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Prospect Rankings Update: July 2022

After a busy month of June, July somehow managed to be even more action-packed with top prospects in action all across the globe. There was some unusual imbalance in the distribution of fights, as no ranked prospects or new joiners fought the week of July 4-10 while 10 different ranked prospects fought July 18-24. Some promotions in particular did a good job of stacking their shows with talent: UAE Warriors saw two new prospects emerge by beating previously ranked fighters, Cage Warriors’ 20th anniversary show saw two exciting new lightweight prospects win tough fights, Eagle FC had three different ranked fighters take part in their show in Kazakhstan, and Bellator managed to fit an unbelievable 6 ranked prospects into their show this month including two prospect versus prospect showdowns. Dana White’s Contender Series made it’s return to close out the month and is mandatory viewing for anyone interested in prospects, as three ranked fighters were involved despite there only being four fights on the opening episode. We also saw the conclusion of the most recent series of The Ultimate Fighter, with both of the top prospects taking place in the show earning their way to the finals where they will face off next month. There was also plenty of other action in worldwide MMA, so lets get into it. As always, these updates are based off my top 15 prospects in each weight class, found here.

June 27-July 3:

Middleweights:

Shamil Ramazanov: Fell from #13 prospect to unranked

We last saw Ramazanov in February of this year when he moved to 15-0 with a second-round KO of the less experienced but also undefeated Yaroslav Kuk (5-0). He made his 6th consecutive appearance for Hardcore FC this week and took on his first opponent that I had previously assigned a prospect ranking in Dmitriy Aryshev (14-8-1). While Aryshev’s record isn’t great, he came into this one on a 6-fight win streak against strong competition, which was enough to earn him a .5/100 rating (which is the lowest possible score to be included in my database). For comparison, Shamil’s rating was 10/100, so while he was nowhere near a proven elite middleweight this was definitely a fight I expected him to win. However, he seemed to struggle in his first time going beyond 3 rounds and ended up getting knocked out in the fourth round by the more experienced and battle-tested Aryshev, who handed Ramazanov his first loss in MMA. This sends him crashing down the rankings and well outside of my top 15 prospects after failing this first real test following many relatively easy opponents. It would take a major improvement in his strength of opposition if Ramazanov wants to return to the rankings in his few remaining years of eligibility.

Isi Fitikefu: Improved from unranked to #15 prospect

Fitikefu is a somewhat unusual prospect, as the 29-year-old Australian started his career on a tear and went 6-0 in Australia including two defenses of the middleweight title for top national promotion Eternal MMA. The second of those defenses was a 25-minute decision win against fellow prospect Kitt Campbell (10-3) that proved that Isi has the stamina and resilience to win in a long war after he’d previously proven his finishing skills against less experienced opponents. That victory came late in 2019 and was good enough to earn him a contract with the UFC late in 2020, where he served as a backup fighter for several fights at middleweight and light heavyweight before getting his first official booking against Dalcha Lungiambula in January 2021. Unfortunately Fitikefu was forced to withdraw from that fight and I was uncertain whether he was still under contract with the organization, as there was no further news on any fights. The mystery was resolved this week, as he returned to the Australian regional scene and beat up an inferior opponent in Ryan Mills (3-2), who took enough damage over the first two rounds to call the fight off before round three. It’s good to see Fitikefu back active after nearly 3 years without a fight and his record remains impressive at 7-0 but this win doesn’t boost his stock at all and it’s hard to imagine the UFC re-signing him off such a meaningless victory. However, with Ramazanov’s departure from the rankings and the confirmation that Isi is no longer under UFC contract there is space for him to slip into the rankings at #15.

Welterweights:

Dilano Taylor: Fell from #6 to #9 prospect

Taylor made a huge surge up the rankings 2 months ago by narrowly outworking João Zeferino for a split decision win while mking his regular-season debut for PFL, but he was unable to replicate that success this week. He was matched against one of the most under-rated welterweights in the world in Magomed Magomedkerimov (29-6), who was the PFL champion in 2018 and was 10-1 overall with the organization coming into the fight including two wins against current UFC sensation Chris Curtis. Taylor showed that he’s a very talented striker by keeping things mostly even with his opponent on the feet, as both fighters were moving in and out of range looking to land quick shots but were hesitant to engage too aggressively because they had respect for the power of the other. However, when Magomedkerimov decided to catch Taylor and trip or throw him to the ground in the first round it became clear that the Russian had a wrestling advantage, which is unsurprising if you’ve watched his previous fights. The first round was competitive but I scored it clearly in favor of MM, and the second round was a similarly tense striking duel for the first several minute. After about 3 minutes, Taylor got rocked by a hard combination that connected straight to the chin and was the beginning of the end. Dilano showed good toughness to retreat while defending himself and throw a few strikes in return but he kept eating well-aimed shots from Magomedkerimov. While his chin is clearly impressive to stand up to that many punches without getting knocked down, it got to the point that he wasn’t doing anything other than defending and surviving and the ref was forced to stop the fight for a standing TKO. This loss breaks Taylor’s winning streak but it was far from a terrible performance, as he still showed plenty of promising attributes against a very talented and much more experienced opponent. As a result, Taylor slides down a few spots in the rankings but doesn’t leave the list entirely since I still have seen more high-level traits against better competition than some of the prospects below him. However, he did not make the cut-off for the PFL playoffs and will be turning 26 early next year, which will make him ineligible for these rankings, so it is entirely possible that this is the last fight of Taylor’s while he is a ranked prospect.

Bantamweights:

Ali Taleb: Improved from unranked to #5 prospect

Taleb rockets into the rankings this week after knocking out former #6 prospect Vinicius de Oliveira in a slugfest to claim the UAE Warriors title and keep his record perfect at 7-0. He’s someone I’ve been keeping tabs on since early in his pro career, as he made his UAE debut in March of 2021 with just a 2-0 record and took on a much more established talent in Nawras Abzakh (7-3) but made it look easy with his mix of technical boxing on the feet and heavy ground-and-pound for a second round KO. He’s since followed that up with three more wins against opponents with 1-0, 8-4, and 5-1 records and was clearly far superior to all of those opponents both technically and athletically. However, despite that dominance he’d never faced anyone else that I’d featured in my 450+ ranked bantamweights so I was hesitant to grade him too highly until I saw him take on better competition. His step-up in opponents proved to be massive this week, as de Oliveira was the defending UAE champion, has shown dangerous finishing ability with both strikes and submissions, and is taller and even more muscular than Taleb for the weight class.

Anyone who hasn’t watched the fight should definitely do so, as it was all-action and had several huge momentum swings that made it very exciting. Taleb showcased his typical precise and powerful boxing combinations from the outset and was exploiting his opponent’s bad habit of leaving his guard low and relying on footwork and head movement to avoid strikes, which is a great strategy up until it’s suddenly a terrible one. That happened in the first round as the two fighters got into a high-intensity exchange of punches right in each other’s faces, with Taleb having the tighter and more accurate shots and stunning his opponent with a clean right hook then following up with some hard knees to the head from a front headlock clinch. There wasn’t much time left in that round so he was unable to get the finish, and in the second round Vinicius looked more calculated and composed and actually managed to score his own knockdown on Taleb with a powerful overhand right and a flurry of heavy ground punches while standing over him. The young Swede somehow managed to keep his composure and stay moving on the ground despite absorbing lots of damage and made it to the end of the round after some grappling exchanges and more solid strikes. The third round looked more like round one, as Taleb was again exploiting overswings from de Oliveira and eventually landed a massive right hand for another knockdown and a couple glancing follow-ups to fully shut off the lights. Ali emerges from this war 7-0 and the new UAE Warriors bantamweight champion, which is an impressive achievement given the talent the organization has at 135 pounds. His success was rewarded almost immediately, as PFL has already announced that he will be taking part in a preliminary fight on one of their playoff cards later this year with the possibility of earning himself a spot in the 2023 regular season if he impresses. There is no official age listed anywhere for Taleb, but going off a screenshot that said he was 22 years old early in 2020, he is currently either 24 or 25 and therefore still has a ton of room to grow as a fighter. His boxing is already top-notch, he has good defensive grappling, and he lands heavy ground strikes when he ends up in top position, but I would like to see him diversify his attack slightly by adding some more kicks and potentially improving his offensive wrestling so that he has an easier time getting into those advantageous ground positions. Taleb is a rising star at bantamweight and I’ll be rooting for his continued success in PFL.

Vinicius de Oliveira: Fell from #6 to #10 prospect

“Lok Dog” made his last appearance in October of 2021, where he defended his UAE Warriors title for the first time with a quick rear-naked choke to defeat short-notice opponent Sylvester Chipfumbu (7-3). He’s huge for the bantamweight division, as he’s both tall and packs a lot of muscle onto that frame without showing any issues with stamina. He’s a Jiu-jitsu black belt who has shown flexibility and creative submission skills in the past, and he also has 1-shot knockout power in his hands and feet. However, as discussed in the breakdown of Taleb above, de Oliveira was definitely not at his sharpest this week. He had predicted another round one victory going into the fight and I have to wonder if he was overconfident and got complacent as his striking guard was lazy, he mostly threw wild haymakers instead of some of the more technical combos he’s shown in the past, and he was taunting and showboating from early on in the fight. He still achieved some success, especially with his second-round knockdown and subsequent ground and pound that was almost enough to get the finish, but he ended up paying for his lax defense and was knocked out cold in the third round after once again leaving his hands low. While this performance was pretty disappointing, it was not the de Oliveira that we’re used to seeing. He has a ton of tools and has put on enough impressive performances in the past that it’s impossible to remove him from the rankings completely for one loss, especially to someone who looks like a real-deal elite talent in Taleb. He falls down to the #10 spot for now and could easily challenge for the bantamweight title again once he’s recovered from this knockout, as I have to imagine it will be vacated with Taleb moving to the PFL.

