Prospect Rankings Update: December

It’s been a great year for MMA even with the continued logistical difficulties presented by the pandemic, and promotions around the world decided to close out 2021 with a bang by stacking their final shows with some of their top talents. This was especially evident early in the month, as there were fewer events in the week before and after Christmas, which have been combined into one time period for this piece. I hope you enjoy another month of analysis of the sport’s top rising talents, and I look forward to continuing with this series next year.

November 29-December 5

Heavyweights:

Ji Won Kang: Fell from #4 to #8 prospect

Kang made a huge impression on the rankings by knocking out his first 5 professional opponents in the first round, including a major upset over elite wrestler Amir Aliakbari (10-1) back in March. This week he got matched against another top-level grappler in BJJ legend Marcus Buchecha but didn’t get much of a chance to let the bombs in his hands go. They feinted and exchanged range-finding shots, then Buchecha got a powerful takedown. From that point on it was one-sided, as Kang ate ground and pound shots then got his back taken when he tried to get to his feet. The Brazilian inevitably managed to work his way to a RNC and hand Kang the first loss of his career. He remains in the rankings due to the insane power he’s previously shown and the fact that I think Buchecha might become a truly elite fighter if he continues at this rate.

Marcus Buchecha: Improved from unranked to #5 prospect

Buchecha made a brief week-long cameo in the rankings last month but announced that he’s a legit threat in the heavyweight division with a dominant win over Ji Won Kang. He was clearly wary of the South Korean’s famous power but managed to avoid getting hit on the feet and took the fight to the ground with a powerful double-leg takedown less than a minute into the fight. Buchecha then swung sharp left hands that made audible popping noises when they connected with Kang’s face and forced a scramble, which allowed the BJJ master to smoothly slide both of his leg hooks in and start controlling everything his opponent was doing. He patiently switched sides with his arms while hunting for the perfect angle to get a choke, and once he found it he put on a nasty squeeze while also cranking Kang’s neck to the side and eventually forcing the tap. He’s still just 2 fights in his career and has been matched against strikers both times, but it looks like ONE might have struck heavyweight gold by signing Buchecha, as he’s shown the expected ground dominance and some pleasantly surprising power in his hands in both of his fights so far.

Adam Pałasz: Fell from #15 prospect to unranked

Adam Palasz has been hovering right at the margins of the top 15 for the past few months and has yo-yoed on and off depending on the state of the other prospects on the list. This week he gets pushed off the rankings for a second time due to Buchecha’s success, but he is still in line to rejoin immediately if a spot opens up.

Light Heavyweights:

Elkhan Musaev: Improved from unranked to #11 prospect

Musaev is an intimidating man from Dagestan with a shaved head, huge beard, and the wrestling prowess to cause problems for any opponent. He started his career back in 2016 with a regional win as a light heavyweight, then took 3 years off and returned at heavyweight. He continued to dominate the local scene, including a KO for ACA Young Eagles, and built a 5-0 record before being signed to the main ACA promotion in September 2020. He wrestled his way to a win in his debut but ran into the gigantic Denis Smoldarev later that year and for once was unable to use his power to bully his opponent around the cage. That lead to the first loss of his career and also made him drop back down to 205 pounds, where he is once again able to physically dominate with his muscular frame. He took on a lethal striker in August 2021 and played it smart by taking him down almost immediately and working for a submission in less than a minute, then came back this week and smothered Wagner Prado (16-5-1), who is a quality veteran battle-tested in both the UFC and KSW. Musaev does not give his opponents an inch to work with once he has top control and is able to use his strength to generate surprising power on shots thrown from very close range. He has power in his hands on the feet too but is clearly far more comfortable with the fight on the mat where he can safely grind his victim into oblivion. He’s someone to watch in a talented ACA light heavyweight division, but his stay in these rankings will be short as his next fight will be his 10th and therefore will make him ineligible.

Honorable Mention: Ivan Erslan

Erslan picked up the 6th 1st-round KO of his 11-1 career this week with a comprehensive demolition of UFC veteran Luis Henrique da Silva to win the title for Croatia-based promotion Armageddon. He’s 30 years old and under 15 total fights, so it seems like he should be in the rankings, where he would slot in as my #1 overall light heavyweight prospect. However, he already has 2 fights for KSW on his record including an unsuccessful title shot in the only loss of his career, so in my eyes he has already done enough with a major promotion to make him ineligible. However, he is absolutely someone that plugged-in fans should be aware of as I expect to see him make an impact in the UFC or another major promotion very soon.

Middleweights:

Johnny Eblen: Fell from #1 prospect to unranked (10th fight for major org.)

Eblen lived up to his “Diamond Hands” nickname this weekend with a 70-second TKO of #7 prospect Collin Huckbody for Bellator. He was already the promotion’s #5 middleweight, so another demolition of a quality regional guy shouldn’t put him that much closer to a title shot. He’s now 10-0 with an even split of decisions and KO/TKOs, and since he fights for a major promotion he’s no longer eligible for the rankings. One or two good wins against fighters near him in the rankings could set Eblen up for a title shot against Gegard Mousasi, which would be a very exciting striker vs grappler matchup.

