Where are the UFC's next stars? We may have seen three at UFC 222

Mackenzie Dern is one of three young athletes who stood out under the lights at UFC 222. Can she, Sean O'Malley and Brian Ortega be the next stars the UFC needs? Getty Images

LAS VEGAS -- At a time when the predominant question surrounding the UFC seems to be "Where are all the stars?" ... Saturday's UFC 222 event at T-Mobile Arena was just what the doctor ordered.

It was also a reminder, however, how fine the line is between "budding star" and "derailed hype."

UFC 222 witnessed three standout performances by three young athletes that the UFC spent all week profiling.

Mackenzie Dern is a 24-year-old jiu-jitsu phenom, with an endearing, humble personality.

Sean O'Malley is an outspoken, robe-wearing 23-year-old whose fan base includes rap artist Snoop Dogg.

And 27-year-old Brian Ortega is a good-looking, soft-spoken featherweight who has managed to finish six straight opponents in the UFC.

The recent narrative following the UFC is that its stars are missing in action, and no one seems prepared to pick up the torch. UFC 222 suggested otherwise.

The UFC has made calculated investments in Ortega, O'Malley and Dern -- whether through specialized contracts, Dana White Contender Series platforms or appearances on its Embedded promotional series -- and all three delivered in their respective fights.

Not without some drama, though. Dern (6-0) went into the third round of a bout against Ashley Yoder tied at one round apiece. She ultimately won by a single scorecard, and had to survive a knockdown in the second round just to see those scorecards.

"I wasn't nervous or scared -- but when I saw the judges say one [scorecard] for her and one for me, I thought, 'Uh oh. Maybe it won't go for me,'" Dern admitted after the event. "I thought it was 2-1 for me."

O'Malley (10-0), who closed a betting underdog in his bout, dominated Andre Soukhamthath in style. He suffered a leg injury in the final round, however, and couldn't stand during the final minutes of it. Even in victory, O'Malley left the cage on a stretcher.

Ortega (14-0) knocked out all-time great Frankie Edgar in the opening round of a No. 1 featherweight contender bout. Surprisingly, there wasn't much drama in this one, but that has been rare for Ortega. He has been outstruck in four of his six UFC wins and forced to rally in multiple comebacks.

The California native is so aware of the constant threat of a loss, he envisions what he'll do and how he'll act when it happens.

"As much as I dream, I have nightmares," Ortega said. "When I go in to fight week, I go, 'Maybe I'm going to be that guy on the highlight reel that gets knocked out.' I'm always thinking, 'How am I going to react? Am I going to be a sore loser?' I'm almost checking myself in case something bad happens."

And that's the thing about becoming a star in the UFC ... in a sense, bad things can't happen. There are no learning curves allowed.

Jon Jones has never suffered a legitimate loss. Ronda Rousey was undefeated when she rose to fame. Conor McGregor didn't suffer his first setback in the UFC until after he'd won a championship, and he knocked out living legend Jose Aldo in 13 seconds.

Just about everyone loses in MMA, and it's easy to see why. Prospects such as Dern and O'Malley, athletes in their 20s, are expected to develop and grow up on the biggest stage -- against opponents who often have more experience and plenty of incentive to "derail the hype."

It's an interesting conflict, the UFC's need for more stars versus its gauntlet style of promotion and matchmaking.

Not that the UFC won't throw its favorite prospects an easier matchup from time to time, but it usually comes down to trial by fire.

The UFC showcased three talented, undefeated athletes this weekend. Is one of them its next star? We'll know soon enough.

"I don't know," White said when asked whether the promotion rushes its developing talent. "Some of these guys, depending on their age -- there's some of these people that are just special. Look at Jon Jones. Did we rush Jon Jones too fast? Did we push Conor McGregor too fast?

"When you're the man or the woman, you win."