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 edition, we focus on the nine newcomers from UFC on Fuel TV 9.

Gegard Mousasi — unanimous decision win over Ilir Latifi

Gegard Mousasi’s fight with Ilir Latifi was anything but the impressive UFC debut one could have hoped for from the former Strikeforce champ. Mousasi cited injury and recovery from a cold as the reasons for his lackluster performance, but the common trend with Mousasi tends to be that he produces a dud every once in a while for every few impressive outings. Whereas he has decimated opponents in the past, he’s also delivered a draw against Keith Jardine and a decision loss to Muhammed “King Mo” Lawal.

When Mousasi is on his game, he is one of the best light heavyweights in MMA. When he’s not, he looks like he could easily be dominated by wrestlers or even by strikers with more dynamic abilities. His originally scheduled fight with Alexander Gustafsson could have set the winner up as a title challenger. But Mousasi’s fight with replacement opponent Ilir Latifi did very little for the native of the Netherlands. Mousasi looked like he was anything but interested in being in the cage, and that won’t get him very far against the division’s best.

Mousasi’s takedown defense has also been brought into question, particularly in his loss to Lawal. It’s unfortunate that Latifi didn’t test it, but fighters like Phil Davis certainly would. And fighters like Gustafsson, Glover Teixeira and Lyoto Machida would give Mousasi fits in the stand-up department if he continues to fight in the manner he did against Latifi.

Mousasi is certainly capable of defeating a majority of the light heavyweights in the world, including those in the UFC. However, he doesn’t appear to have the ability to join the UFC’s elite. Through either wrestling or superior striking, many of the UFC’s top-10 light heavyweights should be able to overcome Mousasi. Will he fight the best in the division? With his name recognition and prior accomplishments, the answer is yes. Will he beat them? That’s another matter entirely.

Potential: Medium to High

Ilir Latifi — unanimous decision loss to Gegard Mousasi

Ilir Latifi had the misfortune of launching his Octagon career in the spotlight as part of a man event bout that was to feature Alexander Gustafsson. The choice of Latifi to replace his teammate, who suffered a cut and was forced to withdraw, had many people scratching their heads.

The stocky Swedish wrestler did his best to stand with Mousasi, but he wasn’t aggressive in pursuing takedowns and appeared interested in only trying his luck with looking for the one-punch haymaker knockout. Had he utilized his wrestling, Latifi may have been able to find a way to eke out a close decision against Mousasi.

Latifi wasn’t given the chance to rise through the UFC ranks, but his willingness to step up for such a high-profile fight, plus his ability to go the distance, could earn him a return invite. Against Mousasi, Latifi didn’t look completely overmatched, which is a good sign. But what is troubling is the fact that he opted not to use his wrestling against a fighter whose takedown defense has been questioned in the past. Strategy needs to be a larger part of Latifi’s game if he wants to make a name for himself in the Octagon.

Latifi is far from a championship-caliber fighter at this point, but he did enough against Mousasi to suggest that he can eventually climb into the middle tier of the UFC’s light heavyweight division. He can’t be content merely to survive against his opponents, though. He must learn to lock in on an opponent’s weakness and exploit it. Perhaps the short-notice nature of this encounter prevented that, but he’ll need to perform better in his next outing to prove that he belongs in the Octagon.

Potential: Low to Medium

Ryan Couture — second-round TKO loss to Ross Pearson

Couture. The name is associated with UFC history and with championships. But Ryan Couture isn’t quite at the same level as his UFC Hall of Famer father, Randy. After posting a 6-1 mark in Strikefore, the younger of the Coutures made his UFC debut against Ross Pearson in Sweden. The outcome was a TKO loss.

It’s hard living in the shadow of one’s father, especially when that man is a legend like Randy Couture. But even Randy didn’t always win inside the Octagon. Ryan shows some of the same grinding strategy that his father used to march to a number of UFC championships. But rather than use the clinch to employ some dirty boxing, Ryan uses it as a preface to taking his opponent down and submitting him. But the last time Ryan earned a submission victory was in his second pro fight. He tends to go the distance, though he also has one TKO to his name. As with his father, Ryan has to rely on superb game-planning. In addition, he can’t leave his chin out there.

His grinding style has already led him to victories over the likes of K.J. Noons, so Pearson did not represent a ridiculous step up in competition. However, Pearson has a better rounded game than that of Noons or any of Ryan’s other previous opponents. That’s where Couture may find himself struggling as he takes on the challenges of the UFC’s lightweight division. Most of the fighters at 155 have a combination of striking and either wrestling or grappling that will make them a lot more difficult to bully around than what Couture had grown accustomed to in Strikeforce.

