The MMA machine never stops. Fighters are always getting injured. There is now a major show approximately every three hours. The beast must be fed. The mill must be gristed.
Plus, the fans, they like the next big thing. They want to enter on the ground floor, so they can say they saw the greatness coming at the beginning.
Being the avid fan and acquiescent cog in the sporting superstructure that I am, I understand those compulsions. And I'm here to help. So let me take this opportunity to identify 20 fighters who could be stars very soon.
But first, I would like to distinguish this from a list of out-and-out prospects. Many of these guys belong in both buckets, but this list is not quite as deep of a dive. This can include fighters who are already in the major leagues but haven't quite broken out yet on the big stages.
These guys are also more than good fighters. They bring exciting styles and have that hard-to-pin-down characteristic known as marketability.
It's my belief each of these athletes will either join a top promotion or win a big fight on national TV (or both) within a year.
The well-rounded Russian's hype train took a hit last fall, when his highly anticipated Bellator debut ended in defeat to the highly accomplished, highly grizzled Rich Clementi. He's won two straight since, though, including a submission win over kickboxer Thiago Michel in the quarterfinals of the latest lightweight tournament.
The next order of business should be a new nickname. I mean, I like "Tiger" as much as the next guy, but I think that one might already be taken. It's just a sense that I have.
Division: 125 pounds (I think)
Promotion: Ultimate Blue Corner Battles
I think we all know why Rachel Wray is here. It's not because she knows how to make Beef Wellington out of Steakum and Pillsbury Crescent Rolls. That's a different celebrity. This celebrity is a former NFL cheerleader who is here because she is physically attractive.
Are there better prospects? Yes. And we'll get to that. But until sex stops selling, we must acknowledge the nose on our collective face. This is my noble contribution to that endeavor.
Plus, she's undefeated. Never mind that she won her second fight because the opponent no-showed. Never mind that! She's undefeated, end of discussion.
Promotion: Resurrection Fighting Alliance
Still very young at 21, Bektic hasn't shown any jitters during his climb up the ladder. The aggressive featherweight from Bosnia and Herzegovina has an equally voracious taste for blood on the feet and on the mat.
You know you have big potential if you've only been active for a year before being signed by Bellator. But that will happen when you have the kind of Jonesesque striking of Michael "Venom" Page. Like many European fighters, a solid wrestler could give him problems, but he clearly has a mountain of talent.
Page is set to debut for Bellator on March 21.
Hardcore fans cheered when the former Strikeforce denizen officially joined the UFC. Faced with the prospect of waiting seven whole months to fight, the 23-year-old Mein, a Canadian with extremely sharp standup, decided to keep busy by knocking out Forrest Petz in the Score Fighting Series.
If you like the Korean Zombie, you'll love the "Super Boy," Doo Ho Choi. The fellow Korean featherweight has a delightfully unassuming appearance, but make no mistake: He will knock you silly.
After a quiet 2012, Choi, who is on a seven-fight win streak, faces Tatsunao Nagakura Feb. 16. If he can stay healthy and notch a few wins in 2013, methinks the big show will come calling.
Rustam Khabilov's UFC debut in December doubled as his debut on U.S. soil. I'd say he made the most of it, pulling off a bunch of crazy suplexes to knock out Vinc Pichel by way of slamming.
Though he has a strong pro record, I may be overvaluing him a bit here. His April fight with undefeated wrestler Yancy Medeiros should provide more clarity.
At just 21 years of age, Max Holloway is already 3-1 in the UFC with wins over guys like Leonard Garcia and Justin Lawrence on his record. He's smart, he's likable, he has good endurance and his striking is razor sharp. Should be big things ahead for the young man in a division in need of depth.
Not a bad little UFC debut for the Afghanistan-born Siyar last April. It only took him 42 seconds to pick up a Knockout of the Night check at the expense of Paulo Thiago.
Division: 125 pounds
Jessica "Evil" Eye is on a six-fight win streak and is undefeated so far in Bellator, most recently notching a first-round submission of Zoila Gurgel. The 26-year-old is a well-rounded talent who is already proving to be an approachable, articulate and enthusiastic ambassador of her sport.