Kevin Cordero: Fell from #15 prospect to unranked

Cordero slipped back into the rankings a couple months ago after some departures opened up space, but Taleb’s huge win this week pushes most of the rankings down a spot and unfortunately leaves the young Spanish BJJ threat just outside of the top 15. He still hasn’t fought since his decision loss in the finals of the Combate tournament last year, so if/when he is able to get a fight later this year he should be able to work his way back into a ranking with a win.

Flyweights:

Abdula Aliev: Fell from #9 to #14 prospect

Aliev returned from his layoff back in March with a dominant decision win against a quality opponent and I predicted that he would take a few more fights with UAE before either challenging for the title or moving to a larger promotion. That prediction came true this week as he squared off against talented wrestler Dias Erengaipov (12-3) in a return to 125 pounds after his last fight was at strawweight. An interesting side-story for this fight was Aliev changing his declared nationality from his birth country of Russia to China, where he had spent the entirety of his career before this year. That makes him the first ever Chinese prospect represented in these rankings, though more are sure to come given the recent emphasis the UFC has shown in the country by building a Performance Institute, adding many Chinese fighters to the 2021 Contender Series, and making this year’s Road to the UFC based in Asia.

In terms of the fight, Aliev showed well-rounded skills in all areas of MMA but for the first time in his career ran into a specialist who had enough of an advantage in one area to hand him his first defeat. Aliev threw a high volume of kicks from the outset of the fight and was particularly targeting the inside of his opponent’s front leg, which was already turning bright red towards the end of the first round. He didn’t have much volume with his hands but showed a good ability to mix different types of strikes, which speaks to his high-level training in kickboxing and Sanda. However, Erengaipov was able to use his superior physical strength to repeatedly take Aliev down and control him through many sequences of explosive and highly technical scrambles. This fight was a perfect example of why flyweight is one of my favorite divisions to watch in MMA, as both athletes maintained a high pace all 15 minutes and showed incredible flexibility and reaction time throughout their exchanges. There were some dull moments when Erengaipov was holding control against the fence or smothering from top guard without throwing many strikes, but even then, there were constant micro-battles for underhooks, leg positions, and head control that showed the technical ability of both fighters. Aliev had good moments in the grappling but ultimately got controlled more frequently and took enough short strikes to give his opponent a relatively clear win. This first loss is undoubtedly a setback in his next-level aspirations, but he showed a sufficiently impressive blend of striking, grappling, and stamina that he doesn’t fall entirely out of the top 15. This fight could easily have been a title eliminator for UAE Warriors, so we may see Aliev jump to another promotion now that he is likely several fights away from getting a chance at a belt. In addition, he would be well served to add a couple extra pounds of muscle to his frame to make it a little harder for opponents to control him with their strength.

Dias Erengaipov: Improved from unranked to #10 prospect

Erengaipov chose a great week to have the best fight of his career, as his complete performance against Aliev moves him into the rankings after previously grading out in the #20-25 prospect range. He continues Kazakhstan’s takeover of the flyweight rankings, as he is now the country’s fourth prospect at 125 pounds. Aliev’s switch to representing China means that Russia now only has 3 flyweight prospects and that Kazakhstan is now the dominant country for flyweight talent in the rankings, which is a very impressive achievement for a country with a much less established MMA history than powerhouses like the USA, Brazil, or Russia. As noted above, most of this fight took place in elite-level grappling exchanges where both contestants showed serious wrestling and Jiu-jitsu skills. Erengaipov’s strength was particularly notable as he was able to toss his opponent to the ground regularly in a way that no one had previously done to Aliev. He also showed great flexibility in his limbs to transition quickly between positions without giving his opponent opportunities to break free. The ground and pound that Erengaipov threw was accurate but rarely super powerful and seemed more focused on scoring points and keeping hold of his position rather than looking to finish the fight. It turned out to be a very effective strategy and earned him an upset win in his UAE Warriors debut against a very skilled and previously undefeated prospect.

Before this week, Erengaipov had exclusively fought in Central Asia and Russia, which explains why he was mostly unknown to the MMA world despite having shown his talent in previous fights. He started his career at age 20 back in 2015, going 7-0 in Kazakhstan with all of those wins coming by finish, but his opponents were pretty weak and were all in the first few fights of their careers. That success was enough to catch the attention of Russian promoters and he spent 2017-2019 bouncing between high-quality Caucasian promotions Akhmat Fight Show, World Fight Club Akhmat, and ACA while also taking a fight with lesser-known Russian promotion Fair Fight. His record with those shows was a disappointing 2-3 but the competition he faced was outstanding as the 5 opponents he faced had a combined record of 38-6 and were all considered strong prospects or established talents. After losing two straight decisions he closed the Russian chapter of his career and ended up not fighting between March 2019 and January 2021, as his break to re-focus and find a new promotion got extended substantially by the chaos of Covid. Erengaipov re-emerged with Naiza FC, which has quickly established itself as Kazakhstan’s top MMA promotion. He initially drew my attention with a strong performance against Myrzamidin Pazylov (9-2) that earned him a win by Dr.’s stoppage after the first round then followed that up with a second-round TKO of Elkhan Ibragimkhalilov (8-1) last June using heavy ground and pound elbows to beat his opponent into the mat and steal some of the buzz surrounding him as a prospect. April of this year marked Erengaipov’s most impressive performance, as he was half of the main event against Islam Konchiev (7-2), a young wrestler who was coming off winning a talent-stacked flyweight tournament for ACA Young Eagles and was looking like one of the most promising 125-pound talents in Russia. However, Erengaipov had other plans and showed quick reaction times and strong hips to shut down repeated takedown attempts, then used his speed to transition to body-lock control and threaten to take his opponent’s back. That neutralized Konchiev’s gameplan and allowed Dias to pick him apart on the feet with fast and straight 1-2 combos of punches. He didn’t throw anything super fancy but was consistently scoring, and in the third round he showed his offensive wrestling skills by scoring his own takedowns and maintaining strong control from the top position to see out the fight and secure the decision victory. That performance was impressive enough to earn a contract with UAE Warriors where he scored another upset of a big-name Russian-born fighter and showed many of the same skills that he did in his previous 3 wins. His striking was not as evident this week because Aliev had an advantage there, but that also shows Erengaipov’s ability to adapt his gameplan to whatever will give him the best chance of victory. He’s now on a 4-fight win streak against a series of very strong prospects, and I would love to see him get a shot at the UAE Warriors title in his next fight, as to my knowledge it is currently vacant.

Steve Erceg: Fell from #15 prospect to unranked

Erceg returned to the bottom of the rankings recently after other departures re-opened a spot, but Erengaipov’s impressive performance pushes him back out this week. However, Erceg will soon get the biggest opportunity of his life in the form of a fight on the Contender Series, so there is a decent possibility that we will hear a lot more about the Australian submission artist in the coming months and years.

July 11-17:

Heavyweights:

Mohammed Usman: Moved from #12 prospect to unranked (signed to UFC)

Usman is the younger brother of UFC welterweight champion Kamaru Usman, and like his better-known sibling he is a very muscular fighter who is typically more athletic than his opponents. However, Mohammed lacks the elite technical skills that have made Kamaru such a dangerous champion, which is partially due to him being relatively new to combat sports after spending some time pursuing a career in American football. His regional career was solid but uninspiring, as he went 7-1 with 5 first-round finishes, which is impressive on the surface until you consider that the combined record of those beaten opponents was 26-27. His lone loss came by decision in his one real challenge, as he squared off against Don’Tale Mayes (3-2), who has since gone on to the UFC, early in both men’s careers. His famous last name and highlight finishes were enough to get him signed to the PFL roster for their 2021 season, where he was expected to be a top contender but was shockingly choked out in the second round of his only fight by Brandon Sayles (5-1), a much older and lesser-known opponent who was able to weather some early aggression from Usman then take the fight to the ground and take advantage of his basic BJJ. That loss was almost enough to push Usman entirely out of the rankings, but he is such a rare athlete for the division that he’s hung around towards the bottom of the top 15 since then, as he’s been inactive for over a year after an injury forced him out of his second regular-season PFL fight.

