The 10 Best Eastern-European MMA Fighters Today, in the UFC and Beyond

Scott Harris@ScottHarrisMMAMMA Lead WriterOctober 4, 2013

The 10 Best Eastern-European MMA Fighters Today, in the UFC and Beyond

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    Andrei Arlovski connects with Mike Kyle during their fight at World Series of Fighting 5. (Photo credit: Anthony Geathers/Sherdog)
    Andrei Arlovski connects with Mike Kyle during their fight at World Series of Fighting 5. (Photo credit: Anthony Geathers/Sherdog)

    There are plenty of MMA hotbeds around the world. Eastern Europe is not one of them. And that's just strange.

    The region has plenty of boxing and kickboxing pedigree, but a lack of grappling tradition appears to slow them down when it comes to cagefighting.

    It's confounding, especially when the talent that does emerge tends to perform pretty well on MMA's bigger stages (see a one Mr. Cro Cop, for example). Making the region that much more tantalizing is the unbridled domination experienced by Eastern Europe's sambo-practicing neighbor to the East, a one Mother Russia.

    In any event, here are the 10 best Eastern-European pro fighters working today, in the UFC and anywhere else.

    Definitions vary on what countries, exactly, comprise Eastern Europe. For our definition today, we'll include Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Georgia, Hungary, Kosovo, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Ukraine.

    Though Russia is included in many definitions, we won't include it here, mainly because it is very much its own entity from an MMA perspective and could easily comprise its own list.

    The list also doesn't include fighters who are of Eastern-European descent, but were born and/or grew up somewhere else.

    But the main point, again, is that Russian fighters are not included. Russian fighters are not included here. Got it? We good? You sure? Great. So sit back, relax and get your consonants ready.

Honorable Mention

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    Mirko "Cro Cop" Filiopvic
    Mirko "Cro Cop" FiliopvicMark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

    Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic—easily tops the all-time list, but a shadow of his former self today.

    Stipe Miocic—UFC heavyweight standout, of Croatian descent but born and raised in U.S., so ineligible.

    Anthony Perosh—UFC light heavyweight, still getting it done at age 40, of Croatian descent but born and raised in Australia, so ineligible.

    Gegard Mousasi—former Strikeforce and DREAM champ and current UFC middleweight. Of Armenian descent but born in Iran and raised in The Netherlands, so ineligible.

    Mariusz Pudzianowski—Polish icon, former multi-time world strongman champ, KSW heavyweight, 6-3, incredible strength, 36 years old, still developing as a fighter.

    Goran Reljic—Croatian, 12-4, 29 years old, UFC veteran and KSW light heavyweight contender.

    Michal Materla—Polish, KSW middleweight, 19-4, saw seven-fight win streak snapped Sept. 28 in major upset loss to Jay Silva.

    Aslambek Saidov—KSW welterweight champion, 14-3 as pro, 2-1 in last three fights.

    Piotr Strus—KSW, 8-2 as 25-year-old pro, former serious prospect has lost two of his last three. 

    Karolina Kowalkiewicz—KSW women's 55-kilogram (flyweight) champ, 4-0 as 27-year-old pro. 

10. Krzysztof Soszynski

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    Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

    Home nation: Poland
    Division: Light heavyweight
    Current promotion: UFC
    Pro record: 26-12-1

    Krzysztof Soszynski hasn't fought in nearly two years following a damaging knockout loss to Igor Pokrajac at UFC 140. The KO appeared to leave him with a concussion, and Soszynski, who moved from Poland to Canada at age 10, both retired and unretired in the immediate wake of the fight.

    If his health allows him to return, "The Polish Experiment" is a dangerous light heavyweight, with a solid (6-3) UFC pedigree, knockout power and a simple but effective submission game.

