The Beaten Path: Breaking Down the Next Wave of UFC's Top Prospects
The prospect discussion doesn't center only on the sport's minor leagues. The UFC mill is always generating fresh grist, either from other promotions or its own mechanism, The Ultimate Fighter.
We here at The Beaten Path, well, we're not the bragging types, but we think a lot about prospects and we watch a lot of fights. And that goes for the UFC just as much as any other promotion.
So here are the top prospects already under contract with The Big Show and guaranteed to make a splash in the relatively near future. In the interest of clear definitions, the list is restricted to up-and-coming UFC fighters who haven't yet made it onto a UFC pay-per-view card (TUF notwithstanding) or TV main event.
10. Ali Bagautinov
Record: 10-2 (0-0 UFC)
If you thought Bellator cornered the market on Russian super-prospects, think again. Ali Bagautinov is coming to the UFC straight outta Moscow, and he looks ready to, at a minimum, provide depth to a shallow 125-pound division.
Apparently nicknamed after some cable-forsaken B-movie, "The Puncher King" defended the Fight Nights flyweight belt three times before Zuffa placed their call. The decorated, multidisciplinary grappler hit his stride in 2012, going 5-0 with three stoppages. One interesting wrinkle, though: Fight Nights bouts only last two rounds. As a result, Bagautinov has only gone three rounds once in his career. It was also his last loss.
9. Jumabieke Tuerxun
Record: 14-0 (0-0 UFC)
The undefeated Legend FC champ has knockout chops and submission skills. More importantly to the UFC, he's only the second Chinese fighter they've signed, behind the mediocre-at-best Tiequan Zhang. I imagine they'll have higher hopes for "The Wolf" whenever he debuts.
8. Nikita Krylov
Record: 14-0 (0-0 UFC)
Like Tuerxun, there's good news and bad news with Nikita Krylov. The good news for both is an undefeated record and the ability to satisfy one of the UFC's most talent-hungry areas (China and the heavyweight division, respectively). The bad news is that both records appear quite padded with home cooking.
Krylov has already received his first UFC assignment, a tough draw in veteran power striker Soa Palelei.
7. Brandon Thatch
Record: 9-1 (0-0 UFC)
Brandon Thatch is pure greased lightning, all mohawks and Muay Thai. And he was atop many a prospect list for quite a while there, until the UFC snapped him up in May.
Thatch faces TUF grad Justin Edwards at the very elegantly monikered UFC on Fox Sports 1: 2 in late August.
6. Rustam Khabilov
Record: 16-1 (2-0 UFC)
You may remember Rustam Khabilov from such fights as TKO (Suplices) against Vince Pichel.
He was then a key player in the festival of freak injuries that was UFC 159, when opponent Yancy Medeiros badly dislocated his thumb during a Khabilov takedown attempt. Two eyepokes in other fights led to two no-contest rulings, and of course it all culminated with Jon Jones and The Big Toe of Doom.
5. Conor McGregor
Record: 13-2 (1-0 UFC)
Conor McGregor is a brash young fighter from Ireland who is walking his talk so far in his fledgling UFC career. Perhaps you've heard about some of this. You'll hear even more about it if he beats fellow prospect Max Holloway at UFC on Fox Sports 1: 1.
4. Nik Lentz
Record: 24-5-2-1 (8-2-1-1 UFC)
It has been one heck of a year for Nik Lentz. His career status got a major life transfusion in May, when he blue-collared his way to a decision over more heralded (and older) prospect Hacran Dias. That win followed on the heels of another huge victory, a January W over Diego Nunes.
The Dias decision took Lentz to 3-0 as a featherweight. He may not be scintillating in there, but he's tough as nails and is on a roll. Give the grinder some due.
3. Rony Jason
Record: 13-3 (3-0 UFC)
Put it this way: The mask hasn't become silly yet.
The first winner of TUF Brazil has great power, great endurance and a great skill set. I'm thinking they give him someone serious for his next contest.
2. Gunnar Nelson
Record: 11-0-1 (2-0 UFC)
One of the promotion's very best grapplers had to watch UFC 160 like he was just another unwashed person after an injury forced him off the card. If he does anything to make himself more unwashed, it will need to involve sleeping outside.
A-ha, ah, but seriously, I'd still like to see the young Gunnar Nelson get a top opponent in his next fight. As it is, he hasn't been seriously challenged in quite a while.
1. Khabib Nurmagomedov
Record: 20-0 (4-0 UFC)
The Russian steamroller hasn't really been threatened in his entire career, and that includes his record-setting performance in his last fight, when he established a new Zuffa-era UFC mark for takedowns in a single contest.
So yes, I'd say it's safe to say he's ready for the big time. But he hasn't exactly been splashing around in the baby pool up to this point. He submitted a world-class wrestler in Kamal Shalorus, decisioned Lightweight Incredible Hulk Gleison Tibau, knocked Thiago Tavares cold in front of a pro-Tavares crowd in Brazil, then produced that takedown fest against Abel Trujillo.
Yes, he missed weight against Trujillo. But if you really think that should or will keep him off the pay-per-views, you'll probably need to come up with something better soon.