Usman was one of two top-ranked prospects to get signed to season 30 of The Ultimate Fighter and was therefore a clear frontrunner to make it to the finale from the start of the show. The matchmaking was very kind to him, as he took on Mitchell Sipe (5-2) in the first round of the show then Eduardo Perez (4-1) in the semi-finals, both of whom are big-bodied regional guys who love to punch but had never beaten a strong opponent and have holes in their grappling. They weren’t ranked anywhere in my list of notable heavyweights, but Usman’s performances against them were nowhere near as dominant as I would have liked to see from someone I graded so highly in comparison. Both fights went to decisions as Usman showed surprisingly little power in his punches for someone with as much muscle mass as he carries, even when he was really winding up for looping overhand rights. He typically weighs in between 230-240 pounds and is therefore slightly smaller than many of his opponents, but I have to wonder if there’s something in his striking technique that stops him from transferring all of his strength into knockout shots, or maybe he just had the bad luck to face two opponents with strong chins. Both fights saw Usman start to pull ahead later as his less-athletic opponents wore out but he was never dominant at any point. Stipe actually stunned him at least once early in their fight but didn’t properly take advantage of his opportunity with follow-up strikes, and the fight with Perez was close enough that it ended up going to a split decision, though I definitely felt that Usman had won two of the three rounds. It was hardly an inspiring showing from Mohammed but it was enough to earn him a UFC opportunity early in August, which means he is now ineligible for these rankings. I expect Zac Pauga, who was much more impressive in his fights (see write-up below), to have little trouble disposing of Usman. Mo might stick around on the UFC prelims for a while because of how shallow heavyweight is and the attention that he will get for being an Usman, but unless he makes some major technical improvements in all areas of his MMA game it’s hard for me to see him having long-term UFC success.

Kirill Grishenko: Improved from unranked to #15 prospect

Grishenko returns to the rankings this week after a 5-month absence following his first career loss back in February, when he took on Anatoly Malykhin (10-0) for ONE’s vacant heavyweight title. The big Belarusian was clearly outmatched in that fight but Malykhin is an elite talent who was once one of the top prospects in these rankings before he became ineligible, so Grishenko didn’t fall that far down the rankings despite not landing much besides some hard jabs and getting finished in the second round. However, this week’s return is much more of an indicator that not many new heavyweight talents have emerged since then than anything else. Grishenko has strong past wins against Oumar Kane (3-0) and Dustin Joynson (6-0), and several top prospects have either suffered losses to worse opponents than Malykhin or become ineligible for other reasons, which has opened up a spot for his return. He’s currently booked to face #3 heavyweight prospect Marcus Buchecha (3-0) at a ONE event late in August, and unfortunately, he has not shown the grappling skills needed to make me think that the result will be anything other than a submission win for Grishenko’s opponent, which would send Kirill back out of the rankings.

Light Heavyweights:

Zac Pauga: Moved from #10 prospect to unranked (signed to UFC)

Pauga made his debut in these rankings back in October 2021 as the #13 LHW prospect after winning a tough decision that showed his full skillset against UFC veteran Markus Perez (12-5). He’s since moved up 3 more spots as other light heavyweights have been forced out of the rankings, and despite being just 5-0 and fighting competitively for just 3 years he was signed to TUF 30, which is another example of how little depth there is at the heaviest weight classes. Despite being undersized for a heavyweight, I was expecting the finale to be Usman vs Pauga from the minute the rosters were announced, so it was good to see that my evaluations of the prospects on this season were accurate. Pauga faced tougher opposition this season than his finals opponent, as both Nyle Bartling (6-0) and Jordan Heiderman (5-0) are undefeated and strong wrestlers who I had on my heavyweight watchlist, albeit low on the list because they’d faced weak competition. Despite the tougher challenges, Pauga was more impressive in his fights than Usman and in my eyes is a major favorite to win the finale and become the newest Ultimate Fighter.

He showed a fast sprawl to stop the initial takedowns from Bartling and a strong lower body to prevent any attempts at chain wrestling, then did a good job punishing his opponent with hammerfists and other ground strikes. On the feet he had a clear speed advantage and did a good job avoiding most of the power shots and countering with jabs and other quick punches, while also showing a solid chin by being totally unaffected by a few haymakers that snuck through. That was enough to earn him a decision win after two rounds, as all 3 judges scored them in his favor and the opening TUF fights only go the full 3 rounds if it’s tied after the first 10 minutes. Pauga’s fight with Heiderman was even more impressive, as he again showed great timing and range to avoid his opponent’s strikes while landing with power in return. After doing damage in the first round, Zac dropped his opponent with a big overhand left in the second round then jumped on him with smashing hammerfists to get the TKO finish and stand out in a season that was mostly filled with decisions. Pauga has the athleticism and speed to cancel out the advantages that Usman has against most heavyweights, and his striking technique is much cleaner. He’s less proven in grappling but looked good against Perez in his last fight pre-TUF, so I expect a relatively easy win for Pauga in the finale unless Usman is able to land a lucky shot to get a knockout. Pauga’s long-term UFC home is almost certainly at 205 pounds but props to him for taking the opportunity up a weight class and making the most of it to get into the big show early in his career. He’s improved rapidly between every fight I’ve seen and has a great athletic base to build upon, so he could definitely be threat in the future if he can continue his growth within the UFC.

Oumar Sy: Improved from unranked to #15 prospect

Another month sees yet another undefeated and highly promising yet unproved light heavyweight get added to the top 15, as the division continues to eliminate top prospects faster than they get added. Sy is massive for LHW, standing 6’5″ and shredded with muscle, and he is one of the better prospects that has emerged from the rapidly-developing French MMA scene. He made his pro debut just 3 years ago in June 2019 and picked up 4 finishes over the next 18 months for regional European shows, with his first two wins by KO and the 3rd and 4th by rear naked choke. While the finishes were impressive, his opponents’ record were 0-0, 0-0, 1-0, and 0-0, so it was hard to gain too much insight into his true skill level. Sy’s big break came late in 2021 when he moved to top Polish show KSW to take on Adam Tomasik (5-0), who was also undefeated and making his promotional debut after destroying inferior regional competition. Sy showed a great jab in the opening minute of this fight that made perfect use of his vine-like arms, then performed a nice sweep after getting taken down that showed a promising blend of BJJ technique and explosiveness. Having achieved top position, Oumar ended things quickly with a barrage of hammerfists to get the TKO just 82 seconds into the fight, leaving his perfect record and finishing streak intact. He picked up another win earlier this year in a move to fast-growing promotion Ares FC, where he took on Paulin Begai (2-0), who is a strong kickboxer despite his lack of MMA experience. Begai was the first opponent who could match Sy’s reach and striking credentials, so Oumar showed good fight IQ by switching to a wrestling-heavy gameplan and shutting his opponent down with tight body control and short strikes on his way to the first decision victory of his career. While that performance did a good job of showcasing elements of Sy’s toolbox that he didn’t need to show in his earlier fights, it didn’t change the fact that he is yet to face any opponents who are established talents and/or ranked in my watchlist. As with #13 prospect Diyar Nurgozhay (7-0) and #14 prospect Elmar Gasanov (6-0), Sy has a ton of potential but is early enough in his career that he would not be ranked in the top 15 of any other weight class. He has another fight booked for KSW just next week where he will take on Bartłomiej Gładkowicz (8-2), who is another slight step up in competition but still not someone I have ranked anywhere. This division is wide open outside of the top few prospects, so a few more impressive performances could easily push Sy way up the rankings given his natural athleticism and the finishing ability he’s shown so far.

Middleweights:

Gamzat Khiramagomedov: Fell from #12 prospect to unranked

Khiramagomedov made his Eagle FC debut in December 2021 with a first round knockout of an undefeated opponent, which was impressive enough to push him into the top 15 prospect rankings. However, I noted at the time that I still wanted to see Gamzat tested against a top talent for a second time before moving him much higher, as he was finished relatively easily in his only fight for the PFL. That second chance at the next level came this week in an interim title shot against Dauren Ermekov (16-5), who is a well-rounded and experienced fighter with lots of good wins but has been beaten relatively consistently by the top talents that he’s faced. This was Khiramagomedov’s big opportunity to prove that he had improved since that first loss and to re-establish himself as someone with the potential to make waves at the next level, but unfortunately his performance did not live up to those expectations. Ermekov was the more aggressive fighter from the beginning, pushing the pace in striking exchanges and forcing Khiramagomedov onto his back foot where he threw ineffective counter strikes. Ermekov switched to wrestling later in the first round and also found success there, then went back to the takedowns in the second-round while constantly landing ground and pound and advancing his position. Eventually, Khiramagomedov ended up curled against the base of the fence, occasionally trying to build back up but always eating more punches and getting dropped back down. After several repetitions of this sequence the ref had seen enough and stepped in to put an end to the damage. This was a pretty bad loss from Khiramagomedov, as he never really threatened in any aspect of the fight, so his overall grade goes down significantly and it’s hard to see him ever returning to these rankings.

Shamil Magomedov: Improved from #13 to #11 prospect

Magomedov made his second appearance for Eagle FC this week, stepping in on short notice to take on Kazakhstan legend Igor Svirid (20-10) in hostile territory. Svirid’s record is somewhat inflated by easy matchups and Magomedov made the speed difference between the two fighters immediately obvious. He was throwing a lighting fast jab and connecting at will, quickly bloodying up his opponent’s face and adding more damage with each shot. He then staggered his opponent twice with two hard right hooks, the second of which dropped Svirid to the ground. From there, Magomedov rushed forward with a blitz of strikes and quickly took his kneeling opponent’s back then unleashed powerful hooks with both hands to get the first-round TKO finish. This brings him to 10-0 and puts him into the discussion for a potential shot at the EFC title further down the road. Current #8 prospect and EFC champion Faridun Odilov is out injured, hence the interim title shot this week, #9 prospect Ikram Aliskerov was signed to this year’s Contender Series from EFC, and former prospect Khiramagomedov was unsuccessful in his shot at the title this week (see above). That leaves Magomedov as the only one of EFC’s wealth of elite middleweight prospects who is in a position to take the next title fight against interim champion Dauren Ermekov unless Odilov is healed and ready for a title unification bout. Svirid is the type of opponent I’d always expect a ranked prospect to beat, so Shamil doesn’t move up far in the rankings despite the dominant performance.

