MMA Prospect Rankings Update: September

Ben “Big Tuna” Parrish KOs Christian Edwards in one of the biggest upsets of the year

Welcome to the first monthly update on all the changes that have occurred in our international top-15 prospect rankings for each weight class. For an explanation of the rankings and the goals of this series, please read this introductory article.

I have separated each week as I tend to update the rankings in batches, and separated the updates by weight class within each week. The first prospect assessment came out mid-September, so there are fewer weeks to cover in this update than there will be in future articles, but there are still all sorts of dramatic shifts that occurred in such a relatively short period of time. Let’s get into it!

September 13-19

Light Heavyweights:

Alex Polizzi: Left rankings, previous ranking: #1 prospect

Polizzi continued his success for Bellator with a split decision over fellow top prospect Grant Neal. However, that win moved him to 9-1, meaning that he is no longer under the 10-fight limit when fighting for a major promotion. He’s ready to take on Bellator’s elite at 205 and has progressed too far in his career to be considered a prospect at this point.

Christian Edwards: Fell from #2 prospect to #11 prospect

I was incredibly high on Edwards’ potential coming into this week, especially since he’s just 22 years old. He was a massive -1000 favorite against Ben Parrish but got caught with a big right hand directly on the chin just 30 seconds into the fight then got finished with a few heavy ground strikes. His chin had looked good in his past fights, but suffering a massive upset like this for his first professional loss definitely makes me question if he’d be able to survive against the power of top-level light heavyweights. He’s still young enough to re-establish himself but for now he drops significantly in the rankings.

Grant Neal: Fell from #4 prospect to #6 prospect

Neal suffered his first professional loss against Polizzi but still showed the tools that make him a fantastic prospect for the future. He’s well-rounded, athletic, and very tough, but he just had the misfortune of running into a rising star.

Ben Parrish: Improved from unranked to #8 prospect

Parrish pulled off one of the upsets of the year with his quick TKO of Edwards, and as a result he earned himself a spot in the rankings thanks to the sheer power he showed. His only professional loss came in 2019 when he broke his leg during a fight, so he’s never actually been outfought. Interestingly, his first four wins all came by submission, so he clearly has skills on the ground to go along with his explosive hands. He’s not a shredded muscle-bound 205er like many other prospects in the weight class, but it’s impossible to deny his effectiveness. 

Welterweights:

Nariman Abbasov: Improved from #7 lightweight prospect to # 10 welterweight prospect

Abbasov moved up to welterweight this week and spoiled the retirement fight of Dagestani legend Shamil Zavurov with an aggressive first-round TKO. That earned him the AMC welterweight title along with the lightweight belt he already had, making him a rare champ-champ in that very competitive promotion. While he’s lower in the prospect list at his new weight class, that is entirely due to the tougher competition at 170 compared to 155. His overall grade as a prospect still rose substantially from this win, and with his record at an absurd 27-3 I have to imagine a major promotion will try to sign him away sometime soon. 

Saygid Arslanaliev: Left rankings, previously #8 prospect

Arslanaliev was removed from the rankings once I realized he was 26 and not 25, as he had previously been listed. He has had 10 pro fights and is part of a major promotion in ONE, so by our criteria he is no longer eligible for the rankings.

Saygid Izagakhmaev: Improved from #12 prospect to #11 prospect

Izagakhmaev earned an impressive win over the very talented Maxim Butorin in an event co-hosted by EFC and AMC. He dominated the positions of the fight with his wrestling and wore his opponent down until he was able to take the back in the second round and sink in the RNC. As Carlston Harris continues to succeed in the UFC, Izagakhmaev’s loss to him at the start of the year looks progressively less bad on his record. However, he doesn’t move far up the rankings with this win because the division is absolutely stacked with talent currently. 

Lightweights:

Mehdi Dakaev: Improved from unranked to #15 prospect

With Abbasov moving up a weight class, a spot opened up at the bottom of the lightweight rankings. That spot goes to Dakaev, who is the reigning champion for Eagle FC and has already defended his title once against excellent competition. He is a smothering grappler who usually wins by decision, and while his style may not always be thrilling it is undeniably effective. 

Featherweights:

Timur Khizriev: Improved from #6 prospect to #3 prospect

Khizriev finally managed to find a fight this year and absolutely dominated a 6-1 prospect on his way to a 1st-round guillotine choke with his opponent smashed against the fence. He’s explosive, aggressive, and extremely technical, and I think he could be a real star on the international level if he’s given the opportunity.