Promotion: Resurrection Fighting Alliance
The 2008 Olympian and collegiate champion may be one of the most hyped wrestlers to enter MMA. The kimura submission he landed in November in his first pro fight didn't do anything to tamp that down.
How about some new shorts, though? You don't have to make your own out of old camping tents if you don't want to.
Promotion: Score Fighting Series
Lots of featherweights on this list. Good. The big leagues could use an infusion in that area.
Rick Glenn is only 23 but seems wise beyond his years. He seems confident that he'll get his big shot if he continues winning, but he's not overeager or cocky about it. I share that confidence. The Roufusport team member hasn't lost in his last 10 fights.
Here he is punishing Lyndon Whitlock in his last fight, which took place in December.
Promotion: Vale Tudo Japan
I don't understand the holdup with this guy joining the UFC. The former Tachi Palace Fights champion has bested some of the biggest names in the smallest division, including Mamoru Yamaguchi and Ulysses Gomez. His only losses came to UFC stalwarts Ian McCall and Robbie Peralta.
So why not sign him? This division is as shallow as they come. Why not bolster it with more talent? Dileno Lopes is out there, too. Everyone wrings their hands about who Demetrious Johnson should fight next, but it need not be that way.
Division: Light heavyweight
Jan Blachowicz has been on lists like this for a while. He's approaching Mamed Khalidov or Antonio Braga Neto territory. (Notice neither one of those guys are on the list, by the way...at some point, you have to wonder whether there's a reason these guys are forever poised on the brink but don't or can't make the leap.)
The Polish grappler would be a great addition to Bellator today. He has wins over Sokoudjou, Houston Alexander (pictured) and Christian M'Pumbu. He fights next in March.
Douglas Lima's incredibly brutal leg-kick TKO on Michail Tsarev landed him in the semifinals of Bellator's latest welterweight tourney. If he can get past friend and fellow American Top Teamer Ben Saunders, he'll be one fight away from his dream fight: a rematch with champion Ben Askren.
If anyone in the promotion has a shot at dethroning Askren, for my money, it's Lima.
Promotion: UFC (via Cage Warriors)
If nothing else, this list has bolstered my optimism for a deep featherweight division.
A two-division champion in Cage Warriors, the hard-hitting Conor McGregor was signed by the UFC this week. The UFC's newest member will immediately bring new punch to the shallow 145-pound division. He has also not ruled out a move to lightweight or even welterweight under the Zuffa banner.
Tristar trainee Alex Garcia has all the physical and psychological tools to stand out on the highest stages. After missing more than a year to rehab a torn ACL, Garcia returned in November and won by first-round knockout.
He'll probably have to notch a few more wins, though, before he's considered all the way back. Luckily for him, the mega-talented Garcia is only 25 years old.
Training with welterweights like Rory MacDonald and Georges St-Pierre can't be hurting his cause, either. Once he gets those wins, and I think he will this year, he should be poised for a quick promotion.
Division: Light heavyweight
Promotion: World Series of Fighting
Tyrone Spong is not "The King of the Ring" for nothing. Before moving to MMA, he was an all-world kick fighter (still is, as a matter of fact).
If he can do in his next bout something along the lines of what he did in his first—a dominant first-round knockout—he could find himself on pay-per-view sooner rather than later.
I'm still wincing over that late stoppage against Marius Zaromskis. Referee inanity aside, though, the Alexander Shlemenko protege is now a Bellator tournament winner and is in line to challenge for Ben Askren's belt.
He has a strong grappling background in the form of pankration, and his striking is hard to stop. Will Askren smother him as he has Lima and so many others?
We shall see. And I shall be watching.
Man. These Russians are taking over.
If you read my prospect list, you know how high I am on Vitaly Minakov, and thus it shouldn't surprise you to find him here.
In his Bellator debut in November, Minakov did what he always does: crush a man with his bare hands. He is a champion in both sambo and judo competitions, and not surprisingly the ground is where he does most of his work. But he has bunker busters in his gloves, too.
Bottom line: this man is scary. Run before his bloodlust returns. It seems like just a matter of time until he challenges new belt holder Alexander Volkov for the strap. After he wins that, who knows?
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