The Top 25 MMA Prospects for 2017, Part 2
The grind of high-level MMA is remorseless. Injuries, retirements and losing streaks all take their toll on the rosters of the major promotions, which means they constantly need a fresh supply of athletes. Local and regional promotions that run thousands of shows every year provide the grist for the mill.
It took 112 new fighters to keep the UFC running in 2016, but of that total, only a few will go on to achieve at a high level. Every year, Bleacher Report brings you its list of the 25 best prospects on the face of the planet—the young fighters you need to be aware of who have the most potential to break through to the very top of the sport.
Scott Harris published part one of this list last week, and I am bringing you part two here. Be sure to check out the initial installment.
Here is who is excluded:
- Fighters who have competed in the UFC
- Champions from Bellator or World Series of Fighting
- Fighters age 30 or older, with exceptions possible for those who have switched careers to pursue MMA (e.g. Holly Holm, Daniel Cormier)
- Fighters with more than six years of pro MMA experience
Let's check out the list.
A Look Back at Part 1
The first installment of this year's list can be found here. Be sure to check it out for a full look at the prospects ranked 25-13.
25. Adlan Bataev
24. James Gallagher
23. Jose Torres
22. A.J. McKee
21. Aspen Ladd
20. Paddy Pimblett
19. Vladimir Mineev
18. Logan Storley
17. Mackenzie Dern
16. Jiri Prochazka
15. Andre Harrison
14. Kron Gracie
13. Livia Renata Souza
12. Hakeem Dawodu
Promotion: World Series of Fighting
Record: 6-0-1 (6 KO)
Dawodu's nickname is "Mean," and that sums up the way the 25-year-old Canadian approaches fighting. The former muay thai competitor has finished each of his six victories against a steadily increasing level of competition.
Athleticism, power and killer instinct melded with a hefty dose of technical striking skill define Dawodu's game. He's aggressive and gets after his opponent, but he's not a brawler; Dawodu throws crisp, clean punch-kick combinations with great fundamentals and real heat. His kicks carry crushing force, and every punch can finish the fight.
As good as he is at range, Dawodu is even better in the clinch. His knees are vicious, and he slashes away with elbows, mixing in the occasional muay thai-style trip or dump for good measure. His wrestling game is developing, and while he still relies on his physicality, his skills are coming along nicely as well. His ground strikes carry all the power he showcases on the feet as well.
All of Dawodu's professional fights have taken place in World Series of Fighting, but he's still young and relatively inexperienced. Another year of seasoning might serve him well before heading into a title fight against the likes of Lance Palmer or moving on to a larger promotion.
11. Ricardo Ramos
Record: 9-1 (2 KO, 6 SUB, 1 DEC)
The 21-year-old Ramos appeared on last year's list, clocking in at No. 7, and is still one of the more promising young fighters in the world despite suffering a submission loss in February. He rebounded in a big way, though, choking out his opponent in front of the cameras on Dana White's Lookin' For a Fight web series to punch his ticket to the UFC.
Ramos is a dangerous fighter who will remind viewers of longtime UFC veteran Charles Oliveira. The combination of aggressive, nasty submission grappling and surprisingly sharp striking is an effective one, but Ramos has the athleticism and raw physicality that Oliveira lacks.
On the feet, Ramos strings together slick punch-kick combinations and mixes in the occasional flying knee for good measure. He's sharp on the counter and has a knack for landing uppercuts and knees as his opponent ducks. His striking game also serves to cover the entries for his takedowns. Unlike many aggressive submission grapplers, Ramos is a skilled wrestler with a deep arsenal of chained shots and trips.
Grappling is still Ramos' wheelhouse, and he's a wizard on the mat. He hunts for the front headlock in transitions, excels at scrambling to the back, drops bombs when he postures up and can pass with fluid ease. Ramos is a joy to watch on the mat and already dangerous enough to be a problem for anybody in the division.
