Worldwide MMA Prospect Report (7/8 – 7/14)

This was a week of extremes in MMA, as the UFC had one of its biggest headlining fights of the year in McGregor-Poirier 3 but there were very few other shows held throughout the world. Maybe it’s a coincidence, or maybe there was a collective realization that all eyes will be on the UFC and it might be better for your viewership to have your show another week. As a result, this is by far the shortest Worldwide Prospect Report that I’ve written, and also the first in which several entire weight classes didn’t see a single fighter fight.

One of the bigger regional shows of the week was a joint event between Serbian Battle Championship and the M-1 MMA Series. M-1’s reorganized promotion had only gone as far west as Ukraine or Belarus before, so this was an important step towards expanding their mainland European talent pool and appeal. 

First time reading the column? You can catch a quick explanation of the ranking system here

Welterweights

Aymard Guih: Improves to 15-11-1

Previous ranking: 1.5, #188 LW prospect

New ranking: 1.5, #196 WW prospect

Guih has bounced around the European regional scene, especially France, for years, and his record shows that he hasn’t always had the most success while doing so. However, he choked out a 3-0 prospect to end 2019 then won a decision in the prelims of Bellator Euro Series 9 to earn himself a spot in the rankings. This week, he went back to the French scene and picked up an easy win over a 7-8 opponent. The most notable thing about this performance was Guih’s return to welterweight after forcing himself down to lightweight for Bellator. 170-pounds is probably his natural home given how much muscle mass he carries.

Shamil Olokhanov: Improves to 9-1

Previous ranking: 1.5, #205 prospect

New ranking: 1.5, #179 prospect

Olokhanov picked up his ninth straight win, and his third of 2021, with a decision over a 3-0 youngster at MFP 234 in Russia. His only career loss came against Arman Tsarukyan when both were making their professional debuts, and Tsarukyan is now one of the hotter prospects on the UFC roster. Olokhanov got a few wins by TKO early in his career, but as he’s started to face more skilled opponents he’s mostly won decisions with a couple submissions mixed in. At only 5’9”, he’s short for a welterweight so he uses his low center of gravity to control his opponent and secure the victory.

Lightweights

Ali Zebian: Improves to 6-2

Previous ranking: 2, #169 prospect

New ranking: 7.5, #38 prospect

Zebian is someone who’s been identified as a potential talent since early in his career, as he’d fought twice for Bellator (1-1) and once for LFA (0-1) leading up to this week in addition to going 4-0 in local shows across Massachusetts. After a win on the Bellator prelims to close 2020, Zebian returned to Cage Titans this week to take on fellow MA product Peter Barrett, who recently washed out of the UFC after two quick losses in 2020. I had expected Zebian to get dominated given his prior losses after stepping up against slightly tougher regional competition, but he held on for a split decision over the veteran grappler and gave himself a huge boost in the rankings.

Zebian is only 5’5, which is truly miniscule for a lightweight, but he’s so heavily muscled that the absolute lightest I could imagine him fighting at is 145 pounds, and even that might be a stretch. He uses his strength and low center of gravity well to maintain top positions and shut down his opponent’s attacks, and proving that his strategy works against a UFC reject, even a low-caliber one like Barrett, is a great testimony to his abilities. Since Bellator has already shown interest in the past, it’s very easy to imagine them signing him off the strength of this performance.

Featherweights

Renan Oliveira: Improves to 5-0

Previous ranking: .5, #345 prospect

New ranking: .5, #337 prospect

Olivera is an athletic grappler out of Brazil who started his pro career in September 2019 and has just kept winning since then despite the difficulties the pandemic caused for Brazilian fighters. He beat his toughest opponent yet this week, 5-3 fighter Chrys Moraes, but that’s still only enough to move him up a tiny bit. The highlight reel finish in February was nice, but I’ll need to see a higher standard of competition to really be sold on Olivera

Nathan Williams: Improves to 13-7

Previous ranking: .5, #310 LW prospect

New ranking: 1, #205 featherweight prospect

I was ready to write off Williams as a prospect after his unimpressive KO loss to 4-2-1 Damir Ferhatbegović in June, but he came back just a month later to win a decision over tier 1.5 prospect Don Shainis and prove that he’s still got some fight left in him despite his inconsistent record. He dropped back to featherweight for this fight and has looked equally comfortable at both 145 and 155 throughout his career. He’s clearly better than your average regional fighter but doesn’t have enough special traits to ever really have a shot in the UFC. I could see him signing for Bellator at some point to act as a gatekeeper/test for young prospects on their preliminary cards, but that’s probably his ceiling.

Michele Baiano: Improves to 5-0

Previous ranking: .5, #268 prospect

New ranking: 1, #192 prospect

Baiano earned his spot in the rankings with an impressive second round knockout of a 4-0 opponent to win the Golden Cage Featherweight Championship in February. He continued to impress with a second round rear naked choke over a 9-4 veteran who’s fought quality opposition, proving that he has submission skills on top of his impressive hands. He won another belt with this win, this time for Croatian promotion Colosseum. Definitely someone to keep an eye on if he can continue this dominance of the European scene.

