Prospect Rankings Update: March 2022

February 28-March 6:

Light Heavyweights:

Kenneth Bergh: Remained #4 prospect

Bergh had at least 6 fights cancelled between his win this week and his previous fight in 2019, including a couple short-notice opportunities with the UFC that came after his Contender Series loss was overturned due to his opponent testing positive for PEDs. That kept his record perfect, but after a failed weight cut and some injuries, he left the UFC without ever recording a fight. He’s since been struggling to find opponents in Scandinavia, which is understandable since I doubt many people are eager to fight a muscular giant who looks straight out of a Vikings casting call. However, his opponent this week was about as much of a mismatch as you could put together: Felix Polianidis (6-6) is 44 years old and only 5’9″, so it was totally unsurprising that Bergh managed to get a TKO in just 14 seconds. His opponent shot for a takedown early and got stuffed easily, then Bergh unleashed absolute bombs with his left hand and found no real resistance. He’s now 9-0 and already has another fight booked in June, so this win served its purpose as a tune-up but doesn’t change his ranking at all. I’d like to see him booked against a top jiu-jitsu guy at some point, as he was choked out in just 33 seconds in the first round of The Ultimate Fighter 23 and lost by submission on the Contender Series as well until it got overturned, so it’ll be important to see if he’s improved that weakness in the last few years.

Bantamweights:

Jean Matsumoto: Improved from unranked to #14 prospect

Matsumoto moved to 10-0 this week with a 2nd-round guillotine choke of established Brazilian veteran Luan Matheus (13-6-1) on his way to claiming the inaugural bantamweight title for new Brazilian promotion Fight Pro Championship. The 23-year-old got his start with 6 consecutive finishes on small Brazilian shows, which earned him a contract with top promotion SFT. He proceeded to win 3 straight decisions against tougher opponents and claimed both the flyweight and bantamweight titles, which is hard to do in an organization full of motivated and talented fighters. He’s put on muscle as he’s aged and matured physically so it would probably be a struggle for him to make 125 pounds going forward, but he’s a good size for a bantamweight so he shouldn’t be worried about anyone trying to bully him with strength. Matsumoto is a very fast and fluid mover and has some clear Muay Thai influences in his striking, as he throws a high volume of strikes with good variety and switches up his targets well to find openings. He’s also deadly on the ground, especially in scrambles where his athleticism and flexibility allow him to come out in winning positions frequently. All 4 of his submission wins come by different types of chokes, including some less-frequently seen moves like Anaconda and Brabo chokes, so he clearly has spent plenty of time filling out his jiu-jitsu arsenal. Matsumoto flies under the radar because he’s fighting for relatively unknown shows in Brazil, but once he gets a chance to show his skills on a bigger stage I think he has the potential to explode into a star.

Ary Farias: Fell from #15 prospect to unranked

Farias joined the rankings last month but get pushed back out this week by Matsumoto’s rise. The jiu-jitsu superstar will have to prove that his chin can hold up to top-level strikers if he wants to earn his spot back.

March 7-13

Heavyweights:

Rizvan Kuniev: Remained #6 prospect

Kuniev was one of the biggest snubs to not receive a contract after his win on the 2021 Contender Series. The UFC always needs fresh heavyweight talent and Kuniev managed to finish Edivan Santos (12-2) in round 3 after using his bulk to wear his opponents down in the earlier rounds. He did eat a few big shots in that fight, and it wasn’t the prettiest or most technical win, but I was shocked he left unsigned. The UFC’s loss is Eagle FC’s gain, as they get to keep their reigning heavyweight champion around for at least a few more fights. Khabib continues to give top Russian prospects a platform to build up their reputations and fanbases by matching them against washed-up American veterans as EFC transitions to the USA. In Kuniev’s case, he got gifted an easy title defense against 41-year-old UFC washout Anthony Hamilton (18-10), who already got knocked out in the first round of his EFC debut but somehow managed to get a title shot coming off that loss. Kuniev did his job by locking up a guillotine in an early grappling exchange and dropping for the finish after just 1:17 of the first round, but this was a fight that he was clearly meant to win, so his ranking is unaffected. The rest of the heavyweight prospect rankings are absolutely stacked with other Russian talents, and it would be an incredibly intriguing matchup if EFC is able to bring one of them in to give Kuniev a tougher challenge in his next title defense.

