Searching for Future Champions: MMA’s Top 25 Prospects, Recap and Analysis

It's been a long couple of months since I first opened an Excel spreadsheet and titled it "Small Prospect Project". Obviously this has turned…

By: Patrick Wyman | 10 years ago
Searching for Future Champions: MMA’s Top 25 Prospects, Recap and Analysis
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

It’s been a long couple of months since I first opened an Excel spreadsheet and titled it “Small Prospect Project”. Obviously this has turned out to be not so small, but I couldn’t be happier with the way it’s turned out, and I wanted to start off by thanking everyone who’s taken the time to read and comment since the first piece went up just before Christmas. A special tip of the hat goes out to DPK, whose weekly prospect report and top-10 lists for each weight class were an an incredible source for this project. Be sure to check out his work in the Fanposts and follow him on Twitter @TheRealDPK.

What was the method, you might ask, to my madness? I began by analyzing the 2011 and 2012 World MMA Scouting Reports, the brainchild of Leland Roling and Smoogy, which scouted a total of 150 prospects over the course of two years. I published the results of that research here, and isolated three factors that were most predictive of a prospect’s future success. First, the vast majority of prospects who end up finding success in the UFC start their professional careers before age 25, and almost never after age 30. Second, successful prospects generally enter the UFC between three and five years after beginning to fight professionally; less experienced fighters are either true phenoms, like Jon Jones, or have glaring holes that opponents find and exploit, while more experienced guys (7+ years as a pro) tend to be finished products without a ton of additional upside. Finally, and most importantly, fighters from the major camps are more than three times as likely to make it to the UFC and be successful once they’ve arrived as their counterparts from smaller and less prestigious training environments.

Using these findings as a guide, I set about cutting a list of more than 400 potential entries down to an eventual 25. I excluded fighters signed to Bellator due to the contractual restrictions and fighters currently on a season of the Ultimate Fighter. Why not do a top-ten list for each weight class, you ask? Well, talent isn’t evenly distributed across weight classes, and I decided from the beginning that I was looking for the fighters most likely to reach the pinnacle of their division. Frankly, I didn’t see a lot of value in watching tape of bad heavyweights who are extremely unlikely to ever make it to the UFC, let alone contend. This allowed me to be more selective and investigate prospects in a great deal of detail. Once I’d used these three simple guidelines to cut the pool down from 400 to roughly 75, I started watching video. Lots and lots and lots of video. At this point, I feel like I should be on a first-name basis with the announcers from Jungle Fight and M-1.

But I digress. Once I started watching video, I rated the prospects in six categories: striking, wrestling/clinch fighting, grappling, upside, power/finishing ability, and raw athleticism, with particular weight given to athleticism. Fighters without substantial speed and explosiveness are a real rarity at the highest levels of MMA these days – the time when a guy like Forrest Griffin could contend on toughness, solid technique, and volume are long since past – and my selection process for the list reflects the changing landscape of the sport.

Without further ado, let’s recap the list itself, with links to the individual articles in the story stream on the right side of the page and collected at the bottom of the article:

25) Steve Mocco, HW

24) Michinori Tanaka, BW

23) Nick Newell, LW

22) Max Nunes, MW

21) Gleristone Santos, FW

20) Walter Gahadza, WW

19) Ramazan Emeev, MW

18) Rick Glenn, FW

17) Georgi Karakhanyan, FW

16) Jim Alers, FW

15) Tyrone Spong, LHW

14) Marlon Moraes, BW

13) Mansour Barnaoui, LW

12) Islam Makhachev, LW

11) Niklas Backstrom, FW

10) Sheymon Moraes, BW

9) Marif Piraev, WW

8) Pedro Munhoz, BW

7) Mike Rhodes, WW

6) Henry Cejudo, FLW

5) Lance Palmer, FW

4) Thomas de Almeida, BW

3) Justin Gaethje, LW

2) Aljamain Sterling, BW

1) Mirsad Bektic, FW

Broken down by weight class, we have:

HW (1): Steve Mocco

LHW: (1): Tyrone Spong

MW (2): Max Nunes, Ramazan Emeev

WW (3): Walter Gahadza, Marif Piraev, Mike Rhodes

LW (4): Nick Newell, Mansour Barnaoui, Islam Makhachev, Justin Gaethje

FW (7): Gleristone Santos, Rick Glenn, Georgi Karakhanyan, Jim Alers, Niklas Backstrom, Lance Palmer, Mirsad Bektic

