The Beaten Path: The Top 25 MMA Prospects for 2014, Part 2

Scott HarrisMMA Lead WriterJanuary 16, 2014

The Beaten Path: The Top 25 MMA Prospects for 2014, Part 2

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    Women's bantamweight fighter Holly Holm
    Women's bantamweight fighter Holly HolmAlbert E. Rodriguez/Getty

    On Monday, we experienced Part 1 of The Beaten Path's top 25 MMA prospects of 2014. And it was good. 

    Now it gets gooder. From No. 12 all the way to the top overall prospect of the year, we are strapped in and ready for lift-off.

    As a reminder, any current or former UFC signee is ineligible, as are Bellator tournament competitors. The word "prospect" means "someone who is likely to succeed or be chosen," and that's our guideline. We look for fighters, young in age and to the sport alike, who have a chance to do big things. 

    Additionally, this is a no-repeat list. So as noted in Part 1, no one from the 2013 list is eligible this year.

    Finally, is this a definitive list? Yes, it is. Is it possible we left people off or got the order wrong? Nope. But if you can't suppress the urge to kid yourself, go ahead and vent it out in the comments. I don't want you carrying that vitriol around with you. Let's get it on.

12. Tyrone Spong

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    Division: Light heavyweight
    Promotion: World Series of Fighting
    Record: 2-0
    Age: 28
    Country: Suriname

    Tyrone Spong is Bo Jackson if Bo Jackson broke heads instead of tackles. Being one of the best kickboxers in the world wasn't enough for Spong. He had to go after MMA and, now, pro boxing.  

    Spong doesn't just have K-1 level striking. He is K-1 level striking. Very few people can mix the accuracy, power and diversity that he can. He possesses great balance, too; it seems almost impossible to catch him off guard or out of position. He's also patient, which as any cat burglar can tell you is sometimes the most potent weapon of all.

    He clocks in at No. 12 because his grappling and takedown defense are still in development, although his defense looked solid against Angel DeAnda. And to date, he's only fought twice—against two of the tomatoeyest tomato cans to ever tomato can. 

    But the road is wide open for Spong. It's possible he could become some kind of triple-headed combat sports monstrosity. He gives people a good reason to watch WSOF, that's for sure. Although there are other reasons, too. We'll get to those.

11. Volkan Oezdemir

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    Division: Heavyweight/light heavyweight
    Promotion: Bellator
    Record: 10-0
    Age: 24
    Country: Switzerland

    Every list needs a curveball. A little flier to keep people on their toes. Here's mine. 

    So why is Volkan Oezdemir here? I'll tell you why he is here. He is here because he is a beast. 

    He isn't going to scare anyone with his size, but his stockiness is a big help to him inside the cage. He's also deceptively strong, and taken together it all makes him tough to move around in there. His shape and strength give him an edge in the clinch, where he can dirty it up with the best of them. 

    Don't get anything twisted, though; Oezdemir is an athletic fighter with muay thai and jiu-jitsu chops. And the man loves his fireworks. None of his opponents has ever reached the final horn; eight of them have fallen to knockouts.

    The guy just tears everyone apart. It's almost not even fun to watch. And he does it all without changing his expression. I'm a sucker for guys like that: stone-faced and stone-cold.

    Just wait. Oezdemir may not have the name recognition, and his highlight reel isn't very long yet, but watch him mow through the next Bellator light heavyweight tourney. He will be to Switzerland what Alexander Gustafsson is to Sweden.

10. Cathal Pendred

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    Division: Welterweight
    Promotion: Cage Warriors
    Record: 13-2
    Age: 26
    Country: Ireland

    Call him Captain Ireland.

    Who says Europeans can't wrestle? Cathal Pendred has the clinch game, takedowns, ground-and-pound, dirty boxing and blue-collar fortitude to play road grader on just about anyone. Hell, he even looks like Randy Couture.

    Maybe the name and game aren't as Vegas as teammate Conor McGregor's, but one wonders whether Pendred wouldn't prove more sustainable in the UFC, where wrestling trades at a premium.