Light Heavyweights:

Murtaza Ali: Improved from #8 to #5 prospect

Ali extended his winning streak to 17 this week (12-0 amateur, 5-0 pro) with a first-round armbar of Georgian can-crusher Mikheil Sazhiniani (7-1). This was Ali’s return to Brave after picking up an easy win for Oktagon last October, and since he’s a product of Bahrain’s KHK team he’ll likely be fighting for Brave for the near future. He’s really got everything you could look for in a young prospect: size, strength, stamina, powerful hands, smart wrestling, dangerous jiu-jitsu, and a big mean streak that pushes him to constantly go for the finish. He absolutely dominated IMMAF as an amateur on his way to multiple world titles and has been taking out decent prospects for Brave, and at this point the only thing his resume is missing is a win against an established top-level opponent. Mohammad Fakhreddine won Brave’s light heavyweight title as the co-main event of this same show and I honestly think Ali could give him serious problems if he’s given the opportunity, but the matchmakers may want to build him up a little bit more before pushing him into the deep end of the division.

Middleweights:

Romero Cotton: Remained #11 prospect

Cotton was an elite college wrestler who won multiple national titles, and like many other great wrestlers Bellator snapped him up before his pro debut. He’s since gone 6-0 with 5 finishes for the promotion, but the competition has generally been mediocre. He’s short for a middleweight but is very muscular, and he rarely has problems with his lack of range because his plan is always to take his opponents down and beat them up or submit them on the ground, which has been very effective so, After struggling with injuries and a lingering case of covid over the last couple years, it was great to see Cotton back in the cage this week, but his opponent Freddy Sandoval (5-6-1) hadn’t fought since 2009 and clearly had no business being in the cage with someone as dangerous as Cotton. Romero managed to land a couple decent punches early then got into top control as soon as possible, from which he used heavy ground and pound to force a round-1 stoppage. Cotton doesn’t move up the rankings because of how weak his opponent was in comparison to him as a prospect, but as he continues to build up his resume I have to assume tougher fights will be in his near future. He’s been scheduled against #1 prospect Dalton Rosa several times but its always been scratched due to injuries or unavailability, and that’s a fight I would absolutely love to see booked again to see if Cotton’s wrestling can overcome the crazy power that Rosta packs.

Ikram Aliskerov: Improved from unranked to #9 prospect

Aliskerov is yet another talented middleweight coming out of Dagestan and he made his Eagle FC debut this week with a convincing decision win over battle-tested veteran Nah-shon Burrell (19-11). Aliskerov has spent most of his career fighting in Bahrain with Brave, where he put together an awesome 8-1 record against a series of interesting prospects and other strong fighters. 7 of those wins were by finish and he showed an ability to end it by submission or with heavy ground and pound once he progresses into a dominant position from which he can control his opponent. His only loss in that run, which is also the only loss of his career, came against one Khamzat Chimaev, so that result has aged about as well as humanly possible. Aliskerov bounced back from that setback with a 3 win streak for Brave then extended that streak to 4 this week with his win over Burrell. The American gatekeeper is very tough to finish and Aliskerov wasn’t able to do so despite being in control for most of the fight. Current EFC middleweight champion Faridun Odilov clocks in as the #8 prospect, so a showdown between him and Aliskerov should be a high-level and competitive fight that would vault the winner into super-prospect status.

Shamil Abdulaev: Fell from #15 prospect to unranked

Abdulaev has been bouncing on and off of the bottom of the rankings for a couple months now, and this week he falls back out of his #15 spot after Aliskerov earned a grade above him. Its still a mystery why he’s been inactive for so long, but middleweight has been such a volatile division that I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Abdulaev back in the top 15 sometime soon.

Welterweights:

Raimond Magomedaliev: Improved from #10 to #4 prospect

Magomedaliev made his Eagle FC and United States debuts at the end of January and dominated Anthony Njokuani (16-12) on his way to an easy first round ground and pound win. Evidently he didn’t take much damage in that fight as he made his return just 6 weeks later and this time was given a much tougher challenge in the form of recent UFC cut Impa Kasanganay (9-2). I had thought that Kasanganay deserved another UFC shot after going 2-2 in his first contract, and I actually had him ranked several tiers above Magomedaliev coming into this fight. It was a competitive fight, as shown by the fact that it ended up as a split decision, but ultimately the Dagestani prospect’s combination of wrestling and striking ability was too potent a blend to overcome. A win of this caliber shows me that Magomedaliev could easily step straight into the UFC and have success against other prospects on the prelims, and considering the opponents he’s beaten in his current 5-win streak I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he could give guys in the top 20-25 problems as well. The reason he only rises to the #4 prospect spot is entirely due to how incredible the 3 prospects above him are, but the worldwide talent level at 170 pounds is high enough that any one the guys in the top 15 would be a great addition to a major promotion, assuming they aren’t already signed to one.