Ramos debuts in the UFC on Saturday in Houston, taking on Michinori Tanaka in his first bout with the promotion. This is a tough matchup that will tell us whether the 21-year-old is ready to wade into the deep waters of the bantamweight division or needs a bit more seasoning.
10. Agnieszka Niedzwiedz
Record: 9-0 (5 KO, 2 SUB, 2 DEC)
The women's flyweight division has yet to break through into the UFC, but with talents like Poland's Niedzwiedz on the horizon, that could change soon.
The 21-year-old is already a veteran with four years of professional experience under her belt, and she fights with the skill and acumen of a much older and more seasoned fighter. While not an overpowering athlete, she's strong and puts her skills together in such a way to make them worth more than the sum of their parts.
Niedzwiedz's base is in judo, which she began training at the age of seven. Despite that background, she's effectively a native of MMA, with a lifelong fighter's grasp of blending her skill sets together and delivering offense in transition.
Calculated aggression is the name of Niedzwiedz's game. She pushes forward behind a crisp jab and consistent front and round kicks while cutting off her opponent's escape angles with sharp footwork. Once the opponent gets acclimated to the idea of striking, Niedzwiedz ducks under and hits a clean, explosive double-leg takedown. Trips and throws in the clinch are another specialty.
On the mat, Niedzwiedz is stifling. She smothers her opponent from top position while delivering a steady stream of heavy strikes, especially elbows, and isn't afraid to give up position to look for a submission. If her opponent scrambles, Niedzwiedz is happy to oblige and simply looks for opportunities to land strikes or advance to a dominant position in the transition.
Although she has only nine fights under her belt, Niedzwiedz should already be considered a top-10 flyweight. An Invicta title shot looms just around the corner, and if the UFC gets around to adding that division, Niedzwiedz stands a good chance of bringing home that belt as well.
9. Petr Yan
Record: 6-1 (2 KO, 1 SUB, 3 DEC)
Yan also clocked in at No. 9 on last year's list, but he's much less of an unknown quantity after a pair of quality fights in Russia's burgeoning ACB promotion in 2016. The first was a tight split-decision loss to Magomed Magomedov, who occupies the eighth slot on this year's list; many thought Yan had won or at least earned a draw in the one.
While it represents a setback to his career, the loss to Magomedov was one of the best regional fights of 2016, and it showed that Yan could still contend even in a tough stylistic matchup. His return engagement, a win over British prospect Ed Arthur, showed improvements and flashed new dimensions to Yan's game.
At heart, Yan is a striker blessed with big power, strong fundamentals and a flair for the dramatic. Crisp boxing is his foundation, and he supplements his quick-paced combinations with the occasional spinning kick or flying knee. His footwork is outstanding, making it difficult to pressure him with any sort of regularity.
More than anything, Yan fights like a much more experienced striker. He understands timing and angles and reads his opponent's reactions beautifully, moving his shots around, under and through the guard and catching his opponent as he ducks or slips.
Yan still needs to work on his takedown defense. It's better than it was last year, but lapses cost him against Magomedov, and he's not bulletproof even after that. He's more willing and able to hit takedowns of his own now, though, and he's becoming an aggressive worker from top position.
Of all the fighters on this list, Yan might be the most exciting talent with the greatest upside, though he's also one of the rawest and least experienced. A lot can go wrong between now and a debut in the UFC or Bellator, but if he keeps improving, the sky is the limit.
8. Magomed Magomedov
Record: 13-1 (4 KO, 5 SUB, 4 DEC)
Some prospects burst out of the gate looking like transcendent, next-level talents. Others chug along through the regional scene, piling up win after win until we can no longer ignore their accomplishments.
Russia's Magomedov falls into the second category. He's a smart, conservative fighter who grinds out his wins with a patient, stifling approach in the clinch and on the ground, but he's also tough and athletic enough to compete with top-shelf talents. Magomedov's razor-thin and controversial win over Petr Yan was one of the best fights on the regional scene last year, and it was the perfect encapsulation of his game.