    One also strokes one's beard when considering why Dana White and company haven't snapped up the Cage Warriors welterweight champ, especially after he handled top guys like Bruno Carvalho and UFC vet Che Mills.

    Ah, no biggie. Pendred is a cast member on the next season of The Ultimate Fighter. Here's guessing he takes matters into his own hands.  

9. Alexandre Pantoja

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    Division: Flyweight
    Promotion: Shooto Brazil
    Record: 14-2
    Age: 23
    Country: Brazil

    At first glance, there's no tremendous "wow" factor with Alexandre Pantoja. Particularly when he's compared with Nova Uniao teammates like Jose Aldo and Renan Barao, who move like dancers and attack like horror-movie surgeons.

    Nevertheless, he is one frightening dude. He is a little flat-footed with his striking and tends to airmail his punches sometimes. But those sorts of concerns tend to fade a bit when your muay thai can backpedal a Mack truck.

    As far as grappling, he has a natural (or at least natural-seeming) sprawl. Some guys are just hard to take down when they don't wish it. Pantoja is one of those guys. He knows what he's doing on the ground and can and will hunt for limbs, but his recent taps are more of the Donald-Cerrone-style, knock-you-down-and-choke-you-out brand of submission. 

    Watch him empty his bag of tricks in this fight against a tough opponent in Lincoln de Sa.

8. Goiti Yamauchi

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    Division: Featherweight
    Promotion: Bellator
    Record: 16-1
    Age: 21
    Country: Brazil

    I struggled with Goiti Yamauchi's placement. He could have been higher.

    In his last bout (his second for Bellator, though he has yet to see a tourney), the Japanese-Brazilian pulled the upset on 13-4 Saul Almeida. He also missed weight; he has to fix that. But who am I kidding? I can't stay mad at you, Goiti Yamauchi.

    Casual fans who caught the Almeida fight might assume he's a knockout artist, and while he clearly has power and technique in that phase, jiu-jitsu is his true stock in trade. He is relentless on the ground and has outstanding escapability. One moment he seems compromised; the next, the other guy's tapping.

    I don't remember the last time I saw such a slick, well-developed 21-year-old. Assuming the weight issue is not a long-term stumbling block, he should storm through the next featherweight tournament.

7. Jim Alers

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    Division: Featherweight
    Promotion: Cage Warriors
    Record: 12-1
    Age: 27
    Country: United States

    The shredded Floridian straight out of Elite Featherweight Central Casting is getting better every time he fights. His second title defense—a dominant win over Graham Turner at Cage Warriors 63—was pure masterwork.

    What makes the difference for Alers is a combination of quickness, strength and skill that he plies with what seems like very little effort. Watching him fight, you get the impression he wouldn't be opposed to throwing the clock out the window.

    Now riding an eight-fight win streak, he has said more than once he could beat most UFC featherweights. And you know what? I believe him. 

6. Aljamain Sterling

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    Division: Bantamweight
    Promotion: Cage Fury Fighting Championships
    Record: 8-0
    Age: 24
    Country: United States

    Thanks to Chris Weidman, the Serra-Longo Fight Team is enjoying a surge in notoriety. It will get another turbo boost when its newest big charge, Aljamain Sterling, finally breaks out.  

    The two-time Division III national wrestling champion has a strong base. Unlike other wrestlers, though, he's not uncomfortable fighting from his back. In fact, when the action hits the mat, he seems liable to make a balloon animal out of just about any opponent, no matter the situation.

    The ambitious bantamweight probably saw himself in the UFC by now, but a shoulder injury sidelined him for more than a year. He returned in November and picked up right where he left off, namely a win by rear-naked choke. 

    Nothing against Cage Fury, but Sterling needs a bump up in competition. And it's hard to know what the year holds for him; the UFC could sign him next week. But it's more likely he'll spend the year (hopefully) staying healthy and busy in the minor leagues, be it with Cage Fury, another promotion or some combination.

    The UFC likes to see a fighter pack some padding onto his or her record before they take a serious look. A 3-0 or even 4-0 2014 would position Sterling well for the big jump. 

