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 six newcomers from UFC on Fox 7.

Gilbert Melendez — split decision loss to Benson Henderson

Entering UFC on Fox 7, Gilbert Melendez, the final Strikeforce lightweight champion, did not have to prove that he belonged in the UFC. Instead, the Cesar Gracie fighter’s mission was to prove that he was just as much a champion as his UFC counterpart. Mission accomplished.

Although Melendez was on the losing end of a heartbreaking split decision, he stood toe-to-toe with Henderson for five rounds and kept the fight close for the duration. The judges, analysts and crowd were all divided on whether Henderson actually beat Melendez.

The former Strikeforce kingpin has now lost just three times in his career. The previous defeats, which came in 2007 and 2008 to Mitsuhiro Ishida and Josh Thomson, have been avenged, with Melendez picking up a TKO victory over Ishida and two closely contested decisions over Thomson. There’s no reason to think Melendez won’t earn a chance to avenge this razor-thin loss as well.

His striking and ground-and-pound attack from the top position has led him to a majority of his victories, and it should remain just as effective against the upper echelon of the UFC’s 155-pound ranks. Melendez doesn’t tend to pick up submissions and is not known for his jiu-jitsu in the same way as his Cesar Gracie teammates. However, he holds a brown belt in the art and is competent on the mat. He has never been stopped, so any opponent will have to gain the upper hand while going the distance with him, which is not an easy task.

Melendez may have lost to Henderson, but he’ll be fighting the division’s other top contenders for the foreseeable future. A couple of wins should put him right back in as a title challenger. Then, we might get to see if he can avenge the loss to Henderson as well.

Potential: High

Daniel Cormier — unanimous decision victory over Frank Mir

The question with Daniel Cormier’s future potential might have less to do with how he performed in his fight with Frank Mir than it does with how he performs in cutting weight. That’s because Cormier’s plan is to shed some pounds and head to light heavyweight. This might not seem like a big deal, but Cormier’s health had been compromised when cutting weight during his Olympic wrestling career. The question of his success at 205 really lies in whether he can even make weight without complications.

As for what he does in the cage, his fight with Mir gave him a win over a former UFC heavyweight champion and longtime contender. Mir has displayed technical boxing skills in the past, but his bread and butter is his submission game. Cormier was able to avoid both in notching the decision victory.

Cormier’s wrestling, combined with surprisingly effective striking, led him to the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix title with wins over Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva and Josh Barnett. Adding a win over Mir in his UFC debut only solidifies his standing as a top heavyweight. The real question here may be whether a move to light heavyweight is wise. His path to gold is blocked at heavyweight, where teammate and training partner Cain Velasquez currently occupies the throne. If not for that fact, Cormier might be better off choosing to remain in the division.

The grueling clinch battle with Mir left Cormier looking exhausted by the end of the fight. His abilities in the cage were not severely diminished in the later stages of the fight, but this could hint at one area where Cormier can be exposed, whether fighting at 205 or 265. At heavyweight, his smaller size allows him to be faster than many of his larger opponents, but he retains his strength as well.

Regardless of which division Cormier calls home, his skills and resume make him an instant contender. The weight cut is the biggest factor in determining his success at 205 pounds, but assuming all goes well, he’ll be fighting for a belt in short order.

Potential: High

Lorenz Larkin — unanimous decision loss to Francis Carmont

Other than Gilbert Melendez, Lorenz Larkin was the one Strikeforce fighter to suffer the misfortune of leaving his fate in the hands of the judges. After threee hard-fought rounds, it appeared that Larkin had done enough to edge Francis Carmont on the scorecards, but all three judges saw things differently.

The big question mark for Larkin coming into the Octagon was his ability to stuff takedowns and avoid the ground game. He was superb in both areas against Carmont. Carmont on numerous occasions caught Larkin’s kicks and lifted his leg high in the air in an attempt to send the striker to the mat, but Larkin bounced around on one foot and remained standing. On the few occasions that Carmont did put Larkin down, the Strikeforce veteran either bounced back to his feet or threatened with submissions from his back.

In the stand-up department, Larkin has never been questioned. He has scored six knockout victories and two wins via TKO. He displayed the more technical striking skills against Carmont and can do so against a majority of fighters in the middleweight division.

Larkin’s record was officially unblemished coming into his encounter with Carmont, but that’s because a loss to Muhammed “King Mo” Lawal was overturned to a no-contest after Lawal tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. That contest exposed Larkin’s weakness against wrestlers and also convinced Larkin to shift from light heavyweight to middleweight. The new division should minimize the issue of larger opponents getting the better of Larkin, but he’ll have to continue to work on his takedown defense if he wants to reach the division’s upper tier. Carmont was largely unsuccessful in taking him down, but Carmont is also no Chris Weidman, Mark Munoz or Yushin Okami.

If Larkin can find a way to avoid takedowns against elite wrestlers, he could eventually rise to contender status. But if not, his striking will at least earn him some knockout wins and keep him firmly entrenched in the UFC’s 185-pound roster.

Potential: Medium to High

Jorge Masvidal — unanimous decision victory over Tim Means

After nearly ten years as a professional fighter, Jorge Masvidal finally graced the Octagon, and he picked up a decision win in his debut against Tim Means.