Lightweights:

Garry Tonon: Fell from #3 to #14 prospect

Tonon is a world-class BJJ player who’s outgrappled some elite talents on the international scene and is known for his particularly nasty leglock game. He’s spent his entire MMA career with ONE, finishing less talented opponents in his first 5 fights then proving that he was ready for the big stage with a 2020 decision win over Koyomi Matsushima (12-4). He’s been waiting quite a while since then to get his shot at ONE’s 155 pound champion Thanh Le, but he’s stayed busy with grappling and continued to refine his lethal submission threat. Tonon exchanged strikes for just a few seconds against the much more powerful striker Le before pulling guard after eating a relatively weak punch. He immediately laced up a leg and started hunting for a heel hook, but the champ stayed calm and transitioned through positions to remain safe while starting to swing some heavy ground strikes. One of those caught Tonon directly on the chin just 55 seconds into the fight and knocked him into another plane of consciousness. He ate a couple follow-up shots but the referee was quick to step in when he realized what had happened and it ends up as a very disappointing title shot loss for Tonon. Getting knocked out as easily as he did raises some serious questions about whether his chin is good enough to have sustainable success in MMA, and I wouldn’t be shocked if he decides to focus more on grappling for the near future. He still hangs on as the #14 prospect because his submission threat is so lethal that he will always pose a threat to pretty much any opponent in the world, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some new talents surpass him in the coming weeks and months.

Kiril Gorobets: Fell from #11 prospect to unranked

Gorobets absolutely dominated his native Ukraine on his way to an 11-1 record that included a 9-win streak and a title win then defense in WWFC, the country’s top promotion. He recorded 3 different KOs with head kicks to show off his strong kickboxing background and also completed some very unusual submissions in a Peruvian necktie and a banana split to show that his ground game was equally dangerous. He hadn’t fought since October 2020 until he made his ONE debut this week, and I had been very excited to see how the skills he’d shown on the regional scene would do against tougher competition. Unfortunately for Gorobets he was given an incredibly tough debut matchup vs ONE’s #3 lightweight Martin Nguyen (13-5), who has held titles in multiple weight classes for the promotion.

Gorobets showed some nerves early, as his movement was constant and somewhat frenetic, which must have burned a lot of energy. He landed a good variety of kicks in the first few minutes, especially to the legs, and was able to avoid damage coming back the other direction, but that amount of movement was impossible to sustain for a full fight and as he started to slow down, Nguyen found his timing and started ripping heavy shots to the body and mixing in good knees to the head. Gorobets did manage one well-timed takedown and had some solid top control that he turned into a back take but was unable to capitalize on the position or put his opponent in serious danger. He was noticeably slower in the 2nd round and kept his hands held dangerously low, and towards the end of the round he ate some major damage after getting caught with a hook while trying to turn his back and run away from Nguyen. He managed to hold on and make it to the 3rd round but obviously had nothing left in the gas tank, which was only made worse by the heavy hooks to the body that he kept taking. Eventually Nguyen strung together enough strikes that Gorobets just slumped to the ground, and while he wasn’t unconscious it was clear that he had nothing left to offer. There are certainly much easier matchups in the division and Kiril could end up having a solid career with ONE, but this was a somewhat disappointing debut and drops him far away from the top-15 rankings.

Ismael Bonfim: Improved from #13 to #7 prospect.

Ismael is one-half of the Bonfim brothers, who are two of the hottest prospects currently fighting out of Brazil. They’ve trained in boxing since they were young, and that background shows up in their head movement, distance management and hand speed while striking. Ismael has also rounded out his MMA game well and can be dangerous with submissions on the ground. If there’s a weaknesses in his game it’s his wrestling, which is still solid due to his strength and balance but is not as technical nor threatening as his other skills. Bonfim went on a crazy 9-win streak from 2015-2020 and finished most of his opponents across a host of Brazilian promotions, and he has grown that streak to 11 with decision wins for LFA in his last two fights. The first was against Rangel de Sá (10-1) as the main event of LFA 111 and served as a great showcase for Bonfim’s overall game, as he came out on top with a unanimous win despite being a slight underdog going into the fight. De Sa had been hovering just below the top 15 in my rankings, so that win was enough to earn Bonfim his spot on the list. He greatly increased his stock this week by out-dueling Andrey Augusto (12-2-1), who had a 7-win streak of his own going that included strong victories in Brazil and the Open FC lightweight title in Russia but proved to not be the same caliber of athlete or possess as deep a toolbox as Bonfim. That gives Ismael two straight signature wins over very strong prospects, and while he was unable to get the finish he certainly proved that he has the skills to cause problems for lightweights around the world. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him booked for a shot at the LFA title later this year, and if he can win that then a call-up from the UFC or Bellator would be almost inevitable given his talent, win streak, and popularity among the Brazilian fanbase.

