MMA started slowly in 2022, as many promotions continued their break from shows that started during the holidays. There were no prospects that fought in the first week of the month, and only 2 who had fights booked for the 2nd week. However, things really picked up in the last week of January, as Khabib’s Eagle FC brought two top Dagestani prospects to the US to build up their names against better-known veterans while Bellator absolutely stacked their first show of the year with 5 prospects. Every weight class saw at least one prospect fight, so lets get into the breakdowns.
Saygid Izagakhmaev: Fell from #10 prospect to unranked (signed to ONE)
Izagakhmaev is one of Khabib Nurmagomedov’s most promising protegees, and he showed off his dominant wrestling and physical gifts while picking up his 20th career win in his ONE debut. He took on talented all-rounder James Nakashima, who challenged for the ONE middleweight title back in 2020, but Saygid was so clearly the bigger fighter that even the commentators were mentioning it. As with many of Dagestan’s prospects, he is an incredible wrestler who’s been picking up wins by submission and decision over some of Russia’s strongest prospects for years now, with only 2 losses compared to his 20 wins. One of those losses was against Carlston Harris when Izagakhmaev got his chance to earn a UFC shot on Dana White Looking for a Fight, but Harris has looked very strong in the UFC and Saygid has now won 3 straight fights with chokes of strong opponents since then. He was much more willing to strike with Nakashima than I expected, and while he showed some quality leg kicks in the first 4 minutes, he didn’t throw enough volume with his hands and was getting outpointed by his opponent in my eyes. However, he did a great job changing levels for a late takedown and immediately landed in a dominant position, where he remained for the rest of the round. He decided to keep pressing his advantage and got another takedown very early in the second then progressed into increasingly dominant positions, eventually locking up a body triangle that he rode back and forth from mount into back control. He went for the finish after a couple minutes by dropping off to the side for an arm triangle attempt, then transitioned beautifully into a short Brabo choke when his opponent tried to roll. This was a statement win in Izagakhmaev’s major promotion debut, I I’d expect to see him get fast-tracked into contender status with ONE. However, since he’s over the major promotion age limit at 27, he’s now ineligible for the rankings.
Samandar Murodov: Improved from unranked to #15 prospect
Eagle FC’s reigning welterweight champion makes his return to the rankings thanks to Izagakhmaev’s depature after being pushed out last month. Hopefully he can find someone to defend his title against soon, as at just 22 years old and 7-0 he’s already shown the ability to take on top-level veterans with significantly more experience and get the win. He’s still developing as a fighter, but the skillset he already has is dangerous and should only get better with experience.
Christian Rodriguez: Fell from #11 prospect to unranked
Rodriguez improved his record to 7-0 this week with an easy 63-second submission of late-notice veteran Ryan McIntosh as the main event of regional Wisconsin show NAFC: Super Brawl. His opponent had an ugly 19-36 record, so this result was always expected, but most importantly for the rankings the fight was at 150 pounds, which moves Rodriguez into my featherweight prospect bracket. The competition at 145 pounds is tougher than at 135, so Rodriguez falls out of the rankings despite staying undefeated. He put on a striking clinic during his Contender Series fight and I though he might have gotten signed if he didn’t miss weight, but the Roufusport prospect will need a tougher test than this week’s opponent if he wants to get the UFC’s attention again.
Khaseyn Shaykhaev: Improved from unranked to #15 prospect
The 2nd Shaykhaev brother makes his return to the rankings after leaving in November following his professional loss, which came by majority decision against a strong ACA veteran. He continued to show his strong wrestling but didn’t inflict enough damage and was penalized a point for fence grabs, which combined to lose him the fight. He hasn’t fought since, but a couple other bantamweights have left the rankings and opened up a spot for him to return. He’s young at 24, so hopefully he’ll show a more well-rounded game whenever he makes his return to ACA.
Charles Johnson: Improved from unranked to #10 prospect
Johnson is a tall and lanky flyweight who trains out of Tiger Muay Thai and has professional boxing experience, and all that striking training is obvious when you watch him fight. His movement is fluid and bouncy without excessively wasting energy, he does a great job using the reach advantage that he typically has, he’s constantly working to find angles from which he can inflict damage without being in danger himself, and he throws a wide variety of strikes with his hands, feet, and knees that keep his opponents off balance and never sure where the danger is going to come from. He suffered both of his professional losses by decision back in 2018 against Sean Santella and Brandon Royval, who in my eyes are top-30 and top-10 flyweights in the world, respectively. That rough patch made him take a few years off of MMA to focus more of boxing and Muay Thai, but he’s put on an incredibly impressive 4-fight winning streak since returning to LFA in February 2021.
