as he is now better able to string together combinations and connect better.
#5. Chad “Money” Mendes (3-0 in 2013)
“Money” Mendes has been long considered one of the top featherweights in the sport and has consistently dominated his opponents with his NCAA Division I wrestling. Mendes ended 2012 on a high note, scoring two (T) KO wins over Yaotzin Meza and Cody McKenzie. Mendes’ striking has only gotten better under the tutelage of “Bang” Ludwig, and the KO’s just keep coming. 2 of Mendes 3 fights in 2013 ended via knockout, with the first knockout victory coming over Darren Elkins at UFC on Fox 6, and the second knockout coming over Clay Guida at UFC 164. Mendes’ knockout streak ended on December 14th at UFC on Fox 9, as Mendes failed to put away top featherweight fighter Nik Lentz.