Sam Patterson: Improved from #14 to #11 prospect

Patterson earned his way into the rankings back in November with an upset win via his signature guillotine versus highly touted prospect Kamil Magomedov (14-1). He took on another talented fighter from the Caucuses this week in Khunkar-Pasha Osmaev (10-6-1), whose record wasn’t as impressive but had beaten plenty of quality opponents in Chechnya. Patterson got his 5th straight win for Brave, and his 8th straight overall, with a 2nd-round TKO stoppage that served as a reminder that he still packs plenty of power despite being absurdly tall for the division at 6’4″. He made good use of his range to pick apart Osmaev, and with the form that he’s been in I’d expect to see him taking on another title contender in his next fight. Brave is stacked with lightweight talent, and I’d be very curious to see how Patterson would do against #7 prospect Kubanychbek Abdisalam uulu (18-3) or talented veteran Cleiton Silva (15-3) after their fight this week for the interim lightweight title unfortunately ended in a no-contest. However, he only moves up the rankings slightly with this win because I graded him much higher than Osmaev coming into it, so this was always the expected result.

Kenneth Cross: Improved from unranked to #13 prospect

Cross made his debut in the rankings in December with a decision win for XFC over Jose Martinez (12-5), but he got bumped out a few weeks later after other prospects scored more impressive wins over more challenging opposition. He makes his return this week after Gorobets’ loss and Tonon’s fall opened up spots on the list, but the lightweight division is always very competitive and full of exciting talents so Cross will need to find another fight soon if he wants to establish himself further up the rankings.

Featherweights:

Jay Jay Wilson: Fell from #3 featherweight prospect to #15 lightweight prospect

Wilson is a dynamic 24-year-old from New Zealand who combined a BJJ black belt with aggressive striking combinations to go 8-0 with 7 finishes to start his career, with all of those fights coming for Bellator. However, he’s very big for the featherweight division and struggled immensely to make weight, with several of his fights cancelled due to weight cut issues and others taking place at last-minute catchweights. That led to him moving up to the lightweight division for the first time in his career this week, where he was met with a tough challenge in Dagestani veteran Gadzhi Rabadanov. The Russian is a relative newcomer to Bellator but has been fighting at a very high level for a long time, and he showed that fight IQ in this matchup by switching to a wrestling gameplan after Wilson got the better of him on the feet in the first round. Wilson does a good job throwing combinations with his hands then finishing the combo with a kick, typically either to the leg or the body. He also showed good elusiveness and landed some hard checks when Rabadanov threw his own leg kicks, and even had some wrestling control against the fence in the first round after he shot for a surprise takedown.

However, in rounds 2 and 3 he was simply unable to break his opponent’s smothering control. Wilson was very active off his back, constantly twisting to search for an angle for an armbar or triangle, using a modified rubber guard to isolate a shoulder for a potential oomaplata, or rolling to hunt for a kneebar and force scrambles, but the wrestling and sambo experience of Rabadanov allowed him to stay safe through all those positions and continue landing short shots that scored enough points to secure the win. Rabadanov isn’t a particularly large lightweight but was still bigger and stronger than anyone else Wilson had faced in his career, and the difference showed in his inability to get back to his feet, where he was doing good work. If he wants to stay at 155 pounds, he should take some time to add some extra strength and muscle because the larger fighters in the division might be able to bully him around. He sticks around at the bottom of the lightweight division because his ceiling remains very high, but I would not be surprised to see other talents emerge and surpass him in the list as the year progresses.

Khasan Magomedsharipov: Improved from unranked to #15 prospect

Khasan is the younger brother of UFC contender Zabit Magomedsharipov, and with a 7-0 record and a Bellator contract at just 21 years old, he’s a genuine MMA phenom. His first 5 wins came on the Russian regional scene, then his Bellator debut was a free win against an opponent with a 3-4 record, but back in February he got his toughest challenge against Jose Sanchez (11-1). Sanchez is not as good as his record would make you think, as he’s mostly just crushed cans, but he was still a decent test that Khasan passed with flying colors. He was in total control throughout the fight, especially when it came to grappling, as he used his wrestling to press his opponent against the fence and deliver one-sided damage for the majority of several rounds. He didn’t seem to be in any particular rush to get a finish, but that stems from his totally pragmatic and calculated approach to fighting. He’ll take the finish if an opportunity presents itself, but he won’t take any unnecessary risks chasing it, especially against a gritty and durable veteran like Sanchez. Magomedsharipov is just starting to scratch the surface of his potential, and if he continues to develop at the rate he’s been going he could be an international star by age 25. However, he starts off at the bottom of the rankings because he’s yet to face any truly tough challenges to date.

Flyweights:

Asu Almabaev: Remained #2 prospect

Almabaev returned to Brave this week after picking up his signature win for the promotion in August 2021 with a RNC of #10 prospect Aleksander Doskalchuk (10-2). This week he was given a much easier matchup against Imram Magaramov (4-0), who had the same intimidation factor as any undefeated prospect from Dagestan but hadn’t faced anyone even close to Almabaev’s level. Asu wasn’t able to get the finish, as Magaramov proved to be resilient and well-rounded, but he was clearly the better fighter and won a convincing decision. He was already the #2 prospect, so this win doesn’t do anything to change his ranking but does further bolster his resume for whenever the UFC or another major promotion comes calling.