Josh Silveira: Improved from #5 Light Heavyweight prospect to #1 Middleweight prospect

Silveira became just the second two-division champion in LFA history with a dominant 50-45 decision over Canadian veteran Jared Revel (11-2). His previous pro wins were 4 chokes and two head-kick KOs, with 5 of those 6 wins coming in the first round, so it was great to see him prove that he can go 25 minutes at a lower weight class. He knocked out Tee Cummins (4-0) in less than 50 seconds back in September to win the 205 pound title and wasn’t cutting any weight to fight in that division, so he easily made the drop down to 185 this week and should stay there going forward. He used his wrestling to absolutely dominate his smaller opponent for the entire fight and definitively answered any lingering questions I had about his abilities in that area. He’s clearly a UFC-level talent and I expect to get him signed sometime in the first half of 2022.

Collin Huckbody: Fell from #7 prospect to unranked

Huckbody made his name on the American regional scene as a choke specialist, with 4 finishes coming by arm-triangle choke. He picked up yet another arm-triangle against Kyron Bowen (9-4) in his 2020 Contender Series bout but became the first fighter to turn down a contract offered by the UFC on the show. He knocked out Aaron Phillips (5-1, participated on this year’s edition of TUF) to win the CFFC championship late in 2020 and I thought it was inevitable that he’d get another UFC call soon, but he ended up losing his first title defense to Aaron Jeffery (9-2). He picked up a win over a decent veteran on the regional scene earlier this year before getting the call from Bellator but he was given a truly brutal debut matchup against the surging Eblen. Huckbody got no chance to show off his grappling credentials as he was rapidly picked apart on the feet and started shelling up without firing anything back, which forced the referee to jump in and save him. He still sits just outside the top 15 due to how good of a fighter I think Eblen is, but the weaknesses to strikes that he’s shown in this loss and against Jeffrey makes me much less confident in his long-term ceiling than I once was.

Azamat Bekoev: Improved from unranked to #15 prospect

Bekoev slides back into the rankings to replace Huckbody after being bumped out sometime last month. While he’s just 1-2 in his last 3 fights, those losses have come to #2 prospect Ibragim Magomedov (5-1) and strong veteran Rafał Haratyk (14-4-2). He has strong wrestling and natural power, so while it’s clear that he’s not one of Russia’s elite currently, he’s still worth watching since he’s just 25 and has more room to develop.

Welterweights:

Kyle Crutchmer: Improved from unranked to #14 prospect

Crutchmer took on former UFC fighter Oliver Enkamp in the first fight of this week’s Bellator card and used his collegiate wrestling background to grind out a decision win. Enkamp has both a deadly kicking game thanks to his high-level karate background and a creative submission game on the ground due to his flexibility but Crutchmer was able to neutralize both threats with repeated takedowns, heavy pressure against the fence, and good use of leg shelfing to prevent get-ups. He’s short for the division at 5’9″, but as a result is very muscular and strong when he closes the distance. I would have like to see him inflict a little more damage from his top positions, as he never seemed that close to finishing the fight, but he also had to constantly scramble to avoid submission attempts coming from the bottom so he was likely wary of overcommitting. Enkamp was #10 in the Bellator rankings and it would not surprise me to see Crutchmer steal that number when the next edition is published. He gives the promotion yet another top-level wrestling prospect, and since he trains out of AKA that strength will only continue to develop. However, his stay in my rankings is guaranteed to be short, as his next fight will bring him to 10 total and therefore make him ineligible.

Samandar Murodov: Fell from #15 prospect to unranked

Murodov is a very talented 22-year-old out of Tajikistan who just joined the rankings last month. His potential is sky-high but he’s yet to beat anyone as established as Enkamp, which allowed Crutchmer to barely pass him up in my overall rankings. I absolutely expect to see Murodov back on this list in the future, and it could easily be as early as this month if any other prospect gets removed.

December 6-12

Light Heavyweights:

Antonio Trócoli: Fell from #3 prospect to unranked (age)

Trócoli did not fight this week, but he celebrated his 31st birthday, and since he already had 15 professional fights (12-3), he is unfortunately no longer eligible for these rankings. While I’m sure that’s not the sort of birthday present he was hoping for, the talented Brazilian got back on track with a win last month after a couple years off for a PED suspension, so I’m hopeful he will be able to work his way back into a major promotion in 2022.

Jamal Pogues: Improves from unranked to #15 prospect

Trócoli’s departure and the overall lack of depth across the world at Light Heavyweight allow Pogues to sneak back into the top 15 despite not fighting since September of 2020. Pogues showed a knack for quick KOs on his way to a 2019 Contender Series shot against Marcos Brigagão (11-0), which he won by decision but was not able to secure a contract from the UFC. He then challenged for the vacant LFA title in early 2020 but got submitted by current Bellator star and former #1 prospect on this list Alex Polizzi. He came back with another good decision win later that year and showed that he has the wrestling and stamina to win a fight over 3 rounds if he isn’t able to get his opponent out of there quickly. Unfortunately he hasn’t been able to find a matchup since then, but since he’s just 26 he’s got plenty of time to keep developing as a prospect.

