MMA action has kicked into high gear as the year starts to draw to a close, and that means a whole bunch of prospects from my top 15 rankings have had fights to analyze. Read on to learn more about some of the world’s most promising talents, some of whom are already well known but others remain obscure despite their skills.
Kamal Magomedov: Remained #13 prospect
Magomedov is a deadly finisher who has ended all 9 of his professional wins in the first round. His main problem has been a lack of activity: he fought twice in his debut year of 2013, once in 2014, once in 2015, once in 2017, once in 2018, twice in 2019, and not at all in 2016 and 2020. He won the Titan FC interim welterweight title in his second 2019 fight but later suffered an injury and was unable to challenge for the official belt. He made his comeback this week after more than two years away and got an armbar in less than a minute for Brave. He was originally booked against a tougher opponent but ended up facing a can-crusher on short notice, so he didn’t move up the rankings but continued to show his deadly finishing potential. If he stays with Brave long-term, he should get plenty of opportunities to take on tougher challenges.
Justin Burlinson: Fell from #15 prospect to unranked
Burlinson took on Yohan Lainesse (who was just off the list as my #16 welterweight prospect) on the final episode of this year’s Contender Series. He was the favorite due to his great blend of athleticism, creative submissions, and powerful hands but ended up getting caught with a huge right hook just 90 seconds into the fight. This was Burlinson’s first professional loss, and since he’s still young it will be worth watching how he bounces back from this adversity
Samandar Murodov: Improved from unranked to #15 prospect
Murodov is pretty far off the radar of most of the MMA community, but I’ve watched the 22-year-old from Tajikistan put on two excellent performances so far this year against highly-touted Russians. The first fight was a decision win over 10-0 Dagestani Abdurakhman Alimagomedov that showed Murodov’s athleticism and wrestling ability in a gritty battle. The second fight was for the vacant Eagle FC title against Maxim Shvets (19-3), where Murodov continued to show the skills from his previous appearance while also showing a well-balanced and powerful striking game. He’s still just 7 fights into his career but I think he has at least a decent chance of being a special talent, which is good enough to get him onto the bottom of the rankings.
Denis Lavrentyev: Improved from #8 to #4 prospect
Lavrentyev is an Olympic-level judoka who is now on a 6-fight win streak for Russian promotions RCC and Parus FC. He’s managed to put together an impressive 12-2 resume while facing excellent competition, as proven by his opponents’ cumulative 177-60-1 record. His only two career losses came in his first professional fight and against excellent veteran Victor Henry, and he avenged that second loss in 2020. His latest victim was Canadian veteran Jesse Arnett, who is an excellent submission artist but couldn’t hang with Lavrentyev. Denis tossed Arnett to the ground in the middle of the first round and finished him off with heavy ground and pound. This was some of the best striking I’ve seen from him and is a reminder that he’s only been competing in MMA since 2017. The only downside of his past judo career is that Laventyev is now 33, but he doesn’t look like he’s going to be slowing down any time soon.
Khuseyn Shaykhaev: Improved from #9 to #5 prospect
Khuseyn Shaykhaev has spent his entire 12-0 career with ACB/ACA, but since he’s somehow just 24 years old he’s still eligible for this list. He is an absolute wrestling phenom and can shoot takedowns from any range because he just needs a brief moment of body-to body contact to start taking control. He’s almost impossible to shake off once he has his opponent against the fence and has incredible control with his body lock. He does a fantastic job using his legs to maneuver opponents and quickly snatches elbows, wrists, and ankles to prevent them from building back to their feet. Shaykhaev recorded lots of finishes earlier in his career when he was still being matched against mid-level fighters, but now that he’s started taking on some of ACA’s best he’s become a decision artist who needs to improve his striking output if he wants to maximize his talent. That was particularly evident this week against Pavel Vitruk, a very good Ukranian veteran. Shaykhaev easily controlled his best opponent to date but did very little damage, and even the announcers seemed to get somewhat frustrated by his entirely-positional gameplan. He’s still a tough stylistic matchup for the vast majority of fighters due to his one truly elite trait.
