Another month has passed, so here’s your rundown on all the changes that have occurred in our 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.
Oleg Popov: Improved from #7 to #4 prospect
Popov beat a former Contender Series contestant this week in talented Brazilian Marcos Brigagão and continued his recent dominant form. He smothered his opponent for the first two rounds and landed an accumulation of short shots, then in the third he pinned the obviously exhausted Brigagão and worked his way into an arm-triangle finish. Popov has now won 11 fights in a row with some good opponents on that list, and given that he seems to be avoiding signing for any of the major Russian promotions I have to assume he has his eyes on making it to the UFC. This fight actually happened in late September but the results were not released until this week.
Kirill Kornilov: Remained #3 prospect
Kornilov continued his impressive run for RCC by taking out his 3rd consecutive Brazilian opponent, Ednaldo “Lula” Oliveira. This was a clear mismatch from a size and strength perspective, as Kornilov outweighed his lanky opponent by at least 30 pounds. He continued to impress me with how well he uses his lead left hand, as it’s constantly moving to distract or disrupt his opponent and can turn into a crisp straight jab or surprisingly powerful lead hook with very little warning. One of those hooks connected with Olivera and knocked him down, then Kornilov followed up with punches against the cage that earned a referee stoppage that was too early in my eyes. Regardless of whether it was an early stoppage, I could only see this fight going one way, as Kornilov was using his high-level footwork, reach advantage, and head movement to pick apart Olivera without receiving any significant damage in return. However, he doesn’t move up the rankings because he was a heavy favorite in this one and Isaev and Mowry ahead of him are both elite prospects.
Shamil Akhmedov: Improved from unranked to #8 prospect
Akhmedov was totally off my radar coming into this year, but he’s put together two impressive performances for Khabib’s Eagle FC to force himself into the spotlight. He won his pro debut in 2012 at the age of 21 then disappeared for 4 years. He came back and won 5 fights in 2016-2017, mostly for AMC Fight Night, then vanished for another 3.5 years before making his EFC debut in March 2021. Akhmedov dominated that fight with his wrestling and choked out his 8-5 opponent just two minutes into the first round to prove that his talent was unaffected by the layoffs. That earned him a much tougher test this month against Rafael Celestino, who is a truly elite BJJ practitioner but normally fights at 185 and is 41 years old. Shamil was the aggressor on the feet and took the fight to the mat whenever he wanted, where he did a great job controlling his opponent’s attempts at rolls and sweeps while wearing him down with stinging ground and pound. Celestino managed to survive the first but was clearly very tired and Akhmedov was able to get another takedown and continue the punishment to get a stoppage early in the second round. Hopefully he can stay active, as he’s another very promising wrestling prospect out of Russia who has the potential to make major waves in global MMA.
Zac Pauga: Improved from unranked to #13 prospect
Pauga is an incredible athlete, as proven by his brief stints as a professional running back for the Houston Texans and as a professional rugby player. He got a late start in MMA due to those other pursuits, only making his amateur debut in 2019 at age 31, but he’s made up for lost time by staying very active. He built a 5-0 amateur record in just over a year then made his pro debut for LFA in July 2020. His skills were apparent in his 3 straight wins for the top developmental promotion, then he jumped over to Cage Warriors this year for both of the events that the promotion has held in California.
This week’s win showed just how good Pauga’s potential is, as he took on former UFC middleweight Markus Perez and looked very comfortable and composed on his way to a decision victory that brought him to 5-0 as a pro. 4 of those 5 wins have come by decision, but it’s certainly not due to a lack of trying for a finish, as Pauga is a heavy hitter who wants to take his opponents’ heads off. The best example of that was his Cage Warriors debut against Terrance Jean-Jacques (5-2), who was another prospect I was tracking. They engaged in an absolute slugfest but both showed impressive chins and managed to make it to the end of the fight for a clear decision in Pauga’s favor. He showed some wildness in that fight but openly stated that he planned to use his greater size and weight to bully Perez this week, which is exactly what he did. That shows good gameplanning and fight IQ, which combined with Pauga’s athletic gifts make him a real threat at 205.