March 14-20:

Featherweights:

Salahdine Parnasse: Improved from #2 to #1 prospect

It feels almost unfair to call a reigning KSW champion a prospect, but since Parnasse is still just 24 years old despite his stellar and extensive 17-1-1 record, he still qualifies under this list’s rules. The uber-talented French fighter regained his #1 spot in the rankings this week by showcasing his incredibly well-rounded skillset in a title defense against the very dangerous Daniel Rutkowski (13-2). The fighters engaged in a lot of wrestling against the cage in round 1, and while neither managed to inflict a ton of damage, Parnasse was in control for most of the time, which is very impressive when you consider that Rutkowski got his start in martial arts as a wrestler. As the fight progressed, both combatants started to open up more with their strikes but it was clear that Parnasse had a speed advantage both with the combinations of punches that he threw and with difficult-to-anticipate kicks to the legs and head. He was aggressive without being reckless and never seemed to slow down despite maintaining a high output of strikes and great movement within the cage. Parnasse finally connected cleanly with a head kick to start the 4th round and showed his maturity by continuing to pile on damage but not going berserk while looking for the KO and risking either gassing himself out or losing the position to his crafty opponent. Instead, he maintained his dominance, took Rutkowski’s back while he attempted to get to his feet, then sliced his forearm under his opponent’s neck to set up a rear naked choke that was tight from the beginning and forced a quick submission. This was a nearly flawless performance from Parnasse, and with rumors circulating that he’s looking to extend his contract with KSW it likely won’t be the last time that we see him defend his featherweight title for Poland’s top promotion.

Jordan Vucenic: Improved from #7 to #5 prospect

Vucenic has had a very competitive path to his current status as Cage Warriors featherweight champion, and after some delays due to injuries he finally made his first defense of his title this week in London. He joined the promotion in 2019 as a relative unknown after a decent 4-1 run in smaller UK-based promotions and picked up a win by unanimous decision against Konmon Deh (9-5) in his debut. He then won 3 straight split decisions, which highlights just how little margin for error there has been on his path to greatness. The first of those victories came against long-tenured gatekeeper Steve Aimable (14-7), which was then followed by a war in a title eliminator against current #10 prospect Paul Hughes, who at the time was 6-0 and was being looked at as one of Europe’s top prospects. That was followed by a title shot against Morgan Charriere (16-7-1) in March 2021, who was being talked about as UFC ready, but Vucenic used his good movement and striking accuracy on the feet to complement solid top control on the ground and sneak out yet another split decision win. He was booked for an immediate rematch against Charriere in June 2021 but suffered a serious injury that required surgery and kept him out long enough that Cage Warriors was forced to create an interim title, which Hughes ended up winning.

Vucenic and Hughes were scheduled for an epic rematch and title unification bout this week until Hughes was unfortunately sidelined with an injury of his own, which opened up an opportunity for rising prospect James Hendin (6-1) to get a shot at the title sooner than anyone had expected. Hendin came out hot in the first round and probably landed enough good shots to win the round on the scorecards, but Vucenic made that irrelevant in the second round with a slick piece of grappling that saw him take back control then jump onto his opponent’s neck for a rare standing rear naked choke. That gives him a title defense, and it was great to see that his skills remain sharp after missing a year with that injury. He moves up a few spots for taking out a quality prospect in Hendin, though a win against another ranked prospect like Hughes would have really propelled him into the ranks of the world’s best. In either case, I would expect to see those two square off in the near future, assuming that the UFC or another major organization doesn’t give Vucenic a call first. At just 26 he still has room to grow as a fighter, and he’s already plenty dangerous at the moment, so I think he would be a very smart signing to build up for a couple years before matching him against elite ranked veterans.

Flyweights:

Tatsuki Saomoto: Improved from #9 to #8 prospect

Saomoto improved his winning streak to a ridiculous 14-straight this week by taking out rising prospect Yuto Uda (5-0-1) and brought his record with RIZIN to 4-0 in the process. While any streak that long is impressive, this was yet another narrow split decision win for Saomoto against a fighter that I had considered a number of tiers below him in my prospect rankings. In fact, 12 of those 14 wins in his streak come by decision, and that lack of finishing ability has definitely hindered his chances of becoming famous on an international level. He clearly has the talents needed to have success against strong opponents, but he lacks the highlight-reel finishes or explosive moments in his fights that would make him stick out in the mind of a more casual fan. Saomoto only moves up one spot in the rankings for this win because of the difference in experience and skill between him and his opponent, but with the run he’s on and the record he’s put together for RIZIN, I would be surprised if he doesn’t get a title shot at some point this year. That would be by far the biggest fight of his career and create an opportunity for him to launch himself into the elite tier of prospects within the talent-packed flyweight division.

