The Ultimate Fighting Championship is the last stop along the way for any fighter in search of professional vindication.
Whether it be world-class wrestlers, tumultuous knockout kings or well-rounded champions, the UFC is home to the very best combatants in the world. The promotion’s depth and consistency only adds to its illustrious draw.
While many fighters have come and gone under the bright lights of the Octagon, only a few have withstood the test of time by climbing the proverbial ladder and challenging for divisional gold. Because at the end of the day, there is no equivalent in MMA to that of a UFC title.
Nonetheless, many other promotions have fought tooth and nail to retain respectable and noteworthy champions. These road warriors have done their best to impress in fashion, but have either failed to make it to the big show or were direct UFC castoffs to begin with.
— Bellator MMA (@BellatorMMA) October 12, 2015
That said, there are certainly a handful of fighters outside of the UFC who could come into the promotion right now and contend for a title, specifically ones hailing from Bellator MMA.
As arguably the most talent-laden organization out from under the Zuffa banner, Bellator possesses a core group of fighters who exhibit the top-level skills needed to compete alongside the likes of UFC champions Jose Aldo, Rafael dos Anjos, Robbie Lawler and Daniel Cormier (to name a few).
Here are five of those names from Scott Coker’s stable who are justifiable UFC contenders entering 2016:
Patricio “Pitbull” Freire
There’s no disputing the fact that Freire is the most UFC-ready fighter currently gracing the Bellator roster. Equipped with sensational power in his hands, swift movement on the mat and an unparalleled ability to finish fights, the 28-year-old Brazilian would be a tough out for any Top 5 UFC featherweight.
Eight finishes in 14 Bellator appearances sheds light on his big fight ability.
The current owner of a 24-2 professional record, with both of his loses coming by way of split-decision, Freire has done enough throughout his career to be considered one of the best 145-pound entities in the world. And when you add in his explosive athleticism and unflappable chin, it’s plausible that he could defeat the likes of Aldo, Conor McGregor, Chad Mendes and Frankie Edgar.
With an 8-1 record since the start of 2013, Brooks has been one of the most active and consistent fighters in MMA over the past two years.
Along the way, the American Top Team standout has avenged a previous loss to Saad Awad and defeated former lightweight kingpin Michael Chandler on two separate occasions to become the 155-pound champion.
But despite his evolution over the past 30-plus months, it is Brooks’ wrestling ability that would make him an immediate threat to UFC lightweight title-holder dos Anjos. Fueled by innate strength, precision and persistence, “Ill Will” has the elite top game that would be needed to outscore RDA over the course of five rounds.
If his striking consistency can follow suit then it’s safe to say Brooks will be ranked a top-three lightweight in the world by the end of 2016.
Many might argue that Andrey Koreshkov should command this spot on the list, but the fact remains that Lima is a more gifted fighter. One who was simply unable to shake off over a year of ring rust when he lost to Koreshkov’s pressure wrestling back in July.
Nonetheless, the 27-year-old Brazilian has only lost twice since 2009, both via decision (Koreshkov and Ben Askren). Furthermore, he’s finished 11 of his 14 victories during that span, which includes wins over Rick Hawn and resurgent UFC veteran Ben Saunders.
Lima would ultimately be thrust into the superstorm that is the UFC welterweight title picture, but he possesses the elite striking (specifically his head kicks) to at least contend with the likes of Lawler, Carlos Condit and even Matt Brown.
Of course, he would have to smooth out his wrestling defense if matched up against Rory MacDonad, Tyron Woodley or Demian Maia.
Losing three out of his last four Bellator fights isn’t easy to overlook, but Chandler remains one of the most well-rounded lightweights in MMA today.
As a respected wrestler with finishing power, good scrambling skills and a scrappy submission game, the 29-year-old has demonstrated the in-cage grittiness capable of testing the ranks of the UFC lightweight division.
This includes dos Anjos, Donald Cerrone, Anthony Pettis, Khabib Nurmagomedov and Eddie Alvarez, a man who Chandler defeated by way of submissions back in 2011 in one of the best fights you’ll ever see.
Needless to say, Chandler will have to string a few more victories together to regain the notoriety he once claimed. But at this point in his career, it’s more of when he’ll do it then if he’ll do it.
There’s no denying that the UFC dropped the ball when it comes to Davis.
Despite a somewhat lack luster attempt to contend for UFC light heavyweight gold, “Mr. Wonderful” was easily one of the most athletically-inclined fighters the division had to offer. But his inability to create on the feet and finish when it counted most ultimately drove him away from the promotion.
Now, with a new home to call his own, Davis is in search of professional redemption. And considering he demolished Emanuel Newton and Francis Carmont in succession back in September to win Bellator’s Light Heavyweight Tournament, it’s safe to say Davis isn’t playing around anymore
That’s a scary thought for any fighter ballsy enough to stand opposite the wrestler in 2016, and a newly found fighting style that could test the resolve of UFC lightweight king Cormier if given the chance.
Honorable Mention: Marloes Coenen
If the UFC had a women’s featherweight division, Coenen would easily make this list.
Despite loses to Cristiane Justino and Miesha Tate since the start of 2010, the 34-year-old Brazilian remains the only fighter to ever take “Cyborg” beyond the third round. That’s saying a lot considering Coenen is the furthest thing from a striker.
She remains one of the most recognizable names in women’s MMA today and an elite grappling expert who has finished the likes of Sarah Kaufman and Liz Carmouche en route to 17 career submissions in 23 victories.