5. Henry Cejudo

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    Division: Flyweight
    Promotion: Legacy Fighting Championships
    Record: 5-0
    Age: 26
    Country: United States

    Yes, he's only 5-0. Would it sweeten the pot if I told you it all happened in 2013?

    Before Henry Cejudo turned pro, all he did was grab a gold medal for the U.S. Olympic wrestling team in 2008. And it was freestyle wrestling to boot, a style that allows its practitioners to be more creative with takedowns, and as such translates very nicely to the cage.

    Speaking of which, in a pure MMA context, it's not his wrestling that turns heads in a highlight reel. It's his heavy right hand, which he used to finish his first four fights in the opening round. That sort of power can be a selling point in and of itself, especially in the power-deficient flyweight division.

    At this point in his career, Cejudo is not what you'd call silky smooth. At times, you can almost see the thought balloon pop up over his head. But when you're as gifted as Cejudo, it's bound to get easier, and he's really fun to watch in any event.

    On top of all that, he's an easy fellow to root for. Try to find a reason to dislike a guy who donates a portion of every fight purse to the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

4. Thomas De Almeida

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    Division: Bantamweight
    Promotion: Legacy Fighting Championships
    Record: 15-0
    Age: 22
    Country: Brazil

    Be afraid, all ye bantamweights. Be very afraid. Thomas de Almeida is coming.

    He has 11 knockouts to his name, most recently over well-regarded George Pacurariu at Legacy FC 26 in December (which closed out a perfect 4-0 run for 2013). He has four submission wins as well. That's right: All 15 of his wins were stoppages. In fact, he's only left the first round once. One time.

    Part of that finisher's instinct flows from his training headquarters, a little outfit known as Chute Boxe. The vale tudo bastion may not be what it once was, but apparently it still knows how to make a killer.

    Like many Brazilian fighters these days, Almeida sets the table with leg and body kicks but always seems eager to throw the show-stopper. He can cue the music with just one punch and stalks opponents down like a mini-Wanderlei, even if his fury is somewhat more controlled. And he has shown he doesn't just dish it out. In this video, he shakes off some heavy stuff from brawler Cody Williams.  

    His ground game, especially against better competition, is a bit of a question mark. But if he keeps sending everyone to the showers before they can even try to test him, it's a bit of a moot point.

3. Marlon Moraes

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    Division: Bantamweight
    Promotion: World Series of Fighting
    Record: 12-4
    Age: 25
    Country: Brazil

    Marlon Moraes is a fighter in full. He's battle-tested, he's one of the world's best talents not yet claimed by the UFC or Bellator, and he's at the head of a deep group of bantamweight prospects here in 2014.

    He's also violent. Not violent like, say, a gorilla, which clubs you into a heap in the corner. More like a wolverine or a badger or a wood chipper. In other words, he doesn't have that KO hammer he can swing once to end a fight. But he does have fists, elbows, feet, knees, partridges and pear trees that he can fling toward opponents in dizzying permutations—all while remaining very hard to hit. It might take some time, but Moraes will chew you up. 

    Sure, he's a striker first, but his jiu-jitsu and defensive grappling have come a long way since he lost two straight by submission back in 2011. 

    Moraes' record isn't gaudy, but he's taking big leaps forward every time. He should become WSOF's first 135-pound champ in his next fight, and who knows what will happen from there. It's hard to put a ceiling on him right now. 

2. Justin Gaethje

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    Division: Lightweight
    Promotion: World Series of Fighting
    Record: 10-0
    Age: 25
    Country: United States

    He's a lightweight, but so much about Justin Gaethje's game evokes something very, very heavy.

    The takedowns are heavy. He has slams, which by definition are usually pretty heavy. His punches are heavy. And his kicks are heavy. His walkout music should just be a collection of large trees and boulders hitting the ground from high altitude. His nickname should be "Thud."

    And lest you think I'm exaggerating, look at the broken trail of those who would oppose him, and the diversity of ways in which he dispatched them. Look at the blood he squeezed out of Strikeforce vet Gesias Cavalcante, like he was just another piece of breakfast fruit. Look at the leg-kick TKO he notched against Brian Cobb. Look at the clean KO he scored in his last bout at the expense of UFC alumnus Dan Lauzon.