March 21-27

Heavyweights:

Ji Won Kang: Remained #9 prospect

After starting his ONE career in spectacular fashion with 2 1st-round knockouts that catapulted him out of obscurity into top-prospect status, Kang suffered his first professional loss in his last fight after current #4 prospect Marcus Buchecha submitted him in the first round. Kang came back this week to take on muscle-bound kickboxer Paul Elliott (3-0), who was making his ONE debut. The fight only lasted 1 minute but it was all action from the get-go, with both men swinging with intent to kill right out of the gate. Elliott was using his striking speed to add up some good shots on Kang, but one perfectly-placed straight right that connected with the tip of his jaw was enough to send him to sleep and give the 26-year-old Korean his 6th professional win. Kang looked in noticeably better shape than his previous fights and he’s repeatedly proven that he has dynamite in his fists, so if this better conditioning increases his stamina he will be an even scarier opponent for all other heavyweights. However, he doesn’t move up the rankings for this win because Elliot was well off my prospect list due to the weak competition he’d faced to start his career. If Kang can get another KO against a more established opponent in his next fight, he could start to climb back towards the top of the rankings.

Adam Keresh: Improved from unranked to #13 prospect

Keresh is someone I’ve had on my radar for a while after he started his MMA career with 4 straight knockouts, 3 of which were for Bellator. His first two opponents were total unknowns but he followed that up with a beautiful head kick of Kirill Sidelnikov (11-5) and then some devastating punches to TKO Vladimir Fedin (15-5), with both victories coming in the first round. Unfortunately, that fight against Fedin came in November 2019 and he hadn’t been able to book another match until the PFL Challenger series gave him an opportunity this week against Chad Johnson (6-3), so he’s flown under the radar for many fans. Keresh isn’t the biggest heavyweight in the world but he’s very powerful and reminded the world of that this week by controlling Johnson for most of the opening minutes of the fight then landing a single perfectly-placed uppercut from back control on the ground that slumped his opponent and left him in obvious pain for a while afterwards. It’s rare that you see so much power in a punch thrown in close quarters, and its even more impressive when you consider that Keresh wasn’t even able to use most of his body to generate force given their grounded position. The Israeli fighter remains undefeated and has repeatedly shown that he can shut the lights off with just one strike. He’ll be an exciting prospect to watch if he’s given an opportunity in the coming PFL season, as the more experienced competitors in the promotion will provide a great gauntlet of tests to see just how complete of a fighter Keresh is.

Adlan Ibragimov: Fell from #15 prospect to unranked

Keresh’s victory pushes Ibragimov back out of the rankings not that long after he first joined them, but at just 6-1 the powerful Russian wrestler has time to earn his way back with another win or two for ACA. Top-tier grapplers of Ibragimov’s size and strength don’t come around that often, but his competition hasn’t been as strong as some of the other prospects on the list so he falls just outside the top 15 for the moment.

Light Heavyweights:

Ty Flores: Fell from #15 prospect to unranked

Flores picked up a couple good wins over veterans Larry Crowe (10-7) and Myron Dennis (18-8) for Fury FC following his loss on the 2020 Contender Series, and he turned those successes into a shot at Fury’s light heavyweight title this week. He took on George Tokkos (6-2), who had shown a knack for finishing but struggled against the two best prospects he’d faced and lost both of those fights. I had thought that Flores would be able to use his size and strength to control where the fight took place and work his way to a victory, but Tokkos landed some big punches towards the end of the first round and eventually dropped Flores then finished with heavy ground and pound. That drops Flores well out of the top 15 rankings, and he will have quite a bit of work to do to prove that he belongs among top fighters after the struggles he’s had stepping up in competition level.

Sharaputdin Magomedov: Improved from unranked to #15 prospect

Magomedov is a 10-0 walking highlight reel who uses his fine-tuned blend of many different striking arts to inflict damage on whoever is unlucky enough to get matched against him. He’s fought all over the world, with his first 5 wins coming in China, his next 4 coming in his native Russia, and his most recent win coming in Brazil. Magomedov is a natural middleweight but he moved up to 205 pounds for his Brazilian debut and picked up his 9th KO in 10 fights by crushing longtime journeyman Rodrigo Carlos (26-21) with some brutal punches towards the end of the first round to finish his opponent and win the Arena Global LHW title. The variety of knockouts that he has is incredible: head kicks, leg kicks, a spinning hook kick that was thrown technically perfectly and unbelievably fast, knees to the head and liver, and an incredible elbow from the clinch while trapped against the fence that generated more force than should be possible from such close range. To reinforce just how good a striker Magomedov is, he even has a decision victory for Glory Kickboxing over recent UFC signing Blood Diamond. He’s much happier when the fight is on the feet and will almost never choose to engage in grappling, but he’s shown solid takedown defense and the wrestling necessary to neutralize most of his opponents’ attacks from the clinch, and he’s also proven to have knockout power from close range if given the slightest opening. I’d still like to see him tested a little more by a top wrestler or an elite submission artist who can threaten him on the ground, but for now Magomedov is someone you can look forward to watching every time he fights because you never know what he’ll do to his opponent but its almost guaranteed to be spectacular.

