Octagon jitters—it’s an infamous term. The first time a fighter steps into the UFC’s eight-sided cage, there will always be talk of whether the emotional rush and the nerves surrounding his debut will have a profound impact on his performance.

Pundits and fans making predictions on fights will cite the jitters as a reason to doubt a fighter’s chances. And in the aftermath of a defeat, these same jitters will take part of the blame for the fighter’s downfall.

So, following each UFC event, The MMA Corner will look at the fighters who made their Octagon debuts and provide impressions on their performances and their future potential under the UFC banner. In this double edition, we focus on the ten newcomers from UFC on FX 6 and the five newcomers from The Ultimate Fighter 16 Finale.

UFC on FX 6 — The Ultimate Fighter: The Smashes Finale
Cody Donovan — first-round knockout victory over Nick Penner

Cody Donovan was one of only two newcomers from UFC on FX 6 to not have competed on TUF Smashes. The light heavyweight scored a first-round win over Nick Penner, but not before revealing several holes in his game. The Colorado native was rocked on a couple of occasions by Penner, and he had a tendency to charge in while leaving his chin open to counters. The combination of those two things means we could see Donovan suffering knockout losses on a regular basis against the more powerful strikers of the UFC’s 205-pound division.

Meanwhile, Donovan’s best assets were his power and an aggressive submission attack from his back. Donovan’s numerous submission attempts kept Penner from settling in on top of Donovan and allowed the Grudge fighter to escape back to his feet. Donovan’s power also came into play, as he was able to rock Penner and finish him.

Although Donovan has power and a good guard game, it’s not going to get him beyond the lower reaches of the UFC’s light heavyweight division. Put him in there with strikers like Igor Pokrajac or Joey Beltran, and Donovan will likely be the one getting dropped.

Potential: Low

Brendan Loughnane — unanimous decision loss to Mike Wilkinson

The 23-year-old Brendan Loughnane might have lost his Octagon debut to fellow TUF Smashes cast member Mike Wilkinson, but he showed some potential in the closely-contested bout.

Loughnane displayed a good use of reach, as he remained outside and struck his opponent with an array of kicks and punches. His length, combined with quick reflexes, allowed him to avoid Wilkinson’s takedowns as well. With youth on his side and time to develop, the lightweight could turn that combination of skills into a weapon that takes him as far as the middle tier of UFC 155ers.

At the same time, Loughnane left his chin exposed while throwing kicks. He was battered and bloodied by Wilkinson primarily because he didn’t protect himself adequately when throwing strikes of his own. On top of this, when Loughnane was taken down, he displayed a rather sub-par bottom game. If Loughnane runs into opponents who fare better at taking him down, he’s going to have trouble defending against ground-and-pound or submission attacks.

Although he lost, Loughnane’s youth and his use of reach suggests that in the long-term, he might fare better than the man who defeated him.

Potential: Low to Medium

Mike Wilkinson — unanimous decision victory over Brendan Loughnane

Sometimes a win in an Octagon debut doesn’t necessarily translate to long-term success. Mike Wilkinson might have won a close fight against Brendan Loughnane, but he didn’t look like a force who will take the lightweight division by storm. In fact, he looks like a fighter whose unblemished record won’t last long once he collides with the UFC’s roster of 155ers.

In moving forward throughout his three-round affair with Loughnane, Wilkinson secured the win. However, what he failed to do was secure many takedowns. His initial surge forward looked impressive, as he placed Loughnane on the mat. But further attempts to get Loughnane down failed. He will need to make better use of striking and string together combinations in order to set up takedowns.

Wilkinson did show glimmers of solid wrestling and a ground-and-pound offense early, but he failed to get back to that spot numerous times in the fight. Meanwhile, he resorted to throwing haymakers much too frequently. The one-punch knockout might be an impressive way to finish the fight, but it’s not going to be effective against lightweights who see it coming and quickly move out of the way. Had Loughnane been a more experienced adversary, Wilkinson likely would have found himself countered with more frequency and would have been on the losing end of this affair.

Potential: Low

Manuel Rodriguez — first-round knockout loss to Ben Alloway

Talk about perfectly bad timing. After dominating the majority of the round, Manuel Rodriguez changed levels at the wrong time and ran face first into a front kick from Ben Alloway. The kick ended the fight, but the loser in the affair actually demonstrated more potential than the winner.

Rodriguez was aggressive with his wrestling, dragging Alloway to the mat early and often. His wrestling and grappling allowed him to take the upper hand and hold it throughout.

The one hole in his game was his minimal setup before shooting for the takedown. He feinted a single punch before shooting in for his initial takedown, and it was obvious that he had little intent to actually throw the strike. He didn’t pay for it that time, but he did when he changed levels.

Once Rodriguez corrects this problem, he’ll be able to solidify a spot in the middle tier of the UFC’s welterweight division. His wrestling won’t be enough to conquer the upper echelon of the division, but it will be sufficient in bringing less accomplished foes to the mat where he’ll be able to earn wins with his grappling skills.