Jamal Pogues: Fell from #14 prospect to unranked
Ty Flores: Fell from #15 prospect to unranked
The additions of Akhmedov and Pauga forced both Pogues and Flores off of the rankings despite their solid performances on the American regional scene. Flores already has a fight booked at the upcoming Fury FC event that will be featured on Dana White Looking for a Fight, so if he’s able to impress there he could find his way back to the rankings very quickly.
Benoit Saint-Denis: Fell from #14 prospect to unranked (Signed to UFC)
Saint-Denis had put himself next in line for a title shot for Brave following 4-straight impressive submissions, but I was holding off on ranking him too highly because I hadn’t seen him tested against a fellow top prospect. However, the UFC had obviously seen enough to be convinced of his skills and signed him to take on tough veteran Elizeu Zaleski on October 30. This signing has been rumored for a while but was only officially announced this week.
Yohan Lainesse: Improved from unranked to #15 prospect
Lainesse moves into the rankings to fill the spot vacated by Saint-Denis. He’s a an athletic 7-0 prospect out of Canada who has the power to finish anyone across from him with his striking. His most recent fight was a TKO victory over respected veteran Evan Cutts in July to claim the Cage Fury welterweight title. He already has a fight booked on the Contender Series against new #14 prospect Justin Burlinson, so if he’s able to impress enough to earn a UFC contract his time in the rankings could be remarkably short.
Mateusz Rębecki: Improved from #4 to #2 prospect
Rębecki picked up his 9th straight finish for Polish promotion FEN by destroying Brazilian import Felipe Maia with punches in the first round. 8 of those 9 finishes were to win or defend the promotion’s lightweight belt, and at this point I don’t know what more he could possibly do to prove that he’s UFC ready. The opponents he’s been fighting aren’t household names, but they’re all quality fighters who have achieved success in various countries so Rębecki has been well tested and has proved himself admirably every time. Given that my top lightweight prospect (Roberto de Souza) fights for RIZIN, if I were Dana White Rębecki would be the first man I would call as a short replacement at 155 pounds.
Lance Gibson Jr.: Improved from unranked to #12 prospect
Gibson Jr. is another exciting young prospect that Bellator snapped up early, as he went 3-0 as an amateur then 2-0 as a pro before making the move to the big promotion. He’s shown off incredibly high-level Muay Thai in both of his fights this year and also has a strong submission game. That confidence in his BJJ can get him in trouble, as he was far too content to stay on his back in the first round of his most recent fight, but he benefits from having a father who was also a successful fighter and set him straight between rounds. He came out with renewed aggression and focus in the 2nd and delivered a calculated barrage of fists, kicks, and knees that sent his opponent to the ground, where Gibson finished the deal with ground and pound. At just 5-0, he’s still quite early in his career, but he’s a special athlete with a fantastic blend of skills who could become a major threat if Bellator continues to develop him well.
Aviv Gozali: Fell from #15 prospect to unranked
After making his rankings debut last month, Gozali is pushed back out this week due to the emergence of fellow Bellator signee Gibson. Given his grappling talent, I doubt this is the last we’ve seen of him in this series.
Levi Mowles: Improved from #3 to #2 prospect
Mowles extended his winning streak to 6 with a dominant decision over the battle-tested Johnny Campbell, who proved how dangerous he can be with a massive upset over Henry Corrales for Bellator earlier this year. However, Mowles was two steps ahead in every aspect of this fight. He took Campbell’s back early, threatened chokes, and delivered some brutal ground and pound that earned him 20-8 rounds from some judges. His wrestling is strong, his jiu-jitsu is flawless with a particularly deadly RNC, and he’s able to keep up a fast pace for 3 rounds or even 5 if he needs to. Importantly, Mowles was able to make weight for this fight after failing to do so in his last two, which might have been what was preventing a major promotion from signing him. He would be a great addition to the bantamweight division for the UFC or Bellator, or really any other promotion that can manage to sign him.
