Thomas Almeida is the Breakout Fighter of 2015

The New Year has arrived, and it’s exciting. The MMA landscape has never been so rich with talent, and there have never been more interesting matchups than now. The UFC closed the year out strong with several events featuring strong main cards and plenty of prospective talent on the prelims. Last Word on Sports took a look at some of the best prospects to emerge from the world’s best camps, and choosing a single fighter as Breakout Fighter of the Year was not an easy choice. Names like Conor McGregor and Holly Holm were up for best fighter of the year and best KO of the year, and Robbie Lawler and Rory MacDonald put on one of the most exciting title fights in UFC history when they rematched at UFC 189 in July.

And then, there’s Thomas Almeida. The 24-year-old undefeated bantamweight prospect hails from Sao Paulo, Brazil and brings with him a unique arsenal of weaponry into the octagon. He’s got crisp, tight striking technique and has excellent fundamentals. He keeps his chin tucked, his hands high, and has pinpoint precision with his strikes, mixing up a storm of elbows, flying knees, kicks, and punches that connect at odd angles and slip through his opponents’ guard. He also has excellent timing, allowing him to set up his power shots in between striking combinations.

In his UFC debut, he was handed a very tough opponent in Tim Gorman, an old school style fighter with an iron chin and relentless pressure. He avoided Gorman’s power punches and put pressure of his own by staying just light enough on his feet to be evasive, but planting his feet on the 3 out of a 4 strike combination. Similar to Gennady Golovkin in boxing, Almeida can change the tempo of his strikes mid-combination, something that has given each of his five UFC opponents a lot of trouble. Tim Gorman was not only his first opponent in the UFC, he was also the only one to survive long enough to see the judges scorecards. Almeida would go on to KO his next three opponents, including a spectacular flying knee KO of the stalwart Brit, Brad Pickett. He demonstrated not only phenomenal technique and thunderous power with his hands and feet, but his ability to rally from adversity after getting rocked by a Pickett punch in the first round.

Thomas Almeida has all the markings of a future champion, and he carries the confidence of an undefeated fighter, sporting a sterling record of 20-0. After going 5-0 in the UFC, it will be interesting to see who he is matched up with, as I’m sure he will give anyone in that division hell. He gained a lot of momentum with his KO of journeyman and longtime UFC vet Yves Jabouin at UFC 186 in April, and that momentum swelled with the flashy finish of one of the scrappiest, most exciting guys in the UFC in Brad Pickett. After fighting in April, July, and finally November, he culminated the year with a groundbreaking performance against Anthony Birchak, hurting him with a bevy of dangerous Muay Thai strikes that sent Birchak into a defensive posture against the cage. From there, Almeida unloaded with a spinning elbow that landed on the temple before landing a beautiful four-punch combination, once again showcasing his excellent precision and timing, mixing up the tempo throughout the combination. The right hand that punctuated that combination knocked Birchak out cold as he collapsed like a bag of bones, folding in half and crumpling to the canvas in a heap of unconsciousness. Thomas Almeida wasted no time celebrating, as he turned to embrace the crowd and revel in the glory of his third consecutive knockout victory of 2015.

It’s been a mighty wonderful year for mixed martial arts, and Thomas Almeida has made his mark and put the whole division on notice. I’d like to see him fight someone in the top 10 next, setting up a title eliminator fight for mid 2016. With the division backed up due to the TJ Dillashaw/Urijah Faber/Dominick Cruz drama, he could potentially fight for the title by the end of 2016, and maybe set himself up for Fighter of the Year. It’s a little early to tell, but he’s off to an awfully good start.