Nobody is going to confuse Magomedov with an elite kickboxer, but his striking game is functional and does what he wants it to do. He likes to probe with his jab and chop away with kicks to the leg and body before throwing a forward-moving combination that either disguises a level change and shot or, more likely, brings him into the clinch.
Magomedov does his best work in the tie-ups. He's strong and technical and uses over-under clinches to good effect, slowly but surely wearing his opponent down with knees to the body, short punches and slashing elbows. Entire minutes can pass as Magomedov stays busy and banks attrition as the fight goes on. When the time is right, he hits a trip or throw or changes levels for a clean double.
On the mat, Magomedov is mostly content to control and eat up time, throwing shots and working the occasional pass. He has a nice front headlock, though, and opponents need to worry about his guillotine choke.
In the grand scheme of things, Magomedov isn't the kind of fighter who's likely to win and hold a UFC title; he doesn't have the kind of physical gifts or dynamism necessary to finish elite opposition. Whatever major promotion signs him is going to be happy with a skilled, durable and intelligent fighter who can hang with just about anybody, though.
7. Sergey Pavlovich
Promotion: Eurasia Fight Nights
Record: 10-0 (8 KO, 2 DEC)
Legitimate heavyweight prospects are the rarest thing in MMA, and so few have come along in recent years that the division has had almost no turnover. Nobody in the UFC's Top 10 is under the age of 30, and only Francis Ngannou and Derrick Lewis qualify as new faces.
That's what makes Russia's Sergey Pavlovich such a find. He has blossomed in the last year, winning four fights in 2016 against increasingly imposing competition. At just 24, he's exceptionally young relative to the division as a whole. Standing 6'3" and weighing around 240 pounds, he has prototype size and outstanding athletic gifts.
Pavlovich has a deep background in Greco-Roman wrestling, but he's mostly a striker in the cage and a good one blessed with quick, powerful hands. His footwork is crisp and technical, and he has a great command of angles. His timing is exceptional, which makes him a punishing counterpuncher. In short, he strikes like a much more experienced fighter.
The only problem with this game is a lack of volume, but for now, Pavlovich's power, accuracy and command of distance have prevented opponents from putting a pace on him.
The takedown game is always there for Pavlovich when he needs it. He has a great arsenal of throws in the clinch and quick, explosive double-leg takedowns. They're almost always effective, but he utilizes them more as a change of pace than a consistent piece of his approach. On top, Pavlovich is mostly content to land a couple of strikes, control for a while and then try to land when his opponent stands up.
Pavlovich has been fighting professionally for only two years, and it wouldn't be surprising if he took a little more time before showing up in a big promotion. When he does, though, watch out: This is a monster in the making.
6. Mikhail Mokhnatkin
Division: Light Heavyweight
Promotion: Eurasia Fight Nights
Record: 9-1-2 (2 KO, 5 SUB, 2 DEC)
Russia's Mikhail Mokhnatkin has been around as a top prospect for a while, first putting himself on the map with a one-sided win over veteran Valentijn Overeem back in 2013. He's just hitting his stride now, though, notching wins over UFC veterans Fabio Maldonado and Ednaldo Oliveira in the last 15 months and drawing with established fighters like Alexei Kudin and Jiri Prochazka.
A sambo practitioner who won a Russian title in 2012, Mokhnatkin brings a well-rounded approach into the cage. The southpaw likes to strike, moving well and cutting angles as he drops hard kicks and the occasional punching combination. He could stand to throw a bit more volume, but he's crisp, technical and defensively sound as he picks and chooses his shots.
The real meat of Mokhnatkin's game lies in his takedown and grappling acumen. The Russian has a wide variety of takedowns, including trips and throws in the clinch to go along with solid chains of singles and doubles. On the mat, he controls and wears his opponent down until a flurry of finishing blows presents itself or he can safely work toward a submission.
Now 27 years old, with a deep base of quality experience under his belt, Mokhnatkin is ready to make a move to a bigger promotion.