Couture certainly could find a home for himself in the lower levels of the UFC’s lightweight division, but don’t count on it. He isn’t the championship fighter that his father was—at least not yet—and his chin is already a question mark. Throw in the fact that he lost his UFC debut and the UFC’s tendency to dismiss losing fighters of late, and Couture could very well be plying his trade under the Bellator or World Series of Fighting banner in his next outing. The animosity that seems to exist between the UFC and Randy Couture won’t help matters either.

Potential: Low to Medium

Tor Troeng — first-round submission victory over Adam Cella

Tor Troeng’s UFC debut was long overdue. Even more unfortunate was that it had to come as the result of his time on The Ultimate Fighter 17, considering that he already had 20 fights under his belt, with 15 wins. Despite the fact that this season of the reality series has yet to finish its run, Troeng and fellow TUF 17 alum Adam Cella took to the Octagon in Sweden, with Troeng emerging victorious by way of a first-round submission.

The 30-year-old Swede’s experience was expected to be a factor on the reality show, and it certainly played a role in his victory over Cella. Troeng has an even amount of wins by (T)KO and submission, whereas he tends to lose via submission or on the scorecards.

Troeng had little difficulty taking Cella to the mat. From there, he was able to land ground-and-pound. That caused Cella to give up his back. Troeng sunk in the rear-naked choke and secured his first UFC win.

Troeng’s resume speaks volumes about his potential inside the Octagon. He holds 16 wins, counting the UFC debut against Cella, but has also lost on four occasions, plus his defeat within the TUF competition. Those losses came against Mamed Khalidov, Lucio Linhares, Daniel Acacio and Thales Leites. All of those men have fought in major promotions and qualify as the best competition Troeng has faced. And there’s also the TKO loss to Josh Samman on TUF 17. Granted, the losses to Khalidov, Linhares and Acacio came extremely early in Troeng’s career, but the losses to Leites and Samman are more recent and suggest that Troeng still faces the same struggle to overcome stiff competition.

Troeng will do fine against the lower levels of the UFC’s middleweight division, but he lacks the aggressiveness to overcome the best the division has to offer. His prior losses only go to provide evidence that Troeng will reach his ceiling when he hits the middle tier of the UFC’s roster of 185-pounders.

Potential: Medium

Adam Cella — first-round submission loss to Tor Troeng

Experience is a huge factor for any UFC newcomer. It always helps to have plenty of experience under one’s belt before they ever set foot inside the Octagon. Tor Troeng had that experience, but Adam Cella did not. The result was a first-round submission loss for Cella.

The TUF 17 alum entered the reality series with four first-round victories on a perfect record. But Troeng had little trouble taking Cella to the mat, raining down punches or sinking in the fight-ending rear-naked choke.

Cella didn’t have much of a chance to show his skill set in the cage, but the fact that he was in only his fifth pro fight is evidence enough that he needs to spend more time on the regional circuit. His early victories do provide hope that Cella has a bright future in the sport, but for now his chances of breaking into the UFC’s middleweight ranks are at an end. With the UFC showing little mercy to fighters who lose fights, Cella is looking at a pink slip. He’ll need to regroup and continue working on his game in smaller promotions. If he can put together another impressive streak, he’ll earn another invite from the UFC somewhere down the road.

Potential: Low

Adlan Amagov — unanimous decision win over Chris Spang

The import of Strikeforce fighters to the UFC continued on the prelims of UFC on Fuel TV 9 with Adlan Amagov competing against Chris Spang. Amagov emerged victorious by way of a unanimous decision.

The Chechen fighter had gone 3-1 under the Strikeforce banner. His victories there included a split decision and two first-round wins by some form of knockout. The only loss came at the hands of Robbie Lawler. Those contests took place in the middleweight division, but Amagov shifted to 170 pounds for his Octagon debut.

Amagov put on a tremendous display of unique strikes. He utilized spinning techniques in an attempt to catch his opponent off guard. But most impressively, he was able to land kicks from behind while he had Spang’s back against the cage in the clinch. Amagov isn’t a one-dimensional fighter, however. He was also able to take Spang to the mat. The Jackson’s MMA fighter is a decorated grappler, but he has never relied on the submission finish as a professional mixed martial artist.

The biggest concern is what happens when Amagov runs into an aggressive striker. Spang was willing to back up and let Amagov move forward in the majority of their fight. In those situations, Amagov was utilizing his spinning techniques and scoring points with the judges. But on the few occasions where Spang became the aggressor, Amagov looked uncomfortable. Pressuring him in his stand-up will obviously give opponents a chance to close the distance and nullify Amagov’s unique offense.

There’s a high likelihood that Amagov reaches a point in his career where opponents learn to back him up and therefore beat him. However, this is a fighter who has competed as high as light heavyweight, but is now at welterweight. This should be a more appropriate weight class for him, and that should spell success.