Middleweights:

Christian Leroy Duncan: Remained #5 prospect

CLD has been a prospect on many radars since his amateur days, as he built an extensive 17-6 record against tough IMMAF competition. He’s an elite athlete with polished technique and at 26 years old there’s still room for improvement. All of his professional fights have been with Cage Warriors, and he maintained his undefeated record this week by dominating veteran can-crusher Justin Moore (10-5) on his way to a first round rear naked choke. This was the first submission win of his pro career but his grappling skills have been on display for years. Moore was clearly not on Duncan’s level, but when it comes to late-notice fill-ins its hard to be too picky. Some of CLD’s earlier wins were actually much more impressive, as he picked up a 1-minute KO in just his 2nd pro fight thanks to a beautiful spinning back kick and some follow-up ground shots. That was followed up with a showdown against Will Currie, who was 5-0 at the time and considered one of Cage Warrior’s brightest prospects thanks to his deadly jiu-jitsu and overall strength. However, Duncan was unfazed by such a tough challenge and managed to catch Currie with a crushing knee and some ground-and-pound during a grappling attempt at the start of the 2nd round. That was when I really started to take him seriously as a high-caliber prospect, and the strong wrestling and endurance that he showed to win a decision against Currie in their rematch 3 months later only reinforced his elite prospect status. There’s no change in Duncan’s ranking this week because it seemed inevitable that he would dominate Moore, but he looked more impressive than either of the two fighters who competed for the middleweight belt in the fight after his, so he should be getting his own title shot sometime soon.

Nursulton Ruziboev: Improved from #11 to #6 prospect

Ruziboev continued his outstanding 2021 by picking up his 6th first-round finish of the year to defend his Open FC middleweight championship. He took on Eduard Arustamyan (15-2), who normally fights at light heavyweight and has beaten up a lot of weak competition on the Armenian regional scene. Ruziboev has fought at welterweight in the past and that would probably be his weight class with a top-level promotion, so I had a few concerns that the difference in size might give him some problems. However, he proved that I had no reason at all to worry as he showed off his hand speed for the opening seconds of the fight before bringing his opponent to the mat with a clever leg sweep in the middle of a striking exchange. He easily settled into guard and landed enough shots to loosen his opponent’s legs, which allowed him to explode into side control then quickly transition into a mount. From there he dropped power shots, even standing very briefly for extra leverage, then got the TKO win once his opponent gave his back and got flattened out for more punishment. Every time I watch Ruziboev he does something impressive either athletically, technically, or both, and while he hasn’t faced an elite-level fighter yet he’s taken on plenty of good opponents and built a ridiculous 32-8-2 record by age 28. If the UFC is interested (and they should be) they’d better move in soon, as ACA has shown they’re more than happy to sign top Central Asian talents to compete with their deep pool of Russian prospects.

Faridun Odilov: Improved from unranked to #13 prospect

Odilov has fought all over Russia and Central Asia as he built his resume, with a stint in China also thrown into the mix. Most of his competition wasn’t that great, but he showed his potential early by forcing a draw against current ACA fighter Altynbek Mamashev in just his second pro fight. His career really took off when he joined Gorilla FC (now Eagle FC) in 2019, as he won a decision over 16-6 Dirlei Broenstrup in his promotional debut then followed up with a knockout in his next outing. That was impressive enough to earn Odilov a shot at the title in 2020, which he won right before the promotion was purchased by Khabib and changed names. He had to re-earn the title earlier this year and did so with a 4th-round choke of power-puncher Sergey Kalinin (6-1) in a performance that showed off his grappling ability. The power in his hands was on display this week, as he knocked out Spanish veteran Enoc Solves Torres (26-10-1) in the first round to record his first official title defense and 6th consecutive win overall. In his prime at age 29, Odilov is a well-rounded prospect who could easily be signed by a major promotion in the near future, as he’d be able to jump in and at least be competitive almost anywhere in the world.

Azamat Bekoev: Falls from #15 prospect to unranked

Poor Azamat Bekoev just can’t catch a break, as one week after he rejoined the rankings he’s pushed back out again by Odilov’s strong win. He will likely continue to yo-yo until he can book another fight and clarify where he stands in the ACA middleweight division.

Lightweights:

Mehdi Dakaev: Improved from #12 to #5 prospect

Dakaev continued his hot streak and made his second defense of the Eagle FC lightweight title with a 2nd-round knockout of Makkasharip Zaynukov (11-3), who was someone I also had rated pretty highly as a prospect. Its not every day that a fighter manages to do something that I’ve truly never seen before, but that was the case this week with Dakaev. After threatening his opponent with some quick strikes and forcing him to turn away as he retreated, Dakaev dove after him while swinging a left hook and somehow managed to generate enough power in mid-air to cause a face-plant KO. If you’re reading this piece then you’ve likely already watched the highlight video, but if not you should do so immediately. This was a new side of Dakaev’s game for me, as his last 5 fights had all been decision wins against high-level opponents where he predominantly used his high-level grappling to control his opponent and land opportunistic strikes. This sort of highlight-reel finish shows that his striking is also on a high level and is enough to elevate him into the realm of truly elite prospects. He’s still just 26 despite his sustained success, so the future is very bright for Dakaev.

