25 and Under: The Top 30 Young Guns in MMA

Nathan McCarterFeatured ColumnistFebruary 16, 2017

25 and Under: The Top 30 Young Guns in MMA

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    If you look around the MMA world today, you'll notice a lot of talented fighters, but how many of those fighters are under 30? Fewer than one may think.

    How many are under 25? Even fewer.

    We are here to identify the 25-and-under crowd in each of the major divisions across mixed martial arts today. Twelve divisions with at least one fighter are highlighted. Some choices are obvious. Hint: a current UFC champion whose face is plastered at the top here. Others, not so much.

    So who are the men and women working their way up the ladder? Mosey on through as we peek at some of the best talents who aren't yet older than a quarter century.

Atomweight

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    Esther Lin/Invicta FC

    Tatiane Damiana Bergamaschi (25 years old, 6-1)

    Bergamaschi is currently ranked No. 9 in the world by MMARising.com. What she truly lacks is experience against top-flight competition. She has failed to compete under the Invicta banner. Bergamaschi is coming off a loss to 21-year-old Bianca Sattelmayer, who fails to make the list due to a 7-7 professional record.

    Bergamaschi will, sooner or later, have to prove herself against top-flight competition. But first she needs to get back in the cage and rebound from a tough loss.

     

    Kanako Murata (23 years old, 4-1)

    Murata had her unbeaten streak snapped at Rizin Fighting's grand prix in December. She met Rin Nakai at flyweight; that's not her weight class, and it showed. Nakai had a significant strength advantage over the youngster. At her natural weight, Murata has promise.

     

    Herica Tiburcio (24 years old, 10-4)

    Tiburcio just turned 24 in January, and she has already ascended to the top of the sport once. She knocked off Michelle Waterson, now a contender in the UFC's strawweight division, in late 2014. Two tough losses in Invicta saw her stock drop a bit, but she rebounded at Invicta FC 20 with a win over Simona Soukupova.

    The Brazilian has all of the skills to recapture the belt from Ayaka Hamasaki and all the charm to be a star in the division.

Strawweight

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    Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

    Jessica Andrade (25 years old, 16-5)

    If there was one no-brainer for this division, it was Andrade. She is the next title contender at 115 pounds and has the tools to knock off Joanna Jedrzejczyk. Andrade has been a beast since dropping to strawweight. Well-rounded skills mixed with ruthless aggression has sent her up the ranks quickly.

    There are no surprises here. Andrade is obviously the best of the 25-and-under crowd and perhaps best in the world. We'll find out in her next fight.

     

    Rose Namajunas (24 years old, 5-3)

    Putting Namajunas on this list was difficult. Strawweight has a couple of other quality youths on the scene, such as Maryna Moroz and Alexa Grasso, but it's hard to deny the raw talent of Namajunas. She doesn't have a bad loss on her record, but she needs more consistency to reach the potential everyone sees in her.

    Namajunas has a good striking attack and quality submissions. Tightening up her defense in both those areas is a must. She can sometimes be a victim to wrestling or get drawn into wild striking exchanges that she may lose. Regardless, she's still one of the sport's brightest prospects.

     

    Livia Renata Souza (25 years old, 9-1)

    Similar to Herica Tiburcio, Souza has already captured a major title. That's what gives her the nod over UFC stars such as Grasso here. Souza looked to be one of the best in the world, but Angela Hill edged her out in their title tilt last year.

    Souza should really be in the UFC. She's exceptionally talented and endlessly exciting.

Men's Flyweight

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    Ray Borg (23 years old, 10-2)

    Borg makes the list due to his skills, but the biggest detractor in his way is his weight. He has missed weight in two of his last three attempts. John Lineker was forced to move up to bantamweight for similar reasons. Borg needs to make weight again or suffer the same result.

    And it would be a shame if he can't. Borg is truly an exciting fighter and possible fresh title contender. At bantamweight? His ceiling is certainly not that high.

