Welcome back to all the action that has gone on in the rankings over the last month of MMA across the world. April was one of the busiest months of this series to date, as a huge number of prospects had fights and a number of new talents emerged who had been outside of the top 15. Two prospects, Charles Johnson and Khusein Askhabov, were signed to the UFC, and its always good to see talents identified in this series make those jumps to the next level.
Shamil Magomedov: Fell from #15 prospect to unranked
The 9-0 Magomedov is undoubtedly a talented prospect, but the Eagle FC signee has not faced the same level of competition as the majority of the rankings. Ruziboev’s return to middleweight pushes him out of his #15 spot for now, but if he can continue to stay perfect he should be back soon.
Nursulton Ruziboev: Moved from #10 welterweight prospect to #2 middleweight prospect
Ruziboev continues to fight every 2 months and extended his win streak to 8 this week while defending his middleweight title for WEF Global with a first round armbar of Pavel Masalski, a mediocre 12-12 journeyman who was filling in on short notice. His fight in March for Brave ended up falling through, as did his first opponent for this week’s fight, so while its good that Ruziboev managed to find another fight and build his record to a ridiculous 34-8-2, his grade doesn’t change much for beating a clearly inferior opponent. However, he re-enters the middleweight rankings, which are decidedly less competitive than the welterweights, so he has ended up behind only Christian Leroy Duncan as the #2 prospect.
Dilano Taylor: Improved from unranked to #15 prospect
Ruziboev’s return to middleweight opens up a spot at the bottom of the rankings for 25-year-old Taylor, who I’ve been watching closely ever since his Titan FC debut back in September 2020, which was just his 4th professional fight. He needed very little time to choke out a much more experienced veteran, and his athleticism and grappling skills were evident from that first viewing. He’s won 5 more fights in a row since then including an Ezekiel choke, a decision over the talented Lewis Gonzalez (11-3), a 25-minute war with Carlos Matos (8-0) to win the Titan FC title then another surprisingly competitive decision win over Marcus Edwards (13-5) to defend it, and most recently a win over Mark Martin (7-1) in PFL’s Challenger Series back in February. Taylor’s striking has looked improved with each appearance that he makes, and he made great use of his range and length to prevent Martin from engaging with his powerful wrestling and pop him in the face with enough good shots that he damaged the orbital bone around an eye. That forced a doctor’s stoppage after the round, as it was a graphic break and clearly unsafe to continue. Unfortunately for Taylor he didn’t get signed to this season of the PFL, but this was the best prospect that he’d beaten and he did so in impressive fashion. It was good to see that his relatively flat performance against Edwards was just a fluke, as Taylor has flashed the potential to be dangerous in every area of MMA and has the raw gifts to make good use of his improving technique. At just 25, the ceiling is very high here but he does still have some improvements to make before he’s ready for elite-level competition.
Aaron McKenzie: Improved from unranked to #14 prospect
McKenzie is a high-intensity grappler with a well rounded skillset and deep gas tank, and he picked up the biggest win of his career this week with a gritty, incredibly close decision victory over Lucas Clay (8-1) to claim the vacant LFA title. McKenzie got finishes in the first 8 wins of his professional career, which included a win for Bellator and in his LFA debut, but there were also two decision losses and a draw mixed in there, all of which came against tough opponents. He’s faced tougher competition over his last 3 fights while building his resume with LFA, and as a result all 3 of those fights have gone to decision but McKenzie has managed to come out as the winner each time.
He trains under the legendary Rafael Lovato Jr, so its unsurprising that his jiu-jitsu is top notch. Those skills were highlighted this week against Clay, who is famous for pulling unconventional submissions such as buggy chokes from any position on the ground, but was unable to trap McKenzie in anything despite many attempts. Aaron also showed a good wrestling element to his game with strong entries to his takedown shots and great control and pressure from the top once he got there. His striking is definitely the weakest point in his game, as he has decent boxing but doesn’t pack huge power or throw anything particularly creative. However, it’s technical enough that combined with his strong chin, he is able to survive against better strikers and eventually get into his comfort zone on the ground. He’s 33 and has 14 professional fights, so his next contest will make him ineligible for these rankings, but for now McKenzie is a quality veteran who will provide a very tough test for anyone matched against him.