Ozzy Diaz: Improved from unranked to #15 prospect

Khiramagomedov’s departure from the rankings opens up a spot for Diaz, who has been on my radar for a while due to his finishing ability. Ozzy had a successful amateur career before turning pro in 2015, but after finishing his first two professional fight he was knocked out in just 15 seconds by Santiago Diaz (1-2), an unimpressive opponent who hasn’t won a fight since then. That loss made it seem unlikely that Ozzy would ever become a major player in MMA, but after taking a year off to recover and reset he made his Bellator debut early in 2019 and got back on track with a first-round knockout of someone making their pro debut. His next Bellator fight was the first time that he came onto my radar, as it was another postlim but against a more qualified opponent in Andre Walker (5-2), who Diaz dominated for the few minutes that the fight lasted on his way to a round-one rear naked choke victory. He then made his LFA debut a year later in late 2020 and scored an impressive first-round KO of Logan Woods (3-0), who was a hyped KO artist in his own right, then scored a second-round KO of a fellow former Bellator fighter in Moses Murrietta (9-5) in his only fight of 2021 to win the middleweight championship for small California-based promotion LXF. While that string of wins was solid, it was nothing spectacular, but what really pushed Diaz into top prospect territory was winning the LFA title in March of this year. He took on highly-credentialed veteran Bruno Assis (12-5), who is dangerous in all elements of MMA and has some high-level victories against top opponents across the world. I expected Assis to put a stop to Diaz’s winning streak and show him that there are levels to the MMA game, but Ozzy was having none of it. After some relatively even early exchanges that included good defense against a few grappling attempts from Assis, Diaz landed a powerful combination of punches that shut his opponent off with just seconds left in the first round to earn himself the coveted title. The importance of that fight cannot be over-stated, as it earned Diaz a chance to show his skills on an even bigger stage just next week. He will take on 2020 Contender Series alum Joseph Pyfer (8-2) as part of the opening night of the 2022 edition of DWCS, and if he can extend his finishing streak from 5 to 6 he will almost certainly earn himself a UFC opportunity. I’m not sure how high Diaz’s ceiling is, as he has a kill-or-be-killed style that lends itself to exciting fights but might get him finished by more technical opponents in the UFC. There are also still some un-answered questions about his wrestling and takedown defense that can only be resolved against strong opponents, so hopefully his matchup with Pyfer will do just that. Win or lose, it’s very unlikely that Diaz has a long stint in these rankings, as he will either become ineligible if signed to the UFC or will drop down the list if he’s unsuccessful.

Bantamweights:

Renat Khavalov: Improved from unranked to #8 prospect

Khavalov is someone that has been on my radar for a while, as the 23-year-old from Dagestan has been with Eagle FC his entire career, including before Khabib purchased it when it was known as Gorilla FC. He made his pro debut just 3 years ago in July of 2019 and beat  Argen Maratbek Uulu (10-7) by decision, which is a very experienced opponent to take down in your first professional fight. He then beat Alisher Gabdullin (3-1) by knockout in his second pro fight, and while Gabdullin was early in his career at the time, he has since improved to 10-3 and is a champion in Kazakhstan, so that’s an even more impressive win very early in Khavalov’s career. The fight that first got Khavalov on my radar as a prospect happened two years ago in July 2020 when he took on fellow undefeated youngster Khasan Esmurziev (3-0) in a battle for the GFC title and got the ground and pound finish just before the end of the first round after tossing his opponent around the cage and showing off his strength and wrestling skills. Each fight since then has only served to boost his stock against more undefeated prospects, as he’s taken on in order: Sharapudin Magomedov (4-0 and an amazing amateur career), Patrizio de Souza (7-0), and this week Ramazan Amaev (7-0) for three successful title defenses. Magomedov was a prospect that I had a ton of expectations for, so seeing Khavalov not only beat him but do so by TKO early in the second round really increased his stock in my eyes, though at 4-0 he was still too inexperienced to make the top 15 rankings. De Souza was another second-round TKO, but while he had a strong record it was against weak competition so it wasn’t quite enough to get Khavalov ranked. This week’s win however marked his 5th straight ground-and-pound finish and it came against his best opponent so far in Ramazan Amaev (7-0). Amaev had earned his title shot by winning a decision against yet another undefeated Russian prospect (Umar Kunakbiev, 6-0), which brought him to 3-0 with EFC and was a quality controlling performance that earned him a big grade increase in my rankings.

This week’s title defense was another classic performance from Khavalov, as the two wrestlers exchanged somewhat cautious strikes on the outside while also engaging in competitive cage grappling. While that first round was pretty close, Khavalov’s superior grappling, strength, and cardio started to show with each progressive round. In the second he started landing takedowns that Amaev had stuffed in round one, and he was also able to land some good ground shots from those top positions. Round three was dominant, as Khavalov scored an early takedown, passed his way through ground positions with relative ease until he reached mount, landed some shots, then took the back when his opponent rolled. From there it was just a matter of control while raining down more punches until the ref stopped the fight. Khavalov is not particularly interested in scoring submissions, but he doesn’t need to since he is such an aggressive and effective striker once he has the fight on the ground. This win shoots him all the way into the #8 spot in the rankings because seeing him handle Amaev with the same relative ease that he’d dispatched prior opponents shows just how polished his skills are despite his young age. He’s now 6-0 with three title defenses for a fast-rising promotion in EFC and it seems pretty clear that he’s a level above the regional scene. He would be a very interesting candidate for an appearance on the Contender Series, which would likely just be a formality unless he’s matched against another elite prospect. He certainly has the talent and potential ceiling to merit a direct contract with the UFC, but I feel like his lack of experience might force him to go the DWCS route. Bellator has also shown a fondness for signing undefeated Russians and just featured 3 fighters with GFC/EFC experience on their show this week, so they are absolutely another possible destination for Khavalov.

Khaseyn Shaykhaev: Fell from #15 prospect to unranked

Just like Cordero in the first week of July, Shaykhaev is a promising young grappler that is coming off a loss and had slipped back into the bottom of the rankings after prior prospects were removed. However, Khavalov is a much more well-rounded fighter and has great momentum, while Shaykhaev has been off the radar for a while and gets pushed back out of the top 15 for now. Hopefully he will get another fight sometime soon, though ACA has been holding fewer events during the ongoing war.

July 18-24:

Heavyweights:

Davion Franklin: Fell from #4 prospect to unranked

Coming into this week, Davion Franklin had one of the highest ceilings of any heavyweight prospect in the world despite being just 5 fights into his professional career. He doesn’t come from a martial arts background but has been an athlete his entire life, and there just aren’t many MMA fighters out there who cut to 265 pounds while being as muscular and explosive as he is. After suffering his first professional loss this week his ceiling remains incredibly high, but it is clear that he needs substantially more polishing than I had hoped before he will be ready to clash with the best heavyweights in the world. Franklin has spent the entirety of his short career (2.5 years) with Bellator and dominated weaker opposition in his first fights before soaring up the rankings in February of this year by winning a split decision against Said Sowma (8-2). I had hoped that fight would mark a turning point in his career, as he looked more composed than he had in some early outings and didn’t gas out nearly as quickly, though he was still obviously exhausted in the third round. Unfortunately, Franklin’s problem with energy management reared its ugly head again this week and ultimately cost him a fight that he was absolutely capable of winning. His opponent was Marcelo Golm (9-3), a powerful grappler with solid overall skills who went 1-3 in the UFC but has otherwise been undefeated throughout his career.

Franklin started well, landing powerful hooks in the first few minutes of the fight that essentially forced his opponent to start looking for takedowns. While he was controlled against the fence for stretches of time, Franklin showed off his elite explosion by lifting Golm off of him and slamming him down to the canvas on two separate occasions. Unfortunately, those explosions were energy-intensive and didn’t end up giving Franklin any more of an advantage than a more technical escape would have. That tendency to go for the flashy and big action when a more basic one would have been easier and possibly more effective also showed up in Franklin’s striking, as he went for big flying knees, jumping kicks, spins, and other highlight-reel strikes throughout the fight but saw very little success from them. He’s so strong that he was causing damage just by landing jabs and crosses but chose to get fancy and ultimately gassed himself out. After pushing the pace on the feet in the first round, a visibly tired Franklin was on the back foot for much of round two, and while he was still doing some solid work with his strikes the output was much lower than in the first round. By round three he was absolutely drained to the point that he looked unstable on his feet at times and got broken down by the more measured Golm. A late takedown saw Franklin trapped against the base of the fence once again, but this time his explosion was gone, and he sloppily gave up his back while trying to stand up. That was all of the opening that Golm needed to secure control and quickly work in a rear naked choke that got an almost instant tap from Franklin, who seemed too tired to even fight the arm that was choking him with just 30 seconds left in the fight. He’s got a great camp at Jackson Wink and has clearly improved since making his debut, but this performance showed that there’s substantial work left to do on Franklin’s fight IQ and cardio. He falls way down in the rankings this week because Golm was nowhere near as highly graded coming into the fight, but heavyweight is a pretty shallow division and the athletic gifts that Franklin has make it very possible that he will make a return in his next few fights.