     

    Brandon Moreno (23 years old, 13-3)

    Moreno burst onto the scene with a stunning upset over Louis Smolka. He returned to edge out Ryan Benoit. Those back-to-back performances make him an exciting fighter to watch in 2017. The flyweight talent pool isn't plentiful, and another big win or two could see him standing opposite from the champion.

     

    Louis Smolka (25 years old, 11-3)

    Smolka is on a two-fight losing streak after quickly and quietly becoming a potential contender. Those two losses? To both Borg and Moreno. Smolka still has the skills to reclaim his position among the best at flyweight, but finding that confidence and consistency will be difficult after the most recent performances.

Women's Flyweight

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    Scott Hirano/Invicta FC

    Ariane Lipski (23 years old, 8-3)

    Dear UFC, add a 125-pound division and sign her immediately. Ariane Lipski could potentially lead that division sooner rather than later. She's on a six-fight win streak including victories over Juliana Werner in Imortal FC and Sheila Gaff in KSW. Both TKO performances.

    If both the UFC and Bellator launch a flyweight division in 2017 expect Lipski to benefit from a bidding war.

     

    Agnieszka Niedzwiedz (21 years old, 9-0)

    The undefeated prospect made a name for herself in her Invicta FC debut with a win over Christine Stanley. It was only her second decision win in her career. She brings it.

    Stanley isn't the top end of the division, but the power and experience she brought into the cage were significant challenges for a young fighter stepping up in competition. And she passed. Niedzwiedz joins Joanna Jedrzejczyk and Karolina Kowalkiewicz as elite Polish women fighters.

    Just like Lipski, Niedzwiedz would be a commodity on the flyweight market if that division heats up this year.

Men's Bantamweight

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    Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

    Thomas Almeida (25 years old, 21-1)

    Bantamweight was a fairly easily division to identify the top talent of this age group. Let's start with Almeida, who just ruthlessly beat Albert Morales. That, of course, came after dropping a fight to the now champion, who we'll meet in a second.

    Almeida has been identified as a top prospect for some time, and entering the next stage of his career is all about what he learned from his lone loss. All of the tools are there, but addressing how his style matches up with the elite of the division will be telling of how far he can go.

     

    Cody Garbrandt (25 years old, 11-0)

    If there was a single shoe-in for this list, it would be this man. The man who beat Almeida and is now the king of the division? Cody Garbrandt. We certainly can't leave him out.

    Garbrandt jumped the line a bit to earn the title shot, but no one can deny him the performance he had in beating Dominick Cruz. Garbrandt put it on the former champion like no one before to claim the title. He's undefeated and a star in the making.

    Now he has the target on his back. It should be a fun ride to watch him defend his gold.

     

    Steve Garcia (24 years old, 7-1)

    Perhaps this is a surprise pick, but Bellator's Steve Garcia deserves a nod. Garcia is not on the level of the prior two who were mentioned, but 5-1 in the Bellator cage is nothing to sniff at. He returns in March for a fight against Joe Taimanglo.

    The spotlight Almeida and Garbrandt command can alter the perception of other young fighters. But don't get it twisted. Garcia is only 24 with a long career ahead of him if he continually improves. The Jackson's MMA bantamweight is deserving of keeping tabs on.

Women's Bantamweight

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    Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

    Aspen Ladd (21 years old, 5-0)

    Of the 25-and-younger crowd, Aspen Ladd has probably nabbed the most headlines. The biggest struggle may be her athletic shortcomings. Ladd lacks the athleticism we have seen at the upper echelon of the sport, but that can be overcome as we have seen in the past. Ladd has the technical acumen to upend better athletes.

    Ladd's technique is her saving grace and what makes her a joy to watch. She is intelligent and methodical. All five of her pro fights have been in Invicta FC with an increasing level of difficulty. She's being booked intelligently.

    It's easy to forget she's only 21. There's no need to rush her as her development as a fighter continues.

     

    Veronica Macedo (21 years old, 5-1-1)

    Selecting Macedo was a hard decision. She would probably benefit from a flyweight division as well, but given her record, performances and the state of the women's bantamweight division...here she is. Macedo was outgunned against Ashlee Evans-Smith, but she did well enough early in the fight. Standing at only 5'3", she'll struggle against the larger women.