Gary Tonon: Fell from #15 prospect to unranked
As I predicted after his disappointing loss last month in his chance at the ONE title, new talents like McKenzie have emerged and pushed Tonon out of the rankings. His submission threat will always keep him relevant whenever he steps into the cage, but he’ll need some time to recover from a nasty KO and will have to revamp his striking defense if he wants to become a true mixed martial artist instead of a jiu-jitsu expert.
Thomas Petersen: Fell from #13 prospect to unranked
Petersen is someone who I thought had superstar potential, as up until this week he had been undefeated as both a pro and an amateur, had finished all but one of those wins, and was the LFA heavyweight champion. However, he ran into an even better prospect this week in the form of Waldo Cortes-Acosta, who finished him with strikes in the third round to take both the title and a spot in the rankings away from Petersen. “The Train” has only been fighting competitively since June 2018, when he made his amateur debut for LFA and gave a hint of what was to come with a 1st-round Americana submission of his opponent. He did wrestle in college though, so he’s hardly new to combat sports, and that background comes through in his fighting style. Petersen throws powerful bombs on the feet while pressuring forward, and if his opponent is still conscious after the initial onslaught he takes them down with a mix of body-locks and single-legs then pounds them into oblivion. That style had been very effective, as he went 5-0 as an amateur with 3 KOs after that initial submission and the only decision victory of his career before turning pro in December 2019. That pro debut was with small regional promotion Mecca, but Petersen quickly returned to LFA for every fight since then. He first popped up on my radar early in 2021 when he flatline KOed his opponent in just 19 seconds to move to 3-0 as a pro with 3 first round KOs, albeit against mediocre opposition. His next win was another round-1 demolition of an overmatched opponent, but in July 2021 he was given a huge step up in competition against the gigantic and unbelievably strong Vernon Lewis (8-4) in a shot at the vacant LFA title. After about a minute of range-finding, Petersen connected with one massive hook to send Lewis staggering to the fence and then finished the job with a couple more power shots for an incredibly impressive win that shot him into my top 15 in the heavyweight division.
This week started off like a typical Petersen fight, as he connected with big shots and got takedowns in rounds 1 and 2 that led to solid ground and pound. However, unlike past opponents, Cortes-Acosta had the movement skills necessary to avoid the most deadly strikes and the raw strength to get up despite eating some hard shots while on the ground. Petersen had said he was very confident in his cardio due to his wrestling background, but unfortunately he visibly started to tire by the end of round 2 and in round 3 was clearly struggling to keep pace with his opponent. His striking defense was also exposed as a weakness in this fight, as he has pretty basic footwork and minimal head movement, preferring to trust his chin and take shots with the confidence that his counters will hit harder. Cortes-Acosta’s boxing background allowed him to take advantage of these gaps, as he was touching him up all fight with popping jabs and mixing in good straight shots to the body. Towards the end of round 3 he finally connected with a big shot that clearly stunned Petersen then finished the fight with a few more hard punches against the fence to get the knockdown and force the ref to step in. Petersen is just 27, which is very young for a heavyweight, and his wrestling, aggression, and natural power are a great base for him to build on. However, he needs to refine his technique and build up his gas tank if he wants to be successful enough to rejoin these rankings.
Waldo Cortes-Acosta: Improved from unranked to #6 prospect
Cortes-Acosta is physical specimen of a heavyweight, as it’s not often that you see someone weigh in at 255 pounds but still have clearly defined abs. He also has very long arms and has the boxing background that allows him to make excellent use of the reach advantage he has over most opponents. He comes from a rough part of the Dominican Republic and was fighting in the streets before he found combat sports, so his toughness is without question. He made his amateur debut in 2015 at the age of 23 and went 5-1 with all of those wins by knockout but in 2018 turned pro as a boxer, where he put together a respectable but unexciting 6-4 record before returning to MMA full-time. He’s been incredibly active since that return in July 2021, with 5 wins in 9 months to bring him to 6-0 as a pro. They haven’t been easy fights either, as he’s taken out in order: Edison Lopes (10-5), Jordan Powell (12-8), Mo DeReese (9-4), Derrick Weaver (7-7), and this week Thomas Petersen (5-0). These were veterans with way more MMA experience than Cortes-Acosta and with quality records for the most part, with DeReese standing out as a particularly strong opponent who has fought for PFL and took on Cortes-Acosta in Bellator. Waldo had a clear striking advantage in that fight but may have been feeling the pressure of his big-show debut, as he often rushed forward and crushed space instead of taking advantage of his superior speed, reach, and boxing to pick his opponent apart in space. He still managed to win a decision over a very tough fighter, so that is a pretty minor critique.