Christian Rodriguez: Improved from unranked to #13 prospect
Rodriguez was 1/2 of this week’s headline bout for the Contender Series, and he showed why he earned that opportunity with a beautiful display of boxing. His hands are very fast, accurate, and unpredictable, and he throws great combinations without excessively opening himself for counters. He also does a good job mixing in low kicks, step-in elbows, and knees from the clinch to keep his opponent off balance and constantly taking damage. His opponent began to desperately search for a takedown but Rodriguez showed off a strong sprawl and did a great job digging in his underhooks to keep the fight where he had a clear advantage. He’s shown strong jiu-jitsu in previous fights that I’ve watched and is far from one-dimensional, but he’s smart enough to not risk changing things up when he was having so much success. The big negative is that he missed weight by 2 pounds, which I think is the main reason he left without a UFC contract. At 23 he’s super young, so another win or two on the regional scene could see him signed to the big show in the near future.
Kevin Cordero: Fell from #15 prospect to unranked
The addition of Rodriguez forces Cordero off the rankings for now, but much like Gozali at lightweight he’s super young and has shown high-level grappling skills so I expect him to return once he has a little more time to prove himself.
Jake Hadley: Fell from #3 prospect to unranked (Signed to UFC)
Hadley also appeared on this week’s edition of the Contender Series and missed weight for the first time in his career, but the performance he put on against Mitch Raposo was so impressive that Dana White signed him regardless. He’s incredibly strong for a flyweight, and that shows up in every element of fights. He’s a powerful wrestler, does significant damage with his strikes, and was able to get the RNC finish despite not being under the chin due to the intensity of his squeeze. I agree with Dana that there’s something special about Hadley and can’t wait to see how he does in the UFC’s 125 pound division.
Azat Maksum: Improves from unranked to #15 prospect
Hadley’s departure opens up a spot for the very impressive Maksum, who joins fellow flyweight Asu Almabaev as the only current representatives of a talent-rich Kazakhstan. He first got onto my radar with a pair of impressive performances for regional promotions in November 2020 and February 2021, but he’s really shot up the rankings since getting signed to Brave. He got a 3rd round TKO in his promotional debut, which was incredibly less than a month after the last regional win. In August he did even better by knocking out talented Brazilian Flavio de Queiroz with a massive overhand right just 3 minutes into the first round. Maksum has the kind of explosive power in his hands that you rarely see at 125 pounds, which combined with his overall athleticism and undefeated record make him a very exciting prospect going forward.
Murtaza Ali: Remained #9 prospect
Ali was a dominant force as an amateur, going 12-0 against tough opposition in IMMAF’s international tournaments and claiming 3 tournament championships along the way. He made his pro debut for Brave in November 2020 and continued to impress by securing a rear naked choke in the second round against a 4-1 opponent. He came back 2 months later for a quick 1st ground-and-pound TKO against another 4-1 pro, then after 2 more months picked up another first round finish with a brutal elbow from the clinch to destroy 6-1 Cameron Meintjies. Despite that impressive win streak against quality opponents, Brave surprisingly seems to have not locked Ali down to a long-term contract. He returned this week after 7 months of inactivity to fight for Kazakhstani promotion Octagon, where he was matched against a debuting Kyrgyzstani fighter who had no business being in the same cage as him. Ali landed a couple sharp strikes to open the fight, then reversed the positions when his opponent attempted a throw and managed to smoothly transition to the back. He used his leg strength to hold himself there despite being positioned rather high and delivered persistent sharp punches to the head. Those strikes forced scramble attempts, but every time his opponent tried to get up, Ali bullied him back to the mat with his formidable strength and continued to land punishment. Eventually he dropped 15-20 consecutive hooks and elbows against his shelled-up opposition and forced the ref to stop the fight. While this was a dominant performance that showed off his great blend of skills, Ali doesn’t move up the rankings because the level of competition was significantly lower than what we’ve already seen him defeat. Hopefully he makes his way back to a major promotion soon, because despite being pro less than a year he has an incredibly exciting future.
Oleg Popov: Remained #4 prospect
Popov picked up his second win in a month’s time this week by using his mauling wrestling style and relentless ground and pound to overwhelm 9-2 Mexican import Alejandro Solorzano, who was clearly out of his league in his first fight in Russia. That’s now 5-straight non-Russian fighters that Popov has dominated, and it seems clear that the other top talents in the country have no interest in taking him on. Most of Popov’s recent opponents have still been solid fighters, but I’d really like to see him take on a proven next-level fighter before I move him any further up the rankings.