     

    Ketlen Vieira (25 years old, 7-0)

    Vieira squeaked by Kelly Faszholz in her Octagon debut, but a win is a win. Vieira is part of the Nova Uniao camp that produced Jose Aldo and Renan Barao. There's no doubt she's getting excellent training.

    Like many others in the UFC, she's not booked for another fight yet. That's very disappointing. We need to see more from Vieira to gauge her overall level against veteran bantamweights. As the division shifts around post-Ronda Rousey and with the featherweight division, and even possibly a flyweight division, Vieira's presence will be needed.

Featherweight

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    Doo Ho Choi (25 years old, 14-2)

    Choi is coming off a Fight of the Year contender against Cub Swanson. "The Korean Superboy" provided fans with everything they could have wanted in that fight. That type of firefight can change a fighter, and until we see him in action again, it's difficult to project where he lands.

    Choi has the tools to make a run at the gold if the battle with Swanson didn't diminish him physically. If he returns on form, with the experience of fighting a top-end fighter under his belt, we could see the best yet from the Korean star.

     

    Max Holloway (25 years old, 17-3)

    He is the current interim champion who will attempt to unify the belts against Jose Aldo in a few months in Brazil.

    Holloway was not on the radars of most fans or pundits when he initially joined the UFC. He lost to Dustin Poirier and then, after three straight victories, dropped another bout to Dennis Bermudez. It wasn't until a fight with Conor McGregor when everyone started to truly take stock of Holloway's upside. He lost that fight but made McGregor work more than anyone else ever has inside the Octagon.

    Since that fight, Holloway has won 10 straight and continues to look more and more impressive.

     

    Yair Rodriguez (24 years old, 10-1)

    The ascent of Yair Rodriguez continued with an absolute soul-crushing performance against BJ Penn. The former two-division champion had nothing for Rodriguez earlier in 2017. While some focus had to be on Penn being past his prime, it's not likely an in-prime Penn would have much for Rodriguez.

    He's that good.

    Next for Rodriguez must be a colossal jump in competition, which sounds odd coming off a win over Penn, but it's the truth. Rodriguez could vault himself into a title shot by the end of 2017 if his performances continue to be as impressive as they were in January.

Lightweight

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    Islam Makhachev (25 years old, 14-1)

    Makhachev picked up his second straight win at UFC 208 over Nik Lentz. The combat sambo champion brings in a wealth of skills. Missing? A bit of excitement. Unfortunately, MMA isn't a pure sporting environment. A 14-1 record while being only mildly entertaining won't move a fighter up the ranks quickly.

    But perhaps that's good for Makhachev, who still needs simmering in the Crock-Pot of the lightweight division. He could do worse than getting his training at American Kickboxing Academy with Khabib Nurmagomedov and Daniel Cormier. He'll be fine, but if he can just turn in a few exciting performances, we'd hear his name called a lot more.

     

    Kevin Lee (24 years old, 14-2)

    Kevin Lee returns to the cage in March against Francisco Trinaldo. It will be a good opportunity for him to potentially earn a number on the left side of his name.

    Lee is a prospect the UFC can promote. Unlike Makhachev, Lee is marketable at this point. He isn't afraid to do a little self-promotion, and he backs it up in the cage with his performances.

     

    Lando Vannata (24 years old, 9-1)

    A short-notice replacement fight against Tony Ferguson took Lando Vannata from obscurity to being the "it" guy in the division. He kept that train rolling forward with his wheel kick KO over John Makdessi at UFC 206.

    Vannata gave Ferguson all he wanted and more. Considering it was on short notice, Vannata made a real claim he is one of the best in the world already. Now he just needs a few more wins to prove that point. If he can do so by keeping the entertainment level up, Vannata will become a staple in the division as a contender.

    Jackson's MMA has another possible title contender on their hands with Vannata.