As discussed above in the Petersen breakdown, Cortes-Acosta looked much more patient this week, moving around well to land 1-2s and using head movement to avoid taking too many clean hits. I was very impressed with his work on the ground, which had been my big question about him coming into the fight. While he got taken down pretty easily, he did well to stay calm and quickly build back to his feet without letting Petersen land too much damage or get his hooks in to take his back. He’s obviously happiest when the fight is standing, but this performance against a high-quality wrestler gives me a lot of confidence in his ability to stay on his feet against the caliber of opponents he will face in top promotions. He showed great patience with his striking and didn’t stray from the game plan, which lead to a round-3 TKO that showcased more crisp boxing. With a perfect 6-0 record and the LFA title, Cortes-Acosta seems like an ideal candidate for this year’s edition of the Contender Series, though the UFC better move fast if they want to make sure Bellator doesn’t swoop in and re-sign him.
Kerim Engizek: Remained #4 prospect
Engizek continued his successful transition to middleweight this week with a dominant first-round ground-and-pound KO of Brazilian fighter Gabriel Barreiro (14-6), who had a good record but was mostly crushing cans. Engizek claimed the inaugural 185 pound title for German promotion Elite MMA Championship and improved his win streak to an impressive 10 straight fights, with 8 of those wins coming by finish. He has the power to put his opponents’ light out on the feet and once he takes it to the ground he’s a threat to end it either with chokes or strikes. After a relatively mundane 7-4 start to his career, he’s gone on an absolute tear through the best opponents Germany can offer him, as he was a dominant welterweight champion for top national promotion GMC. His first middleweight fight came for GMC back in 2021, and this week’s title shot was also his EMC debut. Kerim was born and raised in Germany but represents Turkey in the cage, making him the only prospect from that country to have featured in these rankings. I’d have zero arguments if the UFC or Bellator decided to give him a contract, or at the very least it seems like a no-brainer for top European promotion KSW if he’s willing to go there. My dream fight would be Cage Warriors bringing him in to challenge current champion and #1 middleweight prospect Christian Leroy Duncan, as the winner would emerge from the fight as not only the top middleweight prospect but one of the top overall prospects in the world. Engizek doesn’t move in the rankings this week because he was many levels above his opponent, and it’s time to find him some tougher challenges. However, he does turn 31 in less than a month and is over the fight limit for these rankings, so this is almost certainly the last time he will feature here.
Kyle Crutchmer: Moved from #12 prospect to unranked (10-fight limit)
Crutchmer improved to 5-1 with Bellator and 9-1 overall by using his wrestling to dominate Michael Lombardo, who was on a strong 4-win streak and had appeared in these rankings back when he was on the regional scene. He landed a few powerful shots on the feet but was mostly getting outpointed there, so he started to relentlessly chase takedowns and dominate positions for the rest of the fight. Lombardo is a good wrestler himself, but it was clear that Crutchmer’s balance and weight distribution were on another level. He came out with a clear decision, but as I noted in the last fight of Crutchmer’s that I watched, he needs to do more damage once he’s in top position if he really wants to stand a chance against MMA’s best. This fight takes him to 10 total fights, and at 28 he is over the age limit for a major promotion prospect, so is no longer eligible for the list. He was ranked as Bellator’s #9 welterweight climbing into this fight and probably climbed a spot or two with this win. I think he will probably be a fixture of the rankings for a while, but he may struggle against the very best because his striking is much less developed and will get him in trouble if he runs into someone who can reliably stop his takedowns.
