Bleacher Report's Top 25 MMA Prospects for 2017, Part 1
No sport needs prospects like MMA needs prospects.
It's the hard truth underpinning a high churn rate. Pro fighters fall injured or surpass their athletic expiration dates all the time, and for all of them there is a host of young competition scaling a human tower to take their place.
A loose web of local and regional MMA shows covers the globe, snaring the gems while allowing the rubble to pass through. The gems, with some polish, become bona fide prospects. The best prospects end up here.
This is the fifth annual installment of Bleacher Report MMA's list of the top prospects in the sport. These are the 25 men and women with the tools to make the biggest leaps in 2017.
As in previous years, we'll do this in two parts. This, as you may have gathered, is part one. In this part, I, Scott Harris, will take you from No. 25 to No. 13. One week from now, our senior analyst, Patrick Wyman, will carry you all the way to No. 1.
The rules of the game are as follows:
- No fighters who have competed in the UFC
- No champions from Bellator, World Series of Fighting or ONE Championship, with others from these promotions included sparingly
- No fighters age 30 or older, with exceptions possible for those who have switched careers to pursue MMA (e.g. Holly Holm, Daniel Cormier)
- No fighters with more than five years of pro MMA experience
In cases where a fighter competes for multiple promotions, the most recent promotion listed on their record is the one listed here.
Ready to get it on? Let's get it on.
All record information courtesy of Sherdog.com.
A Look Back at 2016
Tom Duquesnoy (3-0): After putting plenty of foot to back side in BAMMA, he reportedly signed with the UFC, though he has not yet competed there.
Phil Hawes (1-1): Not good. He signed with WSOF but started unevenly after a disappointing run on The Ultimate Fighter.
Timur Valiev (1-1): Lost and avenged against Chris Gutierrez in WSOF
Abubakar Nurmagomedov (2-0): Moving up WSOF welterweight rankings
Darrion Caldwell (2-1): In Bellator, defeated Joe Warren and split with Joe Taimanglo
Lowen Tynanes (1-0): One of two things must be next: a ONE title fight or a UFC debut.
Jonas Bilharinho (0-1): Not what you’re looking for in your sixth bout with Jungle Fight
Petr Yan (1-1): While competing with Russia's Absolute Championship Berkut, he lost to an emerging monster. More on this later.
Vladimir Mineev (3-1): Dropped a late-year decision to Maiquel Falcao, of all people.
Khalil Rountree (0-2): Lost in the TUF 23 final, then dropped his next one, too. Another UFC fight is scheduled.
Mateusz Gamrot (2-0): Picked up two more wins in Poland’s well-regarded KSW promotion
Luis Rafael Laurentino (0-1): Caught a second-round knockout in Aspera FC
Hakeem Dawodu (1-0): “Avenged,” if you will, a 2015 draw with Marat Magomedov
Brett Johns: (1-0): Welcome to the UFC, Brett Johns. He looked terrific in his debut, a decision win over Kwan Ho Kwak.
Andre Harrison (4-0): Bulled through Titan FC then won WSOF debut
Alexa Grasso (2-0): An Invicta W in July led to a UFC W in November.
Mikhail Mokhnatkin (1-0-1): A very random draw sticks out on this stat line.
Jiri Prochazka (2-0): In keeping with sometimes-wacky Rizin employer, one opponent was Kazuyuki Fujita.
Dmitriy Sosnovskiy (0-0): The drought ends in February when he makes his UFC debut.
Gregor Gillespie (3-0): Moved to 8-0 overall when he won his first UFC bout
Vadim Nemkov (2-1): The loss and one of the wins win came with Rizin.
Paul Craig (1-0): Impressed in his UFC debut, scoring a second-round submission.
Herbert Burns (0-0): Another fighter who needs either a ONE title shot or a UFC debut
Aleksei Butorin (1-1): Stumbled against Aung La N Sung in ONE, then won for ACB
Here at Bleacher Report MMA, we hold ourselves accountable. We don't run away from facts. So how did we fare with last year's list?