    Look at the Rampage Jackson comparisons he has garnered by virtue of his slams (he does have one slam KO on his resume). When was the last time you heard a lightweight prospect compared with a UFC light heavyweight champion? Never, is when it was. 

    We'll see how he does on Saturday when he faces Rich Patishnock for the inaugural WSOF lightweight strap. Methinks we will see that he will do good. And after that, it can't be much farther to the octagon. All those heavy skills are dangerous, crowd-pleasing things. And he has the will to impose them without regard for his opponent. Thud.

1. Holly Holm

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    Division: Women's bantamweight
    Promotion: Legacy Fighting Championships
    Record: 6-0
    Age: 32
    Country: United States

    All right, all right. Simmer down, now. Take a seat. Let's talk about this a little bit.

    Yes, I do realize she's a woman. And I also realize she's only six fights into her pro career at the age of 32. I also realize she's a converted boxer with no discernible ground game. And I also realize she has not, as UFC president Dana White noted, "fought anybody."

    But she's still the top MMA prospect out there, man, woman, insect or echinoderm. Notice that White never said he wouldn't sign her or that she wasn't a top prospect. All he did was offer a piece of gamesmanship by observing that she wasn't UFC material yet.  

    And he's right, for now. But make no mistake: She will be, and sooner than some people suspect. She's a pure force of nature, which is probably why queen bee Ronda Rousey, who I hear tell enjoys a challenge, didn't hesitate recently when asked whether she wanted Holm in the octagon (she does).

    So what makes the preacher's daughter from New Mexico the top prospect in mixed martial arts? Follow me to the blackboard.

    First, she's a multi-time, multi-division boxing champion. It's important to mention that. That sort of thing doesn't just happen. You can see her elite skills, top-notch athleticism and decidedly tiger-like eye whenever she steps in and takes that hard-to-handle southpaw stance. She is an elite fighter right now if she never dons another glove.

    Second, knockout ability is a rare and precious commodity, particularly in women's MMA. And Holm has it, as evidenced by the fact that five of the wins on her MMA record (not to mention nine boxing victories) came in that manner. It's not pure power, per se, but it does exist in the form of accuracy and combinations. It's like a gold prospector with X-ray vision. It's a special gift; there's no way it can't be an advantage. No one's going to knock the X-ray vision prospector for having poor pan-sifting technique. 

    Third, she has a very important weapon, located right in her hometown. It's called Jackson-Winkeljohn. And she couldn't be in better hands. It's a thinking person's fight camp. Here's guessing they will not only coach her up on grappling and all the other missing parts of her MMA game but will tailor a path to success based on her unique skills, weaknesses and tendencies. No camp does that better. 

    Fourth, combat specialists occupy a different space in the women's game. Just ask Rousey. Again, this traces back to its newness. The women's game is even newer than the men's game, and as such, it is still drawing talent from more long-established sports. Boxing is one of them; judo is another. Because of WMMA's relatively nascent state, specialists—and the deficiencies they sometimes bring into the cage—are still OK. And besides Rousey, there's no more well-honed specialist in the sport than Holm.

    For my fifth and final reason, allow me to draw a sports parallel that moves outside MMA. Holm is the 2013-14 Florida State Seminoles.

    All season long, critics asked: Who have they played? What have they done? And all season long, the 'Noles rolled, crushing their opponents by an average of something like 77-3. When the title game finally came, plenty of people didn't think FSU had done enough to be there. They expected the higher-pedigreed, better-seasoned Auburn team to take an easy championship.

    As we know, it didn't happen that way. The Seminoles won, showing that sometimes just being good trumps things like strength of schedule. 

    So there you have it. This is your top MMA prospect for 2014. Sit back, watch the blood fly, enjoy Holm's ride to the top and say you were there back when. 

     

    Scott Harris writes about MMA for Bleacher Report. In particular, he likes to cover the MMA prospect arena through The Beaten Path prospect series. Please feel free to follow him on Twitter, or you can just leave the nasty comment in the comments section. Plenty of options, you know?