Steve Mowry: Fell from #2 prospect to unranked (10 fights with major promotion)
Mowry continued his ascent with a dominant win over veteran striker Rakim Cleveland (22-13-1). He exchanged a few shots on the feet and shows that he has good pop in his hands, but when given the opportunity to take it to the ground he jumped on it and never gave Cleveland a chance to recover. Mowry has crazy length at 6’8″, but unlike some other tall heavyweights he’s very good at distributing his weight on the ground and has the strength to maintain control from top position. His takedown left him in half-guard and he quickly grabbed a kimura grip and continued to apply torque until he forced the tap. Kimuras are clearly a favorite technique of Mowry’s, as he now has 3 on his record along with an Americana, which uses very similar principles. He also has 2 other submissions and 4 KO/TKOs, meaning that he has finished all 10 fights in his pro career to go along with an impressive 7-0 amateur record. Since Mowry fights for Bellator, picking up this 10th fight means that he is no longer eligible for these rankings. He was already ranked within their top 10 heavyweights going into this week and is clearly on a trajectory to challenge for the belt in the near future, so consider this final win a celebration of Mowry’s graduation from prospect to contender.
Marcus Buchecha: Improved from unranked to #15 prospect
Mowry’s departure opens up a spot in the rankings for some new talent and Buchecha was next in line. He’s a very unusual prospect for these rankings, as he is just one fight into his MMA career, but he’s one of the most decorated BJJ practitioners in recent memory. He has won awards at IBJJF worlds, ADCC competitions, and basically anywhere else where he was given the opportunity to grapple. He’s a hard case to evaluate, as his only MMA fight so far was against a kickboxer who had absolutely no chance against Buchecha once the fight hit the mat, but I was pleased with his desire to throw powerful ground strikes and not exclusively hunt submissions. He ended up getting the finish by a relatively rare north-south choke after several minutes of pure dominance and seemed to be enjoying his new pursuit after accomplishing everything that’s possible in BJJ. His next fight will be a much tougher test, as he’s scheduled to take on #4 prospect Ji Won Kang in December. I’m somewhat surprised that ONE didn’t want to build him up more before throwing him in the cage with their best heavyweight prospect, but as a fan I’m very happy as this should be an exciting throwback fight pitting incredible striking power against jiu-jitsu mastery.
Ty Flores: Improved from unranked to #15 prospect
Flores has featured in the rankings previously but was pushed out last month by the successes of several other prospects. This week it’s his turn to do the displacing, as he won a decision over veteran kickboxer Myron Dennis (18-8) at a Fury FC event. Dana White was there to film Looking for a Fight but opted not to sign Flores, who now has two straight wins over credentialed veterans since his 2020 Contender Series loss to Dustin Jacoby. He somehow started his career as a welterweight but has filled out his 6’3″ frame with plenty of muscle since then and is capable of getting finishes both with his hands and by choking people out on the mat. A win over another top-level prospect could be all that Flores needs to finally get the call to the big show.
Mikhail Ragozin: Fell from #15 prospect to unranked
Ragozin started off the year higher in my rankings but suffered a decision loss for RCC to Brazilian veteran Wagner Prado (15-5-1) back in July. He gets pushed out of the rankings this week by Flores but has a fight booked next week against another talented Brazilian in Viscardi Andrade (22-9). That fight is at middleweight, where Ragozin has fought a few times in the past, so if he’s able to impress he could find himself back in the rankings in a new weight class as soon as next week. On a tangential note, Ragozin has one of the greater fighter pictures I’ve ever seen (seriously, check it out, he’s got two massive cats).
JJ Okanovich: Fell from #6 prospect to unranked
Okanovich shot up my rankings back in December after his split decision win against top prospect Anthony Romero, but he crashed back to earth this week by getting choked out by veteran grappler Trey Ogden. This was the main event of the previously mentioned Looking for a Fight and was a huge opportunity for Okanovich to break through to the UFC after losing his Contender Series bout back in 2019. However, he was outmatched by Ogden, who ended up getting the coveted UFC contract for his impressive finish. Okanovich is very talented but has sandwiched that great win over Romero between two losses against other quality regional fighters, so he’s got some work to do to rebuild his momentum. He’s not far from my top 15 despite the losses, but at age 31 the clock is ticking.
Sam Patterson: Improved from unranked to #14 prospect
Patterson moves into the rankings following a very impressive upset win last week where he choked out a 14-1 Dagestani to record his 4th straight win for Brave. He’s unreasonably tall for the weight class at 6’4″, and I genuinely don’t know how he makes weight given that he still has decent muscle mass. This was the 3rd guillotine choke he’s recorded in his pro career and he makes good use of his vine-like arms to get deep under his opponents’ necks when they try to take him down. His two wins before that were also impressive, as he showed some previously unseen power by knocking out Felipe Silva (9-3) in 2 minutes then went 15 hard minutes against skilled striker Ylies Djiroun (18-6) for another upset win. Patterson is only 25 and has an incredibly high ceiling if he can keep building on this momentum, and Brave has the depth of talent to give him good challenges in his next few fights.