Potential: Medium

Ben Alloway — first-round knockout victory over Manuel Rodriguez

Ben Alloway threw the perfect kick at the perfect time. Had it not been for his timing, Alloway would likely have emerged on the losing end of his fight with Manuel Rodriguez.

Alloway was unable to stifle Rodriguez’s takedown attempts. He found himself on the mat for a good portion of the fight, and had he not thrown the kick when he did, Rodriguez would have planted him on the canvas one final time to end the round.

Once on the ground, Alloway appeared to be out of his league. Rodriguez transitioned with relative ease and threatened Alloway with submissions. If Rodriguez can do that, imagine what the more talented members of the UFC’s welterweight roster can do. This is a division that is filled with high-level wrestlers, and Alloway doesn’t seem capable of overcoming the takedown. If he can’t stuff takedowns, he won’t get very far.

Potential: Low

Yaotzin Meza — first-round knockout loss to Chad Mendes

Yaotzin Meza was the other newcomer to not have competed on TUF Smashes.

Meza served as a short-notice replacement for Hacran Dias against Chad Mendes. In other words, the featherweight was being thrown in the deep end of the pool immediately, and it was obvious from his resume that his chances were slim to none.

Mendes is still among the top 145ers in the world and his striking was too much for Meza, who succumbed to a first-round knockout. Meza might have been 7-1 over his previous eight, but it’s easy to argue that he didn’t belong in this fight.

From what little he did show, the MMA Lab product kept his chin high. That was the only mistake he needed to make against Mendes. It was the second time in three fights that Meza fell to strikes, suggesting that his chin might be a huge weakness. Serving as a short-notice replacement, Meza might earn a second chance with the UFC, but the results will likely be a repeat of his debut.

Potential: Low

Norman Parke — unanimous decision victory over Colin Fletcher

Norman Parke’s win over Colin Fletcher earned him the honor of being named the Ultimate Fighter from the lightweight division of the TUF Smashes competition.

In winning, Parke demonstrated a solid all-around game. The Irish freestyle wrestling champion and judo black belt found very little difficulty in bringing Fletcher to the mat. Wrestling is not often the base for European fighters, and Parke’s proficiency in that aspect of the game is a good sign for his prospects moving forward.

Once Parke put Fletcher on the mat, he was able to maintain top control with relative ease. He also neutralized Fletcher’s attempts to reverse him or provide any offense from the bottom. The one thing Parke failed to do, however, was to attack with submissions. He does have a significant number of submission wins over the course of his career, but his failure to even look for any against Fletcher could speak to the higher level of competition he’s sure to face in the UFC.

We might see a lot of judges’ scorecards when Parke is fighting, but he should find his hand raised fairly regularly.

Potential: Medium

Colin Fletcher — unanimous decision loss to Norman Parke

When you have the length and reach advantage, you have to use them. Unfortunately, Colin Fletcher didn’t get that memo.

Fletcher lost to Norman Parke after being repeatedly taken down and out-wrestled. Fletcher displayed a common hole in British fighters’ games: a lack of takedown defense. Granted, he was facing a freestyle wrestling champion and judo black belt, but it’s not like things will get easier for him against the rest of the UFC’s lightweight ranks.

Fletcher’s resume also suggests a preference for submission finishes, but his grappling game was all but nonexistent against Parke.

Fletcher is tall and long for a lightweight, but he needs to learn how to use his frame in order to keep distance and pick apart opponents on the feet. He also needs to prove that he has a grappling game and can implement it against UFC competition. Unless he makes those adjustments, he’s not going to make it very far in the Octagon.

Potential: Low

Bradley Scott — unanimous decision loss to Robert Whittaker

Comparisons to Forrest Griffin are more than adequate for Bradley Scott. The TUF Smashes welterweight finalist couldn’t overcome opponent Robert Whittaker in a three-round battle, but he proved to be tough nonetheless.

Scott’s biggest weakness is his tendency to get rocked in fights, and he experienced that in this affair. He did manage to survive Whittaker’s onslaught, though. Yet, that chin could be a concern moving forward.

Scott did display some positive aspects to his game. Although he will likely never achieve the same levels of success as the aforementioned Griffin or Randy Couture, he could develop a similar skill set. He was aggressive in pushing Whittaker against the cage in the clinch. He also mixed in a bit of dirty boxing. Prior to joining the UFC, Scott had shown some power in his punches, so he could use his dirty boxing to set up TKO finishes.

Don’t expect him to succeed against the best at 170 pounds, but he could plant himself firmly in the middle tier.

Potential: Low to Medium

Robert Whittaker — unanimous decision win over Bradley Scott

Robert Whittaker has the power to be a knockout artist in the UFC’s welterweight division, but the TUF Smashes 170-pound winner has several areas of his game that could be exposed by the division’s wrestlers.

