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For rising star Maycee Barber, the future starts now

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UFC Fight Night The Korean Zombie v Rodriguez Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

In a sport as loud as mixed martial arts, it is often difficult to separate the signal from the noise. This dissociation is made all the more difficult by the small sample sizes at play. A 30-second knockout, for instance, could be the sign of a brilliant performance by one fighter, a spectacular defensive lapse from the other, a matchmaking mistake, or a combination of all three. Oftentimes, there is no definitive conclusion to be had in the moment, just pure conjecture.

That’s where we are right now with Maycee Barber, a promising strawweight-turned-flyweight who is still two months shy of her 21st birthday, yet who has been publicly embraced by UFC brass and who has stated a goal of becoming the youngest UFC champion in history. The current records is held by Jon Jones, who was 23 years, 8 months old when he ascended the throne in 2011.

For Barber, there is time to get there and there is much to like so far. In six professional fights, she’s undefeated, and has only been to a decision once. She has a lifetime of martial arts experience to fall back on. She is both talented and mission-focused.

In her Octagon debut last November, Barber showed a subtle maturity to her game that belied her age. While many young fighters lose focus while experiencing the bright lights for the first time, Barber flashed many of the gifts that built her rapid rise up the pro ranks. She has speed and footwork. Slicing elbows. A powerful clinch. And finishing instinct. When she cut open her opponent Hannah Cifers, Barber sensed a finish and turned up the pressure, overwhelming Cifers with ground strikes. The finish was quite similar to her Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series stoppage TKO that earned her a place in the promotion. Her skills have looked legitimate.

That’s not surprising, given her path. Training in karate since the age of 3, and with parents also involved in martial arts as the family business, Barber comes from what seems to be an advantageous lineage. And while it’s perfectly acceptable to find excitement in her rise, it should also come with some caution.

Her origin story isn’t so far different than that of Sage Northcutt, for example. The former UFC fighter was also a lifelong martial artist who debuted in the organization at an early age, just 19. Northcutt went 6-2 in the UFC before departing the organization, so he wasn’t a washout by any stretch, but he did fall short of the gigantic expectations set for him ahead of his arrival. He never fought a ranked opponent, never approached a title shot, never moved past the “featured attraction” stage. At 23, he still has plenty of time to write a legacy, but it’s worth noting that it is difficult to reach greatness in this sport, let alone at an age where many of your peers are still partying in college or starting their first real jobs.

Still, Barber has been all but anointed. For one thing, her family christened her with the nickname “The Future.” For another, UFC president Dana White recently singled her out as a future star, something Barber giddily accepted as a vote of confidence.

“I was super excited,” she said during fight week. “That’s an honor. Even though I’m confident, that’s where I deserve to be, that’s where I need to be, darn right that’s where I am. But that’s a huge honor to have the top person in the UFC mention your name in a sit-down with Megan Olivi and give you credit and notoriety, I couldn’t ask for a better start to my week.”

At UFC Nashville, Barber will be facing JJ Aldrich, a fighter who has reeled off three straight victories, including one over Polyana Viana, who just last year looked to be a future title contender. In other words, Aldrich has faced down this kind of matchup before, which makes it a valuable measuring stick for Barber.

Should she win, don’t be surprised to see Barber crash the divisional rankings next week. Which would also mean that her ambitious goal is actually within reach. Still, there would be a long way to go between now and then. Fighters like Joanna Jedrzejczyk, Jessica Eye and Joanne Calderwood stand ahead of her, and champ Valentina Shevchenko rules over the division. The odds are against Barber accomplishing her mission, but every time out, we’ll start to get clues on just how reachable it is.

For now, she remains unbowed. Youth will do that for you. Talent will, too. Throw in an undefeated record, and it’s understandable why she exudes confidence. Barber seems to bask in the spotlight and attention, and she isn’t backing away from the outsized expectations. Asked this week why she has been so comfortable putting such weight on her shoulders, she couldn’t stop a smile from escaping.

“Pressure builds diamonds,” she said. “I’m a diamond.”