Welterweights:

Yusuf Raisov: Moved from #3 prospect to unranked (re-signed to ACA)

After an extensive and incredibly successful career as a lightweight for ACB/ACA, Raisov’s only fight of 2021 came as a welterweight for AMC Global, which I thought might have been an attempt to get signed by an even larger promotion like the UFC. However, he seems to have changed his mind about switching organizations as he rejoined ACA this week and returned to 155 pounds, where he had a competitive 25-minute duel with Brazilian veteran Hacran Dias. He showed off quick hands and good footwork on the feet, and did a great job with his grips and body positioning to reverse some of Dias’ takedown attempts and gain dominant position against the fence or on the mat. He did get reversed several times on the floor and took enough ground and pound to lose two of the 5 rounds, but he did sufficient good work in the other rounds to come out ahead with a unanimous decision victory. However, now that he is back on the roster of a major organization, Raisov is both too old and too experienced to be eligible for these rankings. He is still only 26 and hasn’t quite hit his peak yet, so he’s someone I expect to be a major force in Russian MMA for the foreseeable future.

Samandar Murodov: Improved from unranked to #15 prospect

Murodov has bounced on and off of the rankings a few times since his impressive win back in September 2021 to claim the EFC title, and this week Raisov’s departure from the rankings opens up a spot for his return. The young Tajikistani has typically fought twice a year since making his pro debut in late 2018, so hopefully he is able to schedule a title defense as his first fight this year before too much more of 2022 passes by.

Lightweights:

Ali Abdulkhalikov: Improved from unranked to #11 prospect

Abdulkhalikov is yet another promising talent coming out of Russia, as he moved to 10-1 this week and claimed the interim lightweight title for Pro FC. His background is in Wushu Sanda, which gives him a very loose and creative mix of punches and kicks on the feet, and he also has very solid wrestling in his arsenal. He’s fought great competition since early in his career, including a 30-second head kick KO of current UFC prospect Joel Alvarez in just his second fight and a decision over the vastly more experienced Yuri Ivlev (26-10) in his 4th professional fight. He started his career 7-0 with a mix of decisions and KOs, which earned him a fight for RIZIN in 2019 against Tatsuya Kawajiri (36-13-2), who was 40 years old at the time but still had enough gas left in the tank to win a decision and hand Abdulkhalikov his first loss. He returned later that year with an easy knockout of a regional opponent, then dropped off the map for two years during the pandemic. Abdulkhalikov resurfaced in November 2021 with Brave, where he won a decision against fellow Russian prospect Artur Aliev (8-1-1) and showed off his well-balanced array of skills in the process. He evidently wasn’t locked down to a long-term contract by Brave, as he took on Russian MMA legend and UFC alum Alexander Yakovlev (25-11-1) this week in his Pro FC title shot. This was a great test of his overall skills, as Yakovlev is dangerous wherever the fight goes, and also of his stamina, as it was a 25-minute title fight. He passed the test with good marks and came out on top with a decision victory, which is enough to vault him into the prospect rankings. I look forward to seeing where the 28-year-old Abdulkhalikov goes next, and could see him fitting in quite well in the competitive lightweight division in top Russian promotion ACA.

Jay Jay Wilson: Fell from #15 prospect to unranked

One week after plummeting in the rankings due to his first career loss, Wilson gets pushed out entirely due to Abdulkhalikov’s big win.

Featherweights:

Andrey Goncharov: Improved from #6 to #3 prospect

Goncharov moved to 5-0 with ACA this week after an upset KO of the ultra-tough Apti Bimarzaev (18-3), and he’s only eligible for the rankings because he’s just 25 despite possessing a very impressive 16-3 record. He spent a number of years beating up weaker talents on regional shows but losing decisions to the toughest opponents he faced, but a switch seemed to flip after he took two years off following a submission loss in 2017. He made his return with a powerful 1-minute KO of a good wrestler, which was impressive enough to get him signed to ACA, where his punching power has continued to be his most dangerous weapon. His perfect run with Russia’s top promotion has included KOs of Fanil Rafikov (17-5) and Adlan Bataev (12-3) in addition to this week’s punch-out of Bimarzaev, and he has also claimed decision wins over Rustam Taldiev (5-3) and Roman Ogulchanskiy (9-4-1). Goncharov still has some holes in his game, as shown by Bimarzaev’s ability to pressure him and put him on the back foot for the first 3 minutes of their fight this week, but the dynamite in his hands will help dig him out of many difficult situations. Goncharov has very quick hands and delivers hard shots without winding up, which was the case with the beautifully-placed counter left hook that dropped his opponent this week. He followed up his knock-down by diving into side control and repeatedly bouncing Bimarzaev’s head off the canvas with hard ground and pound. As Goncharov’s winning streak continues to grow he will get even tougher matchups against the elite talents in ACA’s featherweight division, such as #2 prospect Islam Omarov, #8 prospect Bibert Tumenov, and #9 prospect Askhab Zulaev, but this week’s victory over Bimarzaev showed he will pose a KO threat to anyone he’s matched against.