Pretty well, by and large, though there were some misses along the way. Here are last year’s rankings alongside 2016 fighter records and a quick note on how each fighter did last year.
Total record: 35-11-1
Total UFC record: 4-2
Total UFC, Bellator or WSOF berths: 10
25. Adlan Bataev
Promotion: Absolute Championship Berkut
Russia's North Caucasus region is an established talent hotbed. One of the area's top youngsters is a fixture of Chechnya's ACB promotion: Grozny native Adlan Bataev.
At 5'8" and 145 lbs, Bataev is a fundamentally sound and well-rounded fighter with good size and reach. He knows how to use that reach, too. Bataev works behind a long, biting jab. Basically, he takes the center of the cage and snipes you as you try to come in, firing the jab alone or pairing it with a hard right cross. It's nothing more complicated than the old one-two; he throws it pathologically but to solid effect.
His grappling mirrors his standup in that it's sound and methodical. His takedown defense is good, if not impregnable. Once the action hits the ground, he takes a few more risks than he does in the standup phase. The triangle choke is a go-to submission move.
Bataev could stand to mix in more kicks or a body shot or anything, really. The only time he ever throws an uppercut is hockey-style from the clinch. It gets pretty low-output in there sometimes.
He could use a bump up the competition ladder as well. Unless you count Donald Sanchez, Bataev hasn't really faced anyone who stood much chance of pushing him. With his size and well-tuned, if conservative, approach, Bataev's ready for the next rung.
24. James Gallagher
It's a fact of life that any fighter coming out of SBG Ireland will draw comparisons to Conor McGregor.
And without further ado, James Gallagher.
The Strabanimal, who debuted at age 19 and still can't order a brewski in the United States, does his best to reject the easy narrative. Instead, he points to similarities with another camp mate. As he recently told MMA Latest:
I would actually see myself more like Gunnar Nelson than Conor, to be honest...I’ve spent a lot of time with Gunni, we’ve lived together for a while, both coached by John Kavanagh and we’re both kinda interested in the same kind of things. I would very much see myself much more like him personality-wise, I’ve probably been a bit more like Conor when I’m in public but I still see myself very much more like Gunni. I’m nowhere near as outgoing as Conor or anything like that, I don’t see myself like that at all. We’re just both Irish training under the same gym.
Fair enough, James, but then why do you go around acting and fighting like McGregor? Riddle me that, good sir. Unlike the famously impassive Nelson, Gallagher plays the game with all sorts of swagger and aggression. Sometimes it's almost to the young man's detriment, as when he rushed to finish Mike Cutting in his big-show debut at Bellator 158 (he didn't get the knockout but did manage the win). He's also not above a spinning kick or two in there, per his superstar teammate.
The Nelson comparison is likely rooted in Gallagher's ground game. That sets him apart from your typical European prospect. Jiu-jitsu, honed under Nelson and SBG Ireland head coach and BJJ black belt John Kavanagh, has led him to four submission wins, all chokeouts.
Problem: He has no takedown game to speak of. It will be interesting to see what happens when he faces an opponent with sound defensive wrestling.
And now here's a little reward for reading to the bottom of the slide: Gallagher has one heck of a strange amateur background. He first met Kavanagh at age 13, when Kavanagh judged a fight between Gallagher and a 21-year-old opponent. Also, remember that one-second voluntary tapout a few years ago? Yep, the lucky opponent was Gallagher.
23. Jose Torres
Promotion: Titan FC
Jose "Shorty" Torres is a thinking man's fighter.
He previously attracted notoriety for his abnormally long amateur career, but in his short pro run he's proven himself more than a novelty. Torres, who once wrote a 50-page paper on the biomechanics of the spinning back heel kick, took All-America honors as a Division II wrestler. He also has a degree in exercise science.
These days, he's learning his lessons with John Dodson, Sergio Pettis and others at Jackson Wink Academy.
