What star will emerge from the shadows this time?

UFC 100 was a remarkable night for the leading promotion in MMA. In addition to celebrating a milestone represented by a big, round number, the July 2009 event in Las Vegas put on display the greatest fighter in the sport’s history.

That is not a reference to the main event winner, although at the time, Brock Lesnar was the biggest star in combat sports and among the biggest people, period. A bad-mannered bulldozing of Frank Mir to close out this night continued Lesnar’s crude, terrifying reign as heavyweight champion. And although the big-boy title came with who-dares-to-dispute-it recognition as the baddest man on the planet, even that did not elevate Lesnar to greatest ever.

Those who know their UFC 100 history a bit might suspect this is just a buildup to touting the gloriousness of co-main winner Georges St-Pierre, because plenty of purists put him at the top of the list of all-time greats. GSP was an icon of sportsmanship and clean athleticism, and his total shutdown of Thiago Alves in a welterweight title defense that night showed he’s worthy of all worship. But no, St-Pierre is not the guy most frequently singled out as the GOAT, and neither is anyone else who fought on 100’s main card or even in the feature prelim.

You have to dig deeper into the prelims to unearth Jon Jones, who was making just his third UFC appearance. “Bones” had turned 21 a week before, and the kid was viewed as no more than a promising prospect when he showed up at UFC 100. After wrecking solid light heavyweight Jake O’Brien in less than eight minutes, Jones pocketed a disclosed purse of $9,000, doubled by a win bonus but still far less than what most other fighters on the card took home.

The money, the opportunities and the acclaim would increase significantly moving forward.

By the time UFC 200 came along seven years later, Jones was recognized as the best pound-for-pound fighter in the game. He was booked to headline the company’s second milestone event — but only after a colossal clash of egos, Conor McGregor vs. Dana White, cost the UFC an opportunity to put its biggest star under its brightest spotlight. The original main event was to be a rematch between megastar McGregor and the man who had shockingly choked him out months earlier, Nate Diaz.

McGregor, intent upon devoting all his time to training camp (remember those Conor days?) to give himself the best chance of turning the tide on Diaz, declined to participate in the UFC’s prefight hype events. But White insisted upon his presence (“You have to show up and do the PR”), somehow forgetting all the other times he’d given stars — including McGregor — star treatment. A stalemate ensued.

So the UFC pulled McGregor and we got to see Jones fight instead? Not exactly. A Jones rematch with Daniel Cormier was hastily scheduled to headline 200, but during fight week the US Anti-Doping Agency flagged Jones for two banned substances. It was the second failed drug test of Jones’ career; this one cost him the interim UFC light heavyweight title. And for the second time, a scheduled UFC 200 main event was a washout.

In lieu of McGregor or Jones, the UFC initially opted to pull Lesnar out of mothballs (a 4½-year retirement) to restore some luster to the top of the marquee. But then a less dilapidated option emerged. The UFC 200 main event would instead feature Miesha Tate, popular with fans for being the babyface in a WWE-style rivalry with Ronda Rousey, in her first defense of the women’s bantamweight title. It turned out to be Tate’s last title defense, too, as she was finished in the first round by a dynamic challenger named Amanda Nunes. “The Lioness” would reign for half a decade and, during that run of excellence, also claim the featherweight belt and recognition as the greatest ever in women’s MMA.

Do we detect a trend here? At both UFC 100 and 200, a fighter on the way to becoming the GOAT kind of came out of nowhere to seize the moment. For both Jones and Nunes, the lofty legacies were already in a steady build when they walked into the cage to take part in the UFC’s milestone festivities. But showing off under the most shimmering of spotlights certainly didn’t slow their buildup. This begs the question: Who’ll emerge from the shadows on Saturday at UFC 300?

Here are some possibilities:

Bo Nickal

Remember when I said Jones’ fight at UFC 100 was his third in the UFC? This is Nickal’s third. Coincidence? I think not … or yeah, maybe that’s all it is. Either way, while he has a lot more eyeballs on him than Jones did at this stage, Nickal still is going to be lurking in some shadows on a fight card filled with champions present and past. Nickal is a three-time champ himself — in NCAA Division I wrestling. And while professional MMA is a whole new ballgame, Nickal has adapted seamlessly and promisingly. He is a -3500 betting favorite over Cody Brundage per ESPN BET — yes, 35-1 over a veteran of eight UFC bouts. Saturday could be a night that we all look back upon years from now while recycling long-forgotten Bo Jackson flattery.