5. Lowen Tynanes
Promotion: ONE Championship
Record: 9-0 (2 KO, 4 SUB, 3 DEC)
Country: United States
While he hasn't been particularly active over the last several years, Tynanes' performances have left no doubt as to his skill and potential. The 26-year-old Hawaiian was sixth on last year's list and fought just once in 2016, winning a dominant three-round decision over Japanese veteran Koji Ando.
Athleticism and well-rounded skills define Tynanes' game. He's fast, explosive, strong and powerful and puts those tools to good use in the cage. Flashiness isn't Tynanes' thing—just technically sound, meat-and-potatoes work in every phase executed with serious physicality.
Striking isn't Tynanes' wheelhouse, but he's more than competent. He has real power in his hands and throws vicious low kicks and hard combinations with good mechanics, though he could stand to throw more volume.
The real strength of Tynanes' game lies in his wrestling and grappling. His level change and shot are ultra-quick and explosive, and once he gets his hands on his opponent, he's a monster. He finishes takedowns with authority, but he can also put together grinding chains against the fence to wear his opponent down.
From top position, Tynanes passes smoothly, maintains a heavy base and has great posture, which allows him to throw potent ground strikes. Getting to the back and finding the rear-naked choke is a specialty.
Now nearly six years into his professional career, Tynanes is at the crossroads. Per Shaun al-Shatti of MMA Fighting, he has just one fight left on his ONE Championship contract, though the promotion doesn't seem to be in any hurry to get him that final fight. Tynanes is in his prime and ready for top-flight challenges.
4. Mateusz Gamrot
Record: 12-0 (4 KO, 3 SUB, 5 DEC)
Poland's Gamrot has been one of the best lightweights outside the major promotions for the last couple of years, holding wins over a who's who of Europe's best 155-pounders.
Physicality is the name of Gamrot's game. He's thick and powerfully built, with great strength and speed, and he does his best work when he gets his hands on his opponent. Low singles or ankle picks lead into constant chains of singles, doubles and trips that end only when the opponent's back hits the floor and stays there. From there, Gamrot controls and lands shots while occasionally looking for a pass to a dominant position.
Transitions are the strength of this game. Gamrot is happy to let his opponent scramble and move under him, since that opens up opportunities either to get to the back, snag a leglock or, more likely, land punches and knees. It's a grinding approach that wears the opponent down quickly.
Striking isn't Gamrot's strong suit. He has real power in his hands but doesn't throw enough volume and gets hit far too much for comfort. His punches mostly serve to disguise his level changes and clinch entries, but opponents who decide not to respect his hands can land on him without much trouble and shut down his takedowns.
Now 12-0, with a pair of impressive wins in 2016, Gamrot will never be more ready to start facing elite competition. He has nothing left to learn or prove on the regional scene, and the time is now for him to take the next step in his career.
3. Abubakar Nurmagomedov
Promotion: World Series of Fighting
Record: 13-1 (7 KO, 3 SUB, 3 DEC)
The cousin and adopted brother of rising UFC star Khabib, Abubakar Nurmagomedov is quickly carving out a place for himself as an up-and-coming talent in his own right. The only defeat on his ledger came against current UFC lightweight Magomed Mustafaev (a serious fighter to watch) by cut stoppage back in 2014.
Nurmagomedov isn't his cousin; he lacks Khabib's top-shelf athletic gifts and raw power, along with his preternatural ability on the mat. On the other hand, he's a much more measured and crisp striker, flicking a sharp jab and hard punching combinations as he comes forward. His footwork in particular is excellent.
In other ways, he fights very much like Khabib. He's aggressive, but not foolishly so, and does an excellent job of cutting off the cage and forcing his opponent to the fence.
Once he gets his hands on his opponent, Nurmagomedov is stifling. He puts together the same kinds of creative and seemingly endless chains of takedowns, blending trips, throws, shots and everything else into a seamless whole. There's no escape, and the only real question is how much time and energy the opponent will burn before he ends up on the floor.