After making his bones at bantamweight, Torres seems poised for a pro run at 125 pounds. That extra size at flyweight will complement the tremendous experience his 26 ammy fights affords.
Torres' base is a blend of karate and wrestling, but he's essentially an MMA "native." He mixes punch combinations with heavy kicks and knees and knows precisely when to launch his takedowns, which in turn open the door to laser-guided ground strikes. Unlike plain-vanilla wrestlers, Torres is active off his back and a submission threat just about anywhere.
Already a grizzled veteran at age 24, Torres should make plenty of noise this year in Titan FC, which airs on UFC Fight Pass, the company's subscription streaming service.
22. A.J. McKee
If you remember A.J. McKee's father, Antonio, but haven't yet caught the 2.0 version, prepare for a surprise.
Where the elder McKee was a grinder, the youngster is a hyper-aggressive, almost exuberant warrior. He's a great athlete and, at 5'10", pretty large for a featherweight.
A wrestler first (at least theoretically), McKee's takedown game borrows from that of an idol, Rampage Jackson. McKee loves to turn takedowns into weapons in their own right, and he's pretty good at it, too—not many fighters have recorded a knockout by way of chokeslam.
It doesn't get any easier once it hits the ground, either. Submissions might be the most dangerous part of McKee's game. He thrives in the scramble and locks on to chokes with quickness and conviction. Check out his power guillotine on Cody Walker if you want a taste of his talents on the mat.
McKee has called his style "unorthodox and all over the place." That certainly applies to his striking. He likes to use kicks from range but wades into the phone booth as the mood strikes. Speed is his best asset in this phase. He throws with quick hands, with accuracy and with a nose for the finish.
To this point, McKee has mainly been crushing cans. But man, has he been crushing them. Only one of his six wins has left the first round. McKee wants to hear the roar of the crowd and doesn't make any bones about that. That's a pretty good quality in a prospect.
21. Aspen Ladd
Division: Women's bantamweight
Promotion: Invicta FC
Aspen Ladd is a machine.
All her knockouts start inconspicuously enough, behind a left jab or hook that she doubles up or mixes with a right cross as she relentlessly marches forward. They end with something bigger, be it kicks, knees or a heavy combo. What Ladd lacks in head and lateral movement she makes up for with a healthy dose of stoic honey badgerism.
Ladd's clinch game also is not to be trifled with. Go ahead, trifle around and see where it gets you. On the business end of some sharp, sharp elbows, is where it gets you.
Her submissions are serious, if methodical, and her control grappling is decent. Her real goal on the ground, though, is getting back up as soon as possible so she can restart the zombie routine.
Ladd dictates pace, stays poised and executes her game like someone six or seven years her senior. If she keeps it rolling, Invicta 135 champ Tonya Evinger isn't that far of a fetch.
20. Paddy Pimblett
Promotion: Cage Warriors
Country: United Kingdom
Try to stay calm. Form a single line and queue up in an orderly fashion. I believe Paddy Pimblett is in the building.
"Have you seen these pretty boy good looks?" said the man to Ariel Helwani last fall on The MMA Hour. "And what happens in the cage? I do stuff in there no one else can do. I’m an entertainer. I put a show on for my fans. I’m comfortable with the microphone as well."
You may have noticed some confidence in the Pimblett corner. The Liverpudlian sensation, who just re-upped with Cage Warriors, is a bit of a hot commodity. Think of him as Sage Northcutt, only with...finish this sentence as you will.
Pimblett stands 5'10", almost towering for a featherweight. He's now on a nine-fight win streak, nearly all of them in Cage Warriors. In July, he survived an early onslaught to gain his sixth submission with a guillotine choke of Teddy Violet. In November, he took a violent and close decision over UFC vet Julian Erosa.
The Cage Warriors featherweight champ is primarily a submission artist, though his striking gets better with each contest. A TKO of Johnny Frachey in September shut down claims he had no pop. He does tend to get cracked sometimes, but to date he's been able to shake it all off.
