This is a quick and dirty guide to MMA’s top five unsigned (i.e. not in Bellator, the UFC, or WSOF) prospects. I’ve picked the list with an eye toward fighters who have beaten good competition, whose skills are deep enough to be ready to face top opposition, and who should be relatively free to sign with the UFC based on contract status. They’re all somewhere between good and outstanding athletes with plus physical tools. Of the dozens of fighters populating the varied landscape of regional promotions who are good enough to receive a UFC offer, these are the cream of the crop right now.
1. Thomas de Almeida (16-0), bantamweight
Years pro: 3
Camp: Chute Boxe
Next fight: June 20th, Legacy Fighting Championship 32, vs. Caio Machado
Sixteen fights, sixteen wins, sixteen finishes. Thomas Almeida is a terrifying ball of eight-limbed Muay Thai destruction who would be one of the two or three best strikers in the UFC’s bantamweight division if he were signed today. Despite his fine technical skill on the feet, Almeida’s greatest asset might be his offensive output. He pushes an extremely quick pace that he can maintain deep into the fight, and this is something that tends to translate extremely well to higher levels of competition. Mostly a puncher, Almeida overwhelms his opponent with powerful and rapid head-body combinations. He rips a beautiful left hook to the liver, throws a nice overhand, and possesses fantastic elbows. Here are a few GIFs to get you better acquainted with his body of work:
GIF via Caposa
GIF via Zombie Prophet
As you can tell, Almeida has ferocious finishing instincts: when he smells blood, he pounces. He’s a bit hittable, but he rarely gets wild, even in exchanges. Over a limited sample, he’s shown outstanding takedown defense, and his clinch skills are somewhere between good and excellent. We don’t know much about his grappling game, but again, over small samples there’s good reason to think he’s at least competent. All of this is complemented by his plus athleticism, power born of fine technical command, and at a relatively thick 5’7, good size for the division.
Almeida’s training situation at Chute Boxe is solid. Although the camp is past its Shogun/Wanderlei glory days, there’s an excellent crop of young fighters in Curitiba these days, and the coaching remains good enough to consistently do a good job of developing prospects . Almeida is scheduled to fight for the Legacy bantamweight title on Friday, and if he wins (he’ll be a substantial favorite), there’s every reason to think he’ll be signed by the UFC in the very near future.
For a more in-depth look at Almeida, check out the scouting report I wrote about him back in February. Here’s the video, starting with the most recent:
2. Scott Askham (12-0), middleweight
Years pro: 3.75
Camp: Ludus Magnus
Askham, the BAMMA middleweight champion, has rung up an undefeated record against sterling quality of competition. With his recent victory over Max Nunes and the UFC’s signing of Bubba Bush, Askham becomes the unquestioned rather than just the likely choice for the world’s best middleweight prospect. In fact, I’d pick him against just about any middleweight not currently signed to the UFC with the possible exception of Yushin Okami, and even that would be a pretty close matchup.
While he’s a well above-average striker at range with a solid arsenal of powerful kicks and punches from his southpaw stance (he has a four-second KO on his record), Askham’s real strength lies in the clinch. He uses his height and leverage to good effect, and he’s knocked out multiple opponents with barrages of vicious knees. Here’s a representative example:
In addition to his sterling offensive ability in the clinch and at range, Askham’s a perfectly serviceable wrestler with a solid control game and ground and pound from the top, and he’s good enough to survive off his back. His best assets, however, are his above-average athleticism and his ability to push a brutal, punishing pace. Against fighters he can’t finish, and they’ll certainly exist as he moves up the ladder, Askham’s volume and process are good enough to win decisions.
The only real concerns about Askham have to do with his training situation. He works out of a small and unknown gym in the UK, Ludus Magnus, with no track record of developing top-flight fighters. If he moves to a known camp, Askham could easily become a top-5 fighter. If not, it’s hard to say, but he’s still an exceptional talent.
