The Beaten Path: Top 25 MMA Prospects for 2016, Part 2
The constant, relentless grind of the UFC and Bellator eats up dozens of new fighters every year. One hundred three new contestants debuted in the UFC in 2015, less than half of the 230 who made their first appearance in 2014.
Prospects are part of the natural flow of life in the MMA ecosystem, the lifeblood of a constantly shifting sport—or in a less kind metaphor, more grist for the bloody mill. Not all prospects are created equal, though. The vast majority of those new debutants won't reach the lofty peaks of a title or even the elite of their divisions.
Here at The Beaten Path, my colleague Scott Harris and I will bring you those young fighters who are most worthy of your notice and time. Three hundred thirty-three new UFC fighters and dozens more in Bellator and World Series of Fighting in the last two years are just too many to keep track of, so let us do the hard work for you.
What are we looking for? First, no UFC fighters. Second, nobody whose pro career has already lasted more than six years will be considered. While there are exceptions, most future elite fighters will already have made it to a major promotion by that point.
Contestants in Bellator, World Series of Fighting and One Championship are eligible unless they've held a title in one of those organizations. Fighters over 30 won't be considered unless they have a world-class background in another combat sport, like Holly Holm in boxing or Daniel Cormier in wrestling.
Let's take a look at MMA's future greats.
A Look Back at Part 1
The first installment of the list can be found here, and be sure to check it out for prospects ranked 25-13.
25. Aleksei Butorin
24. Herbert Burns
23. Paul Craig
22. Vadim Nemkov
21. Gregor Gillespie
20. Dmitriy Sosnovskiy
19. Jiri Prochazka
18. Mikhail Mokhnatkin
17. Alexa Grasso
16. Andre Harrison
15. Brett Johns
14. Hakeem Dawodu
13. Luis Rafael Laurentino
12: Mateusz Gamrot
Record: 10-0 (4 KO, 2 SUB, 4 DEC)
Years Pro: 4
The longtime KSW competitor doesn't really stand out in any one area, but he's a big, strong athlete with a lot of experience against good regional competition.
The Pole's last four opponents are a combined 53-19-2, and before that he beat UFC veteran Andre Winner only a year-and-a-half into his career. Top Dagestani prospect Marif Piraev fell inside two rounds in October, which brought Gamrot to a clean 10-0 record as a professional.
It doesn't get much better than that for up-and-coming prospects.
There's little question that Gamrot is ready for world-class competition. The real strength of his game is his natural feel for transitions, which makes the combination of his skills worth more than the sum of its parts. He excels at turning caught kicks into takedowns, has a beautiful reactive shot and uses his punches to cover his level changes and entries. Sneaking in punches and knees on exits is another strong suit.
Once he gets his hands on his opponent, Gamrot is a beast. His strength is noteworthy, and his chains of takedown attempts are relentless. Starting with an ankle pick and then working his way to a single or a double and looking for the finish is a standard move, and he executes it beautifully.
From top position, the Pole drops bombs. His posture is outstanding, and once he creates space he goes to work with head-body combinations of punches and elbows inside the guard. Power comes naturally to him, and he attacks with real killer instinct. The occasional submission in transition adds some variety, but for the most part Gamrot is a straightforward bruiser from the top.
The weakest part of Gamrot's game is his striking. The power in his hands makes up somewhat for a low-output approach, but he has clearly made some improvements. Still, he doesn't throw enough, and at this point his strikes are mostly meant to distract from his takedown game.
At only 25, Gamrot still has a ton of time to improve, and he has the physical tools to become a high-level lightweight. The top 10 is a legitimate possibility if he continues to get better.
11: Khalil Rountree
Record: 4-0 (2 KO, 2 DEC)
Years Pro: 1.5
Khalil Rountree has had some hype behind him since the early days of his career, and for good reason. The Las Vegas native began his MMA career training with Wanderlei Silva and has since come under the tutelage of Lyoto Machida and especially Anderson Silva, with whom he trains regularly.
When not working with Anderson, Rountree spends a lot of time at Syndicate MMA in Las Vegas, another highly regarded facility with excellent coaches and training partners.
Rountree is a southpaw striker with a big frame and long arms. Unusually for such a young fighter, and especially one without a prior background in boxing or kickboxing, he's a dedicated counterpuncher. Unlike many fighters who prefer to operate off the back foot, however, Rountree is aggressive and almost always comes back with more than one shot at a time.
A full arsenal of different types of counters powers his game. He loves a back-stepping right hook, draws opponents onto pull counters when he plants his feet and is happy to hang in the pocket and throw at the same time. All of his shots carry enormous, fight-ending power, and sound mechanics enhance his natural pop.