Kayla Harrison

Harrison is a UFC newbie, but she is 35 years old, so the runway is short. A rocketing ascent is not beyond her capabilities, though, especially in a women’s bantamweight division that isn’t exactly a murderers’ row. There would have been stiffer competition for Harrison, honestly, if she’d remained with the PFL, home of Larissa Pacheco and now Cris Cyborg. But the UFC is the big-time, and starting with this weekend’s matchup against 42-year-old former champ Holly Holm, Harrison is here to make a big-time impression on her sport. Can she do that while dehydrated and depleted, fighting in a weight class 20 pounds below where she usually competes?

Zhang Weili

Wait a second, how can the pound-for-pound queen be obscured in anyone’s shadow? It’s not that Zhang is unheralded, it’s more that she has reached the top of the women’s sport with less glitter raining down upon her than the greats who preceded her. Amanda Nunes, Ronda Rousey, Cris Cyborg and Valentina Shevchenko each had a certain radiance while residing at the peak of Mount P4P. That’s not yet the case for Zhang, despite her owning one of the epic victories in the history of women’s MMA. Maybe it’s because that bruising 2020 win over UFC Hall of Famer Joanna Jedrzejczyk came by split decision, not dominance. If Zhang can paint a masterpiece against her Chinese countrywoman Yan Xiaonan, might that steal the show at starry UFC 300?

Jim Miller

Miller is one of only two fighters to compete at both UFC 100 and 200, along with Lesnar. Which one of them will carry on the tradition at 300? Just the guy with more staying power than bluster. Miller occupies a lot of space in the UFC record book — most appearances, most wins, most first-round finishes, etc. — but there’s one space he seldom occupies: under the spotlight. Can an early prelim against Bobby Green be a breakthrough to stardom for the 40-year-old fighter’s fighter? Nah, it’s probably not Miller time. That’ll have to wait until UFC 400.

A fighter who is not among the 11 current or former champions on the card

If we set aside all of the defending champions (Zhang, Alex Pereira) and ex-champs (Holm, Jamahal Hill, Max Holloway, Charles Oliveira, Jiří Procházka, Aljamain Sterling, Jessica Andrade, Deiveson Figueiredo, Cody Garbrandt), and we also cross off the UFC 300 competitors already mentioned above, we’re left with a dozen possibilities. Kinda slim possibilities.

That list includes Justin Gaethje, by the way, because while the BMF fights are a fun gimmick, I’m not about to sully the whole concept of world championships by including the owner of that belt among MMA’s real titleholders (as the UFC is doing by billing this as a night of 12 champs). But that really makes no difference for our purposes. Whether he’s a champion or a “champion,” Gaethje is way too popular to be hidden in any shadows. “The Highlight” is the perfect nickname for a guy whose lightweight fight with Holloway is practically a lock to upstage all of the night’s glittering gold.

Who else, then?

Yan Xiaonan could be a UFC champ by night’s end, and unseating the pound-for-pound No. 1 would be no small feat. But to anoint Yan as the next big thing would be a stretch.

Everyone is a stretch, really, when we’re searching for someone we can compare to the all-time greats Jones and Nunes. So let’s close out this exercise by shifting the parameters to take into account the time we live in.

How about Sodiq Yusuff?

Sure, he barely makes the UFC’s official featherweight top 15, but Yusuff has made an outsized impact outside the cage with a unique, clever social media presence. The deadpan fight prediction videos on his “Super Sodiq” YouTube page are just bizarre enough to whiz over the heads of some fans while landing squarely on the funny bones of others. In other words, they’re perfect. Will this make Yusuff the next candidate for GOAT status, a la “Bones” or “The Lioness”? Not a chance, but here’s hoping the UFC 300 spotlight draws attention to someone who — a rarity in MMA — is using social media to entertain rather than offend.

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