Bantamweights:

Kai Asakura: Remained #1 prospect

Asakura continues to dominate Japan’s best bantamweights as he progresses in RIZIN’s tournament. Not only is he the top bantamweight prospect, but he is my top-graded overall prospect regardless of weight class. I imagine he will stay with RIZIN until the end of the tournament, then look to make a move to the UFC or another top-level promotion. 

Kenta Takizawa: Improved from unranked to #12 prospect

At 13-7, Takizawa’s record is not as clean as your typical prospect in these rankings, but that’s largely due to the fact that he’s been taking on some of Japan’s best fighters in Pancrase and RIZIN since he was in his early 20s at the start of his career. This week, he scored a 1st-round knockout of Yuki Motoya, who has proven repeatedly that he is a top-tier bantamweight. That big win is enough to launch Takizawa into the lower levels of the rankings, and it will be very interesting to see how he continues to progress in RIZIN’s tournament. 

Steve Erceg: Left rankings, previously #15 prospect.

With the addition of Takizawa, Erceg gets bumped off the list. However, he has been dominant for Eternal MMA in Australia and will likely return to the rankings with another win or if another prospect is removed. 

September 20-26

Heavyweights:

Anatoly Malykhin: Left rankings, previously #9 prospect.

Malykhin took his second fight of 2021 this week, both of which have been for ONE. He got matched against powerhouse wrestler Amir Aliakbari and comprehensively dismantled him with strikes. Malykhin showed remarkable quickness in his hands for a heavyweight and threw tight, technical combinations rather than looking for the one shot knockout. The finishing sequence was a perfect demonstration, as he led with a jab, clipped the jaw with a right, then sealed the deal with a head-crunching left hook. He also showed off his strength and wrestling ability by holding Aliakbari in a front headlock for over a minute and taking advantage of ONE’s ruleset to pummel him with knees to the head both standing and on the ground. However, by moving to 10-0 while in a major promotion, Malykhin has disqualified himself from the prospect rankings, which seems fair given that he is now one of the top contenders in ONE’s heavyweight division.

Rizvan Kuniev: Remained #6 prospect

Kuniev got a chance on the 5th week of this year’s Contender Series and produced the expected win over Brazilian can-crusher Edivan Santos. However, his lack of technical boxing skills and hand speed were somewhat exposed, as the more athletic Santos was giving him problems for the first few minutes of the fight until Kuniev switched to a wrestling-based approach. He used strikes well to initiate grappling against the cage but didn’t inflict much damage once he had a controlling position there. He also showed an impressive ability to chain together takedowns and was much more destructive once he had control on the ground, eventually using a vicious combo of elbows and hooks to get the finish in the 3rd. However, Dana White continued his trend of not being impressed by wrestlers and opted against signing Kuniev, which I think is a mistake given his talent compared to some other signees so far this season. However, he’s a truly massive man and at 28 he has plenty of time to continue developing his skills, so I could easily see him ending up in the UFC in the future. In the meantime, he doesn’t move in the rankings because he performed about as expected in this one. 

Adam Pałasz: Improved from unranked to #15 prospect. 

With Malykhin’s departure, Pałasz sneaks into the bottom of the rankings. He’s a hulking 6’4”, ~250 pound striker from Poland who’s only been fighting professionally since 2018. He destroyed his first 5 opponents for 4 KOs and a submission, then got signed to ACA in August 2020. He got knocked out in the first round of his promotional debut by excellent veteran Dmitry Poberezhets but came back that November with a 2nd round TKO of 10-2 Latvian Oļegs Jemeļjanovs. He’s still pretty unproven, but at 30 he’s more than young enough to have a long and successful career in the oldest weight class. 

Light Heavyweights:

Josh Silveira: Improved from #13 prospect to #6 prospect

Silveira continued his rampage through LFA’s 205 pound division and claimed the championship belt with a head kick to ground and pound less than a minute into the first round. He was facing fellow undefeated fighter Tee Cummins, who is a quality prospect in his own right, but Silveira exposed the gap between good and elite in this one. He’s previously dominated other solid fighters with his grappling on his way to early submission finishes, so showing that he’s also deadly on the feet is a big boost to his stock. He regularly comes in under the light heavyweight limit, so a move down to middleweight could easily be in the cards if/when he gets signed to a major promotion. He’s now 4-0 as an amateur and 6-0 as a pro and seems destined for a UFC deal within the next year given the organization’s love for LFA champions.

