Paddy Pimblett made his UFC debut in September 2021. Two months later, the MMA prospect out of England traveled to the United States. Pimblett was accosted for photos in places like Times Square in New York and Yard House restaurant in San Diego.
Fast-forward a little more than a year, and "The Baddy" is no longer just a prospect. He's blossomed into one of the UFC's biggest stars. When he walks the streets now, in his native Liverpool or in cities across the U.S., Pimblett has to wear a hoodie and go semi-incognito, he said, or he'll be standing around taking photos for 15 to 20 minutes.
"Now, it's just a new level," Pimblett told ESPN. "Everywhere I go. But I always said this was gonna happen. If you found interviews of me from 10 years ago, I always said I was gonna be the biggest star in this sport. I'm just proving myself right."
Pimblett has his biggest test on his biggest stage to date Saturday at UFC 282 (10 p.m. ET on ESPN+ PPV). The Scouser will be in the co-main event of the year's final major card against veteran lightweight Jared Gordon. It will only be Pimblett's second time fighting in the United States, his first time on pay-per-view and his first time in a co-main event role.
In other words, it's his chance to take his stardom to new heights -- from someone with a big name in the MMA world to a mainstream superstar. One can see the writing on the wall already. Leading into UFC 282, Pimblett has been called out by everyone from Jake Paul to All Elite Wrestling champion MJF.
"It just shows who the boy is," Pimblett said. "It shows I'm the daddy. Know what I mean? I am the main star, I'm the cash cow that I always said I was gonna be before I made my UFC debut. My name is on the end of everyone's tongue."
Pimblett, 27, has finished all three of his UFC fights thus far, winning $50,000 Performance of the Night bonuses for each. Gordon presents a different obstacle -- a durable, gritty fighter who has won four of his last five UFC fights. "The Baddy" is just looking at this bout, though, as the next step in his trajectory.
"You can't find anyone that is like me to grapple or to strike with, because I'm a proper, strange weirdo," Pimblett said. "... No one fights like me. I'm just different. I'm not normal. I'm not like your normal fighter. I'm very wild and unpredictable. You don't know what I'm gonna do next."
That is indeed what makes Pimblett so dangerous, according to one coach. He might not be the best technician in any one area, but he will make it a dogfight.
"Paddy has all the fight in the world and he has star power written all over him," Fight Ready coach Santino DeFranco said. "He's physical, has a good frame. He's got good conditioning, good cardio. His grappling is definitely his strong suit. ... The thing that kind of gets him in trouble is his striking. He's too willing to brawl. He wants to throw down. But he's got all the fight in the world, he's a dog. And he really loves to fight."
If Pimblett gets by Gordon, there will be a big 2023 ahead. The hope, Pimblett said, is to fight one more time before he gets married to his fiancée in May. The present is already bright for "The Baddy," but his ceiling for stardom in the future seems incredibly high, provided he wins Saturday.
"This is just another step forward in my career," Pimblett said. "This is just standard procedure to me. This is just normal practice. I was the people's main event anyway, before I got put to co-main event. I was the reason people were buying this card and buying tickets. I was putting the bums in the seats. It was my star power."
Pimblett (19-5) will be joined on the UFC 282 card by five other names on the rise who are under 30 years old. Here's a look at some of the most exciting prospects featured on the promotion's year-end card.
Bryce Mitchell, featherweight
Saturday's opponent: Ilia Topuria
UFC career thus far: Mitchell, 28, showed himself to be both a prospect and quite the character when he was on the Ultimate Fighter reality show in 2018. The Arkansas native has only grown in both regards. Mitchell is a flawless 6-0 in the UFC and has gotten better with every fight, the most recent a dominant unanimous decision win over Edson Barboza at UFC 272 back in March. "Thug Nasty" has some of the best grappling in the division, somehow convinced the UFC to allow him to wear camo Venum shorts as part of his fight kit and is adamant that the Earth is flat. In other words, he is very much someone to watch.