Whittaker’s best asset is obviously his striking. He has good power, as he showed in rocking Bradley Scott early, and he swarms in for the finish when he smells blood. He also demonstrated excellent cardio as the fight went on.

However, wrestlers will find it easy to get Whittaker to the mat. And once there, Whittaker doesn’t have much to offer. His ground game was one of defense only, as Scott displayed good positional control and found some of his best offense against Whittaker while on the mat. If Scott could give Whittaker a hard time on the ground, you can bet that Josh Koscheck’s and Jon Fitch’s will have a field day with Whittaker, assuming they keep their chins tucked and avoid Whittaker’s power.

Whittaker might score some big knockouts, but he’ll hit a wall once he meets the division’s best wrestlers.

Potential: Low to Medium

The Ultimate Fighter 16 Finale
Mike Rio — third-round submission victory over John Cofer

It was a long time in the making, but TUF Live’s Mike Rio finally made his Octagon debut, emerging with a victory over castmate John Cofer.

Rio used his wrestling to bring Cofer to the mat repeatedly throughout their fight, but found mixed results. Cofer was able to gain the advantage over Rio at several points However, Rio’s persistence in going for the takedown eventually landed him in a position to secure an armbar finish.

Rio, like many of the lightweight newcomers this weekend, projects to land somewhere in the middle range of the UFC’s 155-pound roster. He was sloppy at times and gave Cofer opportunities to take the upper hand in the fight. Yet, Rio is efficient at finishing opponents both with submissions and strikes, and his wrestling should be sufficient to allow him to secure at least some wins under the UFC banner.

Potential: Low to Medium

Rustam Khabilov — first-round knockout victory over Vinc Pichel

It’s not often that you see a fighter suplexed on his head once during a UFC fight, let alone multiple times. But Rustam Khalibov, an International Master of Sports in Sambo, did exactly that to his foe, Vinc Pichel. The final suplex resulted in a knockout win for the Russian.

Khalibov’s suplexes formed a majority of his offense. The Russian’s sambo skills give him a unique edge in the takedown department. It’s difficult to say whether or not he’ll be able to repeat such a dominant performance against higher-level talent, but he has already proven to be among the more powerful fighters in the heavyweight division.

What we didn’t see much of was the grappling game of Khalibov. He actually has more submission finishes than knockouts, and it’s likely that future contests will see him using his takedown skills to bring opponents to the mat and work towards coaxing a tapout.

Khalibov has the dynamic skill set to give any lightweight problems, and he’ll likely threaten to break into the upper tier of the division in the coming years.

Potential: High

Vinc Pichel — first-round knockout loss to Rustam Khabilov

Vinc Pichel had the misfortune of getting rag-dolled by his Russian opponent. It’s hard to defend much of anything when you repeatedly find yourself slammed on your head, as Pichel did.

Pichel should fare better against more traditional opponents, ones who are willing to stand toe-to-toe with him. Pichel tends to go for the knockout, though he did demonstrate his ability to score submission finishes while participating on TUF Live.

Pichel should find some level of success against other lower-level fighters in the UFC, but he won’t find his way into the upper reaches of the lightweight division.

Potential: Low to Medium

Colton Smith — unanimous decision victory over Mike Ricci

Relentless wrestling was the name of the game for Colton Smith against Mike Ricci in the TUF 16 finals. The welterweight did not let up for the entire three rounds and outclassed his opponent.

Smith’s wrestling attack was impressive, but his performances on the show suggest that he’s not quite as dominant as he was on the finale.

Smith’s wrestling might not hold up against the best of UFC’s 170-pound division, but it seems that Smith is already poised to move to the lightweight ranks. He’ll make better use of his size there to bring opponents to the mat and dominate them with a combination of grinding control and submission attempts. It’s far too early in his career to know if he has what it takes to make a run at the title, but he should at the very least be able to stake out a position among the mid-tier fighters of the lightweight division.

Potential: Medium

Mike Ricci — unanimous decision loss to Colton Smith

One would think that training with fighters such as Georges St-Pierre and Rory MacDonald would prepare Mike Ricci to defend against takedowns. If Ricci does have those skills, he failed to show them on Saturday night.

Ricci was helpless to avoid Colton Smith’s takedowns, and he was dominated on the ground by the Virginian. Ricci’s offense was almost nonexistent, a huge change from his final performance on the TUF reality series.

It could be that he didn’t expect such an aggressive wrestling attack from Smith. It could be that there were other circumstances behind his disappointing performance. However, what Ricci showed inside the Octagon at the TUF 16 Finale was anything but UFC potential.

Ricci will surely receive an opportunity to redeem himself, but if he remains at welterweight, he won’t get very far. The division’s wrestlers are sure to utilize Smith’s blueprint for defeating Ricci.

Potential: Low

Photo: Rustam Khabilov (Keith Mills/Sherdog)