9. Marat Gafurov

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    Photo credit:  www.championnat.com
    Photo credit: www.championnat.com

    Home nation: Ukraine
    Division: Featherweight
    Current promotion: M-1 Global
    Pro record: 8-0

    Marat Gafurov has enjoyed a solid run since turning pro in 2010. The M-1 Global featherweight champ doesn't exactly have a major web presence; it took forever just to find his age (he's 28).

    But thanks to YouTube, I was able to track down some of his handiwork and saw for myself that he has a striking attack diverse enough to pave the way for a buttery smooth ground game, which, to date, has notched him six submission victories.

8. Guram Gugenishvili

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    Photo credit: M-1 Global
    Photo credit: M-1 Global

    Home nation: Georgia
    Division: Heavyweight
    Current promotion: M-1 Global
    Pro record: 11-2

    Guram Gugenishvili seemed to have it all. He was just like Bogey and Bacall. But if those two luminaries taught us anything, it's that happiness is of a fleeting nature in life.

    Add "Gugenishvili" to that list of fallen-star surnames. The M-1 Global heavyweight champ and uber-prospect was 11-0 and set to make his American television debut for M-1 Challenge when he faced Pat Bennett on Showtime in July 2011.

    But it was not to be. It turns out the Ukranian suffered some complex hand and wrist injuries that required extensive treatment and rehab. When he finally returned from that 16-month layoff, he was simply not the same fighter. He lost twice by TKO, both times to Kenny Garner.

    That last fight was in December, and it's been radio silence ever since. Kind of a sad and mysterious story, in all honesty. But Gugenishvili's still only 27 and his massive potential and pre-injury track record is still enough to keep a spot warm for him on this list. Come back soon, big fella.

7. Ivan Buchinger

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    Photo credit: Dolly Clew, Cage Warriors
    Photo credit: Dolly Clew, Cage Warriors

    Home nation: Slovakia
    Division: lightweight
    Current promotion: Cage Warriors 
    Pro record: 23-4

    The longtime veteran is still only 27 years old, and his only two losses in his last 13 fights came over former UFC roster-dwellar Anton Kuivanen and a current middle-of-the-pack UFC featherweight, name of Conor McGregor. He also can claim victory over MMA notables like Bellator phenom Frodo Khasbulaev.

    Buchinger faces Mick Sinclair this Saturday at Cage Warriors 60, in the first round of the promotion's tournament for the vacant lightweight belt.    

    UPDATE: Buchinger defeated Sinclair by submission, but withdrew from the tournament after sustaining a rib injury in the contest.

6. Mirsad Bektic

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    Photo credit: Keith Mills/Sherdog
    Photo credit: Keith Mills/Sherdog

    Home nation: Bosnia and Herzegovina
    Division: featherweight
    Current promotion: Resurrection Fighting Alliance
    Pro record: 6-0

    Thanks to widespread civil unrest, Mirsad Bektic and his family left their homeland when Bektic was young and ended up in Lincoln, Neb., where young Mirsad was forced to adjust to a new culture without knowing a word of the language.

    But adjust he did. Now 22, Bektic is one of the hottest featherweight prospects of any background, going 6-0 with only one of those fights going the distance. 

5. Igor Pokrajac

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    Bruce Fedyck-USA TODAY Sports

    Home nation: Croatia
    Division: light heavyweight
    Current promotion: UFC
    Pro record: 25-10 (1)

    Saved by the drug test. If Joey Beltran hadn't popped for nandrolone back in December, Pokrajac would be on a three-fight losing streak and possibly out of the UFC. Also, if he had two wheels, he'd be a bicycle.

    No one's going to strew flower petals in his path anytime soon, but Cro Cop's longtime training partner still has an adequate 4-5 (1) mark in the UFC, with wins over Soszynski, James Irvin and Fabio Maldonado to his name. No one loves the MMA prospecting game more than me, but at a certain level, you take the proven track record. 

    With that said, he's probably fighting for his UFC life when he faces Rafael Cavalcante in November. If he loses that, he'll probably take a bit of tumble down this and plenty of other lists.