Masvidal looked to stay outside of Means’ range, land counters and hunt for the takedown. He did all of this effectively throughout three rounds, while also displaying a solid chin. The former Strikeforce challenger added another impressive win to his resume by defeating Means, but his resume—featuring losses to Toby Imada, Luis Palomino and Rodrigo Damm—suggests that he’ll be a mid-tier fighter in the UFC.

Masvidal’s grinding style tends to lead either to wins by some form of knockout or lands him on the judges’ scorecards, where he has secured 13 wins and suffered four defeats. His wrestling and striking can give him the upper hand against a healthy portion of the lightweight division, but Gilbert Melendez was able to earn a unanimous verdict over him in their title tilt. It’s easy to see Masvidal doing the same against many of the UFC’s best at 155. He’ll provide a stiff challenge, but will ultimately find himself on the losing end of those attempts to crack the division’s top tier.

Where Masvidal figures to settle in is as a gatekeeper to the upper echelon. He’ll turn away many rising contenders, as he did with Means in his UFC debut and K.J. Noons and Billy Evangelista under the Strikeforce banner, but be turned away by the likes of Benson Henderson, Melendez and Gray Maynard.

Potential: Medium

Roger Bowling — second-round knockout loss to Anthony Njokuani

Although three of the debuting Strikeforce veterans lost on Saturday, only one might find a pink slip awaiting him. That would be Roger Bowling, a perennial Strikeforce mid-carder who suffered a devastating knockout loss at the hands of Anthony Njokuani.

Bowling’s style played right into the counter that Njokuani used to put out Bowling’s lights. The Ohio native tends to charge forward in all of his fights. He’s a brawler who can put on a good fight, but has issues maintaining consistency. In his last eight bouts, dating back to his Strikeforce debut, Bowling has posted a mediocre 4-4 mark. Part of that stretch was a trilogy of fights with Bobby Voelker, who obliged Bowling’s style to create for some entertaining fights but who also came out on top in two of those affairs.

Bowling was 7-0 when he arrived in Strikeforce, and his record since then suggests that he struggles with higher-level opponents. His Strikeforce wins came against Voelker, Josh Thornburg, Jerron Peoples and Brandon Saling. His losses, meanwhile, include the two to Voelker, plus a loss to eventual Strikeforce welterweight champion Tarec Saffiedine. Now, the loss to Njokuani can be tacked on.

Bowling was fighting for the first time as a 155-pounder, and this fight was not the best match-up for him—Njokuani’s striking made him the perfect opponent to send Bowling crashing to the mat. Perhaps Bowling’s strength and his brawling style will lead him to more consistency at lightweight, but it’s highly likely that he’ll have to prove that on the regional circuit before earning another chance inside the Octagon.

Potential: Low to Medium

Yoel Romero — first-round knockout victory over Clifford Starks

Contrary to what UFC commentators Mike Goldberg and Joe Rogan stated before and during Yoel Romero’s fight, the Olympic silver medalist wrestler did not “leave his singlet at the door” when he entered into the world of MMA, nor does he lack high-level striking. In his first four pro bouts, Romero often kept his European opponents off balance with his wrestling before cleaning their clocks with his powerful strikes. As for his striking, training with his brother, cruiserweight champion boxer Yoan Pablo Hernandez, should give him what he needs to hold his own against almost anybody on his feet.

Romero proved just how efficient he could be in the stand-up department when he launched a flying knee to the head of Clifford Starks in the opening bout of UFC on Fox 7. Starks endured a few follow-up strikes, but it was Romero’s timing on the knee that was truly the deciding factor.

The biggest nemesis in Romero’s career is time. The Cuban is already 35 years old and is just getting acquainted with the UFC Octagon. He’ll need to stay healthy and make a charge at a title berth before age prevents him from competing at the highest levels.

Romero’s success in the Olympics and wrestling’s World Championships came at a weight of 187 pounds. The Cuban opted to compete at light heavyweight when he entered into MMA competition, but his lone loss to Rafael “Feijao” Cavalcante under the Strikeforce banner convinced him that he should drop to middleweight. That puts him back in championship form, so to speak. And he proved through his knockout win that the potential is there.

Romero demonstrated excellent foot and head movement against Starks. He was able to close the distance, land strikes and avoid Starks’ counters. His flying knee was evidence of his ability to recognize holes in his opponents game and capitalize on them. Admittedly, the one thing we did not see was Romero’s wrestling, which lends some credence to Goldberg’s comments. But Romero has demonstrated those skills on the path to numerous medals and en route to winning all of his fights on European soil. If an opponent leaves him with no options on the feet, Romero can easily take that opponent to the ground.

The one question for Romero is where his submission defense stands. He is a high-level grappler, but he has not been tested by anybody that could either take him down or supply an offensive attack off their back with Romero on top of them. That’ll change as he wades deeper into UFC waters.

Romero’s combination of striking and wrestling skills makes him a dangerous threat to any UFC middleweight. He must quickly rise through the ranks if he wants to make a run at the title before age forces him into retirement.

Potential: Medium to High

Photo: Gilbert Melendez (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting)

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