He started by choking out hyped prospect Karlee Pangilinan (6-0), won a relatively close decision over Yuma Horiuchi (8-3) to claim the interim flyweight title, unified his belt with a dominant performance against submission threat João Camilo (7-4) capped by a KO, then made his first title defense this week in a war against another undefeated prospect with a lot of momentum in Carlos Mota (6-0). Both fighters went for it from the opening bell and the pace they set was crazy, as they traded heavy shots and sporadically engaged in quick grappling exchanges for the first 4 rounds. Both fighters were affected by body shots at various points, but as the fight wore on it became clear that Johnson had superior cardio and was beginning to pull ahead due to sheer volume and accuracy. By the 5th round, Mota had slowed noticeably and Johnson put together an impressive extended combo that showcased the diversity of his striking, as he switched several times between the body and head while constantly moving to stay perfectly in range then finished with a powerful hook that dropped the young Brazilian. Johnson is on the older side for a prospect at 31, but he’s in peak athletic condition and is in the strongest form of his life. The UFC loves LFA champions, and after the string of impressive performances that he’s put on tape, I’d be shocked if his next fight isn’t in the big show or at minimum the Contender Series.
Adriano Ramos: Fell from #14 prospect to unranked
When Ramos moved into the rankings last year, I noted that it was due to his impressive past wins and in spite of him being inactive since 2019. While I was very excited to see him finally book another fight this week at a regional show, it did not go as Ramos would have liked. He showed some nice kicks to the legs and body and dropped his opponent, 21-year-old Lucas Rocha (13-1), early on with a short hook, but he wasn’t able to get the finish on the ground. His leg work seemed to affect his opponent, as Rocha repeatedly slipped to the mat in the first round, and although Ramos threw a high volume of ground and pound he was never able to land anything clean enough to get the finish. He may have over-exerted himself, as after 3+ minutes and another escape by Rocha to get back to his feet, Ramos got caught with a few punches into a big head kick that stunned him, then ate a beautifully placed flying knee that left him unconscious on his back. He’ll have some serious rebuilding to do if he hopes to regain his spot in the rankings and prove that his skills haven’t atrophied during his time away from the cage, and at age 30 the clock is ticking if he has ambitions to make it out of the Brazilian scene and onto a bigger stage.
Alexander Soldatkin: Improved from #15 to #13 prospect
Soldatkin extended his winning streak to a very impressive 9-straight with a 1st-round flatlining of 40-year-old Brazilian submission artist Jackson Gonçalves (10-3), giving him 8 round 1 finishes in his run. Gonçalves came out very aggressive with a charging takedown attempt from across the cage, but Soldatkin used his impressive upper-body strength and size to stuff the attempt then started punishing his opponent with his heavy hands. When he managed to get a dominant clinch position against the fence he started doing good damage with knees to the body and head, but unfortunately also landed a heavy low blow for the second consecutive fight. This time, the referee spotted it but didn’t step in until Soldatkin landed some powerful punches on his compromised opponent. From that point on, Gonçalves was in desperation takedown mode and got visibily exhausted with each failed attempt. Soldatkin caught him with a massive left hook as he tried to move away from the cage that dropped him face-down onto the canvas and ended the fight immediately. This was another impressive win from the big Russian, but he has now faced 3 consecutive Brazilian can-crushers and I would really like to see him take on another top talent before I move him too far up the rankings, as his last loss came to #3 prospect Oleg Popov back in 2019 and he hasn’t faced anyone of that caliber since.
Ben Parrish: Fell from #8 prospect to unranked
Parrish gained a good amount of name-recognition and vaulted himself into the rankings from obscurity with his highlight-reel KO of Christian Edwards back in September when I published the first entry in this series. While the punch was impressive by itself, the combination of his dad-bod, active social media presence, and ridiculous “Big Tuna” nickname all made him a memorable and popular figure. Unfortunately, his time in the rankings ends this week as he was absolutely dominated by Ryan Bader’s protégée Sullivan Cauley (2-0), who is one of the many high-level wrestlers Bellator have stashed on their roster. Parrish got taken down early in the first round and ate heavy elbows and hammerfists for several minutes as he didn’t have the strength or agility to escape back to his feet. His opponent finally got a dominant enough position that Big Tuna couldn’t offer much intelligent defense and forced the referee to step in. Only time will tell if his signature win was a lucky fluke or if he has what it takes to fight his way back into elite prospect status.