Welterweight

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    Albert Tumenov (left) and Leon Edwards (right) battled it out in 2016. Edwards won via third-round submission.
    Albert Tumenov (left) and Leon Edwards (right) battled it out in 2016. Edwards won via third-round submission.Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

    Vicente Luque (25 years old, 11-5-1)

    Welterweight has a good core of 25-and-under fighters, but they don't have a lot of marketability. The top 25-and-under star that does is probably Mickey Gall, but he's not quite breaking into the top three just yet. Although he's close.

    A more proven commodity like Vicente Luque is impeding his progress. Luque is on a four-fight, four-finish win streak. He has continually looked impressive since losing on The Ultimate Fighter: American Top Team vs. Blackzilians finale. Luque could end up with a top-15 fight in 2017 if the performances continue.

     

    Leon Edwards (25 years old, 12-3)

    Leon Edwards was supposed to be a good, but manageable, test for rising prospect Albert Tumenov. But Edwards had other plans. He submitted Tumenov and continued his own rise through the ranks.

    Next up? Edwards will fight Luque in March. That fight has unexpectedly large implications on the division. It's a battle between two of the best young guns in the 170-pound division.

     

    Albert Tumenov (25 years old, 17-4)

    Regardless of the loss to Edwards, Tumenov is still the class of the 25-and-under crowd. Tumenov looks the part of a true contender if he can improve his ground game. It's his biggest flaw and a critical one.

    On the feet, however, Tumenov can bang with the best. Slick and technical. He ousted Alan Jouban, who's now getting a big fight against Gunnar Nelson, in less than two minutes. If Tumenov can get back in the win column, his ride to key welterweight contests will be short. The UFC needs him.

Middleweight

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    Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

    Kelvin Gastelum (25 years old, 13-2)

    Gastelum probably would have been on the welterweight portion if he could make the weight, but he couldn't. Thus, he moved to 185 pounds reluctantly, and he performed just as good if not better. Gastelum is 3-0 in the middleweight division with wins over Uriah Hall, Nate Marquardt and Tim Kennedy.

    He's a contender now.

    And that's something the UFC needs. The middleweight division has long been long in the tooth. Robert Whittaker's comeuppance has been a godsend along with Derek Brunson moving up the ranks. Now Gastelum helps inject a bit more new blood into the division.

    The Ultimate Fighter winner is the lone bright spot of the middleweight division. Here's to hoping more youngsters present themselves or else the division may be in a tight spot sooner rather than later.

Light Heavyweight

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    Nikita Krylov (24 years old, 21-5)

    The light heavyweight division is a dumpster fire. It's old, tired and not getting much better.

    One of the only bright spots is Nikita Krylov, who has a long way to go before becoming a contender of any sort. In his last outing, he lost to Misha Cirkunov. And the UFC is letting Cirkunov walk (h/t MMA Mania). This leaves Krylov as one of their only prospects.

    At least Krylov is exciting. None of his nine UFC contests have gone to the scorecards. One way or another, the fight ends before the bell.

    For the sake of the light heavyweight division as a whole, let's hope Krylov rebounds in 2017.

Heavyweight

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    Luis Henrique (23 years old, 10-2 [1 NC])

    It feels a little depressing ending the list with three straight divisions with a lack of 25-and-under prospects, but that's the state of the sport. Luis Henrique may be best known for welcoming Francis Ngannou to the UFC in late 2015. That's not a great thing to remember if you're Henrique.

    Since then he has picked up two straight wins by way of submission.

     

    Curtis Blaydes (25 years old, 7-1)

    Blaydes also fell at the hands of Ngannou, and he too has picked up back-to-back wins. Ultimately, the difference is Blaydes seemingly has a higher ceiling. His last outing, against Adam Milstead, was very good. He ragdolled the heavyweight en route to a TKO finish.

    The current state of the division should show everyone that Blaydes has time to become an elite heavyweight. There's no rush. Hopefully the UFC matchmakers feel the same. Blaydes is still working on his stand-up and submissions, but his wrestling is currently the bread and butter.

    It's possible the UFC has an unassuming title contender on its hands with Blaydes.