Ross Houston: Improved from unranked to #15 prospect
One strong grappler signed to Bellator leaves the rankings and another one slides in to take his place. Houston is someone that is rarely in the discussion as a top prospect, mostly because he hasn’t fought since 2020 and that last fight was a loss. However, that loss was a decision to Michael “Venom” Page, who is a truly brutal opponent to make your promotional debut against. Houston had put together an impressive 8-0 record before that, with most of those wins coming for Cage Warriors and culminating in a welterweight title win in 2018. He’s had problems staying healthy, and his one scheduled fight for 2021 was cancelled when he pulled out with an injury. Hopefully he can make a return soon to capitalize on his potential, as at 31 his window for success is shorter than many members of the rankings.
Roberto de Souza: Moved from #1 prospect to unranked (15th fight)
De Souza’s unreal jiu-jitsu skills were once again the story this week, as he used great wrist control and a creative rolling move to escape from an early takedown by RIZIN title challenger Johnny Case then locked up a nasty triangle+armbar combination from an improbable angle during a scramble to make his second defense of his title. Case is a high-level grappler himself but the fluidity of De Souza’s movements and the sudden explosion that he generates whenever he decides to change positions are truly special to watch. He has great flexibility in all of his limbs and his leg dexterity is particularly dangerous because it allows him to pull triangles and armbars from seemingly safe positions. He now has 4 straight wins using those two submissions, and I can’t really imagine any other grappling-based lightweight outside of the UFC who I think could take away his title. However, his striking is much more ordinary, and while its certainly not bad there is definitely the potential for a high-level striker to score a knockout before De Souza is able to bring them into his world on the mat. With this win he moves to 14-1 and reaches the fight limit for prospects, and since he is 32 and above the age limit he must leave the rankings. However, I expect that he will remain a world-class lightweight for a long time as his talent is not predicated on physical dominance but instead exceptional mental and technical skills. I’d love to see how he fares in the UFC and I think he could easily be a top 25 lightweight there, but I’m sure RIZIN will try hard to retain their star.
Jay Jay Wilson: Improved from unranked to #15 prospect
After falling out of the rankings last month following his first career loss, Wilson makes a return this week to claim the spot vacated by De Souza’s removal. However, given how recently he fought I expect that another prospect will emerge to fill this space before we see Wilson in the cage again.
Grant Neal: Improved from #7 to #6 prospect
Christian Edwards: Fell from #14 prospect to unranked
I’ve been critical of Bellator in the past for their tendency to give top prospects easy opponents to build their records, so in an effort to be fair I feel the need to highlight the excellent matchmaking here between two of their top light heavyweight prospects. Both were coming off of the first losses of their career, a split decision to former #1 prospect Alex Polizzi for Neal and a shocking KO loss to Ben Parrish for Edwards, and whoever came out on top was going to have some good momentum from beating another great fighter. This fight was a major clash of styles, as Neal is a short and powerful wrestler while Edwards is much taller and prefers to use his long limbs to pile up damage from range. The first round was competitive albeit slow-paced, and I had it scored in favor of Edwards after he landed more strikes and managed to keep Neal from entering close enough to effectively return fire. Neal got a big takedown towards the end of the round but didn’t do much with it, but for whatever reason all 3 judges ended up scoring the round in Neal’s favor. Rounds 2 and 3 were very different, as Neal improved his movement around the cage and forced some big misses out of Edwards while shooting much more frequently for takedowns as the fight went on. Most of those shots were completed, but he had a hard time doing much damage because Edwards was constantly using his long frame and raw strength to try to get back to his feet. A notable exception came towards the end of round 2, where Neal opened up with some incredibly heavy punches and elbows that were snapping Edwards’ head back to the canvas.
Ultimately, Neal won a 30-27 decision but the fight was much more competitive than those scores show. I do have some concerns about Neal’s height and length, as at 5’11” he will almost always be smaller than his opponents and he won’t always be able to take them down to compensate as he starts facing the division’s elite. However, he flashed some solid counter-striking today at times and continued to show a very impressive gas tank for someone as heavily muscled as he is. He only moves up one spot in the rankings because despite the relative thinness of the bottom of the LHW rankings, the top 5 spots are all occupied by incredibly dangerous talents and after seeing his loss to Polizzi I’ll need to see Grant beat someone ranked above him before I push him too high. For Edwards, this now marks back-to-back losses after a perfect 5-0 start to his career, with the first one raising questions about his chin while this second loss exposed a hole in his wrestling defense. He’s extremely young at age 23 and has fantastic physical gifts in both his size and strength, which make him dangerous when combined with his technical striking, but it might be a good idea for him to take some time off and work to develop his grappling if he wants to regain a spot in the rankings. He’s pretty good at jiu-jitsu and is not a bad wrestler by any means, but this fight against Neal showed a gameplan for how any grappling specialist could try to shut him down.