But grappling is his real gift. He just has a knack for pulling flash tapouts out of nowhere. Great flexibility and quickness press his creativity into action. That's actually putting it mildly. The guy is positively boneless, and he is greased lightning through transitions.
Swagger is the coin of the realm in cage fighting. Pimblett is the latest European to follow that McGregorian path to stardom. We'll see where it leads in 2017.
19. Vladimir Mineev
Promotion: Eurasia Fight Nights
Vladimir Mineev doesn't seem to generate a lot of heat. He does seem to generate a lot of wins.
The converted kickboxer went 3-1 in 2016, dropping a split decision on December 9 to the immortal Maiquel Falcao (who also happened to be his stiffest competition of the year). As a result of that defeat, he is nine spots lower than he was on last year's list. It's a cold game.
Mineev showed last year that he has the defensive stopping power to keep fights standing, i.e., in his world, where he will piece you up with combos and kicks from the perimeter. He'll also cut you open from the clinch as well. Cut you right open.
It's also not entirely clear why he's dithering in a smaller show like this. Surely someone wants to snap up a high-octane striker like Mineev. The Falcao loss certainly set him back, but he has the tools to rebound.
18. Logan Storley
Promotion: Resurrection Fighting Alliance/Legacy Fighting Alliance
Ever heard of Webster, South Dakota? No? Well, how about a little town known as Suplex City?
That's right, fool. The hometown of Brock Lesnar is also the hometown of Logan Storley. Like his famous townmate, Storley excelled as a wrestler with the University of Minnesota. In Storley's case, he was a four-time NCAA All-American there.
But don't expect conservatism. Storley has four pro contests and four knockouts to his name. Only one contest left the first round, and even then by a mere 13 seconds.
It speaks to the fact that, you know, Storley's an animal. The game plan is usually a quick double-leg followed by an aggressive push toward mount and some vicious ground-and-pound of the bounce-your-head-off-the-mat variety.
As the new Legacy Fighting Alliance gets its feet underneath it, look for Storley to get a big push.
17. Mackenzie Dern
Promotion: Legacy Fighting Championship/LFA
When you notch a finalist for MMA submission of the year in only your second pro contest, you might just be a prospect to watch.
The more you learn and see of Mackenzie Dern, the easier it becomes to plow superlatives her way. Obviously, the multi-time world grappling champ knows how to jiu-jitsu. If you need proof, look no further than this video, in which she twists up poor Montana Stewart into some medieval smorgasbord of pain that was eventually labeled an Imanari choke—likely Dern's delayed gratification for suffering the indignity of going the distance in her pro opener.
She hasn't shown much else beyond grappling in those two pro fights but hasn't needed to. Both times, albeit against lower competition, her BJJ display was fully, cleanly dominant. Her striking is coming along as she works with head coach John Crouch, former UFC lightweight champ Benson Henderson and various other luminaries at the MMA Lab in Arizona.
In October, Dern's head striking coach, Eddie Cha, told Shaun Al-Shatti of MMA Fighting:
She's definitely a work in progress. It's going to take a little bit of time for her to understand the striking and fight IQ and everything like that. But all the tools are there. Some people can take years and never understand it, but I think she's learning at a phenomenal rate, so she's going to do well. She's only had one fight right now, but she's around good sparring partners, training partners, good mentors like Benson and coach (John) Crouch. If you see her spar, when she puts the wrestling and jiu-jitsu together, she can contend with anybody.
At age 23 and learning a new sport, Dern may not be fighting for a UFC title any time soon. But her prodigious grappling talent combined with her will to learn and her clear marketability make Dern a clear person of interest.
16. Jiri Prochazka
Division: Light heavyweight
Promotion: Rizin Fighting Federation
Country: Czech Republic
The Czech with the jungle-vine arms went 2-0 in 2016 and shoots three spots up the list.
But on closer inspection, Jiri Prochazka's year was not quite as impressive as the record might suggest.
The first win was a first-round knockout of the 45-year-old Kazuyuki Fujita. I'm not going to get all excited because he beat up an old man, but hey, whatever pays the bills, right?