4. Karol Bedorf

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    Photo credit: Piotr Pedziszewski/Sherdog
    Photo credit: Piotr Pedziszewski/Sherdog

    Home nation: Poland
    Division: heavyweight
    Current promotion: KSW
    Pro record: 10-2

    I haven't checked in a while, but if you look up freight-training in the dictionary, I'm almost certain you see a picture of Karol Bedorf.

    Despite coming at you straight out of all those paper-towel commercials, Bedorf isn't the most well-known heavyweight from across the pond. But that's OK, because he's better than most of them.

    He is a little slow in there, but he's not the KSW heavyweight champ because KSW makes its heavyweight champs run wind sprints. He's the champ because he hits like a truck, is built like an rhinoceros and has a concrete chin. Oh, and he's also a multi-time European jiu-jitsu champion.

    Bedorf hit the radar in earnest in March, when he defeated UFC alum Oli Thompson. He won the KSW belt in his next contest. 

3. Andrei Arlovski

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    Andrei Arlovski (right) defeated Mike Kyle at World Series of Fighting 5. (Photo credit:  Anthony Geathers/Sherdog)
    Andrei Arlovski (right) defeated Mike Kyle at World Series of Fighting 5. (Photo credit: Anthony Geathers/Sherdog)

    Home nation: Belarus
    Division: heavyweight
    Current promotion: World Series of Fighting
    Pro record: 20-10 (1)

    Andrei Arlovski showed in defeating Mike Kyle that he still has something left in the old petrol tank. As long as he's still kicking, the former UFC champion is a dangerous man. 

    After that putrid 0-4 run in 2009-10, Arlovski underwent an unlikely resurgence, and he's 5-1-1 since. Yes, it has come against much lesser competition. But with the Kyle win in September, he showed he can still get it done at a high level.

2. Jan Blachowicz

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    Photo credit: Piotr Pedziszewski/Sherdog
    Photo credit: Piotr Pedziszewski/Sherdog

    Home nation: Poland
    Division: light heavyweight
    Current promotion: KSW
    Pro record: 17-3

    In my book, 30-year-old Jan Blachowicz is the best light heavyweight in the world today outside the UFC, and he would, undoubtedly, make a splash any time he wanted to enter the Octagon.

    Blachowicz is the reigning KSW light heavyweight belt holder and currently rides a five-fight winning streak. You want quality? Four of those five opponents spent significant time in the UFC. 

    His body, not his skills, have to date been the restraints holding back his career. He lost all of 2009 to injuries, and his last defeat came by way of same. But he appears to have turned a corner now; his well-rounded game makes him a load for anyone. Keep the lamps trimmed and burning for this guy.

1. Mamed Khalidov

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    Photo credit: Piotr Pedziszewski/Sherdog
    Photo credit: Piotr Pedziszewski/Sherdog

    Home nation: Poland
    Division: middleweight
    Current promotion: KSW
    Pro record: 27-4-2

    The world just keeps setting 'em up, and Mamed Khalidov keeps knocking 'em down.

    The KSW champ is unbeaten in his last eight, and that includes a submission of Kendall Grove, a chokeout of Matt Lindland and a knockout of Rodney Wallace.

    Of his 27 wins, only one has gone the distance. Of the remaining, 11 wins came by knockout and 15 by submission. He can and will hurt you anywhere. The man is a machine.

    The only downside? It looks like a stateside move is not in the cards. Bellator made a run in 2011, but either negotiation breakdowns or Khalidov's devotion to his Muslim faith (or both) ultimately scuttled a deal.

    Fans will just have to stay tuned to KSW to catch this special talent in action. It's too bad, but as a wise-if-glib man once said, it is what it is.

    Scott Harris likes to rank all sorts of things, including MMA prospects, entrance songs, ice cream flavors and pretty much anything else. Find him on Twitter for more of this sort of excitement.