The 20 Best Fighters You've Never Heard of

Scott Harris@ScottHarrisMMAMMA Lead WriterFebruary 15, 2012

The 20 Best Fighters You've Never Heard of

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    Sometimes it's easy to forget that MMA goes beyond the main event. It may be hard to believe sometimes, but it goes beyond the UFC, too. And sure, Dana White and company are successfully pushing in a global direction. But the larger sport is already there.

    So there are lots of rocks to turn over. Lots of diamonds in the rough. Here are the sport's 20 best fighters currently living below the radar. Some are going to be known--perhaps even well known--to the hardcore devotee. Some names may be new to even the most ardent discussion board warrior. But all are strangers to the big marquee, and all could one day be there.

    Pay attention to these names, mark them down and impress your friends some day.  

20. Brandon Bender

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    The undefeated Californian has seven wins by submission. He's bounced around quite a bit, not yet fighting more than twice in the same promotion. That could change soon.

    (Photo: Tapology)

19. Brock Jardine

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    Move over, Dean of Mean. Meet The Machine. He's the new Jardine.

    The former college wrestler trains under John Hackleman and with Court McGee at The Pit Elevated in Utah. 

18. Yuri Villefort

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    Villefort was set to debut in Strikeforce last year before being sidelined by injury. He'll be out for a while, but he'll also be back. 

17. Antonio Braga Neto

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    Light heavyweight

    The jiu-jitsu black belt defeated Maiquel Falcao in his last outing. He recently dropped down to middleweight.

16. Siyar Bahadurzada

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    The former Shooto light heavyweight champ signed with the UFC in September; he'll compete there at 170. Barring something unforeseen, Paulo Thiago will welcome Siyar The Great to the Octagon in April.

    (Photo: FC Fighter)

15. Brandon Thatch

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    All six of his wins came by first-round stoppage. Five of them came by way of Thatch's nasty kickboxing. Three of them came in less than 20 seconds.

    Thatch, a Colorado native, apparently has a magnetic personal style to match his fighting style


14. Pascal Krauss

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    The well-rounded German's UFC debut--a win over Mark Scanlon at UFC 122--doubled as his first Fight of the Night-winning performance. Problem is, he hasn't fought since, and that was 15 months ago. He's scheduled to rebreak the UFC ice this May against John Hathaway

13. Fabricio "Guerreiro" De Assis Costa Da Silva

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    This rangy and highly ranked prospect hits hard and fights to finish. The Brazilian hasn't ventured far past the MMA hinterlands, but if he keeps winning he'll have to seek greener pastures sooner or later.   

12. Vyacheslav Vasilevsky

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    Light Heavyweigh

    M-1 Global's light heavyweight champion is one of the brightest prospects coming out of Europe. On March 9, he makes his stateside debut when he faces Victor O'Donnell at Bellator LX. 

    At a mere 23 years old, Vasilevsky holds a three-year winning streak. He can pretty much finish you any time, anywhere.

11. Nick Denis

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    Please! A round of applause for "The Ninja of Love."

    The owner of MMA's greatest nickname turned plenty of heads a few weeks ago when, in his UFC debut, he needed barely 20 seconds to fully skeletonize Joseph Sandoval.  

10. Ronny Markes

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    Light heavyweight/Middleweight

    Markes only just made his UFC debut, but in his last two beat Paulo Filho and Karlos Vemola. Now he's dropping to 185 to face Aaron Simpson next week. What I say is, if he beats Simpson, give him a bump up in competition. A big bump. 

9. Gunnar Nelson

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    This undefeated Icelandic welterweight took a break from the sport to train for the 2011 ADCC championships, where he performed well despite not bringing home any hardware.

    The 23-year-old is expected to resume his MMA career next month at Cage Contender XII. Hopefully a return to BAMMA, and perhaps even greener pasture, is not far off.

8. Alexander Shlemenko

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    He's fairly familiar to serious fans, but outside that bubble, he's entirely anonymous.

    And that's unfortunate, because the sleek Russian with the made-up-sounding name is truly a fight fan's fighter. He just gets in there and throws the kitchen sink. Still only 27, he's fresh off winning Bellator's 2011 middleweight tourney.

7. Mamoru Yamaguchi

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    The Illest Afro in Asia is also the B.J. Penn of the flyweight division.

    Just last May, at age 33, the former Shooto champion at 125 and 135 pounds was mounted atop a six-fight winning streak and generally considered the best flyweight working. Jussier da Silva then beat Yamaguchi to assume that mantle, but the Afro is still very much at the top.

    I believe that if the UFC had started a flyweight division at the same time it started its lightweight division, Yamaguchi's would be a name on par with The Prodigy.     

6. Tom "Kong" Watson

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    BAMMA's current belt holder has six wins by T/KO.

5. Mamed Khalidov

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    Light heavyweight

    The Cannibal is extremely well-rounded, and extremely dangerous. His last three opponents? James Irvin, Matt Lindland and Jesse Taylor. His next opponent? Purportedly one Hector Lombard.

4. Guram Gugenishvili

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    M-1 Global's reigning heavyweight champ has only been taken out of the first round twice. At 6'5" and 249, he is large. He is also mean. And hairy.

    The good news is he is now training in America. The bad news is he is currently battling injury, with no timetable for return. But the good news is that he's still only 25.

3. Eduardo Dantas

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    The winner of Bellator's 135-pound tournament may very well be the best bantamweight outside the UFC.

    (Photo: ESPN) 

2. Ian McCall

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    Remember before when I was talking about how da Silva beat Mamoru Yamaguchi to take the flyweight mantle? Well, that didn't last long. McCall beat da Silva, and still wears the mantle around his diminutive shoulders as he swaggers into the UFC.

    An extremely strong wrestler, McCall's last loss came to some guy named Dominick Cruz. It will be VERY interesting to see how he does against the Joseph Benavidezes of the world. A lot more people could soon know the name of Uncle Creepy. 

1. Renan Barao

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    I know, I know. You've heard of him. That's great. But he's number one here because his bell curve is about to shoot up toward the middle. If you even have a passing interest in MMA, you have to know this name. He could be the Jon Jones of the bantamweight division.

    A teammate of Jose Aldo, Barao possesses that potent concoction of muay Thai poured over jiu-jitsu that marks so many of today's great Brazilian fighters. Barao hasn't lost since his very first fight, all the way back in 2005. It's not a matter of if with this kid.

    So if you don't know his name yet, now's a good time to learn it.


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