UFC: The seven fighters who could break through in 2019
Finding superstars who can headline global pay-per-view events is crucial to the future success of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).
Animated and engaging prizefighters like Conor McGregor, Ronda Rousey and Georges St-Pierre, or controversial bad boys like Jon Jones, Khabib Nurmagomedov and Darren Till, are excavated and polished before being delivered to fight fans.
Unearthing these gems can be tough, but thanks to the success of these stars - and others like them - mixed martial arts can be a lucrative pursuit, and athletes are now training for the Octagon from a young age. The talent pool is growing.
Last year, Israel Adesanya, my one to watch in 2018, signed for the UFC and ended the year ranked number six in the light-heavyweight division.
So is there a fighter currently outside the UFC roster with the talent and marketability to make a similar impact? Here are seven unsigned fighters worth tracking in the coming months:
1. The best of British
Who? Jack 'Tank' Shore Age 23 Weight 135lb Record 10-0 From Cardiff, Wales
The Cage Warriors bantamweight champ is ticking off accomplishments en route to a UFC invitation. Unbeaten challengers, tough grapplers, dangerous strikers, former UFC fighters - he's likely just one more win away and, with a defence booked against Scotland's red-hot Scott Malone in April, an Octagon debut in 2019 is certainly on the horizon.
"In many ways his rise has been like McGregor's early career with Cage Warriors. He's finishing top-tier opposition and making it look easy, and the noise in the arena when he fights in Wales is off the charts. He's inspired a whole country to get behind him" - Graham Boylan, Cage Warriors president
2. The golden boy
Who? Patrick 'Patchy' Mix Age 25 Weight 135lb Record 9-0 From Buffalo, New York, US
The King of the Cage bantamweight champion is now being managed by Ali Abdelaziz and has switched to New Mexico to train with Greg Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn. After failing to get on to The Ultimate Fighter 27, he won three straight in 2018 and is now primed for a UFC call-up.
"Mix is possibly one of the best American prospects in any weight class right now. He is an excellent submission grappler, with six of his victories coming by way of tapout. He's also gifted with great size for his weight, standing 5'11" with long limbs and plenty of meat on his bones" - Riley Kontek, MMA journalist
3. The Queen of elbows
Who? Agnieszka 'Kuma' Niedzwiedz Age 23 Weight 125lb Record 10-1 From Katowice, Poland
Suffering a first career defeat at the end of 2017 may have delayed Kuma's promotion to the Octagon, but it's far from cancelled. A judo black belt with heavy hands, 'The Godmother' is the best female flyweight currently outside of the UFC.
"I had my first fight aged 17, after just two jiu-jitsu classes, but I started judo aged seven. I'm not under pressure from my family to win and I'm not afraid to lose. As long as I get home to my son, that's what matters. But I do want to win the UFC championship" - Aga Niedzwiedz
4. The Sniper
Who? Stephen Loman Age 23 Weight 135lb Record 12-2 From Baguio, Philippines
The youngest and longest reigning champion in the history of respected Bahrain promotion Brave, Loman is on a six-fight win streak and travels well, defending his title on foreign soil regularly. His Filipino roots could unlock a whole new fanbase for the UFC, both at home and in Asia.
"I left him and his brothers to work in the US when they were young, so it surprised me to hear he wanted to fight in MMA. But he came to visit me and he trained at Team Quest and that really inspired him to achieve his dreams. Now he is a real role model for children in the Philippines" - Naty Nabehet Loman, mother
5. The polar bear
Who? Sergey Spivak Age 24 Weight 238lb Record 9-0 From Kiev, Ukraine
Nine fights, nine finishes, with only one coming outside the opening round. A heavyweight ground and pound wrecking machine with the finesse of a slick submission game, Spivak is still a little raw technically but he definitely has the potential to make the step up to the Octagon.
"Spivak is still green but with a few more fights I would like to see him sign with the UFC toward the end of the year. He is a strong physical guy who will bully his way into the clinch. Primarily, he wants the takedown" - Shawn Bitter, MMA journalist
6. The true viking
Who? Soren Bak Age 26 Weight 155lb Record 11-1 From Toksvaerd, Denmark
The Cage Warriors lightweight champion ground out a solid decision over fan favourite Paddy Pimblett in September to put himself right on the UFC's radar. A move down to featherweight in March, with the goal of unifying the same belts Conor McGregor did, would be the final piece of his UFC jigsaw.
"Bak has impressive grappling and has shown great improvement in his standup since his sole defeat back in 2016. If he can add that second belt then surely the call will follow" - Jim Edwards, MMA journalist
7. The African prodigy
Who? Igeu 'Smiley' Kabesa Age 24 Weight 145lb Record 11-1. From Johannesburg, South Africa
The Extreme Fighting Championship Africa featherweight champion has been on the UFC radar since 2017. Raised in a children's home from the age of six, he's a grappling prodigy who loves power slams and spinning elbows.
"He comes from nothing so he works harder than anybody. He's also a natural talent, with great top game, great transitions and when you put dangerous jiu-jitsu in too, he's the full package" - Simon Stephens, MMA journalist