Middleweights:

Aaron Jeffrey: Fell from #2 prospect to #13 prospect

Jeffrey is a well-rounded fighter out of Canada who was one of my favorite prospects scheduled for this year’s Contender Series. His only prior losses were to Sean Brady back in 2015 and Brendan Allen on the Contender Series in 2019, and both of those guys have become hot commodities within the UFC. He also has wins over Collin Huckbody, who was offered a UFC contract but turned it down, current Titan FC champ Bruno Assis, and is the only person to defeat recent UFC signee and TUF standout Andre Petroski. He took on less-known Brazilian Caio Borralho and quickly realized that he had a disadvantage in open striking, so he began to initiate clinches at every opportunity. While he was sometimes able to drive his opponent to the cage, he was unable to finish any takedowns or inflict much damage from controlling positions and often found himself reversed and pressed against the cage himself. He showed the urgency you want to see from a fighter down in the third round but it wasn’t enough to get the finish and he lost 29-28, 29-28, 30-27 on the scorecards. Jeffrey may still get a chance at the UFC down the line if he can go get some more good wins regionally, but after 3 losses to UFC-caliber guys I have to think that his ceiling would be pretty limited even if he does get the opportunity, which is reflected in his tumble down the rankings. 

Caio Borralho: Improved from unranked to #7 prospect

Borralho won the middleweight title for Future FC in October 2020, which is the top regional promotion in Brazil, and parlayed that into an opportunity on the Contender Series against Jeffrey. He also took on Jailton Almeida in a grappling match earlier this year, and while he lost a close decision that’s still an impressive performance against someone so much larger who showed excellent grappling in his own Contender Series fight. He effectively neutralized everything Jeffrey tried to do in the first two rounds and while he slowed down somewhat in the third it was still a close round and he was clearly giving everything he had left. I was very surprised Dana White didn’t offer him a contract, as he’s a great athlete in the prime of his career at 28, has a very well-rounded skillset, and approaches fights with the intelligence you would expect from a member of the “Fighting Nerds” training camp. I expect him to either get a short-notice UFC opportunity in the near future or get snapped up by somewhere like Bellator or PFL after this impressive performance against a highly-rated opponent. 

Shamil Abdulaev: Left rankings, previously #15 prospect

Abdulaev is forced out of the rankings by Borralho’s rise, and unfortunately he hasn’t been able to find a fight since September 2019. He’s a dangerous striker and strong wrestler whose only loss came by split decision when he challenged for the Akhmat Fight Club title against Salamu Abdurakhmanov, who’s now the champion for ACA and one of the best middleweights outside of the UFC. If he can find an opportunity with one of Russia’s many quality organizations, he could easily make a return in the near future.

Welterweights:

Christian Lee: Fell from #1 prospect to #3 prospect

Lee went for his 4th defense of ONE’s 170-pound lightweight title against Rae Yoon Ok, who has risen from obscurity on the South Korean regional scene to challenging for a major title in less than 12 months. Lee was unable to secure his signature takedowns and ground and pound throughout the fight but was still able to build a lead in the first few rounds with crisp striking and consistent volume. However, he visibly tired out faster than his opponent and got outstruck more decisively as the rounds progressed, though both fighters scored knockdowns at different points. Lee almost ended the fight at one point with a RNC while in a backpack position on the standing Ok, and also seemed to stun his opponent with a big flurry to end the 5th round. ONE fights are scored in their entirety and are supposed to heavily favor near-finishes in their scoring, so there was considerable controversy when the judges gave the decision to Ok. I personally thought the fight was so close that I couldn’t really be upset either way, and I would be astounded if the 23-year-old Lee doesn’t get an immediate rematch as he looks to re-establish himself as one of the world’s best young fighters.

Lightweights:

Daniel Zellhuber: Left rankings, previously #2 prospect

Zellhuber competed on week 5 of this year’s Contender Series and won a gritty and exciting decision over a tough opponent in 12-0 Lucas Almeida, who was previously champion for Brazilian promotion Jungle Fight. After losing a high-paced first round where his chin was tested and passed with flying colors, Zellhuber “put on his balls” (his own words) and came out with fantastic footwork and head movement in the next two rounds while maintaining a varied and high-output striking attack. He also looked very good the one time he initiated a takedown and landed some good shots from on top, but he clearly preferred to use his excellent length and athleticism to pick Almeida apart on the feet. This performance was impressive enough to earn a UFC contract, so he’s no longer eligible for the rankings but will surely be fun to watch as he continues to develop, as he’s somehow only 22 despite now being 12-0. 

Aviv Gozali: Improved from unranked to #15 prospect

Gozali moves into the rankings to fill the void left by Zellhuber, and he’s another uber-talented youngster on this list that Bellator snapped up before his pro debut. He’s the son of controversial but undeniably talented Israeli grappler Haim Gozali, and he might become even better than his father was. He has 6 straight first-round submissions and has shown off his versatility with an armbar, a RNC, a kimura, an anaconda choke, and two heel hooks. That’s an impressively even split between arm, leg, and neck attacks. He’s in great shape and at 20 years old, the sky’s the limit for his potential. The only real negative is that his competition so far has been relatively weak, but he’s looked good enough that I’m not overly concerned by that. 