Dustin Joynson: Improved from unranked to #15 prospect

Just like Kirill Grishenko last week, Joynson is a talented heavyweight signed to ONE who was removed after the first loss of his career but makes a return after departures above him. In Joynson’s case, his loss actually came against Grishenko back in October 2021 in a fight that was pretty competitive but saw Dustin unable to match his opponent’s length in the striking exchanges, which lead to a decision loss for his first professional defeat. That sent him a good ways down the rankings and I thought it was the end of his time as a top-15 prospect, but he rebounded in a huge way in February of this year by outgrappling and outlasting elite prospect Hugo Cunha (6-0) in a grueling fight that went to a split decision and ultimately saw Joynson handing his hulking Brazilian opponent his first professional loss. Joynson is on the older side for a prospect at 36 but that matters less in heavyweight than any other division, and at just 7-1 he’s picked up very little accumulated damage over the course of his career. Between former prospects like Cunha and Oumar “Reug Reug” Kane, recent returnees like Grishenko and Joynson, and established studs like #3 prospect Marcus Buchecha and #9 prospect Ji Won Kang, it’s clear that ONE has a lot of high-ceiling heavyweights with fewer than 10 fights in their careers. It will be very interesting to continue tracking how they fare against each other and whether any of them are able to break through and reach the championship-level.

Light Heavyweights:

Oumar Sy: Improved from #15 to #8 prospect

Sy joined the rankings just last week but makes a big jump up to the #8 spot following his second win for KSW, this time against a decent but unspectacular opponent in Bartłomiej Gładkowicz (8-2). Sy seemed to have a clear plan for how he was going to handle the fight, as he only exchanged a few strikes to open the first round before changing levels and initiating a takedown. Once he had secured ground control, Sy did a good job working to the back and getting in his hooks before searching for rear naked chokes, which have already won him two fights in his career. His opponent did a good job preventing those submission attempts and tried to roll for leglocks and threaten his own subs, but Sy was very aware on any shifts by his opponent and did a great job moving through those transitions and coming out on top with good positioning. In general, Sy’s ability to flow on the ground was very impressive for someone his size, and while his ground and pound output wasn’t the highest in terms of total strikes that was because he was carefully picking and aiming each strike for maximum impact without over-spending energy. Rounds two and three saw long stretches of Sy using an arm and a leg hook to control a turtled-up Gladkowicz while popping him to the side of the head with stinging hammerfists or short hooks. He came out massively ahead on the judges’ scorecards with one giving him a 30-25 win, another 30-26, and the final a more conservative 30-27. In any case it was clear that Sy was in control the entire fight, but that may be a disappointment to some who were hoping to see an easy finish by the undefeated French prospect. However, Sy showed in his fight before this against kickboxer Paulin Begai (2-0) that he is perfectly content to use his grappling to shut down opponents when that is his easiest path to victory, which shows both his well-rounded game and high fight IQ for an early-career fighter. The main negative from this fight is that Sy missed weight badly, coming in at 210 pounds. He looked as defined as always so there’s really not many more places for the weight to be lost, which makes me think that he cuts quite a lot of weight typically to reach 205 pounds. At 6’5″ Sy certainly has the frame for heavyweight and his ridiculously long arms would still give him a reach advantage against most opponents, so I will be watching carefully for any news of a move up in weight class. While Gladkowicz was outside my watchlists, this dominant performance gave Sy a good boost in his grade especially with how clean his ground transitions and submission defenses were. Since Light Heavyweight is a very shallow division, that grade bump is enough to move Sy 7 spots higher in the rankings. He’s now 2-0 for KSW and I would bet they will look to sign him to a longer-term deal as one of the most athletic and high-ceiling prospects in Europe’s higher weight classes

Middleweights:

Dalton Rosta: Improved from #3 to #1 prospect

Romero Cotton: Fell from #12 prospect to unranked’

Rosta and Cotton squared off this week in one of the better prospect vs prospect matchups that Bellator has booked this year, made even better by the fact that both fighters came into the match with identical 6-0 records. Both had picked up relatively easy wins against inferior regional competition earlier this year, but for whatever reason Cotton was ranked #7 in Bellator while Rosta was #8 despite consistently facing better opponents and also having a successful amateur career. Coming into the fight, I expected Cotton to use his high-level college wrestling background to get in close and try to turn the fight into a grappling match while Rosta would try to take advantage of his superior striking, but it ended up being much less competitive than I had anticipated. Dalton was lighting Romero up with powerful 1-2 combos and a good variety of other strikes from the outset of the fight, and Cotton seemed to have no answer besides repeatedly shooting for takedowns without any real set-up. The takedowns themselves were well-timed and powerful but that’s not going to be enough to take down an incredible athlete like Rosta who also came into MMA with a wrestling background. It became so predictable that Rosta was able to take control of some clinch situations and drive Cotton against the fence, and he was having so much grappling success that he even initiated a few of his own takedowns, which I never would have expected to see. Each round got progressively more dominant, as the first was clearly in favor of Rosta but Cotton at least landed some return strikes and was able to slow things down sporadically with his grappling. In the second, it became clear that Cotton lacked any sort of plan B or ability to adapt when his naked takedowns weren’t working, and he started to eat lot of powerful shots from Rosta, who had clearly figured out his opponent’s timing. While Cotton’s chin was impressive in that second round, there is only so much punishment that one person can take, which became evident in round three. Rosta came out aggressive and lit up Cotton with a series of powerful hooks that drove him against the fence, then finished the job with an unusual combo that saw a powerful leaping right-handed superman punch set up a low angle sweeping left hook that sent Cotton to the mat dazed.

This was a real crossroads fight for these two prospects and teaches us a lot about their potential ceilings in MMA. Rosta was able to keep his undefeated record and vault himself into the #1 overall middleweight prospect spot by showing that the blend of striking, grappling, and athleticism that he’s shown in previous fights transferred against the best opponent he’s faced so far, and with one more win he could easily find himself in a position to challenge fellow undefeated ATT trainee and former #1 prospect Johnny Eblen for the Bellator title. Cotton, on the other hand, showed a concerning lack of creativity when his takedowns weren’t working, as he was unable to either set them up with his striking or use different techniques other than double-legs to try to get the fight to the ground. His striking was also exposed as pretty basic against the more technical Rosta, and while his power has saved him in past fights it’s clear that Cotton still has a lot of room to grow as a true MMA fighter rather than just a wrestler. Unfortunately, since he is already 32 it’s hard to see him having enough time to become a top-level fighter. He will likely become a good gatekeeper who will cause lots of problems for opponents who are unable to handle his aggressive grappling and/or pure physical strength, but his days as a true prospect are likely over for good.

Arseniy Smirnov: Improved from unranked to #15 prospect

It’s not often that a prospect joins the rankings for the first time while coming off a loss, but middleweight has been seriously thinned out recently, as just this month Shamil Ramazanov, Gamzat Khiramagomedov, and now Cotton have been removed after losing. Smirnov’s split decision loss to Yasubey Enomoto for RCC back in May was not nearly as momentum-killing as those other losses, as it could have easily gone in his favor instead as they both exchanged a high volume of strikes. Smirnov had a definite advantage with his kicks and was chopping away at his opponent’s legs and body along with some quality boxing, but Enomoto had an advantage with his hands and was more precise with his punches. I had Smirnov narrowly winning the first two rounds since his strikes were landing with more impact, then losing the third because he got taken down multiple times and took enough ground strikes to outweigh anything done on the feet. Ultimately, it’s Smirnov’s work before that very competitive loss that earns him a spot in the rankings. He started his professional career 3-0 for small Russian shows then joined RCC just as it was starting, winning his debut and then picking up the first loss in his career by a decision. After that setback he went on a very impressive 7-fight winning streak for RCC against opponents with a combined record of 83-31, and many of those fighters were solid prospects in their own right. Four of those wins were by knockout, which brings him to 6 total KOs out of his 11 wins with the rest by decision. His varied striking ability is evident in the different ways that he finishes, as he has knockouts by both knees and a kick to the body to go along with more conventional punch-out finishes. Since he is already over the age limit at 31 and is nearing the fight limit with his 11-2 record, it’s unlikely that Smirnov occupies these rankings for a long time, but he is definitely a solid talent who is especially dangerous with his striking but may not have the star potential of some higher-ranked prospects on this list.