Sullivan Cauley: Improved from unranked to #12 prospect
At just 3-0, Cauley is one of the least experienced prospects in the rankings regardless of weight class, but his total dominance of Parrish and the overall lack of depth at light heavyweight is enough to move him into the rankings. Cauley wrestled at a high level at Arizona State University and his plan A is always to take his opponent’s down and beat them senseless with his heavy ground and pound. He’s in great shape and is very strong, which makes his top control incredibly difficult to escape and has led to 3 straight first-round TKO wins for Bellator. His first two performances were impressive but came against opponents with 0-1 and 1-0 records, so seeing him replicate his dominance so easily against formerly #8 prospect Parrish was a great sign of his potential to compete with some of MMA’s tougher challenges. He’s been training a lot with Ryan Bader, who has had an excellent career after also being an accomplished collegiate wrestler, so if he can soak up some of that experience and knowledge to go along with his athletic gifts he could become a force to be reckoned with at 205 pounds. However, he is still very untested and we will learn a lot about how high Cauley’s ceiling is once he’s matched against someone who can prevent his takedowns and force him into a striking battle, or a high-level submission artist who can threaten him once they’re on the ground. For now, he enters relatively low on the rankings until I can see more of his overall skillset against quality opponents.
Dalton Rosta: Remained #2 prospect
Rosta was originally scheduled to take on fellow undefeated fighter and #12 prospect Romero Cotton as part of Bellator’s first show of 2022, but a late injury left him matched against a 6-2 can-crusher in Duane Johnson. He predictably dominated the fight everywhere it went, controlling his older opponent with his wrestling and landing some strong ground and pound shots then starting to pick him apart on the feet as the fight went on. Rosta was feeling himself in this one and spent a little more time showboating for the crowd than I’d like to see, especially when it felt like he could have gotten a finish if he pressed the gas a little harder. Rosta has a background as a collegiate wrestler and is a well-built athlete who has naturally powerful takedowns and punches. He went 7-0 as an amateru and finished all of his opponents, which convinced Bellator to sign him before his pro debut and build him up. The finishes continued in his first 3 professional fights against unknown opponents (1-1, 1-0, and 1-1 records), but his last 3 wins have come by decision against decent regional staples like Ty Gwerder (5-1), Tony Johnson (9-2), and now Duane Johnson (6-2). His striking technique is still far from perfect but the combos are starting to look more fluid and natural, and the power he has means that if he can continue progressing with his hands he could be a real danger on his feet to go along with his mauling presence while grappling. Rosta still hasn’t faced a top opponent as a pro, though he did beat fellow wrestler and current UFC signee Cody Brundage back as an amateur, so hopefully the Cotton fight gets rebooked or he gets matched against a similar-caliber opponent, as I think a challenge may force him to elevate his game to the next level, which he certainly has the potential to do.
Raimond Magomedaliev: Moved from #3 middleweight to #11 welterweight prospect
After putting together a 3-win streak for ONE, I thought Magomedaliev was likely heading towards a title shot if he could maintain his momentum in 2022. Instead, his contract apparently expired and he chose to sign with Khabib’s Eagle FC, where he dropped down to his natural welterweight to take on a washed-up Anthony Njokuani in EFC’s first show in the USA. This was a mismatch from the start, as Njokuani’s only MMA win since 2013 was against a can for Jorge Masvidal’s bare-knuckle MMA promotion, and at age 41 he looked well past his prime. Magomedaliev out-kicked the Muay Thai practitioner, sending him to the ground with a particularly sharp leg kick then raining down punches for a quick stoppage. While this win moves 31-year-old Raimond to 9-1, he’s still eligible for the rankings because he is now outside of a major promotion. His overall grade only rose marginally due to how easy a matchup this was, and the prospect competition at welterweight is considerably deeper than at middleweight, which sees him fall quite a few spots in the rankings for his new division. If he sticks with EFC, I hope his next opponent will be a better test for his well-rounded skillset.
Aaron Jeffery: Improved from #12 to #11 prospect
Jeffrey suffered his second loss on the Contender Series back in September, this time to Caio Borralho, and dropped considerably from his once-lofty spot in the rankings. After taking some time to regroup from the draining fight that he had, Jeffrey returned this week to defend his Cage Fury title against 38-year-old Rex Harris (12-5), who’s had some solid wins in WSOF and took place in PFL’s 2018 season but is undoubtedly past his prime. Jeffrey dominated this fight in essentially all aspects, and since CFFC only goes 5 rounds if the contest is tied after 4, he wrapped things up with a comfortable decision victory in just 20 minutes of cage time. While this was a good way to get back in the win column against a solid veteran, Harris is someone that any legitimate prospect should be beating. Therefore, Jeffrey only moves up one spot in the rankings, and even that is only due to the departure of Magomedaliev.