BW (6): Michinori Tanaka, Marlon Moraes, Sheymon Moraes, Pedro Munhoz, Thomas de Almeida, Aljamain Sterling

FLW (1): Henry Cejudo

Several of those fighters are almost certain to drop down, namely Emeev to WW, Piraev to LW, Makhachev to FW, and Tanaka to FLW. The lack of welterweights might seem a bit surprising, given the historic depth of the weight class, but bear in mind that the UFC has gone on something of a hiring spree over the last year, signing guys like Albert Tumenov, Alex Garcia, Brandon Thatch, and Hernani Perpetuo outright, with Dhiego Lima and Cathal Pendred holding down spots on TUF 19. It’d be surprising if a new crop of promising welterweights didn’t emerge over the next year, but right now it’s relatively clear of high-level prospects. If you were worried about the UFC’s long-term depth at FW or BW, this group of fighters should put your mind at ease. It’ll take a couple of years for them to develop to the point where they’re contending, but the talent here is ridiculous.

The lack of up-and-comers at heavyweight and light heavyweight is unfortunate, but also unsurprising. They’re thin divisions to begin with, and blue chip prospects are rarer than hen’s teeth. On the flip side, those kinds of prospects tend to emerge and get signed very quickly (less than two years from professional to UFC debut, on average), so there’s also less scope for scouting them. The lack of depth at MW is somewhat more surprising, and more worrisome, though unlike the case with HW and LHW, the UFC has a few good young fighters signed at the moment. It’ll be interesting to see whether more good prospects emerge over the next year, making this point in time an anomaly, or whether this is the new norm for the middleweight division.

Let’s return to the prospects themselves. There’s a great deal of stylistic diversity here, and anybody worried about the homogenization of the sport at the highest levels shouldn’t be: there are a lot of different ways to be really, really good at MMA, and these prospects are a microcosm of that diversity. We have vicious strikers, fantastic wrestlers, deadly submission grapplers, Sambists proficient in the transitional phases, and MMA natives who blend everything together seamlessly. With that said, there are only a few prospects on the list who have a huge, glaring flaw somewhere in their game: Steve Mocco’s striking comes to mind, as does (presumably) Tyrone Spong’s grappling, but neither is completely helpless outside their specialty area. In general, I avoided specialists in favor of young guys with the potential to grow into well rounded, complete fighters.

If there’s one overarching trend to draw from this group of prospects, however, it’s the vast improvement in the level of striking skill that will be making its way to the UFC in the near future. Even if Tyrone Spong never sets foot inside a cage again, there are plenty of prospects who can carry the flag: Gleristone Santos is fantastic, for example, while Marlon Moraes, Sheymon Moraes, and Thomas de Almeida would each challenge for the title of “best striker at bantamweight” the moment they signed a UFC contract. Even the more wrestling- and grappling-based fighters are getting better: former collegiate wrestler Justin Gaethje is a wrecking machine on the feet, Henry Cejudo’s shown a real affinity for striking, and Lance Palmer’s coming along nicely under the tutelage of Duane Ludwig.

I thought it might be interesting to do a rundown of the list, so here’s my assessment:

Best striker: Tyrone Spong, hands down; he requires no introduction. Sheymon Moraes is the logical second choice, though. The Team Nogueira product has nearly 70 Muay Thai fights on his record, and he’s spent a ton of time living, training, and fighting against world-class competition in Thailand. Thomas de Almeida has the best counter game, while Marlon Moraes is a hellaciously fun striker as well.

Best wrestler: A tie between Cejudo and Mocco. Cejudo won the gold medal, obviously, but Mocco has the deeper history of world-class competition. I think Cejudo’s game will probably translate a little better over the long term, though, as his particular style of leg attacks and enormous throws are particularly well suited for MMA. Bektic probably does the best job of setting up his takedowns with his strikes. I hesitate to make the comparison, but that particular skill (not his overall game) is almost reminiscent of Georges St-Pierre.

