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 159.

Sara McMann — first-round TKO win over Sheila Gaff

How does Olympic medalist versus Olympic medalist sound to you? Better yet, how does it sound to UFC President Dana White and the Zuffa brass? Probably pretty darned good, and that’s what the promotion is building towards with Sara McMann, who claimed a silver medal at the 2004 Games. McMann got off to a good start in her UFC debut by ending Sheila Gaff’s night in just over four minutes via TKO.

McMann’s world-class wrestling skills put her among the elite in the UFC’s embryonic women’s bantamweight division. It makes her one of the prime candidates to take on 2008 Olympic bronze medalist judoka Ronda Rousey for Rousey’s UFC belt. McMann made use of those wrestling skills to dominate German striker Sheila Gaff. After an easy early takedown achieved when Gaff charged forward, McMann also utilized her wrestling skills to move to a crucifix position on top of Gaff. From there, McMann was able to rain down blows on a defenseless Gaff until the referee was forced to intervene.

McMann has used strikes to finish a pair of fights on her spotless 7-0 record and she also has a pair of submissions using her Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, but she tends to be a grinding wrestler. She has outlasted Tonya Evinger, Hitomi Akano and Shayna Baszler to take wins on the judges’ scorecards. With that type of experience under her belt and the level of skills she has displayed in the cage, McMann is vying for her place in line for an eventual title shot.

Potential: High

Yancy Medeiros — first-round TKO loss to Rustam Khabilov

Yancy Medeiros may have lost his UFC debut, but it was the result of an injured thumb. What he did against Rustam Khabilov before the injury suggests that he could have a place in the UFC’s lightweight division.

Medeiros was able to display good foot movement. He threw strikes and immediately bounced back out of Khabilov’s range. Meanwhile, he was also able to avoid some of Khabilov’s takedown attempts, though one of the Russian’s throws ultimately led to the fight-ending injury.

It’s hard to tell exactly where Medeiros falls until we see him fight an entire contest with a clean, non-injury outcome. His striking and confidence in the cage suggests that he could at the very least become a low-level gatekeeper within the UFC’s lightweight division, but there are still too many question marks left surrounding his takedown defense and his cardio at this level of the game.

Potential: Low to Medium

Kurt Holobaugh — unanimous decision loss to Steven Siler

Kurt Holobaugh has struggled to win at the highest levels of MMA, but he’s proven to be a tough competitor even in defeat. In his Strikeforce debut, Holobaugh competed at lightweight and went the distance with Pat Healy in a fight that Healy took via unanimous decision. Now making his UFC debut, Holobaugh found himself in similar circumstances in a featherweight contest against Steven Siler. The result was again a unanimous decision in favor of his opponent, but it may have also solidified a return visit to the Octagon for Holobaugh.

Holobaugh’s heart is by far his best quality inside the cage. He was able to overcome danger, even in situations where it looked like his only options were to tap or go unconscious. His abilities on the mat, in terms of takedown defense and submission offense can keep him in any affair. But his tendency to end up in those bad spots is the big problem. Holobaugh relies more on defending submissions rather than avoiding them altogether. His positional control on the ground leaves a lot to be desired. He let Siler take his back more than once and did little to defend against Siler’s transitions.

Holobaugh’s striking was not too shabby, but he’s not going to stand in front of many of the division’s strikers and find success. His bread and butter is the ground game. But with that lack of positional control, it’s likely that any skilled grapplers he meets will reverse him.

Holobaugh’s toughness should get him through some match-ups, but this will be a case where he needs the right pairings in order to find success. Furthermore, with back-to-back losses under Zuffa employment, he might have to earn his way back to the Octagon via the regional circuit.

Potential: Low to Medium

Ovince St. Preux — majority decision win over Gian Villante

Even in defeat, many of the competitors crossing over from Strikeforce to the UFC have at the very least shown promise. Men like Lorenz Larkin and Kurt Holobaugh have put it all out there in hopes of a win and continued employment with Zuffa. It couldn’t last forever, though. The Strikeforce vs. Strikeforce match-up between light heavyweight Ovince St. Preux and Gian Villante was anything but spectacular. OSP emerged with the majority decision, but there was hardly a real winner here.

St. Preux, a former college football player, has the athleticism to be a superb light heavyweight competitor, but he lacks cardio and the skill set to make it happen. St. Preux had an impressive run under the Strikeforce banner, where he defeated the likes of Antwain Britt, Benji Radach and Ron Humphrey. His only loss in that span came against Gegard Mousasi. OSP is difficult to finish and has a well-rounded skill set, but he’s not especially great in one area that can win him fights. His striking isn’t overwhelming, nor is his ground game.

Perhaps his biggest disadvantage comes in the form of his cardio. Although a large part of it can be attributed to those famed Octagon jitters, OSP hasn’t exactly been immune to exhaustion in past contests. The difference now is that he’s in the UFC and will have to meet the division’s best fighters. He failed in his one such match-up in the Strikeforce cage against Mousasi, and it’s highly unlikely that things will be different here.

OSP’s surge during his time in Strikeforce was impressive, but to reflect on his list of victims is to realize that, outside of Mousasi, he never really competed with that promotion’s best. Given his disappointing showing versus Villante, it’s difficult to imagine him rising through the ranks in the future. His win all but guarantees that he’ll be back in the Octagon, but it doesn’t guarantee that he’ll win when that day comes.

Potential: Low

Gian Villante — majority decision loss to Ovince St. Preux

The only thing worse than being in an ugly fight is being on the losing end of said fight. That’s where Gian Villante found himself in his UFC debut versus Ovince St. Preux. Villante emerged on the wrong end of a majority decision in the encounter.

The 28-year-old shared a common career path to the UFC as that of his adversary, only with more losses sprinkled in on his recent record. Villante lost twice under the Strikeforce banner—once via TKO to Chad Griggs and once by way of a unanimous decision versus Lorenz Larkin.

Villante is another light heavyweight in need of a cardio overhaul. Although he looked fresher than OSP as the fight went on, that’s not really saying too much. In addition, Villante kept his hands at waist height, leaving him open to knockout blows had he been fighting someone with superior striking to that of St. Preux.

Villante’s loss, in what could easily be classified as one of the worst fights of the night, won’t do him any favors. The light heavyweight division has plenty of talent that can out-strike, out-wrestle and outlast Villante. The Ring of Combat veteran is probably going to have to return to the New Jersey-based promotion and earn his way back to the Octagon. But don’t expect him to do much better if he earns that second chance.

Potential: Low

Sheila Gaff — first-round TKO loss to Sara McMann

With opportunities for women in the UFC currently limited to 135 pounds, we’re sure to see some 125ers move up just for the chance to compete in the Octagon. Sheila Gaff is the first of these former flyweights to step into the eight-sided cage, but she didn’t fare so well. Gaff ended up on the wrong end of a beating courtesy of Sara McMann.

Gaff was fighting an elite competitor who enjoyed a size advantage, but the German’s strategy was flawed. She attempted to charge McMann at the opening bell. Her reward? She was slammed to the mat via a McMann takedown. Things only got worse from there, as McMann’s top game eventually left Gaff with nowhere to go, as she found herself stuck in a crucifix as McMann battered her with punches that Gaff could not defend.

Gaff’s takedown defense and her strategy against a wrestler were far from great. Further adding to concerns about her ability to hang at this level at 135 pounds is her recent record. She’s now just 3-4 over her last seven. Those losses have come against the best competition she has faced at both 125 and 135 pounds. Gaff won’t find any more success against the rest of the division’s elite and may be the first lady released by the UFC.

Potential: Low

Photo: Sara McMann (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting)

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