Fighters to Watch in the Second Half of 2011

Spotlighting the shooting stars

We’ve reached the halfway point of the year. I don’t know where the time went, either. It was April and I was looking forward to UFC 129 in Toronto, and the next thing I know it’s July.

With fifty percent of the year in the books, the time has come to start looking ahead to what’s in store for the remainder of 2011.

There are some big fights on the horizon, and that doesn’t include the still-unscheduled trilogy bout between Frankie Edgar and Gray Maynard.

I want to look at fighters from each division who could make an impact as summer transitions to fall and eventually leads to winter. This isn’t a list of the next big thing in each division; they’re athletes who could make a serious impact on each weight class. They’re fighters worth watching in the second half of 2011. Here are my picks.

Brendan Schaub

Heavyweight: Brendan Schaub

Schaub has another marquee name on his dance card in August, as he travels to Brazil to face Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira at UFC 134. Schaub  is climbing the heavyweight ranks, and a win over Noguiera would move him into the upper reaches of the division.

That is why Schaub is someone you should be watching in the coming months. He’s got the talent to defeat Nogueira, especially considering “Minotauro” is coming off an extended hiatus and a number of injuries. But should he get through the former Pride and UFC champion, Schaub moves alongside the likes of Frank Mir, Roy Nelson and Brock Lesnar in the upper echelon of the division.

How Schaub stacks up at that level is anybody’s guess right now. He’s faired well since losing to Nelson on The Ultimate Fighter Finale, finishing three of his four opponents and slowly making his way up the ladder. But a win over Nogueira puts him in new territory against better competition.

He’s one of a handful of heavyweight prospects who will be looking to further establish themselves in the coming months, and Schaub is the closest to being a contender.

With the division needing new blood and the chance to extend his winning streak to five and add another big name to his list of conquests, keeping on eye on “The Hybrid” is the right thing to do.

Light Heavyweight: Rashad Evans

For my money, there isn’t a fighter in a more intriguing position right now than Evans. After waiting out the injured Mauricio “Shogun” Rua for the title shot he earned at UFC 114, Evans fell prey to the injury bug himself. And then everything exploded.

His former friend Jon Jones not only replaced him against Rua, but won the belt and said he’d fight Evans, leading to a very public break-up and several days of dirty laundry being aired on Twitter. Evans bolted Greg Jackson’s gym in response, taking long-time coach Mike Van Arsdale and setting up shop with the Imperial Athletics team in Florida.

The friendship-turned-feud was supposed to come to a head in the cage at UFC 133, but Jones was forced out of the bout with a thumb injury that put Evans opposite unbeaten prospect Phil Davis. But Jones skipped surgery and penciled in Evans’ arch enemy Quinton Jackson on his fight card just forty-nine days later.

The former light heavyweight champion is at career crossroads befitting a Robert Frost poem; two roads diverged in a yellow wood, only Evans doesn’t get to just pick which path he takes next.

Davis is far from an easy out; he’s basically Evans circa 2006, only better. His wrestling is superior, he’s a more fluid and dynamic athlete, and he’s made his way to main event status quicker than his UFC 133 counterpart.

If he’s able to defeat Davis, you’d think Evans would be in line for a meeting with the winner of Jones vs. Jackson at UFC 135, but then again, everyone thought he was already in line for a title shot. Should he lose, the former light heavyweight champion could get sent careening down the contenders list, buried beneath Rua, Lyoto Machida, Davis and others.

What takes the intrigue level up to 12 is that Evans has never been one to mince words; expect more Twitter fights and quality quotes in the weeks to come.


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