Mo Miller: Fell from #10 prospect to unranked
Miller was one of the most controversial non-signings from this year’s edition of the Contender Series after he dominated with his wrestling for the entire fight but didn’t inflict enough damage for Dana White to sign him. He got another chance to impress the UFC boss this week when Looking for a Fight went to check out a bunch of talent at Fury FC, and the matchmakers gave him a solid test against high-level regional veteran Jose Johnson (12-7), who lost his own Contender Series opportunity in 2020. Unfortunately for Miller, he got caught in a triangle in the second round for his first professional loss despite once again showing off his strong wrestling. This performance showed exactly why he isn’t quite ready for the big show yet, as he still needs to work on his striking and jiu-jitsu to become a well-rounded prospect.
Nikita Mikhailov: Improved from unranked to #12 prospect
Mikhailov last fought in October, where he won a competitive decision for Bellator against solid gatekeeper Brian Moore (14-7). Originally I had him just outside of my top 15, but after re-watching video from that fight and previous matchups and taking into account that he’s just 23 years old, he joins the list at #12 after some tweaks to the rankings. Moore stole the first round with aggression that seemed to surprise Mikhailov, but the young Russian came back in the next two rounds and showed off great footwork, strike selection, and accuracy to rack up damage and earn the win. This wasn’t even the best win of his career, as he gave current AMC Global featherweight champ Mukhamed Eminov his only loss back in 2019 when Mikhailov was just 21 years old. He’s mostly won by decision so far in his career but is an entertaining and dynamic fighter to watch and is someone I can see making a real impact in the Bellator rankings.
Alexander Soldatkin: Improved from unranked to #14 prospect
Soldatkin is a Russian mountain of muscle who had a rough 3-3 start to his career but has been on a fantastic 8-fight win streak since then. 7 of those wins come by 1st-round finish, and they include 5 KO/TKOs, an armbar, and a choke. He hasn’t just been fighting washed-up old men like some heavyweight prospects tend to do, as the records for those 8 opponents go: 3-1, 0-1, 4-2, 4-0, 6-0, 13-7, 10-5, 12-3. He’s taken out both undefeated prospects and proven veterans at an impressive rate, with those last 4 wins all coming in 2021.
This week, he took out recent Contender Series loser Edivan Santos and looked even more impressive against him than #6 prospect Rizvan Kuniev did on the UFC feeder show. Soldatkin had his opponent retreating and wary of his power from the start, and while his hand speed isn’t anything special the power he brings is obvious every time he makes contact. After a couple minutes had gone by, he managed to trap Santos against the fence and started throwing short strikes to break him down. Unfortunately a knee caught his opponent in the groin but the ref didn’t see it, so Soldatkin continued to do his job and got the finish with a flurry of power hooks on the feet and mat. The nature of the finish slightly tarnishes the win but he was clearly dominating for the entire duration of the fight, so the same result was likely to occur either way. This was Soldatkin’s debut for 2nd-tier Russian promotion RCC and I’d love to see him matched against fellow top 15 prospects and RCC signees Anton Vyazigin (#8) or Kirill Kornilov (#2) to really launch the winner into elite prospect territory. Russia is probably the best country for heavyweight talent right now (potentially because of much laxer drug-testing rules), so there are plenty of other regional matchups that could be a great test of how Soldatkin does if the fight goes deeper against a tough opponent.
Marcus Buchecha: Fell from #15 prospect to unranked
Buchecha sets a record for the shortest tenure in the rankings, as Soldatkin’s emphatic win pushes him out just 1 week after he joined. He will jump back in even higher if he manages to win his upcoming clash with #4 prospect Ji Won Kang.
Antonio Trócoli: Improved from #4 to #3 prospect
Trócoli finally made his return more than 2 years after his win on the Contender Series was nullified by a failed drug test. He took on regional can crusher Reslley Isael (7-1) in the main event of Brazilian Fighting Series 3 and picked up a dominant 2-minute RNC as a reminder of his unquestionable talent. He was booked for a rematch of that Contender Series bout against Kenneth Bergh earlier this year, and while that ended up falling through I would love to see two of my top 5 LHW prospects go at it again if any promotion is able to make it happen. Trócoli is now right at the edge of both prospect limits, as he is 30 with 15 total fights, so only time will tell if he can make it to a major promotion before he becomes ineligible.