The rest of Rountree's game is more than competent. As you might expect given his training partners, he's strong in the clinch, with a preference for framing across the face and dropping sharp knees. His takedown defense has thus far been competent against decent competition.
There is room for improvement, though. He has solid footwork in the pocket but doesn't move his head much and tends to rely on his length to avoid his opponent's shots. This isn't going to work against craftier and more powerful competition, and it takes time to learn that kind of high-level technique.
Rountree has time. He's young and shockingly far along for such an inexperienced fighter, and he'll only get better if he continues to surround himself with excellent coaches and training partners.
10: Vladimir Mineev
Record: 5-0 (5 KO)
Promotion: Fight Nights Eurasia
Years Pro: 1.25
A former kickboxer with extensive experience at close to a world-class level in his last sport, Vladimir Mineev made the jump to MMA in September 2014 and hasn't looked back since. All five of his wins have come by impressive first-round knockout, the most recent against veteran journeyman Xavier Foupa-Pokam.
Coaching shouldn't be a problem, either, as Mineev recently arrived at Jackson Wink MMA in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Clean, mechanically sound kickboxing is the foundation of Mineev's game. He flicks a sharp jab and hard kicks at range and then picks his spots to commit to forward-moving combinations of power shots. Flurries against the fence are his specialty, and he has a knack for choosing the right shots to work around his opponent's defenses. He's a monster in the clinch, with vicious knees and elbows in tight.
Competing in MMA at a high level requires more than one elite skill set, though, and the concern with a converted kickboxer like Mineev will always be his defensive wrestling and grappling skills. There's no reason to worry here, as the Russian showcases excellent, layered takedown defense.
In other words, Mineev has much more than just a simple sprawl. He has strong hips, defends chained attempts well against the fence and excels at using a hard overhook and hipping out if briefly planted on the mat. He'll even look for the occasional trip or throw of his own and doesn't shy away from engaging from top position.
The most surprising thing about Mineev's game is his penchant for landing in transitions, which is an uncommon skill among converted kickboxers. He excels at landing on clinch breaks and sneaking in hard shots as his opponent stands up from the mat.
The Russian has a nasty edge to him and a serious competitive drive. The combination of his skills, size (6'1") and consistent learning curve makes him a serious contender to reach the middleweight top five or even higher.
9: Petr Yan
Record: 5-0 (2 KO, 1 SUB, 2 DEC)
Promotion: Absolute Championship Berkut
Years Pro: 1
While many of the fighters on this list have been floating around for a while and might have some hype behind them, Russia's Petr Yan is an almost complete unknown. A native of Omsk, the home city of former Bellator middleweight champion Alexander Shlemenko, Yan is an exciting and hyper-athletic striker with big power and limitless potential.
The Russian is just 22 years old and has only been a professional for a little over a year, but he already has the makings of an elite fighter. A Master of Sport in boxing and MMA, per a knowledgeable source, that striking base forms the core of his game.
Clean, technically sound punching combinations are Yan's bread and butter. He circles smoothly at range, picking and choosing his angles with care and then leaping into shifting sequences of hard punches. Brutal kicks at all levels add another level of danger, and he melds them beautifully with his punches. Flashing hands distract from crushing low kicks, and a body disguises the punching combination that follows.
The occasional spinning kick or flying knee adds a bit of flash to a powerful, fast but technically sound striking game. The Russian is lethal from both stances and could already compete with some of the division's elite on the feet.
Yan's command of striking intangibles is well beyond what you'd expect from such a young fighter. He times and places his kicks and knees to catch his opponents slipping, ducking or circling away. Unlike many youthful strikers, his defense is technically sound and layered, and he has a much more experienced fighter's command of rhythm and distance.
The one place where Yan's inexperience shows is in his takedown defense and defensive grappling, and it's clear that he needs a great deal more work. He defends the initial shot well but has more trouble with chained attempts. The clinch is a strong suit, though, with hard knees and elbows and the occasional takedown for variety.
While it's difficult to get much meaningful going against him from the top, he's vulnerable to being controlled for large chunks of time. Yan doesn't go out of his way to avoid grappling exchanges, though, and is willing to do some work from top position if the opportunity presents itself.
Tiger Muay Thai in Phuket, Thailand is on its way up as an excellent camp, particularly with the recent influx of Russian fighters, and Yan is improving under their tutelage. If he continues to get better as a wrestler, it's only a matter of time before he cracks the bantamweight elite.