Potential: Medium

Chris Spang — unanimous decision loss to Adlan Amagov

On the other side of the cage from Adlan Amagov was Chris Spang.

Spang’s Strikeforce tenure ended in a 2-1 mark, which included a TKO victory over Nah-Shon Burrell. Burrell posted an impressive UFC debut, so there was some anticipation surrounding Spang’s own first Octagon appearance, but the 25-year-old could not deliver and instead found himself on the wrong end of a unanimous decision verdict.

Spang’s striking is his strong suit. His TKO of Burrell was one of three fights he ended with strikes. However, his willingness to let Amagov walk him down worked against him. When moving forward, he was able to put together combinations and get the better of Amagov. The problem was that he was too willing to let Amagov be the aggressor. He also struggled to escape from the clinch as Amagov kicked him in the face while holding him from behind.

Spang’s striking and knockout power gives him some potential to establish himself in the UFC’s welterweight division. However, there are plenty of aggressive strikers that can back him down, and even more wrestlers who will be happy to plant him on the mat. His striking could make him a gatekeeper, and he is young enough that more experience could benefit him and make all the difference in how far he is able to rise in the UFC.

Potential: Low to Medium

Conor McGregor — first-round TKO win over Marcus Brimage

Irishman Conor McGregor has already proven himself as a top featherweight and lightweight in Ireland, England and, occasionally, nearby countries. Add Sweden to that list, but more importantly, add the UFC. The Cage Warriors two-division champ stepped into the Octagon for the first time in his career and stepped out 67 seconds later with his first UFC win, a TKO stoppage of Marcus Brimage.

Brimage had already played spoiler to UFC prospects Maximo Blanco and Jimy Hettes, so this was a dangerous affair for McGregor. That didn’t stop the Irishman from destroying his fellow featherweight competitor. McGregor looked comfortable inside the Octagon as he displayed excellent movement and threw strikes from various angles. The finishing blows included a trio of uppercuts that devastated Brimage.

McGregor’s power is undeniable. He has finished the majority of his victories by rendering his opponent unconscious or pretty close to it. He brings an exciting style to the featherweight division and can stand toe-to-toe with the division’s finest. He has a good chin and the speed to land strikes without taking much damage.

McGregor does tend to keep his chin high. Luckily for him, he has a good one. But if he runs into a knockout artist who can stifle his striking and get inside, that chin could be tested. Brimage also wasn’t able to score takedowns and test McGregor’s ground game. McGregor’s only two career losses have come via submission, so that area will still be a concern.

It’s easy, especially based off of McGregor’s Octagon debut, to say that his potential is high. However, those submission losses are cause to be cautious. The Irishman will undoubtedly entertain UFC fans with his striking, but when he collides with the division’s elite, he’ll have to answer questions about his grappling skills. If he shores up that area of his game, he could be contending for a title in the future. If he doesn’t, he’ll still put up wins, but he’ll always be just outside of title contention.

Potential: Medium to High

Ryan LaFlare — unanimous decision win over Ben Alloway

Ryan LaFlare entered the UFC on the strength of an undefeated record through seven fights. All of those contests ended in stoppages, but he had a tough test in front of him in TUF Smashes alum Ben Alloway. LaFlare was able to demonstrate all of the skills that led to his seven previous wins, but he had to settle for a decision victory, rather than a finish, in his UFC debut.

LaFlare’s strong suit is his combination of pressure and well-rounded skills. His resume features an even mix of wins by submission and knockout. He was able to effectively stand with Alloway, but was intent on dragging the fight to the ground. And LaFlare had little trouble doing so. He was able to take down Alloway frequently, and when the newcomer found himself on the bottom, he was able to initiate scrambles and reverses to regain the advnatageous position.

It may have been a case of an adrenaline dump due to the nature of this fight, in that it was his UFC debut, but the one troubling element to his fight with Alloway was LaFlare’s cardio. It appeared as though he was fading in the third frame, and the pace he pushed throughout the fight certainly contributed to this. Although he has seen the third round of fights in the past, LaFlare had never gone the distance prior to his UFC debut. He will need to ensure that his conditioning can match his pace in future efforts.

LaFlare’s takedowns and striking were sufficient against Alloway, and will carry the undefeated prospect to more UFC victories in the future. If he continues to improve, especially in terms of cardio, he could knock on the door of the division’s upper tier, but his wrestling and striking aren’t at a place that will allow him to overcome the welterweight elite. Instead, he will likely settle in somewhere in the middle of the UFC’s ranks.

Potential: Medium

Photo: Conor McGregor (Dolly Crew/Cage Warriors)

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