Shamil Abdulaev: Improved from unranked to #15 prospect
Magomedaliev’s drop to welterweight continues an exodus of middleweight prospects that’s been happening over the last few months, caused by a combination of weight class changes, signings by major promotions, losses, and becoming ineligible for the rules of these rankings. All those exits have combined to open up a spot at the bottom of the list for Abdulaev, who hasn’t fought since September 2019 but looked like a very promising talent back when he was active. His only loss was to future ACA champion Salamu Abdurakhmanov, and that was by split decision, which speaks to the high potential that the 31-year-old Abdulaev has. I haven’t been able to find any information on why he’s been away from MMA for so long, but I hope he can make a return sometime this year on the flourishing Russian regional scene.
Kuramagomedov also made his Eagle FC debut this week against an overmatched UFC veteran, John “Doomsday” Howard. He controlled the fight from the start with his wrestling and spent rounds 1-2 grinding his opponent into the mat and peppering him with annoying but not overly powerful ground strikes. He showed a little more willingness to trade on the feet in the third and landed some solid leg kicks and jabs while staying mobile to avoid Howard’s power, then as the round progressed he went back to his comfort zone and cruised to a decision win with more wrestling. He’s made quite a tour of top promotions at just 10-0 and 24 years old, as he is 3-0 in ACB, 1-0 in the PFL, 1-0 on the Contender Series and almost had a short-notice UFC fight, 1-0 in CFFC, 1-0 in UAE Warriors, and now moves to 1-0 with EFC. Like most Dagestani prospects, his wrestling is his bread and butter, and he does a fantastic job keeping his weight on top and trapping wrists and legs to prevent his opponents from building a base. Most of his wins come through finishes but he’s shown a tendency to play it safe for decisions against tougher competition, which is likely why he wasn’t signed directly to the UFC after his DWCS win. However, it’s very difficult to argue with his continued success, and I imagine he’s on a shortlist for a shot in the big show if a short-notice fighter is needed. His ranking doesn’t change this week because the result against Howard was entirely predictable, but I’ll be looking forward to seeing where he takes his next fight.
Samandar Murodov: Fell from #15 prospect to unranked
Murodov’s second stretch in the rankings was even shorter than his first, as Magomedaliev’s move down pushes the young Tajikistani out of his position less than 2 weeks after he rejoined the list.
Chris Gonzalez: Improved from unranked to #8 prospect
Gonzalez spent a short time in the bottom of the rankings in 2021 until the emergence of some other prospects pushed him out, but he made a huge statement of his skills this week with a beautiful head-kick knockout of dangerous veteran striker and Bellator gatekeeper Saad Awad. Before the fight, CG had said that he wanted to wear Awad down and drag him into deep waters, which is always a solid strategy when facing someone known for their first-round knockouts, but who needs things like gameplans when you can just put your foot into your opponent’s face at high speed? He landed some follow-up ground and pound strikes that weren’t needed, as Awad was in no state to fight back, and the whole fight was over after just 36 seconds. This is undoubtedly the signature win of Gonzalez’s career so far and is a fantastic way to come back from his first career loss to Goiti Yamauchi back in June 2021. He continues to look improved every time he enters the cage, and if the coaches at Team Alpha Male continue to develop his skills he could absolutely be a threat to the Bellator rankings in 2022.
Manoel Sousa: Improved from unranked to #12 prospect
“Manumito” Sousa is an athletic and undefeated 24-year-old Brazilian who has been dominant in his home country and made the jump to the USA this week with an impressive 1st-round submission win for CFFC. Sousa has only been an active fighter since 2019, when he made his amateur debut for top Brazilian promotion SFT. After building a 3-0 amateur record in just over 3 months, he quickly turned pro and continued to tear through the SFT roster with 7 consecutive finishes. These weren’t scrubs that he was beating either, as he took out opponents with 5-0, 6-1, and 10-3 records on his way to a June 2021 shot at the vacant SFT title against another highly regarded prospect in Brendo Bispo (17-3). Many expected this fight to be a tough test for Sousa but he absolutely dominated his more experienced foe and picked up the TKO win with ground and pound just before the end of the first round. That performance was enough to really catch my attention and put him right at the edge of my rankings, and then his 1st-round submission this week of Trevor Ollison (5-3) finally put him through into the top 15. While Ollison’s record isn’t the best, he scored an impressive submission win in his last fight out and threatened with armbars and triangles in this fights, so seeing Sousa use his strength to pin his arm for a painful-looking kimura was further confirmation of the skills he’s shown in the past. He’s quick on his feet and packs some solid power in his punches, but the ground is where he’s truly scary. Submissions are a constant threat, either through chokes or arm attacks, and his ground and pound is heavy and varied. He doesn’t waste energy attacking defended areas and will drop punishment onto the body if his opponent tightly shells the head, and he is very fluid in his movements in order to never leave space to build towards an escape. With his 8-0 record and string of finishes, I expect to see him get a shot at the CFFC title soon and could easily see a Contender Series opportunity coming his way later this year.