8: Jonas Bilharinho
Record: 7-0-1 (5 KO, 1 SUB, 1 DEC)
Promotion: Jungle Fight
Years Pro: 5
It seems like Brazil's Bilharinho has been a staple of top prospect lists for years now, and he has, but injuries and long stretches without being able to find fights have left him with only four appearances in the cage in the last three years.
The former bantamweight has filled out and seems to be settling in nicely at 145 pounds, where he's still enormous for the division at 5'11". In essence, Bilharinho is a rangy, powerful and exceptionally quick southpaw striker with a game reminiscent of Anthony Pettis or Luke Rockhold on the feet.
Bilharinho is all about the one-hitter-quitter. He feints and circles constantly and then fires off potent single shots, preferring the straight left, left kick and the occasional flashy spinning kick or flying knee. When the mood strikes, he throws a sharp jab and can counter with a slick right hook. Combinations come only rarely, when he has his opponent hurt or shelled up against the fence.
It's an effective and dangerous game that can end his opponent's night at any time. The problem is offensive output. Bilharinho will often go 30 seconds or a even an entire minute without throwing anything at all, and even at his most active he doesn't put a lot of volume out there. Unlike Pettis and Rockhold, who resemble him as strikers, Bilharinho doesn't really have a secondary skill set, either.
Stout takedown defense and quick scrambles allow Bilharinho to keep himself standing. He's almost impossible to hold down and effectively uses a butterfly guard to create space or wall-walks back to his feet. The clinch is another strong suit, but he rarely looks to spend much time there.
When he gets there, which is rare, Bilharinho is a vicious ground striker with great posture.
The Brazilian has spent his entire career surrounded by top-notch training partners. He has spent years at Team Nogueira and was one of Jose Aldo's main sparring partners at Nova Uniao for his fight with Conor McGregor.
If he can throw a bit more volume on the feet and add some variety, Bilharinho has the athletic gifts and power to be a contender. He needs to move quickly, though, with five years already under his belt as a professional.
7: Ricardo Lucas Ramos
Record: 8-0 (2 KO, 5 SUB, 1 DEC)
Years Pro: 3.5
Twenty-year-old Ricardo "Carcacinha" Ramos could be the next big thing to come out of Brazil. A veteran of several fights in the Texas-based Legacy Fighting Championship, Ramos is poised to debut in the UFC soon, and he will undoubtedly make a splash when he does.
The Brazilian fights like a clone of UFC featherweight mainstay Charles Oliveira, with a wickedly aggressive submission grappling repertoire on the mat and a sharp striking game for backup. Smooth punch-kick combinations, clean counters and nasty stepping knees and uppercuts make him a handful on the feet. Those strikes cover the entries on his surprisingly effective takedown chains.
As much potential as he has on the feet, and there's a real chance he could be winning fights there in style in the future, the core of Ramos' game is on the ground. He flows from position to position and attack to attack without pause, melding passes, submissions and strikes into a lethal and aggressive whole.
Scrambles are a specialty. Ramos can find his way to the back even if he doesn't get his opponent all the way to the mat and needs only a moment's opportunity to sink in the choke. His chains are creative and dangerous: He might start with an armbar from the back, then move to a triangle, then look for a sweep, create a scramble and end up on the back once again.
At only 20, Ramos has a ton of time to get better. He's a gem, and it's only a matter of time before he makes an impact at the sport's highest levels.
6: Lowen Tynanes
Record: 8-0 (2 KO, 4 SUB, 2 DEC)
Promotion: One Championship
Years Pro: 4.5
Hawaii's Lowen Tynanes has been around the prospect scene for a while and might be competing in a larger promotion already if not for an unfortunate contract dispute with King of the Cage that kept him out of action for more than a year. For now, Tynanes is likely the best lightweight in One Championship and will be the favorite to hold the organization's belt in 2016 should a title fight materialize.
Size, physicality and athleticism are the hallmarks of Tynanes' game. His level change and shot are ultra-quick, and he times his takedowns beautifully as his opponents come forward. Once he gets his hands on his opponent, Tynanes is a monster, with brutal strength as he chains takedowns against the fence. If he fails to plant his opponent on the mat, the Hawaiian is happy to grind away until he can find a takedown.
When the fight hits the ground, Tynanes really goes to work. He passes smoothly and maintains a heavy base, and the combination of strikes and topside submissions is threatening even against skilled opposition. Finding the back in transition is a real strength of his game.
Striking is the weakest part of Tynanes' arsenal. He has legitimate power in his hands and solid punching mechanics but always seems to be a step too far away or to hesitate before letting his strikes go. The result is a serious lack of activity and volume at range, and this has to improve if he's going to be competitive against the lightweight elite.