Cleuber Cabral: Improves to 14-4

Previous ranking: .5, #278 BW prospect

New ranking: .5, #263 featherweight prospect

Cabral improved his winning streak to eight fights straight, with seven submissions and one TKO in that time. He had previously only fought in Brazil but moved to Europe for an event co-hosted by Serbian Battle Championship and M-1 MMA series. Brazilians are usually brought in to lose in Russian promotions, but Cabral was matched against an 0-1 Serbian and picked up a submission in 70 seconds. This makes me think that at least one of the companies see him as someone they’re interested in building up. With that being said, I can’t rank him higher until he starts fighting better opponents.

Abdulatip Magomedov: Improves to 7-0

Old ranking: .5, #247 prospect

New ranking: 1.5, #181 prospect

Magomedov picked up the sixth finish of his career with a first-round knockout of a 3-2 opponent in his second fight for Belarus FC. His biggest career win by far was for Brave in October 2019 against an 8-2 opponent, but the promotion never re-signed him for whatever reason and he has since moved to BFC. He’s a better striker than most other fighters from the Caucuses, and it shows in his tendency towards KO/TKO victories over the decisions that typically dominate other Dagestani resumes. Given his record, a larger promotion like Brave or UAE Warriors will almost certainly give him a shot sometime soon.

Márcio dos Santos: Improves to 8-0

Old ranking: 1, #234 prospect

New ranking: 1, #229 prospect

Dos Santos is 23, muscular, and undefeated, which is always a good combination for a rising prospect. He picked up another win this week against a 2-0 fighter who had been away for a couple years, and the fight went to a split decision so it’s hard to improve his ranking much at all. He’s only really fought people in the first few fights of their careers so far, and it would serve him well to take on one of the many experienced but beatable veterans on the Brazilian scene in order to have a better opportunity to prove his talent.

Don Shainis: Falls to 8-3

Old ranking: 1.5, #169 prospect

New ranking: .5, #238 prospect

Shainis put together a streak of four finishes for Cage Titans during 2019-2020, then missed 18 months because of the pandemic. He returned as the main event for CT 49 this week and took on longtime regional grinder Nathan Williams, who beat him in a unanimous decision and shut down the hype that Shainis had been building. He’ll need to rebuild his reputation lower on the card before he can hope to return to main event status in the future.

Bantamweights

Long Xiao: Improves to 16-5

Old ranking: .5, #297 prospect

New ranking: .5, #297 prospect

Xiao made his pro debut at age 18 and started his career 4-5 as he struggled against more experienced and physically developed opponents. Since then, he’s gone on a crazy 12-fight winning streak, but it’s almost entirely been against bad competition. Their combined record was 42-43, and defeating a debuting opponent who got knocked out in his only pro boxing bout was not the way to soothe that concern. His winning streak is getting up there as one of the longest in Asia, but I just can’t justify ranking him higher until the 23-year-old starts fighting more challenging opposition. 

Yakov Ekimov: Improves to 10-0

Old ranking: 1, #201 prospect

New ranking: 4.5, #73 prospect

Ekimov picked up his fifth win in a year for MMA Series and also won the SBC Bantamweight Championship with a very impressive TKO victory over tier 3 prospect Douglas Felipe. All of his strikes that landed seemed like they were doing damage, and he snuck a hard knee up the middle about two minutes into the first, which started a flurry of strikes that eventually ended the fight. This was by far the most credentialed opponent of Ekimov’s career and he passed the test with flying colors, and I’d expect interest from larger Russian promotions to start now if they hadn’t already before. He should be due for a title shot in his next fight if MMA Series can somehow get him to stick around.

Mauro Mastromarini: Improves to 11-1

Old ranking: 1, #192 prospect

New ranking: 2, #140 prospect

Mastromarini continued to dominate the Argentinian scene by winning a one-sided decision over 10-3 Nicolas Varela to win the bantamweight belt for the young promotion CAM. His record is a mix of cans and fighters with actual solid records, but at just 22 his success is very impressive regardless of who he’s been fighting. It does seem like he’s starting to hit his ceiling for staying in his home country, as his striking is still very raw, he doesn’t show a lot of patience, and just generally seems like someone who would benefit from some higher-level training and coaching. Maybe his young age makes him hesitant to go abroad so early in his career, but I think he has the sort of natural gifts to have a chance at making it big if the right mentors get a chance to shape and guide him.

Haojie Li: Improves to 8-0

Old ranking: 1, #190 prospect

New ranking: 1, #188 prospect

Li got a two-minute TKO over a debuting opponent to pick up the fourth KO/TKO win of his career, with the rest by decision. Staying undefeated is impressive, but beating up on nobodies is never going to propel you to the big time. Li needs to start finding tougher opponents if he wants to emerge from the Chinese regional scene.