Jamal Pogues: Improved from unranked to #15 prospect
Pogues continues to bounce on and off of the rankings as new prospects emerge and others fall out or graduate from the rankings. He slides back into the #15 spot for now but has yet to fight since September 2020 and there’s been no chatter of anything happening soon, so he’ll need more losses from prospects above him if he wants to maintain a place in the rankings.
Azamat Bekoev: Moved from #13 prospect to unranked (age)
Bekoev turned 26 a few months ago, and while it appears that he has been released from ACA, he had 4 fights with their main promotion and more fights with their Young Eagles series. Since he is over 10 fights and is now over the age limit for major-promotion fighters, I am removing him from the rankings.
Shamil Magomedov: Improved from unranked to #15 prospect
After getting pushed out of the rankings at the start of this month, Magomedov makes his return to fill the spot opened up by Bekoev’s removal. At 9-0 with deadly sambo skills, I’m hoping he can stay active now that he has found a home with Eagle FC.
Anthony Romero: Remained #4 prospect
The last time we checked in on Romero was back in November 2021, when he won a decision over Nico Echeverry (11-4), who is a quality prospect in his own right but not near the level of the top 15. “The Genius” continued his rebuilding process from the only loss of his career with another win this week, but in was against significantly easier competition in Kenneth Glenn (10-9). Glenn has flashed KO power in his Fury FC career but loses more that he wins when matched against tough opponents, and the same happened this week. Romero continued his patient approach to fighting and was winning from distance for most of the first two rounds until he got airborne and planted his right knee directly into his opponent’s jaw for a highlight reel knockout. While the finish was impressive, Romero doesn’t move in the rankings because he was obviously several levels above Glenn going into this fight. He is now 11-1 and is 3-1 since he beat Mike Breeden by decision on the Contender Series back in 2020 but wasn’t signed to the UFC. It’s pretty strange that Breeden was called up to the UFC on short notice last year but Romero hasn’t gotten an opportunity yet, and I’d be happy to see him get another Contender Series fight later this year or get signed directly to the big show to take on one of the many prospects in the lightweight division.
Lance Gibson Jr.: Remained #12 prospect
After a good win by round 2 ground-and-pound over Raymond Pina (9-4) back in October, for unknown reasons Gibson Jr. took a step down in competition this week and took on Nainoa Dung (4-2) in the prelim opener of Bellator’s second event of the week. I understand that Dung is a Hawaiian local who was put on the card to draw in fans, but he would’ve had a much more reasonable chance of winning if he were matched with a less developed opponent and Gibson would have gained more from the experience besides continuing to build his record to a perfect 6-0.
As it was, they exchanged strikes at range for the opening seconds of the first round, but that all changed when Dung scored a big knockdown less than a minute into the fight. Gibson went into wrestling autopilot and took control then got the takedown relatively easily, then transitioned between half guard, side control, and north-south top position for the rest of the round while raining down heavy ground and pound. I had been impressed with Gibson’s striking in the past but he got caught with his chin in the air in this one and smartly made the necessary adjustment to his gameplan, as he spent the next two rounds dominating from the top and piling up tons of damage. Two of the judges scored the decision 30-25 in his favor, which shows just how dominant the performance was after the early scare. However, Gibson was clearly superior to his opponent going into the fight and nothing we saw changed that dynamic, so he doesn’t go anywhere in the rankings. A matchup with #8 prospect Chris Gonzalez (7-1), who is also signed to Bellator, would be a much more fair fight and would be a great test of where each prospect is in their respective growth trajectories.
Khusein Askhabov: Moved from #7 prospect to unranked (signed to UFC)
Askhabov was originally scheduled to take part in the 2021 edition of the Contender Series against Joanderson Brito, but that fight fell through when he couldn’t get a visa. Instead of sending him back to the regional scene, the UFC has opted to sign him outright and give him a very tough debut fight against Herbert Burns (11-3). I think that is a totally reasonable decision, as with a 23-0 record there wasn’t a ton more than Askhabov was going to prove with one more win. However, the competition in the UFC is much tougher than anything he’s faced during his dominant career in Ukraine, so it will be good to see if he’s as skilled as he’s looked on tape against decent but not elite opposition.