Mikhail Ragozin: Improved from unranked to #13 prospect
Ragozin got pushed out of the light heavyweight rankings last week but quickly made his return at 185 pounds by scoring a TKO win over UFC veteran Vicarde Andrade, who had most of his success at welterweight. He controlled the center of the cage from the outset and started building up damage with quick calf kicks and shots from his lead left hand, both of which made good use of the range and speed advantages Ragozin had over his smaller and older opponent. A good left hook stunned Andrade 3 minutes into the fight and Ragozin swarmed with punches until the ref was forced to step in, earning him a welcome finish after his last 11 fights all went to decision. Ragozin looks more natural at 185 than 205, and with an 18-5 record and a constantly growing hit-list of quality veterans, it seems inevitable that ACA or a large US-based promotion will sign him up sometime soon.
Azamat Bekoev: Fell from #15 prospect to unranked
Bekoev is coming off a submission loss in ACA but had maintained his spot in the rankings until this week due to the flashes of excellence he’s shown at just 24 years old. However, Ragozin’s success finally bumps him off the list, though if he can rebound with a good win in his next fight he should have no problem making it back
Anthony Romero: Remained #5 prospect
Romero returned to the win column less than 3 months after suffering his first career loss in a split decision to JJ Okanovich. He took on quality veteran and longtime Fury FC competitor Nico Echeverry in the co-main event of Fury 54 and won a decision over his well-rounded opponent to once again prove that he’s one of the better young lightweights outside a major promotion. The biggest obstacle in Romero’s quest to getting signed to the UFC is that most of his fights end up going to a decision and aren’t always the most exciting for the fans, but at age 24 he has plenty of time to work on his finishing instincts. The lightweight prospect rankings are stacked with talent that is blocking Romero from moving up further, but a few more good wins should see him earn an opportunity on a major stage.
Aviv Gozali: Improved from unranked to #14 prospect*
Chris Gonzalez: Improved from unranked to #15 prospect*
Due to an oversight, Koji Takeda was not removed from the prospect rankings despite suffering a loss in September for Rizin and Mukhamed Eminov was not moved back to featherweight after returning to 145 to defend his AMC title. When that was noticed this week, the rankings were adjusted and 20-year-old BJJ phenom Gozali makes his return after being bumped out of the rankings last month.
Chris Gonzalez makes his rankings debut despite coming off a loss for Bellator, as he looked very well-rounded and polished in his 5 previous wins for them and was only taken out by the excellent Goiti Yamauchi (25-5). He’s on the older side at 30 but is just 7 fights into his MMA career and is constantly being pushed by some of the sport’s best at Team Alpha Male. Gonzalez’s next few fights will be crucial indicators of just how legit a prospect he is.
Khaseyn Shaykhaev: Fell from #11 prospect to unranked.
Khaseyn is the first of the super-prospect Shaykhaev brothers to pick up a loss, as he was outgrappled by veteran Makharbek Karginov (13-3) to snap his win streak for ACA. He had previously taken out two good Brazilian veterans and a few solid Russian prospects, but this week he finally ran into someone who had answers for his wrestling-heavy approach. Control time was relatively even as both fighters wanted to stay engaged in grappling, but Shaykhaev didn’t have enough offensive output against the fence and got outstruck at distance. He also lost a point in the first round for two blatant fence grabs that would have given him advantageous position if the ref hadn’t caught it, but 2/5 judges still gave him a draw. Shaykhaev is still developing as a martial artist, as his wrestling is elite, especially in scrambles, but he’s heavily dependent on that wrestling as his one path towards potential victories.
Kevin Cordero: Improved from unranked to #15 prospect
Cordero was pushed out of the rankings last month but returned this week with the removal of Shaykhaev. He emerged from obscurity back in September by choking out Bellator veteran Ricky Bandejas (14-5) with a triangle to make a huge impression in his debut for Combate. I’m very excited to see what comes next for Cordero, as there’s not a ton of tape available on him but his grappling skills and athleticism are obvious whenever you see him fight.