Welterweights:

Roman Faraldo: Improved from #15 to #14 prospect

Faraldo has been a highlight reel so far in his professional career and he kept that going this week, moving to 8-0 while scoring yet another first round knockout. While the perfect finishing record is very impressive, Faraldo only recently snuck into the bottom of the rankings after other prospects departed because his strength of competition has not been that great. Unfortunately, that continued again this week as he was given another very winnable matchup in Bellator against Luis Iniguez (5-1). While Iniguez has the best record of anyone that Roman has faced so far and also has knockouts on his resume, those wins come against even weaker opponents than those Faraldo has faced. In addition, Iniguez is a latecomer to the sport after spending time in various striking martial arts and is therefore already 36, and the difference in athleticism was evident throughout the fight. His striking background is another factor making this fight easier for Faraldo, who is yet to face a grappling-heavy fighter in his Bellator stint and will always have a better chance of a highlight knockout when matched against someone looking to trade blows with him. The difference in power between the two fighters was evident from the early exchanges, as everything that Faraldo threw was snapping back the head of Iniguez and quickly sent him on the back foot. Roman was patient stalking his prey and does a good job of briefly switching stances or squaring up while coming forward to throw powerfully with both hands and sometimes attack from unexpected angles. He also mixes in kicks sporadically but it’s the punches that are the biggest threat, especially the left hook that he landed several times in transitions out of brief moments in the southpaw stance. The finish was a perfect example of how effective Faraldo’s stance switches can be, as he led with a right hook out of a conventional stance then kept his right foot forward instead of bringing it back in line and turning sideways again. That gave him a powerful base to throw a hard straight left that connected directly to the point of Iniguez’s chin and sent him flying to the mat semi-conscious and earned Faraldo his fourth straight round-one knockout for Bellator. He’s now 8-0 as a pro and is clearly ready for a tougher test of his abilities, so hopefully Bellator will decide to match him up with one of the veterans in the top 10 of their welterweight division. My ideal matchup would see him go against a grappler to test how he has progressed in that area, but if they want to almost guarantee fireworks, they could book him against Sabah Homasi in a battle of high-impact knockout artists. In any case, Faraldo only has a couple more fights before he is no longer eligible for these rankings, so hopefully his competition improves for those next fights. This week’s win only bumps him up a single spot because Iniguez never really had a chance against the bigger, more explosive, and more technical striker.

Lightweights:

Usman Nurmagomedov: Moved from unranked to #1 prospect (should have been #1 all along)

Chris Gonzalez: Fell from #11 prospect to unranked

This week’s final prospect matchup from Bellator made me realize that I’d been committing a glaring omission by not including Usman Nurmagomedov in any of the previous editions of these prospect rankings. I put that down to a combination of his 14-0 record, his incredible talent (he came into this week as the #3 lightweight contender in Bellator), and the fame of the Nurmagomedov last name, all of which combined to make me overlook the fact that he’s somehow only 24 years old and will therefore be eligible for these rankings for more than a year to come. Usman may not be as well-known as his cousins in the UFC, but he could very well be the second best, behind only the incomparable Khabib. He started his professional MMA career in 2017 at just 19 years old and proceeded to dominate Russia by going 11-0 with 10 finishes, albeit often against mediocre competition. Bellator signed him in April 2021, and he continued to dominate, winning a decision against Mike Hamel (7-4), knocking out Manny Muro (12-6) in the first round with a vicious knee to the gut, then choking Patrik Pietilä (11-8) in the first round to prove that he can truly win in whatever manner he wishes. None of those opponents were anything near elite talents but they are all solid gatekeepers with different skill sets that allowed Nurmagomedov to show off his dominant talent in all aspects of MMA. He has Taekwondo training that has given him an extensive array of kicks that he throws while very light on his feet, making his striking attack diverse and unpredictable. He also does a great job managing distance, and while he is happiest striking it should be no surprise that a Dagestani named Nurmagomedov also has dominant sambo-based grappling skills at his disposal whenever he chooses to use them. He’s also a very well-conditioned and explosive athlete and had looked like the complete package coming into this week’s fight.

Chris Gonzalez is another well-rounded fighter, as he has a strong wrestling background, is tall and athletic, and showed off his striking skills in his last fight with an incredible 30-second head-kick knockout of Saad Awad (24-13). All of that has led to him being the #11 prospect coming into this week and in theory he should have provided a tougher test for Usman than any of his past opponents, but he ended up getting steamrolled. The first couple minutes of the fight were low output, as Gonzalez circled the cage and tried to find a good entry point while Nurmagomedov picked away with some kicks that connected but were not thrown with 100% power. After deciding that he wasn’t going to have a chance at long range, Gonzalez closed distance to get into the clinch and managed to land his only solid strikes of the fight with a quick knee+uppercut combination to the body. However, that success was very short-lived as Usman quickly reversed the clinch, drove Gonzalez against the fence and bullied him down towards the mat, then finished the fight by immediately locking up a tight front choke as his opponent tried to change positions. This one-sided beatdown serves as a reminder of how well-rounded and truly deadly Nurmagomedov is as a prospect and give me the opportunity to correct my error and include him in his rightful #1 prospect ranking. Gonzalez, on the other hand, has now lost pretty decisively to his two best opponents in Nurmagomedov and Goiti Yamauchi (25-5), who knocked him out in the first round. That takes him out of the rankings and due to his age and contract with a major promotion he will not be eligible to rejoin them.

Mike Figlak: Improved from unranked to #11 prospect

Figlak joins his brother, #15 welterweight prospect Mateusz Figlak (7-1), in the rankings this week after another impressive win for Cage Warriors improved his unbeaten record to 8-0. Mike is 26 but made his amateur debut all the way back in 2013, so he’s been competitively involved in MMA his entire adult life. He compiled a very impressive 10-2 amateur record before going professional in 2018, and after a couple of regional wins he was quickly snapped up by Cage Warriors and made his debut for the UK’s top promotion in September 2020. He won that fight and his next two outings by KO then won two straight decisions against Kieran Lister (6-1-2) and Stevie McIntosh (7-2) where he was in control the entire fight but was unable to finish those tougher opponents. Both Lister and McIntosh had been on my watchlists but were relatively low down the pecking order, so Figlak’s success against them gave him a big boost in his overall grade but wasn’t quite enough to elevate him to elite prospect status. That all changed this week when he took on European star Agy Sardari (15-3), who is both a former Cage Warriors champion and a former prospect in these rankings. Sardari is a well-rounded fighter but is most dangerous with his grappling and submission threats while Figlak is typically more of a pressure striker, so from the minute this fight was booked I was excited to see which style would come out on top. The fight did not disappoint as it was high-paced and positionally dynamic throughout its duration. Sardari shot different types of takedowns early in the fight and had some success getting Figlak to the floor but found it much more difficult to establish control, which led to a series of high-paced scrambles that showed off both fighters’ athletic and technical skills. Figlak also did a good job of getting underhooks and stuffing some of the takedowns entirely, and in a development that I never expected he was confident enough in his wrestling to occasionally drive Sardari against the fence and work him over with short punches and knees. He definitely passed the grappling test, but as expected it was Figlak’s striking that really shined in this fight and makes him a high-potential prospect. He has excellent boxing and is not as rigid as some fighters who come from that discipline, as his combinations have great variations in the timing of the punches, the angles they come from, and where they are targeting on his opponent. Figlak is powerfully built, and it is especially noticeable in his thick lower body, which translates into natural power in his hands even when he’s not swinging for the fences with each strike. Round one was competitive due to Sardari’s takedowns, but Figlak took more control with each round, finding it easier to defend his opponent’s clinches and landing more of his combinations with clean impacts. The fight ended up going the distance because Agy is tough to finish but it was clear that Figlak had done more damage while also controlling the positions of the fight and therefore came away with a decision win. This was by far his toughest challenge so far and he passed it beautifully, so his grade went up quite a bit and moved him into the #11 prospect spot. He’s a great candidate for something like the Contender Series, although all the spots for this year may already be full. If he has to wait until next year for UFC attention, a matchup against fellow lightweight rankings newcomer George Hardwick (see below) would be almost guaranteed fireworks and whoever came out victorious with the Cage Warriors belt would be a truly elite prospect

George Hardwick: Improved from unranked to #15 prospect

George is the more promising of the Hardwick brothers, though featherweight prospect Harry is also a name worth keeping an eye on as he continues to fight for Cage Warriors. Hardwick got the honor this week of headlining Cage Warriors 141, which was the promotion’s 20th anniversary show. He also picked up the interesting distinction of being the first of the promotion’s European talents to take on one of the American fighters that have been added to the roster following their recent shows in California, as his opponent for the title was Kyle Driscoll (13-3), an excellent wrestler training out of AKA who impressed in his Cage Warriors debut and even won a decision on the Contender Series but was not offered a UFC contract. This fight was expected to be a striker versus grappler match, as Hardwick is known for his non-stop gritty forward pressure and willingness to take a shot in order to land several of his own, but it ended up being much more of a striking battle. This was partially due to Driscoll having much better hands than I had previously thought, as the first couple rounds saw the American stinging Hardwick with jabs and straight rights to counter his forward momentum and bust up his nose. The other factor that I had not anticipated was Hardwick’s excellent takedown defense, as whenever Driscoll shot in George got his arms low and either caught his opponent with underhooks and shucked him off or quickly started to threaten guillotine chokes that were evidently tight enough to force his opponent to give up on his grappling. The first two rounds were competitive, as Hardwick landed some nasty calf kicks and powerful hooks to the head and body but also ate lots of those straight shots directly to the chin with magnified impact due to his constant forward momentum. However, he really started to take over in round 3 as he was able to keep throwing fluid and powerful combos of hooks while Driscoll was noticeably slowed by the damage he had taken to his leg and body. That became especially evident when Hardwick dropped him with a hard left hook to the liver most of the way through the round then jumped on him with ground and pound to look for the finish, but Driscoll showed unreal toughness and somehow managed to grit his way through and survive until the fourth round. That round looked much like the third, with Hardwick continuing to push the pace and accumulate damage until eventually another vicious body shot turned off the vital systems in his opponent’s body and sent him slumping to the floor in agony. This was a strong performance that absolutely deserved a belt as a reward for beating a very tough opponent, and the combination of stamina, damaging attacks to different levels of the body, and wrestling defense that Hardwick showed should continue to serve him well if he defends the title or gets signed to a major promotion for his next fight. However, he still grades out lower than Figlak despite getting higher billing on the card because his aggressive style and reliance on his granite chin to absorb punishment concern me and make me think he could be vulnerable to getting knocked out by someone with more power in their hands. I’ve also not seen as much of his jiu-jitsu work and while I’m sure it’s at least solid given how well-rounded Hardwick is as a fighter, I’ll need to see a demonstration against someone who’s actually able to get him to the mat before I feel fully confident about it. He mentioned potential matchups against either Figlak or former champion Joe McColgan in his post-fight interview and either of those fights would be absolute must-see prospect clashes.

