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 two newcomers from UFC Fight Night 27.

Zak Cummings — first-round submission victory over Ben Alloway

When a fighter is 15-3 entering his UFC debut with his only losses coming versus current UFC fighters Tim Kennedy and Ryan Jimmo and prospect Elvis Mutapcic, it’s safe to say that the expectations have to be at least somewhat high. However, in the case of Zak Cummings, those expectations have been tempered by a run on The Ultimate Fighter 17 that ended in a unanimous decision loss to Dylan Andrews in the elimination round. That disappointing showing seemed to inject extra determination into Cummings as he made his official Octagon debut against Ben Alloway in Indianapolis. Cummings needed less than a full round to wrap up his Aussie counterpart in a D’arce choke that forced Alloway to tap.

Cummings has been a tough out throughout his professional career, which launched in 2007. He has lost just once via submission—to Kennedy—and went the distance against Jimmo and Mutapcic, plus Andrews on TUF. Cummings is a ground specialist, but he does have four wins by way of TKO. That pales in comparison to his nine submission victories, including the finish of Alloway.

Cummings was afforded the perfect debut opponent in Alloway, a fighter whose weakness lies in his submission game. He’ll feed on fighters like Alloway, but fighters with strong striking and decent mat skills will give him a much harder time. That’s something that has been proven in his losses. Furthermore, Cummings lacks the strong wrestling takedowns to get opponents to the mat. Instead, he tends to rely on literally dragging his foes to the mat. He was successful in this approach against Alloway, but he can’t count on it against the vast majority of potential UFC adversaries that await him.

Cummings has the skill set to put away a significant portion of the UFC’s lower-tier athletes, but he’s going to struggle once his wins prompt a step up in competition. As with many debuting competitors in the UFC, Cummings has the potential to settle in as a gatekeeper between the division’s contenders and the rest of the competition. He should enjoy a healthy run in the Octagon, but don’t expect him to ever become a title challenger.

Potential: Low to Medium

Brandon Thatch — first-round TKO victory over Justin Edwards

Some prospects carry a hefty amount of hype and buzz into their Octagon debuts. The latest such fighter is Denver’s Brandon Thatch, who rode an eight-fight winning streak full of first-round stoppages into the Octagon and emerged with yet another first-round finish after scoring a TKO over Justin Edwards.

Throughout his career, Thatch has been able to finish opponents on the mat or standing. Edwards opted to rush forward in an attempt to clinch with Thatch. That turned out to be a big mistake against 6-foot-2 welterweight. With such a height advantage, Thatch is able to use powerful knee strikes to perfection from the Muay Thai plum. Thatch was able to connect with his knees, as well as punches, even while Edwards was busy staying in his face.

Further adding to Thatch’s game is his strong takedown defense. He kept his feet under him even when Edwards looked to get him to the mat and remained composed despite the aggressive attack he was contending with.

Thatch didn’t get a chance to demonstrate his mat proficiency, but he has three submission wins. However, those victories are rear-naked chokes and Thatch’s game suggests that he will open up submission opportunities via his striking, rather than through takedowns and grappling. Opponents might find the most success against him by putting him on his back, but that won’t be an easy task. Thatch works well by using his length and reach, and he can still mount significant offense while backing up.

Thatch is an intriguing prospect, but there are a few question marks that linger. How well can he fight off his back? How will his gas tank hold up if he goes beyond the first frame? And, finally, what happens when he faces competition that’s a step or two above Edwards, Chidi Njokuani or Mike Rhodes? Questions about his bottom game will be answered eventually in a wrestling-heavy welterweight division. The cardio could be a concern, given that his only fight that went beyond the first round ended in his only loss, a split decision in his opponent’s favor. And his devastating victory over Edwards should prompt a test against even stiffer competition.

Despite those remaining tests, Thatch has already put on quite a display within the UFC Octagon. Combined with his past history of first-round finishes, Thatch is the type of fighter the UFC loves. He takes part in entertaining fights and annihilates opponents, two qualities that will keep him in the eight-sided cage for some time to come. If he can overcome the wrestlers of the division and prove that the cardio is there, Thatch could be a future contender.

Potential: Medium to High

Photo: Brandon Thatch (Isaac Hinds/Sherdog)