Muhammad Mokaev: Fell from #3 prospect to unranked (signed by the UFC)
The UFC picked up one of one of the world’s best young prospects by signing the 21 year-old Mokaev and making him the youngest fighter on the active roster. He’s got an unbelievably impressive 23-0 amateur record against the best amateurs in the world at IMMAF tournaments, where he won multiple championships. He’s been dominant in his relatively brief 6-0 stint as a pro, and it’s also clear that he’s nowhere near his full potential. He already has the dominant wrestling style we’ve come to expect from Dagestan-born fighters and he’s incredibly agile on the ground. Mokaev is not at his physical peak yet and is still refining his striking, but he’ll be a dangerous opponent for other unranked flyweights while he continues to develop into a true world-class talent. He has one of the highest ceilings of any recent UFC signing, but we may be waiting a few years to see him at his best.
Bidzina Gavasheshvili: Fell from #7 prospect to unranked
Gavasheshvili is a 23 year-old Georgian prospect who rocketed onto my radar when he won a decision over veteran Mikael Silander (20-7) for his debut with ACA. He was matched against another gatekeeper this week in Josiel Silva (14-5) but lacked a plan B after Silva stuffed several of his takedown and clinch attempts. Bidzina got knocked down by a big counter shot and fell face-first towards the end of the first round but managed to survive on his back until the end of the round. He was getting beaten on the feet again in the second and when he finally managed to get a takedown he got locked in a triangle almost instantly. He’s still young but Gavasheshvili will have to become much more well-rounded if he wants to have long-term success in a very tough ACA flyweight division.
Adriano Ramos: Moves from unranked to #14 prospect
Ramos barely qualifies for the rankings at age 30 with 14 total fights, and he also hasn’t fought since 2019. However, what he did that year was impressive enough to earn him this ranking, as he knocked out #8 Bantamweight prospect Vinicius de Olivera in 90 seconds then choked out 10-1 prospect Elton Alves in the second round to win the Future FC flyweight title. The promotion has returned for a few shows in the last year but Ramos has yet to resurface. Hopefully he’s able to make a return soon, because when we last saw him he was very impressive.
Makoto Takahashi: Improved from unranked to #15 prospect
Takahashi has a great record at 12-1-1 and yet he’s just 21 since Japan allows fighters to go pro at age 16. 13 of his 14 career fights have gone to a decision, which is one of the highest rates I’ve ever seen, but he’s been undeniably successful and will likely start to get more finishes as he becomes older and more experienced. He’s spent the vast majority of his career with regional promotion DEEP and became their interim flyweight champion in 2019. That earned him a postlim fight with Bellator but he wasn’t resigned despite beating Yusaku Nakamura (16-6-1). Rizin signed him in 2020 and he got his first career finish with a second round guillotine against Seiichiro Ito (12-3-2), but he still wasn’t given a long-term deal. He returned to DEEP this October and beat another solid veteran and it seems inevitable that at some point he’ll be signed to a longer deal by a major organization if he continues his current trajectory
Mateusz Rębecki: Improved from #2 to #1 prospect
Rębecki picked up his 7th successful defense of the Fight Exclusive Night lightweight title this week, just 40 days after his last defense. He took on creative Armenian grappler Arkadiy Osipyan (7-2), who had recorded multiple high-level submissions for top Russian promotion ACA and provided a different type of challenge for Rębecki than his last few opponents. The difference was evident in that the fight went to decision, and while Rębecki still won it was clearly more difficult than the demolitions with punches and elbows he’s put together over the last few years. He proved that his grappling is good enough to hang with a talented submission artist and also showed that stamina over 25 minutes shouldn’t be a problem for him, which is enough to earn him the top spot in the lightweight rankings. At this point I have to wonder if Rębecki is turning down offers from larger promotions to stay with FEN, as it’s the only way I can make sense of why he’s not already in the UFC or at least KSW.
Tatsuki Saomoto: Remained #9 prospect
Saomoto made his first appearance of 2021 and improved his record with RIZIN to 3-0 with a split decision victory over regional veteran Takashi Matsuba (12-4-1). His 17-2 record is pretty incredible for a 25-year-old, but this win doesn’t move him in the rankings because Matsuba is mostly a can-crusher who was making his RIZIN debut despite coming off a loss to a 15-14-3 journeyman. Saomoto had already proven that he could beat better veterans like Yusaku Nakamura (16-7-1) and Daichi Kitakata (18-9-1) in his two previous fights for Japan’s biggest promotion, so this matchmaking did him no favors, especially when the fight ended up going to a split decision. I’d love to see him get matched up against some of the other rising flyweight talents in Japan to see how he does against a tougher challenge.