Felipe Douglas: Fell from #14 prospect to unranked

Lance Gibson Jr.: Fell from #15 prospect to unranked

Douglas and Gibson both fall victim to the numbers game this week in an incredibly stacked lightweight division, and they both certainly have the skills and career trajectories to reclaim their spots later this year. The only reason they are pushed out in favor of the Figlak+Hardwick duo from Cage Warriors is the relative level of competition they have faced. Douglas is the reigning SFT champion, but his most recent opponent was not someone I had ranked on my watchlist, while Gibson is undefeated and tearing it up on the Bellator prelims but has yet to face any high-caliber opposition. The two newcomers both won impressive victories this week against highly ranked and proven opponents which improved their grades enough to sneak into the rankings and push Felipe and Lance just outside the top 15.

Featherweights:

Islam Omarov: Improved from #2 to #1 prospect

Omarov and Salahdine Parnasse have exchanged the #1 and #2 featherweight prospect spots a few times now, and with the 25-year-old Dagestani making another appearance for ACA this week and improving to 12-0 he once again claims the top spot in the rankings. His opponent this week was Brazilian veteran Marcos Rodrigues (19-5), who has a lot of strong wins on his record and is the current champion for high-level promotion SFT with one title defense against other top fighters from that country. I had been hoping to see Omarov tested against a Russian veteran who might have a better chance of standing up to his elite wrestling, but Rodrigues is about as good as you can hope for in terms of Brazilians willing to go test their luck in Russia. The fight was unsurprisingly one-sided, as Rodrigues was on the defensive the entire time and never got a chance to show off his dangerous striking skills. Omarov used good feints in the first round to back his opponent up then shot in low for a takedown and proceeded to dominate the rest of the round by crushing Rodrigues against the fence base and peppering his ribs and the side of his head with short punches. Rounds two and three saw the Brazilian come forward and throw a few powerful shots, a couple of which clipped Omarov but never did any serious damage, and those attacks were both short-lived as Islam once again ducked under and met his opponent’s momentum with takedowns. Round two was another 4+ minutes of total wrestling domination and short striking, and round three looked like it was heading towards more of the same and a dull decision, but Rodrigues showed a little life and scrambled back to his feet a couple times. He was returned to the mat immediately by body-lock slams from Omarov, and after one of these returns the Russian prospect got strong top position in close at the base of the fence and locked in a mounted guillotine to get the 3rd-round submission victory. That brings him to 12-0 overall and 5-0 with ACA while also being his first finish with Russia’s top promotion after his first four fights were all wrestling-heavy decisions. This was a fight I always expected Omarov to dominate but he and Parnasse have such similar grades in my rankings that even the slight boost from this win was enough to return him to the #1 spot. Omarov has turned 25 since we last saw him fight, meaning that he has less than a year left of eligibility in the rankings. With his undefeated record and consistently dominant performances he’s probably heading towards a title shot in the near future, although I would expect him to get tested against another of the organization’s staple of proven top-level wrestlers one more time before getting a chance at the belt. While I’d love to see how Omarov’s skills would hold up in the UFC, his style is not the most exciting to watch and I don’t any organizations outside of Russia making a big enough contract offer to pull him away from ACA in the near future.

July 25-31:

Light Heavyweights:

Anton Turkalj: Improved from #3 to #2 prospect

Turkalj has been part of the light heavyweight rankings since this list began last September, but this is the first opportunity I’ve had to write about him since his last fight before this week’s Contender Series appearance came in April 2021. That win was an incredible 13-second spinning backfist knockout that sent his opponent straight to the shadow realm, and Konstantin Soldatov (5-1) was not some can, as shown by his solid record going into the fight. I thought that crazy highlight might have been enough to get Turkalj signed directly to the UFC, as there just aren’t that many 6’4, muscular, 26 years old, undefeated light heavyweight prospects out there, especially not with all 7 of their wins coming by finish against solid competition. Can-crushing is often a problem in the heavier weight classes as many regional shows have problems finding just one talented heavyweight or light-heavyweight and it’s even harder to find a good opponent willing to risk their record against them. Turkalj is an exception, as he’s been fighting consistently good competition for Brave in the form of the 5-1 Soldatov, Ibo Aslan (8-0), and Athanasios Herkeletzis (3-1). His first four professional fights were against weaker opponents but that is to be expected for almost any new pro, even those like Turkalj that have a long amateur record and success with IMMAF, which is undoubtedly the best competition any amateur can face. While he didn’t get a UFC contract from his spinning KO, Turkalj was originally slated to be on last year’s edition of the Contender Series fighting against Kaloyan Kolev, who ended up getting knocked out by exciting kickboxer Armen Petrosyan. Unfortunately, Turkalj had problems getting a visa to fight and ended up having to pull out, and instead of taking another tune-up fight on the regional scene to keep building his record he decided to wait for this year’s Contender Series. In my eyes that was a smart move, as I think he was UFC level already and didn’t have anything else to prove, but that did mean he was betting heavily on an impressive performance this week against an excellent BJJ practitioner in Acácio dos Santos (14-4).

The Turkalj we saw this week was not as impressive as what I’m used to watching, and I have to wonder whether it was the step up in competition that caused this or if the importance of the moment got to him. Dos Santos is without question the toughest opponent he has faced so far in his career, and he stung Turkalj with a powerful left hook just seconds into the fight despite normally being known as more of a counter striker and grappling specialist. It’s impossible to say how much that strike rocked him, but Turkalj started pushing a grappling-heavy gameplan from then on. He got close and clinched up with his opponent whenever possible and did a good job lacing one leg through while standing to keep dos Santos trapped against the fence while occasionally trying to work trips to take him down. He managed to secure takedowns in each round and was dominant enough with his control and sporadic small punches to clearly win rounds 1 and 3. Round two also saw lots of control time but dos Santos was able to get off a few hard punches in a rare moment of stand-up and in my eyes did more damage with those few shots than Turkalj did with his weak ground-and-pound. The judges evidently agreed, as two of them scored it 29-28 in his favor while the third gave him all three rounds for a unanimous decision win. While this was a solid display of wrestling dominance against a physically powerful opponent known for his slick jiu-jitsu, Turkalj seemed in no hurry to look for a finish either with his strikes or with a submission, as he never really even threatened much besides trying to take the back and work towards a rear-naked choke that was never anywhere close. His record improves to 8-0 but that sort of DWCS performance is not going to impress Dana White and earn you a UFC contract, so Turkalj will go back to the regional scene despite his very impressive skills and record. Light heavyweight is a thin enough division that I could easily see him getting a call as a short-notice UFC replacement, especially if he’s able to go get another finish win before then. If he really wants to challenge himself, a return to Brave for a matchup against #4 prospect Murtaza Ali (5-0) would be an awesome fight and almost guarantee a major-promotion opportunity for the winner, but who knows if the promotion would be willing to risk the undefeated records of two of their best prospects against one another.

Middleweights:

Ozzy Diaz: Fell from #14 prospect to unranked

Diaz just joined the rankings for the first time two weeks ago but now becomes the fourth middleweight prospect to depart this month. He unfortunately never seemed to get going in his Contender Series matchup against Joseph Pyfer (8-2), as he took a couple of hard leg kicks early and then got taken down and threatened with submissions for several minutes of the first round. While he did a good job defending and staying safe, he was unable to have any grappling offense of his own, and on the feet, he seemed to struggle with the speed and range of his opponent. Diaz was known for his fast hands and good jab coming into the fight but got out-jabbed by his power-punching opponent and clearly lost the first round of the fight. The second round was headed the same direction, with Diaz landing a few good shots but getting outscored until he was met with a lead left hook while trying to enter the pocket to strike. The punch landed directly on his chin and sent him spread-eagled to the mat, where he was finished with some heavy ground strikes after the ref didn’t step in immediately. This was a disappointing showing because I had graded him substantially higher than Pyfer coming into the fight, so losing in such a 1-sided way drops Diaz’s grade considerably. He is still the LFA middleweight champion so he will likely get more high-level opportunities to show off his skills either late this year or early in 2023, but for now he finds himself well outside of the top 15 prospects.