Kenneth Cross Improved from unranked to #14 prospect

“The Boss” Cross extended his winning streak to 7 this week with a decision victory over battle-tested regional gatekeeper Jose Martinez (12-5) as the main event for XFC Young Guns 4. The start of his professional career was somewhat bumpy, as he picked up finishes in his first 3 fights, got choked out twice in a row, then picked up 3 more wins against easy opponents before another submission loss. However, he’s really come into his own since then and managed to leverage back-to-back KOs of prospects Jonas Flok (13-4) and Robert Hale (8-4) into an opportunity on the 2020 edition of the Contender Series. After a few rescheduling’s due to opponents’ injuries and illnesses Cross ended up taking on streaking 10-0 Bolivian prospect Kevin Syler in a matchup many people expected him to lose by another submission. He proved those predictions wrong by grinding out a decision win with his strong wrestling, but it wasn’t enough to earn him a UFC contract. Cross made his XFC debut later that year with a ground and pound TKO of Jarel Askew (12-6), then returned this week after a little more than a year off to take out Martinez. I have to imagine he’s on the UFC’s shortlist for short-notice replacements as a US-based fighter who’s continuously succeeded at the regional level, and I also wouldn’t be surprised if Bellator or PFL showed interest in him with the resume he’s put together.

Chris Gonzalez: Fell from #15 prospect to unranked

Gonzalez snuck into the back-end of the rankings last month after a spot opened up, but he gets pushed back out this week without having a fight due to the continued success of Cross. He’s now #16, so he could easily be back soon if another space opens up.

Bantamweights:

Kevin Cordero: Fell from #15 prospect to unranked.

Cordero got a big opportunity to impress by taking part in Combate’s 8-man, 1-night bantamweight tournament. The winner got 100K and the next shot at the bantamweight title, and while Cordero made it to the finals it wasn’t quite enough to maintain his spot at the end of the rankings. He had an easy matchup against journeyman Luciano Ramos (8-6) in the first 5-minute round and won a comfortable decision, then showed power and hand speed that I hadn’t previously seen while knocking out a solid prospect in Leodegario Muniz (7-1) with just a few seconds left in their fight. That earned him a fight against Frans Mlambo in the finals, where he lost a split decision after a competitive and back-and-forth 15 minutes. I had Mlambo rated slightly higher than Cordero coming into this, so the young Spaniard doesn’t drop far due to the loss but ended up just outside my top 15. He still showed plenty to be excited about in this tournament and proved that his impressive triangle over Ricky Bandejas was not a fluke, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see him back in the rankings sometime next year.

Mlambo also deserves an honorable mention, as he would ordinarily be eligible for my rankings since he’s 30 but he’s already had 4 fights with Bellator, which in my eyes elevates him beyond prospect status. Since parting ways with Bellator he’s pulled off a massive upset by choking out Jonas Mågård (12-4) in the first round to win the FEN title in Poland then built upon that success with this tournament win. He seems destined to make it back to a major promotion very soon.

Ary Farias: Improved from unranked to #15 prospect

Ary Farias is a world-class jiu-jitsu practitioner who entered the year high on my rankings after destroying talented veteran Johnny Campbell in less than 30 seconds to close out 2020. However, he got upset in his first fight of 2021 when LFA went to Brazil and Marcos Breno (13-2) knocked him out in less than a minute. That was enough to earn Breno the #14 prospect ranking and raise some questions in my mind about Farias’ chin. However, he made a comeback at the end of October for the tiny regional show “Cassino Fight 7” and pulled off a 2nd-round guillotine over regional veteran Rodrigo de Moura (10-4). That was a good reminder of just how dangerous his submission skills are, and while I still wonder if he’ll be able to stand up to high-level strikers the departure of Cordero opens up a spot for Farias at the bottom of the rankings.

Flyweights:

Azat Maksum: Improved from #13 to #8 prospect

Maksum has been one of my biggest risers this year, as he started the year 10-0 but had mostly faced easy opponents on the Kazakhstani regional scene. He changed that with a submission of a 5-0 prospect to start the year, then recorded two incredibly impressive knockouts for Brave that included a massive overhand right that packed more power than you would ever expect from a flyweight. He returned to Kazakhstan this week and submitted his 8-3 opponent in less than a minute. He continues to show that he’s lethal both as a grappler and a striker and his built his record to a stellar 14-0. The fact that he’s still just the #8 prospect in the division speaks to the incredible depth of flyweight prospects worldwide, and Maksum is one of the many who I would be happy to see in the UFC if they start expanding the division.

