There’s something odd about seeing some fighters in the UFC. It’s not that they aren’t deserving of the opportunity, but sometimes they don’t feel that connected to the UFC world.
When you think of a fighter like Fedor Emelianenko, the UFC isn’t mentioned. And that’s because his long career, which has been successful, has strictly taken place in other MMA promotions.
When someone hits a certain point in their career without joining the UFC, it becomes hard to see them as a fighter that would ever be there. That’s in part because of who gets recruited to the UFC these days.
A UFC newcomer is usually young, somewhat inexperienced, maybe undefeated, and possibly a regional champion. Take for example the 40 signings that UFC made on their recent season of “Dana White’s Contender Series.” Out of that group, the average age was 28, and the average number of pro-MMA bouts (when including their “Contender Series” fight) was 11.
At Saturday’s UFC 268 pay-per-view event at Madison Square Garden in New York City, New York, USA, there were three names that didn’t fit that mold. While they weren’t the usual story for a fighter getting their breakthrough moment in the promotion, they instead got a long-overdue welcome to a big stage. Those names were Chris Barnett, Chris Curtis and Alex Pereira.
People who follow the more obscure edges of MMA or combat sports as a whole will know this trio. And up until recently, none of those three were associated with the UFC.
Barnett has been an interesting heavyweight to follow in MMA. Word has gotten out about him over the years – his time in Korean promotion Road FC wasn’t without viral fights and moments outside of the cage.
The 35-year-old has competed in MMA since 2009 and has competed all around the world. His career includes a 2016 bout against now-Bellator prospect Kirill Sidelnikov in RIZIN, a 2011 matchup against now-UFC fighter Walt Harris (who was then only making his second pro appearance at the time), and a grappling exhibition against Yoel Romero.
He has the passport stamps of a journeyman, but the MMA record of a serious fighter.
Personally, what’s makes Barnett such an enigma to me is the contrast between his personality and success in the cage. A heavyweight fighter that breakdances and does flips? Sounds like a gimmick fighter who has nothing else to show. But what an off-base assumption to make. No, no, Barnett is no gimmick, as he showed with a wheel kick finish over Gian Villante on Saturday.
The win was Barnett’s second UFC appearance, with his promotional debut being a loss to Ben Rothwell earlier this year.
The UFC debut of Curtis was one of a fighter that has deserved it for a long time.
Curtis was one of the oddities from season two of “Dana White’s Contender Series,” as he earned a flashy stoppage win in 2018 but didn’t get offered a UFC contract. Instead, he continued to fight around the regional scene and fought in PFL’s 2019 season.
The year that Curtis picked up a UFC debut win over Phil Hawes was the same year that he fought four times on the regional scene in small convention centers and arenas.
Curtis is a story of resilience. He isn’t an overnight success and took longer to make it to the UFC than most. But in the end he’s here.
“I’ve been trying to get in here for 10 years now … I’ve given up 14 years of my life for this,” said Curtis in his post-fight interview on Saturday.
Pereira is an interesting case. His MMA record is that of someone who might even be passed up on by the UFC due to inexperience, as he boasts only four wins and one loss. However, that’s not the full story.
Pereira, 34, joined the UFC roster this week after an extensive run in the sport of kickboxing. This included a campaign in GLORY Kickboxing, where he fought as a champion for five years.
Pereira is no doubt a veteran of combat sports, and one that has gotten recognition by many due to his striking skills. However, his flying knee win over Andreas Michailidis gave him props on a big stage and exposed many to him for the first time.
There were young prospects that put on a show at UFC 268. Take for example former Cage Warriors Welterweight Champion Ian Garry, who scored a stoppage win on Jordan Williams.
But realistically, no potential prospects were proven with the victories of Barnett, Curtis, or Pereira. However, it gave three experienced fighters recognition in front of a big crowd – in the world’s most famous venue – for the first time.