Potential future fights to look out for: If he beats Topuria, he'll vault into the upper echelon of the 145-pound division. There's one that was supposed to happen last month -- Mitchell against Movsar Evloev -- that would have been particularly intriguing. Evloev, who withdrew from that scheduled fight due to injury, has dominant wrestling and grappling skills. Mitchell is a savant on the ground. It would have been a battle of perhaps the top two guys on the mat in the division. What about a matchup in the future with Brian Ortega? That would be a Brazilian jiu-jitsu clinic.
Scouting report, from New England Cartel coach Tyson Chartier: "Obviously, his grappling is top-notch, almost like a Khabib Nurmagomedov. If he went in a muay Thai fight, would he be a technical striker? Probably not. But in MMA, the fear of the takedown and the ground game is always the great equalizer for him. He's dangerous on the feet now, because of that, if you look at the Edson fight. You could put him in there now with some of these top-two, -three, -five guys and he has a chance of winning all those fights. The ceiling is very high for him, especially if he's improving his striking."
Ilia Topuria, featherweight
Ilia Topuria catches Ryan Hall with a big punch late in the first round of their bout at UFC 264.
Saturday's opponent: Bryce Mitchell
UFC career thus far: Topuria, 25, looks nothing but impressive and is someone the UFC has high hopes for with regards to future European expansion. Topuria, who is of Georgian descent, is based out of Alicante, Spain, and the UFC just brokered a partnership with elite Spanish soccer league LaLiga. Since making his UFC debut in 2020, Topuria is 4-0 in the promotion and has finished his last three fights via violent knockout. In his most recent bout, he fought back against adversity before stopping Jai Herbert with punches in the first round at UFC London in March.
Potential future fights to look out for: There are several knockout artists in the UFC's featherweight division that would very likely produce fireworks against the heavy-handed Topuria. Consider matchups with Josh Emmett, Calvin Kattar or Yair Rodriguez. One of the questions about Topuria's future, though, has to do with his weight cut. The win over Herbert was at lightweight and Topuria is a giant, well-muscled 145-pound fighter. Topuria's future might be at 155.
Scouting report, from Xtreme Couture MMA coach Eric Nicksick: "I think Topuria is very, very good all around. I wouldn't say he has many holes in his game. What's impressive to me is how well he does in stymieing guys' game plans. And when he hurts someone, the kill shots are evident to him. He is very efficient and very smart, and when he finds his openings, that's when his instincts are very good. He knows when to go. He relied on his grappling in the Herbert fight and got a nasty finish with that liver punch-overhand combination. He really utilizes his entire skill set to find his path to victory that's probably the least evasive. I think this fight will be a telltale sign of where he can go."
Dricus du Plessis, middleweight
Dricus Du Plessis needs just one punch to knock out Trevin Giles in their prelim bout at UFC 264.
Saturday's opponent: Darren Till
UFC career thus far: Unlike the others on this list, du Plessis has a world of experience. This weekend he will in his 20th pro fight, despite being only 28 years old. The South African was even a former KSW (Poland) welterweight and EFC (Africa) middleweight champion before signing with the UFC. Since coming to the UFC in 2020, Du Plessis is 3-0 with a pair of KO/TKOs. But he arguably showed even more in a unanimous decision win over durable veteran Brad Tavares at UFC 276 back in July. Du Plessis is not afraid to get roped into a brawl, and his iron chin and unorthodox striking make those types of fights arguably preferable for him.
Potential future fights to look out for: This one against Till is a massive one. Till is one of the most popular fighters in the division and is a former welterweight title challenger. Du Plessis is still trying to make a name for himself in the UFC, and a win over Till would not only do that, but also springboard du Plessis into big contender bouts. Bouts with strikers Paulo Costa and Sean Strickland would be particularly interesting.