Flyweights: 

Joshua Pacio: Remained #1 prospect.

Pacio defended his Strawweight title with a 1st-round TKO over Yosuke Saruta, but due to ONE’s weight class rules he fought at 125 pounds so is eligible for the flyweight rankings. This was actually a trilogy fight between the two fighters after Saruta won a split decision in their first meeting then Pacio scored a highlight-reel knockout in the 4th round of their second fight. This one was nowhere near as competitive, as Pacio had a clear advantage on the feet from the start and never let his opponent close the distance enough to engage in grappling. He landed a series of big left hands to stun Saruta then send him to the canvas, where he finished him with another barrage of powerful lefts. Pacio is now 20-3 in his career and is only eligible for this list because he’s amazingly still only 25 years old despite his two separate title wins and 3 consecutive defenses. He’s a real potential superstar in the lightest weight classes and could be ONE champion for a long time unless he decides to make the UFC leap. 

Muhammad Mokaev: Remained #4 prospect

21-year-old Mokaev picked up his 5th professional win in the co-main event of Brave and showed off his incredible wrestling and jiu-jitsu credentials in the process. He took on quality Irish prospect Blaine O’Driscoll, who showed surprisingly good wrestling defense and reversals in the 1st round but was simply overwhelmed by Mokaev’s pace and a lightning-quick transition to the back to set up a rear naked choke. This moves Mokaev to a combined 28-0 between his pro and amateur career, which is a crazy number for anyone but even more ridiculous when you consider his age. The only reason he didn’t move up the rankings with this win is that the 3 guys in front of him (Pacio, Murad Magomedov, and Jake Hadley) are all exceptionally talented and have proven themselves against a higher caliber of fighter than Mokaev has faced so far. Brave has a number of other excellent fighters in their flyweight division, so Mokaev’s next fight could be a huge test of his undefeated streak and long-term potential. 

September 27-October 3

Featherweights: 

Morgan Charriere: Left rankings, previously #9 prospect

Charriere falls out of the rankings after losing his second fight of 2021, this time against Paul Hughes for the Cage Warriors interim title. His previous loss was to #8 featherweight prospect Jordan Vucenic for the undisputed title, and in both cases the fights were competitive but saw Charierre end up on the wrong side of a close decision. He’s very strong and has skills in every area of MMA, but he was just a half-step behind Hughes in the striking and found himself in bottom position too frequently. He’s somehow just 25 despite this being his 26th professional fight, so there’s still plenty of time for him to go back to the drawing board and figure out with his team how he can best blend his skills to get back to winning.

Fabacary Diatta: Remained #15 prospect

Diatta won his second fight for Bellator with a decision win over Nathan Rose on the prelim card. He looked light on his feet and showed good movement with a nice tendency to blend jabs and hard calf kicks. He also looked explosive when he shot his double-leg takedowns and landed some heavy ground and pound shots. However, the fight never really reached peak intensity and seemed closer to a hard sparring session, and Diatta was always expected to come out of this fight with a win. He doesn’t move up the rankings due to those mitigating factors, but at just 24 years old and 8-0 his future is very bright.

Paul Hughes: Improved from unranked to #12 prospect

Hughes won an epic title clash against Charriere to claim the interim title and set himself up for a rematch against Jordan Vucenic, who is the only fighter to defeat him as a pro. That loss came by split decision back in December 2020 in a fight that Hughes was convinced he won, so whenever Vucenic is ready to come back from his injury we should be treated to a high-level title unification fight. Hughes is in fantastic shape and showed off stellar cardio and a well-balanced blend of wrestling and striking in this fight, and at 23 he has all the tools necessary to become an international-level fighter. 

Flyweights:

Phumi Nkuta: Improved from #13 to #11 prospect

Nkuta continued his dominance in Cage Fury FC with a one-sided title defense against short-notice replacement Miguel Junior Diaz (3-1). He has incredible speed and uses it well to avoid taking damage and set up his powerful takedowns. He’s almost always going to be at a range disadvantage on the feet but that doesn’t matter once he takes the fight to the mat, and his compact and muscular build is perfect for pinning his opponents down and raining down punishment. The only reason he didn’t move further up the rankings for this performance was that it was against a fill-in opponent who I didn’t have ranked anywhere in my hundreds of flyweight prospects. He was scheduled to take on Santo Curatolo, which would have taught us much more about Nkuta as a prospect, but Curatolo got the call as a last-minute fill in for the Contender Series, which is somewhere I expect to see Phumi in the near future as well.