Douglas Felipe: Falls to 12-2-1

Old ranking: 3, #103 prospect

New ranking: 1, #183 prospect

Felipe spent most of his career in Brazil picking up his wins with submissions and grappling prowess, including a 25-minute decision over a 9-1 opponent in November 2021 to win the Taura MMA Bantamweight Championship. A combination of injuries and COVID-19 cancellations kept him on the sideline for the next 20 months, which is a major loss as he’s now 38 and getting into the twilight of his career. His lone previous fight in Europe came for SBC in 2019 against a 1-2 opponent, and they increased his level of competition significantly this week when he took on 9-0 prospect Yakov Ekimov. Felipe looked old and slow in comparison to the Russian youngster and got beat up all around the cage for a couple minutes before a knee and a few follow-up punches ended the fight. He never got to bring the fight to his preferred arena on the ground, and at 38 he seems unlikely to discover the striking needed to be a top prospect. He’s still a very solid fighter, and he already has another fight booked next month back in Brazil, so I doubt this will be the last we see of Felipe despite his advanced age.

Flyweights

Giacomo Santoro: Improves to 5-0

Old ranking: .5, #164 prospect

New ranking: .5, #162 prospect

Santoro got his second straight freebie submission, this time choking out a low-level 5-3 veteran in just 40 seconds at a Croatian show. This was his second fight in three weeks, so he’s obviously ready to be more active after missing time during the pandemic. He either needs to get picked up by a slightly larger promotion or at least find one that’s able to match him up against a solid veteran so he can have a slightly more reputable test of his talents.

Boqie Zheng: Improves to 12-4

Old ranking: .5, #134 prospect

New ranking: .5, #134 prospect

Zheng picked up his third straight decision win of 2021 over a 19 year-old debuting fighter who really had no place being in the cage with him. Only one of his 12 wins comes by finish, so he clearly has no problem just fighting for points and grinding out the win despite not always fighting against fantastic competition for WLF Wars in China. Fighting a debutant isn’t enough to move him up the rankings at all, but after he fought six times in 2020 I bet he’ll have more opportunities to impress later this year.

Tiago Xavier: Improves to 13-5

Old ranking: 4, #53 prospect

New ranking: 5, #43 prospect

Xavier was one of the few Brazilian fighters able to stay busy in 2020, winning three straight fights for Arena Global at the end of the year to win and defend their flyweight title, with his last two victories coming over opponents with 25-5-2 and 20-4 records. Those are impressive wins even if their records are inflated, and Xavier continued his winning streak this week with a 95-second heel hook over a 6-3 opponent with very few grappling skills. This win wasn’t at all surprising, but it continues to establish Xavier as one of the more dangerous flyweight grapplers coming out of Brazil currently. He’s scheduled to take on a 16-3 opponent in just two weeks for Shooto Brazil, and if he’s able to take that fight after not sustaining much damage this week, he has a great chance to make an impression on one of the country’s biggest stages.

Prospects joining my rankings:

Alex Morgan, lightweight: Improves to 10-4

New ranking: 1, #251 prospect

Morgan is a solid Canadian fighter who bounced around promotions all over the country before joining TKO in 2017, winning their featherweight title in 2018, then losing it in his first defense later that year. Notably, he beat TJ Laramie twice and Laramie is now in the UFC. He hadn’t fought for more than two-and-a-half years and made his return this week for new French promotion Hexagone against a 7-2 opponent who had also been away from the cage for a while. Morgan pulled out the decision and earned a ranking due to the solid win and his previous success. He’s 30, so he’s still got time left to make a mark in the higher levels of MMA.

Prospects leaving my rankings:

Wojciech Janusz, light heavyweight: Falls to 10-7

Previous ranking: 2, #73 prospect 

Janusz started as a tier 4 prospect in my rankings, but losing two straight fights in 2021 is enough to get him removed entirely. He got choked out in the first round this week by the long-armed Eder de Souza, who is a very solid grappler but at 38 is the sort of fighter that Janusz should be beating to be looked at as a top prospect. If he can beat a couple lower-level prospects he could easily make his return as he’s well built for the division and is still 30. However, he could just as easily end up another journeyman veteran.

Vitoldas Jagelo, welterweight: Falls to 7-2-2

Previous ranking: .5, #247 prospect 

Talk about squandering an opportunity. Jagelo had spent his entire career fighting in Lithuania and compiled a very respectable record against uninspiring competition before missing 20 months due to the pandemic. He made his return to MMA this week as part of the co-main event for Hexagone MMA 1 and got matched against Bellator veteran and stalwart of French MMA Karl Amoussou. There were plenty of eyes on this fight, as Amoussou is a popular fighter, but Jagelo threw away any shot he had of earning fans after a first round that saw him frustrated and stuck on his back by delivering a soccer kick to Amoussou’s head as he got to his feet more than five seconds after the bell. He made solid contact and was rightly disqualified for such a flagrant and dangerous foul, and if I were a halfway-decent promoter I wouldn’t be booking him any time soon if that means I run the risk of him hurting one of my prospects and/or getting another DQ, which always leaves a bad taste in the audience’s mouth.