Mário Sousa: Improved from unranked to #15 prospect

With Diaz’s defeat opening up yet another spot in the middleweight rankings, another solid but unspectacular prospect is called up to fill the void. This week it is Mario Sousa, who is likely a familiar name to anyone who has watched the Contender Series in the last few years as he appeared on both the 2020 and 2021 editions of the show after putting together an impressive 11-1 record against mediocre Brazilian competition. His 2020 fight against Mariusz Ksiazkiewicz (8-0) was a solid decision win that showed Sousa is both a competent striker and skilled grappler while also being a good athlete, but since he didn’t get the finish, it wasn’t enough to earn him a UFC contract. 2021 was a bigger disappointment as he came in the slight favorite against veteran striker Chidi Njokuani (19-7), who was both older and less well-rounded than Sousa. However, Mario was unable to get the fight to the ground for much time due to Chidi’s good takedown defense and he ended up getting knocked out in the third round. Njokuani has gone on to win his first two UFC fights with spectacular first-round knockouts so in hindsight Sousa’s loss is not too bad, but it definitely shows that he cannot be considered an elite prospect. He’s since returned to Brazil and got back to winning with a good 1st-round rear naked choke of Antonio Gordillo (14-3), who has an impressive record but is a can-crusher. That can-crushing evidently rubbed off on Sousa, as his most recent fight came for tiny promotion “Metanoia FC” and was a 1-minute knockout of some hapless nobody named Sidney Araujo who came into the fight with an 0-1 professional record. That win hardly counts as a competitive fight, but the two finishes were evidently enough for the UFC to stay interested in Sousa, as he will get a rare 3rd opportunity at the Contender Series in September. He’s not the first fighter to have 3 DWCS fights, and since he’s just 25 despite having a 14-2 record it makes sense that the UFC brass wants to keep tabs on how he’s developing between years. Unfortunately for Sousa this year’s opponent is current #9 prospect Ikram Aliskerov (12-1), who is a mauling wrestler from Dagestan and should be able to toss around the tall but not super thick Sousa without too much trouble. If Mario does somehow pull off the upset, he should definitely be offered a UFC deal, but if he loses it’s hard to see him making it to MMA’s biggest promotion anytime soon. No one has ever fought 4 times on the Contender Series, so this may be his last chance to impress Dana and the other top matchmakers in person despite still being quite young.

Flyweights:

Asu Almabaev: Remained #1 prospect

Almabaev is the first of three flyweight prospects this week to use their own grappling abilities to win decisions against more-experienced veterans who are also known for their ground skills. As the highest ranked flyweight prospect on this list, it is only right that Almabaev was given the toughest challenge this week, which meant facing off against Zach “Fun Size” Makovsky (21-10). Makovsky’s record is far from perfect but that is due to his willingness to continuously fight the best fighters in the world, as he went 3-4 in the UFC including a win against perennial top-15 gatekeeper Tim Elliott and also went 6-2 for Bellator with a good win streak that earned him an unsuccessful shot at their bantamweight title. He is undoubtedly the toughest test that Almabaev has faced so far in his career and is really about as good a flyweight opponent as you are going to find outside of a major promotion, and that was reflected in a highly skillful and competitive fight. The first two rounds were very close, with both fighters showing good defense and distance management on the feet while sniping away with kicks from the outside and sporadic bursts of punches. They also both shot for takedowns, with Makovsky having more success pushing Asu against the fence and landing short strikes while Almabaev was able to get the fight to the floor and start landing some short shots but was never able to achieve a dominant position before getting swept. Round three was slightly more clearly in favor of Makovsky, as he was pushing the pace and had both higher output and better accuracy with his strikes on the feet and from the clinch, but even then, it was a marginal separation at best between the two. I scored rounds 1&2 for Almabaev and round 3 for Makovsky and two of the judges seemed to agree, as they gave the Kazakhstani prospect a 29-28 split decision win that brings him to 3-0 with Brave and extends his win streak to an incredible 12 straight fights. These are not easy wins either, as Makovsky is clearly talented and the 6 fights before him were also all dangerous in their own ways. Guys like Chris Kelades (14-4), #6 prospect Aleksander Doskalchuk (10-2), and Kayck Alencar (10-1) were all well-proven and dangerous opponents while Pierre Ludet (5-0), Darkhan Skakov (3-0), and Imram Magaramov (4-0) were much earlier in their careers but were undefeated and thought of as good prospects coming into their showdowns with Almabaev. I believe that Asu is more than ready to be brought into the UFC and could probably compete with the top 15-20 guys straight away, and it’s honestly surprising to me that neither he nor fellow Kazakh super-prospect Azat Maksum (15-0) has been signed yet. If for whatever reason this win still doesn’t earn an opportunity for Almabaev there is an incredible fight waiting to be booked in Brave against current #2 flyweight prospect Velimurad Alkhasov (8-1), who is also coming off of a split decision win against Makovsky but back in April 2021.

Makoto Takahashi: Remained #9 prospect

We last saw Takahashi two months ago when he defended his title for Deep with an impressive 3rd-round ninja choke, and at the time I noted that he was a great developmental prospect for any larger organization looking to invest in their flyweight division. He’s moved up three spots in the rankings since then due to the departures of other top prospects and has also turned 22, meaning he is no longer tied for the youngest fighter in the rankings but is still incredibly young for how much experience he has. RIZIN seems to have agreed with my assessment of Takahashi as a prospect as they re-signed him this week after he had previously recorded the first finish of his career with a second-round guillotine of Seiichiro Ito (12-3-2) for Japan’s top show back in 2020. Unfortunately, his opponent this week was much more suited for providing a show for the audience than testing Takahashi’s potential, as Hideo Tokoro (35-30-2) is very well known due to his grappling skills and extensive career but as can be seen by his record he is far from an exceptional talent. In addition, at age 44 he is literally twice as old as Takahashi.

The fight played out exactly how I would have expected, as both fighters are grapplers, but Takahashi is younger and just more talented than his veteran counterpart. Jiu-jitsu is sometimes referred to as physical or kinetic chess and this fight exemplified it, as the action hit the ground early in each round and stayed there until time ran out but was far from boring thanks to the frenetic and wildly flexible scrambles that both men ran through while chasing submissions or better positions. The fighters were both happy to entangle their legs and arms in combinations that I’ve rarely seen before and often ended up in positions that would require me to spend several more years studying BJJ to be able to fully understand. However, what was clear was that Takahashi was typically winning the positions both by ending up in top control and also by inflicting far more damage with his strikes. There was rarely much space to generate leverage, but he connected with hard popping hammerfists to the side of the head, short punches to the body from awkward angles, and a few sneaky grounded knees and one soccer kick to make use of the full range of weapons allowed in Japanese MMA. Makoto also showed impressive creativity in his submission attacks as he frequently twisted his opponent’s arms into unusual and obviously uncomfortable positions either behind the back or off to a side, which typically forced his opponent to scramble and give up whatever technique he was working on. There were a few times that Tokoro went for heel hooks or other leg attacks while in transition and those were the only moments of the fight that Makoto was in danger, but he showed good escape ability and flexibility to roll out of those threats and resume his top control. There were some stretches of less-exciting short shots from guard or half-guard, but they inevitably ended in another scramble, as both grapplers were too skilled to stay trapped for long. Takahashi ended up with a clear decision win and moves to 2-0 with RIZIN and a very impressive 8-win streak overall, so he should be headed to a RIZIN title shot or an even larger organization soon. While this was a good win, his grade and ranking do not improve because he was a massive favorite against a veteran with a style custom-made to give him an exciting but manageable matchup.

Alessandro Costa: Remained #13 prospect

Costa was the first of the three prospects who took part in the first week of this year’s Contender Series, but he gets written up last due to his weight class. He was born in Brazil but has been fighting and living in Mexico, where he earned his way into the rankings back in November with a dominant defense of the LUX Fight League title that saw him finish Kike Gonzalez (10-2) with ground and pound in the third round after extended periods of success on the ground. His DWCS matchup saw Costa square off with another prospect from the Mexican scene in Andres Luna Martinetti (12-0), who obviously has an outstanding record but was much less proven than his opponent and was taking a huge step up in competition. This fight was probably the hardest to predict on the card going into this week and as I expected it ended up being very competitive, but Costa still managed to come away with a decision win. The reach difference between the two fighters ended up being one of the most important factors in the fight, as Costa is listed at 5’4 while Martinetti is supposedly 5’7 but I’m guessing that one or both of those numbers is inaccurate given how much taller and rangier Martinetti looked throughout the fight. Costa was typically the one pushing forward and trying to initiate striking exchanges, but he really struggled to find his range, especially in the first round which was quite slow-paced until the last minute or so. He was throwing lots of leg kicks and also did a good job of throwing his punches in combinations but his opponent just wasn’t there to hit a lot of the time, so he ended up swinging at air, which is never a great look for any fighter. He was definitely landing the more impactful shots in my eyes, especially in round two where he scored a knockdown, but he was unable to follow up on that big moment because his opponent used his reach to tie him up and recover during a grappling exchange. Both fighters were known for their BJJ skills coming into the fight and I was really hoping to see most of the fight take place on the ground, but as we often see with two submission specialists neither wanted to play into each other’s strength and instead the fight was almost entirely a kickboxing match. The one time that Costa did end up in a top position he got swept almost immediately which certainly would have dissuaded him from trying to take the fight back to the mat. Alessandro increased his forward pressure and aggression with each round and was clearly trying to find a way to get a finish, but his opponent was not cooperating and made him miss so frequently that not much damage was ultimately done. I definitely scored it in Costa’s and two of the judges agreed while the other one gave it to Martinetti and made it a split decision win. While this is a great win for him to have on his record as the toughest guy he’s fought to date, Costa’s struggles with the range and total lack of ground success mean that his overall grade didn’t improve at all from the fight, so he remains the #13 prospect. A decision win with lots of big, missed punches and kicks are also not what Dana White is looking for, so he was not signed to a UFC deal. Unlike Turkalj’s case, Costa’s win was not as dominant and there is more depth of flyweight talent around the world so he will probably have to win at least one if not several more fights before he has a chance at a UFC call-up.

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