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Three breakout candidates for 2014

1/8/2014



Telling people you called something to happen after the fact is a good way to lose all your friends.

No one wants to hear it. Living in Las Vegas, I get the worst version of this. “Man, I knew Auburn was going to jump out to a first-half lead in the BCS game, I just didn’t get off work in time to lay money on it.” Cool story, bro.

So, I want to tell you about all the UFC stuff I’ve correctly predicted in the past, but you and I both know you’ll just resent me for it -- maybe enough to actually stop what you’re doing and make sure you’re not following me on Twitter.

Here’s what I’ll do, then: pick three UFC fighters to break out in 2014. That doesn’t necessarily mean win a title -- it means turn heads. Much like Cub Swanson has done the last two years. (Which I predicted ... just kidding! But really, I did.)

No freebies either. Predicting a decent year for Chad Mendes in 2014 would feel like cheating. These are under-the-radar fighters who are better than you probably think they are.

Tim Elliott, (10-4-1), flyweight

I don’t know whether it's a good idea to start off this piece with an anecdote about a prediction I once made that turned out to be wrong -- but whatever. In November, a friend of mine watching UFC 167 asked for a couple of fights to bet on. I told him to take Elliott over Ali Bagautinov.

He texted me back one minute into that fight, asking what I had gotten him into. “He looks like a complete idiot.” True, Elliott can look awkward, but it’s effective awkwardness. He was thrown off by Bagautinov’s strategy in that fight (by the way, Bagautinov is a potential breakout candidate, too) but Elliott is solid at everything, entering his prime and nobody is paying him any attention right now.

Michael Johnson, (14-8), lightweight

The secret is sort of out on Johnson, but I’m listing him anyway. I have been a longtime advocate of his potential. I swear, it’s not out of blackmail based on some dirt Johnson has on me -- he’s just got everything I look for in a breakout candidate: natural athleticism, solid wrestling, cardio, a good team around him.

He’s about to be thrown to the wolves, of which there are many at 155 pounds, in 2014. I don’t think it’s more than he can handle at this point, though. If he pulls everything together, Johnson could be a title contender.

Gunnar Nelson, (11-0-1), welterweight

When a UFC prospect looks like Lyoto Machida on his feet but actually better on the ground, you don’t ask questions. You gamble religiously on him and enjoy the free money.

The truth is, beyond the karate stance, there isn’t that strong of a similarity between Machida and Nelson -- although they both win a lot of fights. I wish Nelson would move to lightweight, but he’ll win plenty as a welterweight this year.