The UFC Gatekeepers

The UFC Gatekeepers

By James Lee

The phase gatekeeper sometimes can have negative connotations attached to it, but it shouldn’t have. A gatekeeper of a division is a world class fighter who has failed to beat the very best in the world but has success against practically everybody else.

A gatekeeper could eventually claim a world title, just like Michael Bisping did, but they usually stay just behind the top five in the rankings.

A win over one is seen as the last step before a fighter is amongst the best in the world, with a title shot likely to come soon after.

Bantamweight Raphael Assuncao played that role on Saturday at UFC 241, as prospect Cory Sandhagen asserted himself amongst the best 135 lbs fighters with the win.

For years, Assuncao has acted as the last step before the title shot, especially in the case of Marlon Moraes, with TJ Dillashaw only needing one more win after that.

Of the select few who have beaten him, the victory has forever been recognised. The Brazilian has done his fair share of stopping a rising fighter from progressing and has been unlucky to have not claimed his own title shot yet, considering his now 11-4 record for the company which included a seven fight win streak at one point.

Unfortunately for Assuncao, Sandhagen proved he is ready for the top five of the division with a decision win. With the Brazilian ranked at #3 before the contest, Sandhagen should expect a top five opponent next.

With Assuncao’s spot as the bantamweight gatekeeper secure, I took a look at who holds that position in every other weight class in the UFC.

Men’s Flyweight – Jussier Formiga

The flyweight division is quite different to most with the lack of top contenders and rotation but Jussier Formiga has been a mainstay at the top without ever receiving his own title shot.

However, Formiga has potentially lost five title eliminator fights as five of his opponents have gone on to challenge for the title after beating the Brazilian.The latest being Joseph Benavidez who looks next to fight Henry Cejudo next after beating Formiga in June.

Men’s Featherweight – Jeremy Stephens

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For twelve years, Jeremy Stephens has been a contender in both the lightweight and now the featherweight division in the UFC. He has fought multiple hall of fame fighters and is maybe a hall of famer himself upon retirement.

Throughout his career, he has never captured the title but many who he has fought have. A win over Stephens in the featherweight division is highly respected, as Zabit Magomedsharipov has found out. An opportunity for the title is close for the Russian, as it was for Max Holloway and Anthony Pettis previously.

Stephens has done his fair share of stopping the rise of fighters as he famously did with Josh Emmett and Doo Ho Choi last year all in the space of a month. The American will continue to gatekeeper the featherweight division and only the best will get through.

Men’s Lightweight – Donald Cerrone

The pick of Donald Cerrone could be somewhat controversial because of how highly regarded he is in the sport, but a win over Cowboy could boost anybody to stardom.

Darren Till found that out first hand after beating Cerrone. Others like Alexander Hernandez and Yancy Medeiros failed to do so and are far apart from the title because of it. Cowboy has always found himself in the top five of the rankings and is crucial in anybody getting a title shot.

Cowboy has the quality still to fight for a title himself and has a crucial fight with Justin Gaethje coming up in September. The winner of that fight could fight for the lightweight title in 2020.

Men’s Welterweight – Demian Maia

Arguably the greatest grappler in the sport has been a part of the pathway for many of those who have gone on to find championship success, as well as stopping many from achieving that greatness.

Recently, Maia stopped Lyman Good and Anthony Rocco Martin from making the UFC rankings.

Before that, both Kamaru Usman and Colby Covington climbed right to the top of the division after beating him and years before, Chris Weidman beat the Brazilian before winning the middleweight title. Maia is the welterweight gatekeeper and is a difficult fight for anybody at any time.

Men’s Middleweight – Derek Brunson

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Brunson has fought mainly every top ten middleweight and those who have fallen short to him have since gone unnoticed.

Brunson is perhaps the UFC’s ultimate gatekeeper. Since his UFC debut, he has only lost to the very best in the division. Yoel Romero, Jacare Souza, Anderson Silva, Robert Whittaker and Israel Adesanya are the only fighters he has lost to since 2013, with four of them fighting for the UFC title.

Both Whittaker and Adesanya finished Brunson in the first round before going on to claim UFC gold. The American played his role at UFC 241 again on the weekend as he beat Ian Heinisch to keep his position at the #8 in the UFC middleweight rankings.

Men’s Light Heavyweight – Ovince Saint-Preux

Dubbed as the nearly man himself, OSP has done a lot to stop many fighters from fighting for the 205 lbs title. Due to his high levels of activity, Saint-Preux comes across many of the rising fighters and has stopped many as well. Tyson Pedro was one that couldn’t to the top through OSP, but Dominick Reyes was successful last year at UFC 229 and looks possible for the title soon.

Men’s Heavyweight – Alistair Overeem

Overeem is an MMA legend but is now the veteran in the heavyweight division who the rising fighters want to challenge themselves against to earn recognition.

The last two years especially has seen Overeem mould into the gatekeeper role with mixed success. A knockout loss to Francis N’Gannou rewarded the Cameroonian with a title shot and Curtis Blaydes’ win over him pushed him to the top.

Since the losses however, Overeem has stopped Sergei Pavlovich and Alexey Oleynik from pushing up the division and is set to fight Walt Harris in December, in another fight against a rising fighter.

The women’s division’s are more tricky considering both the flyweight and featherweight division are too new for one specific fighter to be the gatekeeper. Megan Anderson could possibly be the featherweight gatekeeper as of now, but it is genuinely too early in the division’s growth.

Women’s Strawweight – Karolina Kowalkiewicz and Tecia Torres

It was difficult to choose between Kowalkiewicz and Torres because they both have been the last step for a fighter before they have fought for the title, with the Polish fighter herself fighting for the title on one occasion.

Both are ranked fighters who have climbed to the top five but have faltered in recent times. Current champion Jessica Andrade beat both Torres and Kowalkiewicz before claiming the title against Rose Namajunas at UFC 237.

Prospect Marina Rodriguez will look to build towards the title after her win over Tecia Torres last weekend in Uruguay.

Women’s Bantamweight – Raquel Pennington

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The women’s bantamweight division has changed significantly since Ronda Rousey ruled, with the other top contenders constantly changing and Amanda Nunes consistently on top.

One fighter that has always been around the top has been Raquel Pennington. Holly Holm and now likely Germaine de Randemie have gone on to fight for the title after wins over Pennington. Again, a win over her for any bantamweight is instantly respectable.

Full List:

Men’s Flyweight – Jussier Formiga

Men’s Bantamweight – Raphael Assuncao

Men’s Featherweight – Jeremy Stephens

Men’s Lightweight – Donald Cerrone

Men’s Welterweight – Demian Maia

Men’s Middleweight – Derek Brunson

Men’s Light Heavyweight – Ovince Saint-Preux

Men’s Heavyweight – Alistair Overeem

Women’s Strawweight – Tecia Torres and Karolina Kowalkiewicz

Women’s Flyweight – N/A

Women’s Bantamweight – Raquel Pennington

Women’s Featherweight – N/A

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