Kenneth Cross: Fell from #14 prospect to unranked
Aviv Gozali: Fell from #15 prospect to unranked
The impressive performances of Gonzalez and Sousa unfortunately mean that two other prospects get pushed out of the rankings, in this case Cross and Gozali. Cross just joined last month with a good win for XFC, and he will certainly make a return if he can pick up another win against some higher-caliber competition. Gozali has bounced off and on the rankings several times since their creation but has still not fought since May 2021, so hopefully the young and undefeated Bellator prospect can book another match sometime soon to remind the world of his submission skills.
Lucas Brennan: Remained #13 prospect
The 21-year-old Brennan improved to 6-0, all for Bellator, with a dominant performance against Ben Lugo (5-4) that led to another round 1 finish with a choke. However, this continued the very easy matchmaking that he’s been gifted with so far into his career, as his opponents have had a combined record of 19-18 and have clearly all been well bellow your typical Bellator caliber. Brennan is an absolute terror on the mat and is quick to snatch your neck if you leave even the slightest opening, but its hard to project how will that will translate against MMA’s top competitors when he still hasn’t even fought anyone I would consider a quality gatekeeper. While he’s very young, I think he’s clearly ready for a step up in competition and can only hope the Bellator matchmakers stop giving his squash matches.
Nikita Mikhailov: Remained #11 prospect
After a gutsy comeback to win a decision over Brian Moore (14-7) in his Bellator debut and put himself into the rankings back in October 2021, Mikhailov was given a much easier opponent this week in veteran grappler Blaine Shutt (8-5). The 23-year-old Russian stunned Shutt with an early punch but chose to take him down instead of going for the finish immediately and proceeded to dominate him with ground control and strikes for the next two rounds. Mikhailov landed another big shot on his outclassed opponent at the start of the third round and again went to the ground with him, but this time he seemed to sense diminished resistance and turned up the intensity and frequency of his ground and pound, eventually getting the finish with a series of unanswered shots 3+ minutes into the round. This was a one-sided performance as Shutt never seemed close to threatening Mikhailov in any area of the fight, but Mikhailov’s ranking remains unchanged because he was always expected to win this one easily, as shown by the -1100 line the oddsmakers put on him coming into the fight. At 9-1, he has reached the 10-fight threshold that would disqualify him from the rankings since he’s part of a major promotion, but since he’s still just 23 he has a few more years of eligibility remaining. Hopefully Bellator will choose to give him a more challenging matchup his next time out, as not much of value was gained from this fight.
Hiroba Minowa: Fell from #6 to #14 prospect
Minowa made his pro debut at the ridiculously early age of 15, and he quickly proved to be someone to watch by putting together an 11-2 record with respected Japanese promotion Shooto, including a win of their strawweight title in 2020. Both of his losses were by decision to inferior opponents, but those minor blemishes can be chalked up to his youth and relative inexperience. His success earned him a contract with ONE, where he won competitive split decisions against two of their top 125-pounders in Lito Adiwang (11-2) and former champion Alex Silva (9-5). He only managed 1 fight in 2021 but looked to be more active this year by kicking things off this week with a fight against high-level UFC alum Jarred Brooks (17-2) that probably determined who will be the next challenger for current champion Joshua Pacio. Unfortunately for Minowa, he got absolutely mauled by the American wrestler, who cracked him on the feet early in the first round then dominated with heavy ground and pound from top position for the rest of the fight on his way to an easy decision. Minowa just didn’t have the necessary strength to shift Brooks off of him, and while his jiu-jitsu is solid its not at the world-class level that would be necessary to threaten the veteran. He’s still just 22 despite having 16 professional fights, so there’s plenty of time for Minowa to rebuild his position in these rankings, but this fight proved that he’s not ready for truly elite competition yet.