Nurmagomedov is a handful on the mat too. He likes to let his opponent move underneath him more than a traditional top-control specialist but nevertheless maintains effortless control as he hammers away with hard ground strikes. When the moment is right, he passes into a dominant position and bombs away. He's not as violent as Khabib, nor is he as accomplished a submission artist, but he's still a top-shelf grappler.
While he'll continue to improve for a while yet, Nurmagomedov is now in his prime. Since his lone loss, Nurmagomedov has run off five consecutive victories; the most recent was a clear decision win over longtime UFC veteran John Howard. The only reasonable next steps for him are either a welterweight title shot in World Series of Fighting or a move to a bigger promotion.
2. Angela Lee
Promotion: ONE Championship
Record: 6-0 (5 SUB, 1 DEC)
Country: United States
Hawaii's Lee has been a professional for just shy of two years and won't be able to legally drink until this summer, but she's proved to be nothing short of a phenom in her brief career. The 20-year-old could be the next big thing not just in ONE Championship, which has hosted all of her pro bouts, but in women's MMA as a whole.
Lee's style is electric and all action. She's combines quickness and athleticism with toughness and aggression, coming after her opponent from the opening bell in every phase of the fight. A willing and improving striker, Lee puts together crisp punching combinations and hard kicks and has shown a particular knack for working on the counter.
For the most part, though, Lee's strikes are a distraction: She wants to get inside where she can work her explosive, high-amplitude takedown game. Suplexes, step-outside throws, head-and-arm throws and more meat-and-potatoes trips give her an array of options for getting her opponent to the canvas.
Grappling is Lee's wheelhouse. She's a creative and unique talent on the mat, and watching her grapple, it's easy to get the sense you're seeing the future of the MMA ground game.
Everything flows together in her mat work. Submission attempts open up passes, which lead to opportunities for strikes, which lead to submissions and so on. Her array of submissions is bewildering in its depth and creativity, from arm-triangle chokes to guillotines to twisters to armbars to omoplatas and everything in between. Getting to the back and finishing with chokes and neck cranks is a particular specialty.
Lee is still only 20 and makes huge improvements between every fight. Although she's an atomweight right now, there's a good chance she'll outgrow the division, and when she does, there will be a variety of money fights waiting for her at 115 pounds. She's one of the most promising young fighters the sport has seen in the last few years.
1. Tom Duquesnoy
Promotion: UFC (formerly BAMMA)
Record: 14-1, 1 NC (7 KO, 4 SUB, 3 DEC)
Tom Duquesnoy isn't just the top prospect on this list for the second year running; he's one of the most talented newcomers at the top of the sport in the last few years, standing alongside fighters like Thomas Almeida, Aljamain Sterling and Mirsad Bektic in terms of the hype he carries into his UFC debut in April.
The 23-year-old Frenchman can do everything well, and he does it all with flair and killer instinct. He's quick, athletic, physical and fights with a mean edge that belies his baby-faced good looks and easy charisma. He's a true native of MMA, so there are no dividing lines between the various pieces of Duquesnoy's game; he flows like water from one range or phase to the next.
Here's an example of one of his favorite sequences: a long straight left as he moves forward into the clinch, duck under the counter to grab underhooks, transition from there to a collar-tie, a hard knee, then an elbow as he breaks the clinch and finally a hard low kick as he steps back to long range. All of that goes down in the space of just a few seconds.
What sets Duquesnoy apart from most fighters who excel in transitions is his comfort in any one of those ranges or phases for an extended period. He doesn't have to fake level changes or clinch entries to strike effectively or freeze an opponent with strikes in order to hit takedowns. He can scramble on the mat like few others, but he can also grapple in long sequences if he wants.
In sum, Duquesnoy is effective everywhere, and like a young Jose Aldo, he's constantly looking for a violent finish. If that weren't enough, Duquesnoy is smart, makes good decisions in the cage and is well coached by the team at Jackson-Wink MMA in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Duquesnoy will debut in the UFC soon, and don't be surprised if he follows the Conor McGregor track to rapid stardom. He has the talent, the looks, the charisma and the skills for that to happen quickly.