Flyweights:

Abdula Aliev: Improved from #15 to #13 prospect

When Aliev snuck into the rankings last month, I noted that I was disappointed that he hadn’t fought in more than two years and was hoping that was because he was looking to sign with a larger organization, which is exactly what happened this week. Aliev made his debut for UAE Warriors against Jenel Lausa (7-6), who is a solid opponent despite his less-than stellar record, as half of those losses came from a 4-fight stretch in the UFC where he went 1-3. Aliev improved his perfect record to 11-0 with a decision win over his best opponent to date, which is enough to bump him up a few spots in the rankings. This fight took place at 115 pounds, which I hadn’t realized Aliev was able to make, but since there is no ranking for strawweights he will remain with the flyweights for the time being. Lausa is still a step or two below the talent level of most international organizations, but with every win Aliev piles up he gets closer to getting his own opportunity on an even bigger stage. For now, I expect to see him get a few more fights for UAE Warriors and potentially build his way to a title shot if he can continue his winning ways.

March 28-April 3

Middleweights:

Christian Leroy Duncan: Improved from #2 to #1 prospect

After Duncan dominated an overmatched veteran on his way to a first round RNC in his last fight, I said that he looked better than either of the fighters who fought for the Cage Warriors middleweight title later that night. He proved me right this week with a beautiful 3rd-round flying knee knockdown into superfluous ground and pound of the previously-unbeaten Djati Mélan (8-0) to claim the title and improve to 6-0 as a professional with 5 finishes. Up until this point, the only thing holding Duncan from super-prospect status was the fact that he hadn’t faced an established tough test as a professional, but Mélan showed his dangerous finishing ability on the regional scene and showcased his wrestling in a grindy split decision to claim the belt back in December. For Duncan to finish him in the spectacular manner that he did proves that he’s a special prospect, and I’d be shocked if he isn’t signed to the Contender Series or even directly to the UFC later this year.

Lightweights:

Jackson Loureiro: Fell from #9 prospect to unranked

Coming into this week, I had Loureiro marked down as one of the most underrated talents coming out of Brazil. He put together a very good record on the local regional scene then made a move to Serbia in 2018 and won the Serbian Battle Championship title with a 2nd-round KO of rising prospect Nemanja Kovač (7-2). He then defended his title twice in 2019, first with a quick RNC of Stefan Zvijer (9-1) and then by decision over the very tough Slobodan Maksimović (15-5-1), but unfortunately the pandemic and some injuries limited his activity to one easy submission win back in Brazil over the next two years. Loureiro got another opportunity to defend his title this week against streaking undefeated prospect Predrag Bogdanović (11-0), but he found himself outmatched in most areas by the young Serbian and ended up losing a unanimous decision that broke his 10-fight undefeated streak and cost him his title. At age 27, Loureiro still has plenty of time to rebuild his reputation following this loss, and he has the necessary blend of height, speed, and technical skills to cause problems for most opponents. However, the lightweight rankings are very competitive so this setback is enough to push him well outside of the top 15 for the moment.

Predrag Bogdanović: Improved from unranked to #7 prospect

Bogdanovic is someone I’ve had on my radar for almost his entire professional career, as he made his pro debut barely more than 3 years ago (February 2019) but has managed to put together a fantastic 12-0 record in that time. All of those fights have come for his native country’s top promotion Serbian Battle Championship, and after beating an array of decent prospects and regional gatekeepers, SBC finally gave Bogdanovic his shot at the title this week, which he won by decision over Jackson Loureiro. Most of his wins have come by decision, but he also has 2 rear-naked chokes, a north-south choke, and a shoulder choke to show off the full array of his grappling skills. Up until this week I had refrained from ranking Bogdanovic too highly because he hadn’t faced off against anyone I considered an elite talent, but this win over the former #9 prospect is enough to prove that he’s able to transfer the wrestling base and overall skillset he’s shown in his previous fights to the next level. He is definitely not one of the best-known prospects on this list, to the point that I can’t currently find any listing of his age online, but his record is stellar and the film backs it up. He’s clearly still growing as a fighter, and I’d be surprised if he’s not signed to a larger promotion very soon.