December 13-19

Heavyweights:

Kirill Kornilov: Remained #2 prospect

Kornilov continued to build his record to an impressive 12-0-1 this week with a decision win over Sultan Murtazaliev (8-4-1), who fought him to a draw back in 2020 and was previously the only blemish on his record. It was a cagey, relatively slow-paced fight, with Kornilov leading the exchanges while scoring with his practiced laser of a left jab, landing some solid leg kicks, and using tons of feints to keep his opponent guessing. Murtazaliev tried to use his strong wrestling towards the end of the 1st round and several times in the 3rd, but Kornilov used his underhooks well and recorded more damage than his opponent with short knees and punches every time his back ended up against the fence. This performance didn’t have the same highlight-reel value as the knockouts in his last two fights, but it brings him to 5-0 for 2021 and proves that his kickboxing-based style is resilient to high-level sambo/wrestling, which is essential if Kornilov is going to be fighting in a major promotion. I say this every time I write about him, but I still can’t believe that he’s fighting for RCC and hasn’t been snapped up by an international promotion yet. Maybe 2022 will finally be his year.

Aleksandr Maslov: Improved from #11 to #7 prospect

Maslov made his debut for RCC this week after claiming the Open FC title back in August, and he took on veteran Brazilian jiu-jitsu specialist Eder de Souza in a battle of smaller heavyweights, as both men weighed in around 230 pounds and have made the cut to light heavyweight in the past. Maslov was the much shorter fighter in this one and was also younger by more than a decade, so he used his advantage in speed to step in and out of range for his strikes and constantly pressured his opponent for the first two rounds. Souza started engaging in grappling in the third round to try to switch things up, and he managed some decent control for over a minute before getting reversed by Maslov and hit with some power shots. A subsequent takedown attempt got stuffed and the Russian landed some nice ground and pound from the top, then finished the fight with a brutal elbow against the fence when they found themselves back in the clinch. He has now taken out three Brazilian veterans in a row as part of a 6-fight win streak, with his only career loss coming against current #10 LHW prospect Elkhan Musaev, and it seems pretty clear that he’s not someone that other top Russian talents want to risk taking on right now.

Sergey Bilostenniy: Fell from #7 to #8 prospect

The big week for big Russians continued with Bilostenniy’s KO win for Open FC, though he actually falls a spot in the rankings due to Maslov’s success and the fact that his opponent was a washed-up 43-year-old Caio Alencar, who we last saw going 1-3 for PFL back in 2017/2018. This was a slugfest from the start, with both men swinging haymakers without much of a feeling-out process, and Bilostenniy managed to get a knockdown after a little more than a minute. He landed some massive shots while standing in his opponent’s guard, then continued pounding away after taking the back and forced the ref to stop the fight. This was a dominant win, but Alencar was 17 years older and Bilostenniy already had 1st-round KOs of veterans in his last 3 fights, so this didn’t really teach us anything about him as a prospect that we didn’t already know. He’s spent time fighting for ACA in the past but chose to go to Open FC, so maybe he’s angling to get signed by a major American promotion, but I’d like to see him given at least 1 truly tough test before I can feel confident that he’s ready for that next level.

Middleweights:

Ibragim Magomedov: Fell from #2 prospect to unranked (10 fights for major promotion)

Magomedov got back on track after a DQ loss in his last fight by mauling former Brave middleweight champ and well-regarded prospect Daniel Pereira in less than 90 seconds. He got an early takedown then pummeled in a series of huge right hands that knocked his opponent fully unconscious in a display of both his wrestling ability and raw power. However, the win brings him to 8-2, and he has turned 26 since his last fight, so by the criteria of this series he is no longer eligible as a prospect since he fights for a major promotion in ACA. He’s probably one or two more good wins away from a title shot, but I definitely think Magomedov has all the tools necessary to be one of the biggest threats at 185 pounds to come out of the MMA talent assembly line in Dagestan.

Murad Ramazanov: Fell from #8 prospect to unranked (age in major promotion)

Ramazanov is another Dagestani prospect who leaves the rankings this week despite picking up a win, as he moved to 11-0 with a dominant wrestling-filled decision over former ONE champion Zebaztian Kadestam. However, he has turned 26 since his last fight, and since ONE is another major organization, he’s no longer eligible for the rankings. While Ramazanov is undefeated, I don’t rate him as highly as I did Magomedov because his striking on the feet is still very rudimentary and is used for very little besides setting up takedown attempts, and while his control on the mat is very impressive his output and damage with ground and pound leaves something to be desired. He has definitely graduated to contender status from being a prospect though, as he could easily be next in line for a shot at ONE’s current 185 pound champ Kiamrian Abbasov in what would be an epic wrestling showdown.

Mikhail Ragozin: Improved from #12 to #7 prospect

Ragozin just dropped back down to middleweight last month, but he obviously wants to stay busy at his new weight class and was able to take another fight this week after scoring a relatively easy 1st-round KO in his last outing. He was one half of the main event for RCC against 38-year-old Yasubey Enomoto (22-12), who has been fighting at the highest level in Russia and Europe for more than a decade but is probably a more natural fit at welterweight. The difference in size between Ragozin, who was only slightly undersized at light heavyweight, and his opponent was striking, but the first round was close, as the Russian threw harder and landed a few big shots but was getting picked apart by Enomoto’s quick jab and good footwork. However, Ragozin adapted his gameplan for the next two rounds and started shooting takedowns whenever he got the opportunity, and once it got to the mat he used his size and strength to grind out a punishing decision win. His opponent threatened guillotines and leglocks from the bottom and got some good scrambles started, but Ragozin showed good awareness on the ground and managed to flow through positions to remain in control while continuing to inflict damage. While his rise up the ranks is definitely helped by the departure of two higher-rated prospects, this was also a solid win over a credentialed gatekeeper that showed Ragozin’s adaptability and wrestling prowess, both of which will serve him well going forward.