Said Sowma: Fell from #10 prospect to unranked (10th fight for major organization)
Sowma had a very close fight against former Bellator champ Vitaly Minakov as the co-main event for Fedor’s return to Russia. He showed great lateral movement and used hard calf kicks to disrupt the movement of the older and heavier Minakov. I had the fight tied at 1 round each going into the third round, but after several minutes of competitive action the fight was unfortunately cut short by Minakov breaking his finger during a punch. That gave Sowma the win, by far the biggest so far in his career, but it also marked his 10th professional fight, which means that he is no longer eligible for the rankings since he fights for a major promotion. He was already #8 in Bellator’s rankings coming into this fight and will surely be ranked higher following the win, so I think it’s fair to say that he has officially graduated from prospect to contender.
Kirill Grishenko: Improved from unranked to #14 prospect
Grishenko only went pro in October 2020 but he’s made quite an impression to start his career. After dominating on his way to 3 first round finishes in the span of a month in his native Belarus, ONE signed him to start 2021. His first matchup was Oumar “Reug Reug” Kane, who at the time was one of the most talked about heavyweight prospects in the world, but Grishenko shut down the hype train by being strong enough to resist Kane’s takedown attempts while constantly delivering punishing strikes using his long reach. He continued to impress this week against undefeated Canadian Dustin Joynson and showed off a quality jab and surprisingly quick hands for such a big man. He makes great use of his long limbs to maintain distance and stay out of danger, and he also landed a spinning backfist on 3 separate occasions when his opponent got into closer range. This fight was also an opportunity for him to demonstrate solid control from top positon on the ground, where he did a decent job staying busy and landing strikes. Despite being early in his career, Grishenko has now taken out two quality heavyweight prospects and is someone whose development I will be tracking very closely.
Tahir Abdullaev: Improved from unranked to #14 prospect
Adbullaev pulled off a huge upset at UAE Warriors this week by knocking out Daniel Skibiński in just 45 seconds. Skibiński had been on a 12-fight winning streak and was someone I considered likely to get a call-up to the UFC at some point, so this win puts Abdullaev on my radar in a major way after he had previously only been ranked as a fringe prospect. He has tons of finishes on his record and can get it done with both strikes and submissions, but he had lost his only tough matchup coming into this year (Roman Bogatov, who was briefly in the UFC). He started off the year with a 3rd-round submission of 8-1 Alexey Lyapunov for Russian promotion MMA Series, and that was enough for him to get signed to UAE Warriors. At just 5’8″, he is stocky and powerful for the welterweight division and showed that power in his quick deconstruction of the better-known veteran Skibiński. Since he’s just 24 there’s still plenty of room for Abdullaev to keep improving, and the success he’s found so far in 2021 could be the start of a real breakout.
Yohan Lainesse: Fell from #15 prospect to unranked
After joining the rankings just two weeks ago, Lainesse is pushed back out by Abdullaev’s impressive performance.
Andre Fialho is just 27 and has put together a very impressive streak of knockouts, but he’s already fought for both Bellator and PFL in his career. Therefore, he doesn’t make the rankings despite no longer being in a major promotion and his obvious talent.
Vinicius de Oliveira: Remained #6 prospect
De Oliveira rocketed into the rankings back in March by claiming the UAE Warriors bantamweight title and knocking out Xavier Alaoui, who many had projected as a future UFC fighter. De Oliveira was initially scheduled to make his first title defense against Ray Borg, who would have been an excellent test of just how developed the young Brazilian’s grappling skills are. Unfortunately Borg was forced to withdraw due to covid and EFC South Africa champion Sylvester Chipfumbu stepped in as a short notice replacement. As expected, De Oliveira made short work of the outclassed Chipfumbu and got the RNC finish a few minutes into the first round. While it was an impressive display of jiu-jitsu, I already knew that Chipfumbu was not the same caliber of fighter so this win doesn’t do much to improve De Oliveira’s stock.