by Damon Martin – MMAWeekly.com
We all know the names of the champions in Pride and the UFC, but here’s a few fighters that you may not be familiar with that are very likely to make a big splash in 2006. Some or all may eventually make it to one of the big shows or even compete for a title in the near future, but this is a short list of names to watch in the coming months.

Scott Smith – Light Heavyweight (Has fought in WEC, Gladiator Challenge and IFC)

Scott Smith has made his mark in the sport of mixed martial arts in a very short period of time. Competing in smaller shows like Gladiator Challenge and the IFC, Smith racked up some impressive victories, but it was his entry into the light heavyweight tournament in the WEC that gave Smith his shot at a bigger spotlight. In the opening round of the tournament Smith drew Cesar Gracie trained Tim McKenzie, who was one of the favorites going into the entire show. Not only did Smith win but he did so in very impressive fashion stopping McKenzie by punches gaining the TKO victory and a second round match-up in the finals with Tait Fletcher, who trains with New Mexico fighting guru Greg Jackson

Again Smith was able to get the win and walk out champion of the tournament. The only disappointing part about the victory was that Fletcher was an alternate because his originally scheduled opponent, Justin Levens, was injured during his fight and couldn’t continue. But on the January card for the WEC, they matched up Smith with his original finals opponent, Levens and let the two finish their previous business. Smith came up big one more time, knocking Levens out in the first round.

Scott Smith is a small light heavyweight so if is going to make it in one of the bigger shows, it’s likely he’ll drop down to 185lbs, but wherever he lands he will be an extremely dangerous fight for anyone.

Joey “The DreamSmasher” Villesenor – Middleweight (Has fought in King of the Cage, WFA, IFC)

It has long been rumored that Joey Villasenor would be fighting in either the UFC or Pride but as of yet he has not made his debut for either organization, so he remains at the top of the list of unsigned talent in the world of MMA. Villasenor trains with Greg Jackson’s Submission Fight team alongside Diego Sanchez, Nathan Marquardt, and Keith Jardine and fights in the middleweight division.

Villasenor is currently still the reigning KOTC middleweight champion and has run through almost every opponent put in his destructive path. It took all the way up to his most recent fight against Jorge Santiago in August 2005 for Villasenor to even have a decision on his record.

With a thunderous amount of power in his hands, Villasenor loves to stand and bang with just about any opponent but has great wrestling and submission skills to compliment his game. He hasn’t lost a fight since 2002 and has reeled off quite an impressive record since then. Villasenor’s camp has been offered a few fights in the UFC but with multiple teammates from his team already fighting there, the hope is to land the “Dreamsmasher” in Pride. It can only be a matter of time before someone snatches Villasenor up, and he is sure to be a huge crowd pleaser once he gets there.

Thales Leites – Middleweight (Has fought in Rumble on the Rock, Ultimate Warriors Combat)

Very few people have seen Thales Leitis fight but it won’t be long before one of the big two picks up on this tremendously talented young man who trains with top lightweight contender Vitor “Shaolin” Ribeiro. Leitis currently holds a perfect 7-0 record and holds a win over veteran Ronald Jhun and Gustavo Machado, who until recently was the only person to hold a professional win over Nate Quarry.

Leites has never had a fight go to a decision and has wins by both strikes and submissions, which shows how well rounded his game really is. He has two fights under his belt in the extremely popular Rumble on the Rock shows, his most recent was the win over Jhun in the qualifiers show that was to help determine the field of the welterweight tournament that just completed its first round, but Leitis wasn’t included in the field for some reason.

Big things are on the horizon for Leitis, but it’s likely he will make a return appearance to Rumble on the Rock or possibly the WEC before jumping to one of the bigger shows, but either way this kid has talent on his side.

Carlos Condit – Welterweight (Has fought in Rumble on the Rock, Pancrase, Ring of Fire, FightWorld)

Condit did what neither Matt Hughes or Frank Trigg could do. That got your attention didn’t it?

Carlos Condit, who was definitely a huge underdog when he stepped into his first round Rumble on the Rock tournament fight against hometown hero Renato “Charuto” Verissimo, not only won but had the highlight of the night. As Charuto shot in to take the fight to the ground, Condit caught him with a high knee strike stunning the jiu-jitsu specialist landing him on the ground. Condit followed with punches and some vicious knee strikes that got him the knockout win and landed Charuto with 12 stitches. Condit finished Verissimo in quick fashion something that UFC champion Matt Hughes couldn’t do in 3 rounds and what took Frank Trigg up until the 2nd round to accomplish.

Condit is an extremely dangerous striker who has all the tools to be a very dominant fighter in the welterweight division very soon. Condit was invited to the Rumble on the Rock tournament after dismantling another hometown favorite when he took out Ross “Da Boss” Ebanez in November 2005. He also holds a win in kickboxing over Pete Spratt which is no easy task.

Now Condit will move onto the semi-finals of the Rumble on the Rock welterweight tournament where Frank Trigg awaits him. If Condit is able to win the entire tournament he will definitely have the hardest road to travel, but even if he loses in either of the next two rounds, he has made a name for himself and is sure to make a few new highlights along the way.

Michael “The Count” Bisping – Light Heavyweight (Has fought in Cage Warriors, Cage Rage)

Rounding out the list is a fighter from England who is a top notch competitor who sports a perfect professional record. Fighting out of the Wolfslair Gym in Great Britain, Bisping has made a name for himself as a great fighter with a very promising future in front of him. “The Count” has racked up quite a few victories on his way to proving that he is the United Kingdom’s top light heavyweight fighter.

Along the road that he has traveled, Bisping did manage to win the Cage Rage light heavyweight title but unfortunately after contractual disputes was stripped of the championship in September 2005.

Bisping holds two victories over local fighting legend Mark Epstein and continues to rack up victories just waiting for his phone to ring for an invite into either Pride or the UFC. Bisping has been rumored as a possible candidate for the “Ultimate Fighter 3” show but nothing has been announced as of yet.