Tynanes has excellent training partners and has already defeated strong opposition. He's ready to compete against high-level opposition right now and could be the next big thing to come out of a state that has produced a massive amount of elite MMA talent.
5: Darrion Caldwell
Record: 8-0 (1 KO, 3 SUB, 4 DEC)
Years Pro: 3.5
With Bellator mainstay and former champion Joe Warren looming in a matchup next month, Darrion Caldwell won't qualify as a prospect for much longer, but for the moment the former Division I national champion and multiple-time All-American is one of the brightest future stars in MMA.
Caldwell's wrestling pedigree is off the charts. He holds wins over future world team member and all-time collegiate great Brent Metcalf in college and might have been on the 2012 Olympic team in freestyle but for a series of devastating shoulder injuries.
Wrestling's loss is MMA's gain. The skills he learned in college still form the basis of Caldwell's game, and he's a tricky, unorthodox talent. His explosiveness is unparalleled, and the combination of his athletic gifts and rangy, 5'10" frame makes for a game that's difficult to shut down.
Low singles, ankle picks, knee taps, hip tosses and basic singles and doubles are all in his arsenal, and he strings them all together into creative chains. Caldwell doesn't need to get his opponent all the way to the mat to make an impact, though, as he excels in scrambles and breakdowns. Even a front headlock is enough for Caldwell to force a transition in which he's almost certain to end up in an advantageous position.
The former wrestler has added a functional and dangerous grappling game. His mat wrestling is already well suited to MMA, and the addition of a few back-takes makes him even more troublesome in scrambles. On top, Caldwell passes smoothly and maintains a heavy base, which combines with strong posture to give him a potent ground striking game.
Striking at range is still the weakest part of Caldwell's game, though he's coming along nicely. He's quick if not exceptionally powerful, and he flicks a consistent barrage of kicks from both stances mixed in with the occasional straight left or superman punch.
The big question with Caldwell will always be whether he can stay healthy, and for the most part he has during his MMA career. If he can continue to fight regularly, the sky is the limit.
4: Abubakar Nurmagomedov
Record: 11-1 (6 KO, 3 SUB, 2 DEC)
Promotion: World Series of Fighting
Years Pro: 4.25
The younger brother of UFC lightweight contender Khabib Nurmagomedov, Abubakar Nurmagomedov is likewise a promising young fighter who could easily reach the elite. The welterweight is currently signed to World Series of Fighting, and in its thin 170-pound division he can't be more than a fight or two away from the promotion's title.
Abubakar fights a great deal like his brother. That makes sense, since their father Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov, a highly respected judo and sambo coach, has been their instructor since childhood.
That game is predicated on constant forward pressure. Crafty punching combinations and solid cage-cutting footwork lead Nurmagomedov into the clinch, where he suffocates his opponents with short punches, knees and relentless, creative takedown chains.
Singles, doubles, trips, hip tosses, suplexes and mat returns all come in endless combinations. Once Nurmagomedov gets his hands on his opponent, the fight will eventually hit the floor: It's just a matter of when and how much energy his opponent will waste trying to escape.
The trouble doesn't end on the mat, either. Nurmagomedov follows his takedowns with strikes or a pass, and when his opponent tries to scramble, the Russian simply moves to a ride, hits him a few more times or looks to get to the back, and then starts the whole relentless process over again when his opponent is fully standing again.
The only real solution is to never let Nurmagomedov get his hands on you.
His base on top is heavy, and he packs some pop in his ground strikes to go along with a few topside submissions. He has improved his ability to get to the back, and it seems likely rear-naked chokes will be a substantial part of his game moving forward.
Pure striking isn't the Russian's specialty, and probably never will be, but he's surprisingly effective. Despite his lack of top-notch athleticism, one area in which he can't match his brother, Abubakar has quick and powerful hands. Counters are a specialty as he moves forward, and he does a good job of pulling his head off the center line as he throws.
With his brother and UFC lightweight Islam Makhachev among his training partners in Dagestan and the vaunted American Kickboxing Academy serving as his home base in the United States, it seems certain that Nurmagomedov will continue to develop into an elite fighter.
3: Timur Valiev
Record: 10-1 (4 KO, 1 SUB, 4 DEC)
Promotion: World Series of Fighting
Years Pro: 5.25
World Series of Fighting bantamweight contender Timur Valiev has been a bit hidden as he has risen through the ranks of the promotion, but there's no disguising his talent. The Dagestan native is a talented, well-rounded fighter with great physical tools and serious upside. His time in the sun is coming sooner rather than later.
Valiev has excellent skills in every department. On the feet, he's a smooth combination striker with a nice mixture of punching combinations and round kicks. The occasional spinning kick and flying knee add variety.
