As 2022 comes to a close, we all know what time it is. It’s time for end-of-year awards in addition to predictions for the upcoming year. Rather than get all elaborate about it, this is one of the prediction articles… as I’m sure you guessed by the title. I did this last year and while I wasn’t perfect, I didn’t do too badly. It also forces me to put a critical eye the youthful fighters as I select one fighter from each division. Let’s jump into the criteria.
The criteria: the fighter needs to have made their UFC debut in 2021 or later or have three or less fights within the organization in addition to not having cracked the UFC’s official rankings at any point. Not that I put much stock in the UFC’s rankings, but it’s a criteria that is simple, understood, and easy to adhere to. I will choose one person from each division, sans the women’s featherweight division for obvious reasons. The purpose of this is less to give a detailed description of each of the fighters, but to give an idea of who might be worth keeping an eye on when there are so many names on the roster to choose from and open up the comments to discussion as I’ll be the first to admit there are plenty of names that aren’t on this list. Here we go!
Heavyweight: The heavyweight division may be the easiest division to single out an up-and-coming talent. Had he stayed exclusively at light heavyweight, there’s a good chance Jailton Almeida would be ineligible to be label a breakout candidate as I find it hard to believe he wouldn’t have a number next to his name. At 31, the Brazilian is still fresh faced for the division and he’s blown through all three of his UFC opponents thus far. The scariest part is that he’s not doing it in one single area; Almeida is winning his fights any way that he wants. He claims he wants to win the title in both the heavyweight and light heavyweight divisions, but given his last two have come within the confines in the heavyweight division and his next fight is scheduled at heavyweight, I have a hard time believing he’s going back to 205.
Light Heavyweight: I lucked out a bit here. I probably should have picked Carlos Ulberg for this spot last year. However, based on the criteria I have set for myself, he’s still eligible for me to select for this year. There’s never been any doubt about Ulberg’s physical talents. He’s got a huge frame, technically sound striking, and more than sufficient power to make some noise. The question had been his fight IQ and cardio after Ulberg bombed in his UFC debut. Well, he’s redeemed himself since then, stringing together three consecutive wins since that point. Even more promising, each of those wins have been increasingly impressive. One more win and Ulberg is likely to be in the official UFC rankings… and he’ll probably be there for a long time if the trend for the last decade continues to hold.
Middleweight: There were a couple of reasonable names to sift through at middleweight. There’s some green talent that are still very much learning on the job. There’s a few veterans who are about as good as they’re going to get, just needing an opportunity to shine. I opted to go with the choice that I believe has a foot in both those worlds. Caio Borralho isn’t making it on highlight reels with his methodical performances, but he is showing a high level of intelligence. I’m more impressed with his smothering grappling thus far, but the Brazilian has shown the maturity and experience to find more than his share of success on the feet if that’s where the fight takes him. Plus, he showed on his second DWCS appearance that he can finish a fight if that’s what is asked of him. Borralho isn’t the flashiest pick, but I believe he’s the best pick to break into the rankings within the next year.
Welterweight: Most other years, I’d probably be alright to settle on someone like Phil Rowe for this spot. However, prospects like Jack Della Maddalena give off a particularly special vibe. The Aussie has secured three first round finishes against increasingly difficult opposition. Thus, while his win over Pete Rodriguez isn’t going to turn many heads, some attention should be paid to what he did to the likes of the durable Ramazan Emeev and dangerous Danny Roberts. Della Maddalena possesses a natural feel for striking, not forcing anything but still producing enough power to end his opponent’s night early. Plus, he’s been showing improved wrestling with every contest. I hate to predict which of these fighters is most likely to become a champion someday, but Della Maddalena would be my choice if forced to do so.
Lightweight: Since the UFC once again became committed to the lightweight division, there has never been a shortage of lightweights on the roster. What there has been is a shortage of top prospects. Some will point to Paddy Pimblett, but I don’t know a serious MMA mind that sees him becoming UFC champion someday. On the other hand, it isn’t hard to see Terrance McKinney strapping UFC gold around his waist. There are some pacing issues he’ll need to work on before anyone will take that prospect seriously – he never has gone to a decision – but there’s been enough subtle signs of maturity from the elite athlete to believe he can put everything together. Plus, his most impressive performance in the UFC may be the lone loss on his ledger as he came thisclose to putting away Drew Dober. Given McKinney’s other three UFC performances were first round finishes indicates how special of a talent he appears to be.