His other win, over heavyweight Mark Tanios in the Rizin openweight grand prix, was just a tick more instructive, even if Tanios is not exactly a household name. After a strange early leg injury, Prochazka gutted through a sluggish effort to escape with a unanimous decision.
Prochazka continues to favor his muay thai base, attacking with heavy feet or that long reach. After Fujita, 14 of his 18 wins are by knockout. Assuming full health, Prochazka is an explosive athlete who can hurt just about anyone. Here's hoping for a more substantive 2017.
15. Andre Harrison
All Andre Harrison did in 2016 was turn in a 4-0 record that saw him clean out the Titan FC featherweight roster, relinquish his belt there and enter WSOF, where he won his debut. As such, he's a notch above where he was last year on this list.
Harrison is still a control-wrestling monster, but to co-opt an old Greg Maddux nugget, chicks dig the long ball. And with that realization came a more aggressive approach on the feet and a generally more intense quest for finishes. He earned two in 2016, although one came when opponent Deivison Ribeiro sustained a freak, Anderson Silva-esque (though not that bad) leg fracture when Harrison checked a leg kick.
Will it be enough to catch the UFC's eye? It hasn't been yet. A run to the top of the deeper, higher-profile WSOF roster would be another important step.
14. Kron Gracie
Promotion: Rizin FF
It can be easy to giggle at Rizin, with its grandma-fighting and so on, but deep down there are some serious things afoot. One of those serious things is Kron Gracie.
If nothing else, he gets the award for the coldest walkout of 2016. If you watch his Rizin walkout from New Year's Eve, with its Pride-style theatrics and his father—someone named Rickson Gracie—in tow, and you don't get chicken skin, consult your dermatologist.
It's an orthopedist most of Gracie's opponents have needed. Four fights, four submission wins for the jiu-jitsu and judo black belt. A huge featherweight, Gracie competed at 180 pounds during his grappling days. So, yeah, he usually has a size advantage.
Only one opponent has survived the first round with Kron, and that was Tatsuya Kawajiri, fresh off a UFC run that saw him give fighters like Cub Swanson all they could handle.
There will be no stalling from Ice Cream Kron. He's out to submit you and has any number of ways to do it.
Is his boxing great? No, it's not great. Don't let his training with the Diaz brothers and Gilbert Melendez throw you off. Yes, Kron trains with them all, but you can't see a lot of the evidence in his clunky standup. It's a pretty tried-and-true playbook: mainly leg kicks and dirty boxing, all just formality until Gracie can jump guard.
To hear Rickson Gracie tell it, that isn't going to change:
He’s not doing crosstraining to work on his weaknesses. He won’t start boxing, kickboxing, wrestling. He will use his jiu-jitsu to neutralize the wrestler, the striker, and work on his expertise. I don’t want him to learn how to knock someone out with a punch. He would need another life just to learn how to deal with fighters who come from this background. He has to learn how to avoid fighting his opponent’s game.
Those comments came in 2014. But Kron's 2016 fights seem to bear that thinking out. To date, it hasn't made a difference to the bottom line.
It will be very interesting to see how Rizin handles Gracie in 2017. He could be the talent the Gracie family needs to regain relevance in modern MMA.
13. Livia Renata Souza
Promotion: Invicta FC
Is 2017 the year of the specialist? If fighters like Dern, Gracie and Livia Renata Souza have anything to say about it, the answer is yes.
Souza wants the fight on the ground. That's all there is to it. She is extremely active off her back and is not above lying there trying to get opponents to dive into her guard.
But once it's there, man, is she effective. Her submission game is diverse and devastating. She's not quite as single-minded of a specialist as Dern or Gracie, though, at least at this point in all of their respective careers. Souza's striking is not merely a way station until she can do what she really wants to do. She can throw kicks and combos and appears to have a solid chin.
If the UFC is looking for foils for strawweight champion and muay thai specialist Joanna Jedrzejczyk, they could do a lot worse than Souza.