What makes Valiev special, however, is his craft. Counterpunching is a specialty, both in the pocket and as he steps back. He has outstanding footwork and movement and a great sense of where he is in the cage. Timing is a strong suit, and he excels at placing his shots around his opponent's guard.
As good as he is as a striker, the rest of Valiev's game might be even better. He's a monster in the clinch, with a strong trip game accentuated with nasty punches, knees and elbows. Wrestling is another plus, with a well-timed and authoritative double and good chains. He's difficult to take down and generally places the fight where he wants it.
From top position, the Russian drops absolute bombs. While not much of a submission threat, his ground striking is lethal and capable of stopping opponents.
More than anything, however, Valiev seems to understand the flow of the fight. It's a hard thing to quantify or describe, but he has great fight IQ, doesn't force his openings and understands when and how to pick up the pace.
A fight with WSOF bantamweight champion Marlon Moraes looms in the future, and with an outstanding team behind him at Jackson Wink MMA, there's no reason to think Valiev can't take home the gold. The Russian has it in him to be the best bantamweight in the world if he continues to develop.
2: Phil Hawes
Record: 3-0 (2 KO, 1 SUB)
Promotion: Titan Fighting Championship
Years Pro: 2
Jackson Wink MMA product Phil Hawes hasn't spent all that much time in the cage, but his potential is off the charts. A junior college national wrestling champion at Iowa Central Community College, the same school that produced Jon Jones, Hawes' exceptional wrestling base and freakish physical tools make him one of the most promising young fighters in all of MMA.
Hawes' takedowns are brutal. He times them beautifully to get in on his opponent's hips and once there shows tremendous drive and finishes with authority. Transitions seem to come naturally to Hawes, and he already covers his level changes with punches and hits reactive shots like a more experienced fighter.
In sum, there's nothing to dislike about his wrestling game, which was nearly good enough to get him to the Olympic trials in 2012.
From top position, Hawes is a monster. His base is unshakeable; he scrambles well and drops ferocious ground strikes at a rapid pace. Topside submissions are another area of development. On the feet, Hawes showcases a crisp jab and a willingness to throw combinations with real pop, though we have yet to see much of it.
Upside is the name of the game with Hawes. If he can get some cage time, there's every reason to think he can compete in the UFC in the near future. That could be a problem, though, as injuries and Titan Fighting Championship's lack of upcoming events have kept him out of action since October 2014.
Once he returns to action, however, Hawes will be one to watch.
1: Tom Duquesnoy
Record: 11-1, 1 N/C (5 KO, 3 SUB, 3 DEC)
Years Pro: 4
BAMMA featherweight champion Tom Duquesnoy is readying himself for a drop to bantamweight and a bid to become a two-division champion in the British Isles' best MMA organization. The last fighter to do that in the U.K. was, of course, Conor McGregor. The Irishman opened a door to a fantastic new market, and Duquesnoy could do the same thing for France.
The 22-year-old grew up idolizing Fedor Emelianenko, and that shows in his game. He was an undersized featherweight who relied on speed and surprising power, and while he will be a good-sized (5'7") bantamweight, Duquesnoy will still be one of the fastest fighters in the division.
The Frenchman is an off-the-charts physical specimen and excels in transitions. He's a native of MMA rather than any individual art, so there's no division in his game between striking, wrestling, grappling or the clinch. Everything flows together into one seamless whole.
Cracking punch-kick combinations create angles and openings for shot takedowns and clinch entries. Double-legs serve as counters to his opponent's strikes and forward movement. A completed takedown is an opportunity to create a grappling exchange in which the Frenchman is certain to end up in either a submission attempt or a dominant position.
As good as all of those skill sets are in combination, they're nearly as good individually. Duquesnoy could develop into a top-flight striker if he chooses to emphasize that skill set, and he already showcases excellent head movement, smooth combinations and power in all his strikes. Counters are a specialty and he's happy to exchange in the pocket, exhibiting real craft to his game.
No opponent has succeeded in outwrestling or outgrappling Duquesnoy for more than a single exchange, and the depth of his craft combines with his raw speed to create an outstanding whole. He's much better in that phase right now than he is as a pure striker, and that's saying something.
Despite his good looks and charisma, the Frenchman fights with a nasty, competitive edge. He's a smart fighter who makes the right decisions under pressure, and it's hard to quantify or grasp how much that means.
Duquesnoy is a special talent and one who's getting better under the direction of Jackson Wink MMA. He faces Damien Rooney on February 27 for the BAMMA bantamweight title, and a shot at the UFC will likely follow this year.
All record information courtesy of Sherdog.com.