Azamat Bekoev: Improved from unranked to #14 prospect

Bekoev’s semi-absurd bouncing on and off the rankings continued this week, as he rejoined the rankings for the second time this month after just being pushed off of them last week and having similar fluctuations in other months of this series. Nothing has changed since his last writeup, but the depatures of Magomedov and Ramazanov opened up two new spots at the bottom of the rankings. Maybe Bekoev will be able to stick around slightly longer now that he’s no longer right on the borderline as the #15 prospect.

Gamzat Khiramagomedov: Improved from unranked to #15 prospect

Two Russians departed the middleweight rankings but their spots have been occupied by two fresh talents from the country that is currently producing the best prospects in the world. If the name sounds familiar, Khiramagomedov actually had one fight for PFL back in 2018 at welterweight, where he was submitted in the first round for his only professional loss. He returned to competitive action this week for Khabib’s Eagle FC after a 2-year layoff, where he scored a highlight-reel KO with a step-in left hook that left Giuliano del Vigna (5-0) stiff as a board on the canvas. While del Vigna’s record was good, he was almost 40 and had only fought fighters with losing or 0-0 records on the Brazilian scene, so this was a matchup that “the Predator” was always expected to win. Still, it was a good reminder of what a deadly finisher he can be, though I’d like to see him tested against a high level grappler to see how much he’s improved since that PFL loss.

Welterweights:

Iuri Lapicus: Fell from #4 prospect to unranked (age in major promotion)

Lapicus turned 26 back in October but I just noticed now as part of a year-end rankings cleanup, and since he fights for a major promotion (ONE) and already has 15 professional fights, he’s no longer eligible as a prospect. He hasn’t fought since his controversial matchup with Eddie Alvarez back in April, which was originally ruled a DQ win in Lapicus’ favor for shots to the back of the head but was later overturned to a no contest when it was ruled that he was intentionally turning his head so that the strikes would land in the illegal zone. That situation followed his only professional loss, a title challenge against Christian Lee in October 2020, so I can only hope that his recovery has been going well and that we will see the ultra-talented Moldovan back in the cage early next year.

Abdoul Abdouraguimov: Improved from #9 to #7 prospect

Abdouraguimov needed less than two minutes to seal the victory against solid veteran Luciano Contini (13-3) in his only fight of 2021. The fight took place as the co-main event for the 2nd ever show put on by French promotion Ares FC, and the company is worth watching going forward as this card was stacked with talent. Contini is definitely past his prime at 39 but he landed some quick, sharp legs kicks to start the round before being taken down with some good chain wrestling by Abdouraguimov, who landed in half guard and transitioned fluidly into back control with both hooks in when given the slightest opportunity. “Lazy King” then easily flattened his opponent out, landed 3 hard strikes with his right hand, then snuck an arm under the chin for a deep RNC that forced a very fast tap. That was the 8th choke submission he’s recorded among his 13 wins, and the former Brave champion is always a threat if he gets even a brief chance to attack the neck. Abdouraguimov is 1-1 against current #5 welterweight prospect Jarrah Hussein Al-Silawi, and that’s his only loss. He doesn’t move up a ton this week because his opponent was nowhere near his level, but he seems destined to end up in a major promotion with the impressive wrestling and fantastic jiu-jitsu that Abdouraguimov’s put on display.

Boris Medvedev: Improved from unranked to #12 prospect

RCC put on a great show this week, as Medvedev joins Kornilov, Maslov, and Ragozin in making an appearance in the rankings after all 4 took part in this week’s fights. He has a well rounded skillset and most of his finishes come by KOs set up by his technical boxing and hard kicks, but this week showed off more of his grappling ability on the way to a decision victory over very talented UFC and PFL veteran Glaico França (the same one who gave new #15 middleweight prospect Gamzat Khiramagomedov his only loss). In the first round it was França who shot first for a takedown, but Medvedev sprawled well and was able to out-muscle his opponent and end up on top in guard, where he stayed busy enough to maintain control for the next 3.5+ minutes. After being so successful in the first, he decided to initiate his own takedown to start the second round and ended up spending more than 4 minutes raining down ground and pound from guard and half guard. An out-of-ideas França again shot for early takedowns in the 3rd but was once again reversed with ease and spent the rest of the fight being ground into oblivion on the mat. This was a dominant performance by Medvedev against a well-respected fighter who has achieved solid success in some of the world’s best promotions, and it vaults him into the rankings off the back of a 5-0 2021 for RCC. I’m very excited to see whether he can continue his success in 2022 and progress into a real star, as he has all the tools necessary to do so.