Scouting report, from Nicksick: "Very interesting type of fighter. Very erratic with his cadence. There's never a tell. I don't think he's gonna go with a rhythm. He'll throw a switch cross, step-through cross for no reason whatsoever. Not a lot of things are set up off of counters. He has this wrecking ball mentality. He's just gonna kind of run through whatever and hope something lands. I don't mean to be rude when I say it. It's very, very difficult to get a read on the kid and what he wants to do. His power is in his right hand, but [he] has the capability of landing from both stances. The one thing about him that stands out to me is his toughness. He's gritty and down to f---ing scrap. There's a part where the competitor versus the fighter comes out, and he's willing to meet you in the middle and scrap. That, to me, is his biggest attribute -- his willingness to fight you."
Raul Rosas Jr., bantamweight
Saturday's opponent: Jay Perrin
UFC career thus far: He hasn't had one. Rosas, who turned 18 years old in October, is the youngest fighter to ever be signed by the UFC, back when he was just 17. The Mexican fighter, who lives and trains in Las Vegas, won his way onto the roster on Dana White's Contender Series in September, beating Mando Gutierrez via unanimous decision. Rosas is a legit prospect who has extremely high-level grappling and poise well beyond his age. He's 6-0 in MMA with five finishes.
Potential future fights to look out for: It's so early for Rosas that he has a full five years to become the youngest champion in UFC history, which is a goal he has set for himself. Jon Jones won the UFC light heavyweight belt at 23 years old. Rosas is still a teen. Plenty of development will be needed, but if he makes steady improvements, he could be a real problem. Judging by his first opponent, the UFC won't push Rosas too much this soon. Perrin is 0-2 in the UFC and 10-6 as a pro. If Rosas beats Perrin, one would expect an incremental step up in competition beginning in 2023.
Scouting report, from Chartier: "He's a high-level grappler and he's very confident in his grappling, so much so that he'll put himself in bad positions to play jiu-jitsu and get a better position down the road. It's hard to put any ceiling on him right now. Unless he rounds out his striking, the ceiling isn't as high as everyone wants it to be. But it's hard to tell an 18-year-old they can't improve. I think as long as he's making the right decisions, surrounding himself with the right people and improving on his deficiencies like striking, then he can climb the division. The sky is the limit. But [with] the skill set now, you can't be a top-10 guy being somewhat one-dimensional. And when you're at that level, you can't afford to put yourself in a bad position -- you can't make any mistakes."
Edmen Shahbazyan, middleweight
Saturday's opponent: Dalcha Lungiambula
UFC career thus far: Shahbazyan was 10 days shy of his 21st birthday when he debuted in the UFC back in 2018. He came onto the scene with a ton of hype off Dana White's Contender Series, and at the time he was managed by Ronda Rousey and coached by Rousey's longtime mentor, Edmond Tarverdyan. Shahbazyan, now 25 years old, started off red hot, winning four straight, including three via finish. But after that, the UFC started feeding him real contenders, and he has dropped three straight to Derek Brunson, Jack Hermansson and Nassourdine Imavov. Wrestling and cardio were clear holes in his game, and he has since moved to Xtreme Couture in Las Vegas for his training camps.
Potential future fights to look out for: He really needs to get by Lungiambula first. A loss here and Shahbazyan might be released from the UFC and have to work his way back. But he is the favorite in this fight and still has all the potential he showed four years ago when he debuted. Maybe he wasn't ready for those types of fights in his early 20s. But changing gyms shows a willingness to shake things up. If Shahbazyan can string a couple of wins together after this weekend, he could be right back in the swing of things at 185 pounds. Time is still on his side.
Scouting report, from DeFranco: "Edmen has all the skills in all of the areas that anyone could ever possibly want. His thing is he quits; he quits when it gets tough. And you can see it from the start. He's a one-round fighter, and I think he's way better than that. He fights very nervous. It's why when he doesn't get the finish, he kind of crumbles. It seems like a mental thing. He's got a beautiful jab, beautiful low kick, his head movement is great. His offensive wrestling is not phenomenal, but he gets the job done. It's good enough, and you couple that with his athleticism and he'll get the fight to the ground. Going to Xtreme Couture is going to be very good for him, to be thrown into the fire. I think he got into the UFC too young."