Three wins and three first-round finishes across two different divisions. This is a remarkable resume, especially for someone who has never won a fight in their first three UFC appearances.
But that’s exactly what Jailton Almeida accomplished in just seven months’ time. That’s why the 31-year-old Brazilian was ultimately voted the 2022 MMA Fighting Rookie of the Year.
Originally signed to the UFC following a second-round rear-naked choke submission win on Dana White’s Contender Series back in 2021, the 31-year-old Brazilian didn’t make his debut until five months later when he made quick work of Danilo Marques.
It took Almeida just three minutes to finish the job. He dispatched Marques using a vicious ground-and pound that made light heavyweight division aware of a new contender. Before the 205-pounders even had a chance to really take notice, Almeida decided to try his hand at heavyweight just to see how he might fare against bigger competition.
Almeida proved that the hype around him was justified after he once again took care of business — this time with a dominant victory over Parker Porter with a first-round rear-naked choke. In almost an identical ending, Almeida did the same thing to Anton Turkalj after securing a takedown just seconds into the opening round and then finishing with another rear-naked choke submission in the opening round that put him at 3-0 in the promotion.
If not for two separate bouts being scrapped in October and November, Almeida may have very well moved to a perfect 4-0 before 2022 was over. Almeida will now try to win a fourth victory in January against Shamil Abdurakhmov, who is arguably a more experienced heavyweight.
To win Rookie of the Year, a fighter has to debut in a major promotion during that particular year. It’s not difficult to see Almeida shedding that prospect tag sooner than expected. In the past, he has compared himself to ex-UFC light heavyweight champion Glover Teixeira, and it’s not crazy to think he could be right when watching him perform in the cage.
With a blinding combination of speed, technique, grappling and knockout power, the Brazilian mauler, who currently rides a 12-fight winning streak overall, will likely start seeing a number next to his name in the very near future. He might even do that in two different divisions.
2. JACK DELLA MADDALENA
Fighting in two consecutive professional bouts can send anyone back to the drawing boards to consider if combat sports is the right career path. That’s the harsh reality for most fighters.
Whatever you do, don’t count Jack Della Maddalena in that category.
The 26-year-old Australian stumbled badly in those first two pro fights, but it turns out that was exactly the kind of fuel he needed to get better and prove he could be a threat to anybody crazy enough to stand across from him in the cage. After starting his career 0-2, Della Maddalena promptly ripped off nine straight wins with every single fight ending by way of knockout or submission.
That earned him a shot on Dana White’s Contender Series, where Della Maddalena went to decision for the first time ever. But his savagery against Ange Loosa was still enough to earn him a UFC contract.
In his first fight in the UFC, Della Maddalena showcased his devastating power after dispatching Pete Rodriguez by TKO in the first round at UFC 270. He followed that up with his first of two bonus winning performances after he demolished Ramazan Emeev and then capped off his year with another jaw-dropping knockout over Danny Roberts.
Nobody has even made it to the four-minute mark yet with Della Maddalena in the UFC.
Of course, the level of competition for Della Maddalena will only get tougher as he continues rising up the ranks in the welterweight division but don’t be surprised if he keeps adding names to his win column with a chance to eventually become a top 10 fighter before 2023 is over.
3. MUHAMMAD MOKAEV
There was a time not that long ago when it looked like the UFC was on the verge of dumping the men’s flyweight division after seemingly releasing half the roster and trading away the greatest 125-pound fighter in history. The narrative around the flyweight division changed eventually with new talent added and marquee fights booked.
When 22-year-old Russian (by way of England) prospect Muhammad Mokaev got signed, it looked like the UFC may have struck gold for the future of the 125-pound division.
With an undefeated record and just about every pundit on Earth saying he could be the next big thing, Mokaev backed up that praise by blitzing Cody Durden in his UFC debut before wrapping up a guillotine choke at just 58-seconds in the opening round to secure his first win in the promotion. Mokaev already predicted that he would be a champion even though he had only one fight in his UFC record. He might do so in two divisions.
Life got a little harder on Mokaev in his next two fights but he still impressed with a unanimous decision win over Charles Johnson and then securing a late third-round submission to finish Malcolm Gordon at UFC 280 in October.
Still undefeated through 10 fights, Mokaev wants the chance to potentially become the youngest fighter to claim a title in UFC history. He’s got about a year and a half left to turn that fantasy into a reality if Mokaev wants to beat Jon Jones’ all-time record (23 years, 242 days) but even if it takes him until he’s 24 to make that kind of impact, “The Punisher” looks like being one of the best rookies in 2022 will just be the first of many accolades he’ll have on his resume when it’s all said and done.
4. RAUL ROSAS JR.
Raul Rosas Jr., according to all reports, should only be a matter of months from renting a car, putting on his tuxedo and going to prom during his senior year at high school. Instead, the 18-year-old phenom is celebrating his first UFC win after becoming the youngest fighter to ever sign with the promotion and score a victory inside the octagon.
With only five fights on his record, Rosas appeared to be a couple of years away from landing on the UFC’s radar. The matchmakers didn’t hesitate to recognize the potential and talent in Rosas, a young man who became a professional around the time that he could get his driver’s licence.
Rosas proved that taking a chance on him was well worth the risk after he scored a unanimous decision win over Mando Gutierrez on DWCS, which then got him signed to the UFC roster. Rosas became a household name over the following months. His unique story, and the fact that he was a high-schooler competing amongst the top fighters of the UFC, made him a popular fighter.
Despite all the pressure and expectations surrounding him, Rosas handled it like a veteran.
He was dynamite on the microphone in the days leading up to his octagon debut, saying all the right things. He didn’t let the attention distract him. Then, he backed up his words with a lightning quick first-round submission over Jay Perrin as he continued defying the odds in arguably the toughest sport on Earth.
It is impossible to determine what level of ceiling Rosas has now that he is in the UFC. Sure, fighters around his age have been here before and many of them have been chewed up and spit back out again. Rosas is a truly exceptional fighter and it’s clear that he deserves to be ranked among the top rookies in the world.
5. CAIO BORRALHO
It’s safe to assume that The Contender Series is going to produce a whole lot of new talent for the UFC in the coming years but even Caio Borralho couldn’t have predicted what would happen to him after signing with the promotion in late 2021.
The Brazilian beat future Bellator fighter Aaron Jeffrey and was then granted his contract. He made his UFC debut at a comain event, a position that is usually reserved for more experienced veterans. Borralho seized the chance after his April decision victory over Gadzhi Omargadzhiev.
Once again, Borralho got the call to serve in the co-headlining spot in his next fight as he took out a devastating striker in Armen Petrosyan to move to 2-0 in the UFC. He finally found out how the other half lived in his third fight as Borralho moved to the prelims for a win over Makhmud Muradov, but that one still took place on one of the biggest cards of the year at UFC 280 in October.
Borralho has definitely gotten the attention of UFC executives, who saw enough to believe he deserved a marquee spot in his first two fights with the promotion. Now, he has everybody watching as he looks ahead at 2023. Considering the faith in him so far, don’t be surprised of Borralho sees his name in a headlining spot before too long as he looks to build on his 3-0 record in the UFC, showing a new middleweight threat has officially arrived.
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