Here’s the video, starting with his most recent fight:
3. Musa Khamanaev (14-3), lightweight
Years pro: 6.25 (with a few long gaps)
Camp: Legion Fight Team
Khamanaev is the current M-1 lightweight champion with a strong record against excellent opposition, including recent Bellator tournament winner Daniel Weichel. The 26-year-old Chechen is an outstanding athlete with massive power packed into his squat frame, and as we’ve come to expect from fighters coming out of the North Caucasus, he possesses a fantastic wrestling base to go along with high-level skills in Combat Sambo. Khamanaev’s takedowns are slick, technical, and ultra-quick. Here are a couple of examples:
Once the fight hits the mat, however, Khamanaev is far from a practitioner of lay-and-pray. His ground and pound is ridiculous:
Even from inside the guard, Khamanaev can generate tremendous power. He complements his ground striking with a sneaky submission game that features ultra-fast and particularly vicious heel hooks: Weichel, for example, is a rock-solid submission grappler, and he tapped within seconds. Khamanaev’s striking is still a work in progress, though he throws hard, looping combinations at short range and does an excellent job of using them to cover his takedown attempts.
I’d be very surprised if the UFC didn’t sign him in the very near future. Khamanaev is currently a free agent, his contract with M-1 having expired in May, and he’s reportedly entertaining offers. In order to reach his full potential, he’ll probably need to drop to featherweight; he’s thick, but like most fighters from Russia, it’s likely that he doesn’t cut much to hit the 155-pound limit. A move to the US would likewise be helpful for him; although Legion is a perfectly competent camp, we’ve seen very few high-level fighters who train exclusively in Russia. In any case, however, Khamanaev is ready to fight top-20 competition right now.
4. Islam Makhachev (10-0), lightweight
Years pro: 4
Makhachev has flown under the radar for a while now, but I think his time as a dark horse is coming to an end. The longtime training partner and close friend of Khabib Nurmagomedov – the UFC lightweight has been in his corner for several of his recent fights – is ready to step into the spotlight himself after wins over good competition, including top prospect Mansour Barnaoui.
A strong wrestler with a background in Combat Sambo, Makhachev boasts quick and technical takedowns both on shots and from the clinch, an excellent top game, and more than competent striking that features quick and powerful punch-kick combinations at range. His takedown defense could use some work, but if he drops to featherweight – it seems likely to me that he will, based on his relative lack of musculature for lightweight – that problem would largely solve itself. In all, Makhachev has a gorgeously well-rounded game without any real weaknesses. Here are a couple of highlights:
Makhachev has been trained by Nurmagomedov’s father, a highly respected Judo black belt, Sambo coach, and wrestler for quite some time, and he’s also working with Khabib himself whenever he’s home in Dagestan. Although he still seems to be under contract to M-1 Global, I’d be very surprised if he weren’t in the UFC by this time next year. Given how close he is to Nurmagomedov, I’d also be surprised if he didn’t venture to the US for training, and if he does so the sky’s the limit for Makhachev.
For a more in-depth scouting report on Makhachev, here’s what I wrote about him back in January.
5. Gleristone Santos (26-4), featherweight
Years pro: 8.5
Camp: Brazilian Top Team
Gleristone Santos seems like he’s been a top prospect forever, and really, he has been. At this point, it’s inexplicable that he hasn’t been picked up by World Series of Fighting, Bellator, or the UFC: he’s beaten every regional fighter of note at featherweight in Brazil, he’s 8-0 as a featherweight, and his only loss in the last five years is to UFC veteran Carlo Prater. He’s more than earned his chance to compete with the best in the world, and there’s every reason to think that he has the skills to find success at that level.
Santos is exceptionally well rounded. His striking is polished and highly technical, with sharp and powerful punching combinations punctuated by hard kicks and the occasional spinning technique. His size accentuates his solid offensive and defensive wrestling and makes his excellent clinch game even better. When the fight hits the ground, he implements a brutal and suffocating top game that mixes ground striking, positional advancement, and submissions in equal measure. Check out the beating he put on UFC veteran Alvin Robinson for a good example (GIF via Caposa).
The longtime Brazilian Top Team fighter has a great training situation under the direction of the respected Murilo Bustamante. He’s currently signed to the revamped Titan Fighting Championship, and therefore his contract includes an out-clause that allows him to leave for the UFC if they make an offer. They’d be well advised to do so. Given his ability to finish a fight at any range and in any phase, he’s dynamic and exciting, and he legitimately has the skills to be a top 10 fighter very quickly.
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