Louis Glismann: Improved from unranked to #13 prospect

Glismann’s matchup against Emil Weber Meek, who went 1-3 in the UFC against very good competition, only lasted for a minute, but it was absolutely action packed. Both fighters came out swinging bombs from the start of the fight and both ate some heavy shots in those first 30 seconds, until Glismann used a good double-leg takedown and immediately hopped on Meek’s back. The veteran showed good wrestling instincts and bent forward to make his Danish backpack fall off, but Glismann showed incredible transition skills and dropped straight into a deep armbar that forced a quick tap. He’s already 30 but is relatively early in his career at 9-2, so a win of this caliber is a huge way to make a statement that he’s capable of taking on international level opponents. His two career losses came in his pro debut, which I hardly count, and against new #7 prospect Abdoul Abdouraguimov, who choked him out quickly a year ago. This was Glismann’s first fight for Ares FC, and he has some high-quality wins in his past for Brave and smaller European promotions, so his resume is deep enough to potentially earn a call from a major promotion given the aggression and grappling skills he’s shown so far in his career.

Ross Houston: Fell from #15 prospect to unranked

Houston had a very successful run with Cage Warriors and ended up winning their title while showing off some deadly striking, but some of the hype died down when he lost to Michael “Venom” Page in his Bellator debut back in 2020. He was unable to find a fight this year, as he pulled out of his only booking with an injury in October, and this week he gets pushed out of the bottom of the rankings due to the rise of some new promising fighters from the regional scene in Glismann and Medvedev.

Featherweights:

Islam Omarov: Improved from #2 to #1 prospect.

I am officially ready to conduct the Islam Omarov hype train, as I think the 11-0 Dagestani may have real star potential. He started his career 7-0 in various regional promotions then joined ACA, Russia’s best show, in August 2020 and has won 4 straight decisions in that time. He took out solid gatekeeper Abdul-Rakhman Temirov (12-5) in his debut, then manhandled another rising prospect in Zamir Aripshev (9-1) to close out 2020. His two wins of 2021 were both stellar, as he used his incredibly high-level wrestling to smother the hugely hyped striking of current #10 prospect Bibert Tumenov (10-1), then came back this week to outmaneuver Dzhikhad Yunusov (19-5), who was on a big winning streak and coming off some very impressive performances. Omarov caused some minor controversy before the fight by saying that his grappling was on another level from Yunusov’s, which was a bold claim given the veteran’s impressive wrestling displays in his ACA career, but he proved that he was absolutely correct and was always at least one step ahead in all the grappling exchanges. There were lots of scrambles but Omarov managed to flow and float on top of his opponent and continued to rain down damage whenever he got the opportunity. I particularly liked the knees to the ribs he used from side control, as it’s an underutilized but very effective strategy when your upper body is occupied with controlling your opponent. The 145 pound division in ACA is very strong, but I think Omarov has the tools to hang with any of them and expect to see him get a title shot soon. He’s still just 24, so the sky is the limit here.

Salahdine Parnasse: Improved from #4 to #2 prospect

Parnasse reclaimed his KSW title with a clear decision victory and avenged the bizarre loss to Daniel Torres (12-4) that is the only blemish on his otherwise incredible record. The 24-year-old from France started his career 14-0-1 with 5 consecutive wins in KSW on his way to the title and was one of the hottest commodities in the sport, but then the pandemic hit and he was unable to fight for over a year. On his return in January 2021, he lost his title in a huge upset when Torres’ bicep/forearm made contact with his head during a strike and knocked him completely unconscious. However, he’s bounced back with a submission of top veteran Filip Pejić then put together a good, well-rounded, performance this week to show that he’s a better fighter than Torres and just got caught in the wrong place at the wrong time for his loss. I can see him remaining champion for a long time if he stays with KSW, as his athleticism is unmatched in the promotion and he is strong enough in striking and grappling that there are very few holes to attack. I also think he would be a very interesting addition to a UFC featherweight division and could potentially end up in the top 15 if he were added to the roster.

Fabricio de Andrade: Improved from #10 to #8 prospect

“Wonder Boy” continues this week’s trend of young featherweights having success in major promotions, as the 24-year old Brazilian picked up his 3rd straight win for ONE and his 4th straight overall with a first-round knockout of Kai Wen Li (10-4). At 6-2, his record is not as pretty as some of the other prospects on the list, and his loss to some guy with a 2-7-1 record named Xiaolong Wu is pretty hard to believe, but that most recent loss came back in 2017 when de Andrade was just 20 years old. Since then he’s grown into a great athlete and an active and dangerous striker with good counter timing and nice footwork to get himself in and out of range to deliver shots. He’s also a fluid mover and submission threat on the ground, which was shown off in his RNC victory over Mark Abelardo (19-7) in his debut for ONE. His fight with Wen Li was a high-paced striking battle where de Andrade was able to chip away the whole first round and threw way more volume but his opponent stayed dangerous by throwing some bombs with nasty intentions. de Andrade eventually got the knockdown into continued ground strikes, which forced the stoppage with less than 20 seconds left in the first against someone I had rated as a solid prospect, so this was a good win for him as he continues to establish himself within ONE.