Best grappler: There are several good choices here depending on your aesthetic and taste. Pedro Munhoz is a no-gi champion and probably has the best pure grappling credentials, Niklas Backstrom is a Swedish submission wrestling champ with a truly awesome top game (he soundly outgrappled a legit world champion and Grand Master of Combat Sambo, Sergej Grecicho), and Georgi Karakhanyan has a deep and wicked submission repertoire, but I’m partial to the MMA-specific stylings of Jim Alers. His brand of seamlessly integrated ground striking, positional improvements, and submissions in transition is a fine representative of the future of MMA grappling.

Best blending of skills: Bektic is a strong candidate and Alers puts things together beautifully, but I think this crown has to go to Aljamain Sterling. Every aspect of his game blends together seamlessly, and he transitions beautifully from phase to phase.

Best power: On the feet, it’s probably Justin Gaethje, whose punches send his opponents flying like something out of a cartoon. On the ground, it’s unquestionably Mirsad Bektic, who throws strikes at the rate and with the power of a particularly angry and relentless jackhammer.

Best athlete: Without measurables like the NFL combine, you have to rely on the visual evidence, which is inherently subjective. The easy answer is Cejudo – he was a gold medalist, after all – but no prospect I watched jumped off the screen the way that Sheymon Moraes did: he consistently makes his opponents look like they’re standing still. Another sneaky choice would be Mansour Barnaoui, who gets more elevation on his jumping knees than just about anybody I’ve ever seen.

Most upside: Mirsad Bektic, Aljamain Sterling, Sheymon Moraes, Mansour Barnaoui, and Walter Gahadza.

Signed to the UFC: Tanaka, Munhoz, Rhodes, and Sterling. The recently signed Yosdenis Cedeno was one of the honorable mentions.

Signed to WSOF: Mocco, Newell, Glenn, Karakhanyan, Spong, M. Moraes, Palmer, and Gaethje.

Signed to Bellator: None.

Ready for the UFC right now: Santos, Emeev, Glenn, Karakhanyan, Alers, M. Moraes, and Gaethje. I can’t for the life of me understand why Santos and Alers haven’t received an offer; neither has anything left to prove at the regional level.

Safe picks: Lance Palmer, Pedro Munhoz, Marlon Moraes, and Justin Gaethje.

Risky picks: Walter Gahadza, Mansour Barnaoui, Niklas Backstrom, and Henry Cejudo. Gahadza has massive potential but comes from an unproven camp, Barnaoui does literally zero self-promotion, and Backstrom’s failure to maintain an active schedule has led to him falling off promoters’ radars. A matchmaker for a large regional organization expressed those concerns about Backstrom to me, and I buy his assessment. As Cejudo’s last fight in Legacy demonstrated, it’s hard to tell precisely how seriously he’s taking his career as a fighter.

Scouting prospects, regardless of the sport, is an inherently imprecise proposition. t’s even more uncertain for MMA: video can be nonexistent or of poor quality, record-keeping is inconsistent, and information is hard to come by or of uncertain veracity. This is also a sport with a brief history of methodical scouting and even less in the way of analytical rigor applied to those methods. I don’t expect to be right about every fighter on this list: in fact, I assume that I’ll miss on at least a third of them, and there will probably be one or two guys who never even fight again. However, in combination with the data I gathered during my investigation of Leland and Smoogy’s report, I do expect to be able to improve my methods as this project continues over the next year. Thanks for reading along, and keep your eyes peeled for future updates.

Questions? Comments? Sound off and I’ll do my best to answer.

The articles:

Revisiting the World MMA Scouting Report

Honorable Mentions and Methods

25-23: Steve Mocco, Michinori Tanaka, and Nick Newell

22-20: Max Nunes, Gleristone Santos, and Walter Gahadza

19-18: Ramazan Emeev and Rick Glenn

17-16: Georgi Karakhanyan and Jim Alers

15-14: Tyrone Spong and Marlon Moraes

13-12: Mansour Barnaoui and Islam Makhachev

11: Niklas Backstrom

10: Sheymon Moraes

9: Marif Piraev

8: Pedro Munhoz

7: Mike Rhodes

6: Henry Cejudo

5: Lance Palmer

4: Thomas de Almeida

3: Justin Gaethje

2: Aljamain Sterling

1: Mirsad Bektic

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Patrick Wyman
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