Featherweight: Aside from the prospects that have already broken into the official UFC rankings, featherweight is devoid of major standout prospects. That isn’t to say they are without prospects, but there are major question marks attached to them all. For instance, Melsik Baghdasaryan’s ground game is still untested. His late start in MMA is another reason for concern, though that didn’t stop Alex Pereira from becoming a champion. Francis Marshall looks promising too, but he’s still young enough in his career that I’m not sold on him yet. Even the fighter I’m ultimately settling on, David Onama, has a huge cloud over his head given his association with James Krause. We’ve already seen Jeff Molina suspended for what appears to be his ties with Krause; will the same thing happen to Onama? If not, Onama has proven to have the power, durability, and toughness to be a major player. Experience is the main thing he needs. I’m going out on a limb in picking him, but I do believe he has the tools to be special.
Bantamweight: Bantamweight offers more clarity in their prospects than featherweight, but there doesn’t appear to be anyone ready to hit the big stage quite yet. I know everyone is excited about 18-year-old Raul Rosas Jr., but the UFC is going to slow roll him. He isn’t on the verge of big things, at least not quite yet. Christian Rodriguez offers a lot of promise too, but I think he’s still a bit early in his development to be the breakout candidate of the year. Thus, while I don’t believe Javid Basharat has the ceiling of either Rosas or Rodriguez, I do believe he’s further along in his development that I expect he’ll either be fighting ranked opponents or in the rankings himself by the end of the year. The Afghani fighter is merely a good athlete, but he fights with a veteran savvy that belies his 27 years. Basharat’s well-rounded, technical game will take him further than his physical traits indicate he should go.
Flyweight: The obvious choice is Muhammad Mokaev, but the Brit has already broken into the official rankings, making him ineligible based on my criteria. However, the second choice besides Mokaev isn’t too difficult to decipher either as Tatsuro Taira has some backers that believe he’s going to be the better long-term prospect than Mokaev. Taira isn’t quite as explosive as Mokaev, but he has the more fundamentally sound ground game that has proven to be more adapt to MMA than Mokaev’s more traditional wrestling background. Taira’s striking still has some loose ends to work out if he wants to be competitive against the elite, but I wouldn’t say it’s porous. Regardless, at 22, he’s Japan’s best chance for a champion for the next several years and has his best years ahead of him.
Women’s Bantamweight: There are only three women who have made their official UFC debuts since 2021 on the UFC roster. The lack of bodies on the roster leaves the options very limited. Nonetheless, provided she can prove she can make the 135-pound limit consistently, there’s no reason to believe Chelsea Chandler won’t prove to be a major force sooner rather than later. She does require some more refinement in all aspects – she only has six professional contests – but the way she physically dominated Julija Stoliarenko indicates she’s already in prime position to make a rapid ascent up the shallow divisional ranks. Given the top of the division should be aging out soon enough, there’s room for Chandler to end up near the top of the division sooner rather than later.
Women’s Flyweight: Without a doubt, flyweight is the deepest women’s division. Some may be confused by that statement given the long reign of the current champion, Valentina Shevchenko. However, there appears to be a storm of challengers on the horizon. The likes of Manon Fiorot, Erin Blanchfield, Casey O’Neill, and Tracy Cortez have all burst into the rankings in the past two years and look like they should challenge for the title at the very least at some point in their careers. I have no doubt Natalia Silva has the physical skills to do the same thing. Whether she can put it all together against quality competition is what we have yet to see. Given the way she styled on Jasmine Jasudavicius and overcame the early onslaught of Tereza Bleda – another quality prospect – it looks like Silva is going to be a real force the very near future. Silva has shown the flash to put together a hell of a highlight reel, but she’s going to have to show a bit more in the fundamentals before everyone is sold on her as a future contender.
Women’s Strawweight: The quantity is there for the strawweight division in terms of prospects. Unfortunately, the quality isn’t quite at the same level. Not that there isn’t any quality, but the lack of obvious future stars in combination with the questions still surrounding the present crop makes this a difficult division to figure out who the best breakout candidate would be. I picked Tabatha Ricci last year, but she didn’t fight enough to have a potential breakout. That said, I don’t want to be picking the same fighter two years in a row. Thus, while I like what I’ve seen from Yazmin Jauregui enough to pick her to be the breakout fighter in the division, I admit there are some reservations. Then again, the 23-year-old Mexico native has plenty of room to grow and has already proven to be someone who should be a fun staple in the division for years to come. She’ll need to boost her ground game and diversify her standup, but her boxing base is more than enough for her to work with.
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