Flyweights:

Phumi Nkuta: Improved from #9 to #8 prospect

Nkuta has stayed busy in 2021, as he won the Cage Fury title in March in just his 3rd professional fights, defended his title in October with a dominant performance against a late-notice opponent, then made a second defense this week against dangerous submission specialist Jason Eastman (7-3). Nkuta has looked UFC-ready in all of these performances, as he is a dynamic athlete with incredibly quick movement, good timing on his takedowns, and strong wrestling control once he gets on top. His striking isn’t spectacular but he has a solid grasp of the fundamentals and is definitely not one-dimensional, though his wrestling is his strongest trait. None of his opponents have been on his level but they’ve all been quality regional fighters, and its hard to find comparable talents in the US that aren’t already in the UFC. The only thing that’s potentially holding him back in my eyes is that he’s still relatively unexperienced in terms of total fights, but when you factor in a 5-0 amateur career and the high level he’s been fighting at, you realize that he’s a more polished product than his record would initially indicate. Nkuta seems like an obvious candidate for the 2022 edition of Dana White’s Contender Series, and I would also have no problems with him being signed directly to the UFC to compete with some of their other rising flyweight prospects.

December 20-January 2

Lightweights:

Roberto de Souza: Improved from #2 to #1 prospect.

After getting bumped out of the #1 spot by Mateusz Rębecki last month, de Souza reclaimed his top ranking this week with a very slick submission of Yusuke Yachi (23-11) during RIZIN’s New Year’s show. “Satoshi” is Brazilian born but has spent his whole career fighting in Japan, where he’s RIZIN’s lightweight champion and has also competed in tons of professional grappling bouts. His jiu-jitsu is incredible and he’s particularly deadly with the triangle choke, which he showed again this week. He managed to get himself into a mounted triangle position over his veteran opponent then also grabbed an armbar to force the tap even quicker. He now has 14 professional fights and at 32 he’s already over the age limit, so his time atop these rankings is limited. I’d love to see him test himself in the UFC to see if his submission skills stand up against the best in the world, but he’s very popular with Japanese fans and I could easily see him staying with RIZIN for the foreseeable future.

Bantamweights:

Kai Asakura: Remained #1 prospect

Asakura picked up a win and a loss against two respected Japanese veterans in RIZIN’s New Year’s show, taking out Kenta Takizawa (13-7) by decision in the semi-finals of the Grand Prix only to be upset in a decision loss in the final against Hiromasa Ougikubo (25-4-2), who Asakura knocked out back in 2020 to first claim the promotion’s bantamweight title. Despite the loss, he continued to look like a top talent, and while he fell considerably down by overall bantamweight rankings, he was rated so highly coming into the night that he still remains the #1 prospect. I’d be very surprised if he’s not back in the RIZIN title picture early in 2022, assuming that he doesn’t try to make the big transition to the UFC.

Flyweights:

Asu Almabaev: Improved from #4 to #3 prospect.

Almabaev has been putting on impressive performances in Russia and Central Asia for a few years now, but 2021 was absolutely his breakout year where he established himself as a world-class prospect. The 27-year-old Kazakhstani fighter has built his win streak to 10 with lots of high-caliber opponents along the way, and both of his career losses came back-to-back all the way in 2017. He claimed the M1 Challenge Interim title in 2019 shortly before the organization shut down with a decision over UFC veteran Chris Kelades (14-4), then easily won the Naiza FC title in his only 2020 fight by choking out hyped prospect Darkhan Skakov (3-0) in the first round. In 2021, Almabaev made his debut for Brave CF and pulled off an incredibly impressive upset over Aleksander Doskalchuk, who was signed to the UFC in 2020 but never competed due to injury issues and remains my #11 flyweight prospect despite the loss. Almabaev looked more explosive than his opponent throughout the fight and showed effortless top control, which can be hard to manage in the lighter weight classes full of slippery grapplers, on his way to a 2nd-round RNC victory.

He made his return to Naiza FC this week for their co-main event, where he took on rising Brazilian prospect Kayck Alencar (10-1) and proved that he is several levels above your typical regional prospect. His right hand packs a ton of power for a flyweight and Almabaev landed some crunching uppercuts and fast straights that clearly stung his opponent, and once he had him worried about the power he changed levels with great timing, using a single-leg and good trip to get the takedown in the first and a powerful double-leg to do so in the second round. Once he had top position, Alencar could do nothing to escape or get into better position, and Asu rained down punishment for 3-4 minutes each round with right hands that were surprisingly heavy given that he was in guard or half-guard and didn’t have a ton of space to work with. By the start of the third round, his opponent was obviously exhausted and beaten up, and all it took was one more big right from Almabaev to get the knockdown and force the referee to step in. This was a dominant performance, and while I rated him considerably higher than Alencar, it’s still a good sign that he so easily handled someone with a very strong record and a well-rounded skillset. Almabaev is UFC ready, and I’d love to see him there as soon as possible in 2022.