Jornel Lugo: Fell from #9 prospect to unranked.
After Lugo comfortably beat respected veteran Brian Moore (14-8) back in February to go 8-0, I said that it was ready for him to take the next step up in competition if he wanted to establish himself as an elite bantamweight prospect. Bellator had multiple fighter from their 8-man Grand Prix drop out due to injuries, which led to the scheduling of some wild-card matches this weekend where the winner would claim a place in the competition. Standing in Lugo’s way was Danny Sabatello, a relentless all-pressure wrestler who was featured highly on these rankings until his contract with Bellator made him ineligible. Unfortunately for Lugo he got zero time or space to show off his refined and accurate striking this week, as Sabatello doggedly chased takedowns from the opening bell and maintained top strong control once he got his opponent to the ground. Lugo tried some scrambles and sweeps to escape but was unable to create much space as Sabatello moved between different top positions while continuously bringing down hard elbows and other ground strikes. Lugo had shown good wrestling fundamentals in the past and has dangerous jiu-jitsu with two chokes on his professional record, but his grappling was clearly several tiers below that of his opponent this week. This decision loss is enough to take him out of the very competitive bantamweight rankings, and he will not be eligible to return because his next fight will be his 10th and he is signed to a major promotion.
Nikita Mikhailov: Fell from #12 prospect to unranked
Not a great week for Bellator’s most promising young talents at 135, as Mikhailov was also smothered by a top-level grappler in his wild card fight to pick up his first loss with the promotion. He took on 10-fight UFC veteran Enrique Barzola, who has become known for his grinding style of grappling control that he uses effectively to wear down his opponents’ resistance and exhaust them on his way to decision victories. That is exactly what he did to Mikhailov this week, as the young Russian showed his dynamic striking early with some well-thrown spinning attacks and fast boxing combos but was unable to consistently create space against Barzola’s relentless wrestling assault. Mikhailov had previously shown some vulnerability to a non-stop pressure attack in the first round of his promotional debut against Brian Moore (14-7), and while he was able to stabilize and take over the fight in the later rounds of that contest, he was never able to get any real momentum going against Barzola. He falls out of the rankings for now but he is still within the top 20 because I had rated his opponent much more highly than him coming in and he still showed some flashes of what makes him an exciting prospect with his striking and a few explosive scramble attempts. He’s just 23, so he’s got a few more years to continue improving as he tries to build his way back into the top 15 prospects in his division.
Kenta Takizawa: Moved from #10 prospect to unranked
Takizawa is someone that should have been removed from the rankings back in December 2021 when he lost a decision to #1 prospect Kai Asakura for RIZIN. However, he’s been overlooked until now, so he is getting removed this week and written up for the sake of full transparency.
Askar Askar: Improved from unranked to #12 prospect
Askar was someone I was very high on going into 2021 as he had an 11-1 record and was coming off a main-event decision win over Kevin Wirth (8-1) in his LFA debut. That fight showed his wrestling chops, as Wirth is also a strong grappler but was unable to keep up with the flexibility and explosion shown by Askar. However, he lost a lot of momentum when current #9 prospect Justin Wetzell (6-1) ran straight through him and physically dominated the slimmer Askar on his way to a second-round TKO through some heavy ground and pound. The Palestinian prospect has worked his way back into contention with a pair of gritty decision wins over other prospects, first Leandro Gomes (6-1) and then against Ryskulbek Ibraimov (19-9) back in February of 2022. He’s tall for the weight class and skinny as a result, but he transitions very well on the ground and has a good understanding of how to position his body to distribute his weight and keep his opponents trapped. He was briefly signed to the UFC to take on Cody Stamann on short notice but had the fight cancelled due to medical issues and was not retained on his contract, so he is still eligible for this list. While he’s at the 15-fight limit, he’s still 27 so he has a few more years of eligibility as he tries to work his way back to that UFC contract. However, I am hesitant to move him much further up the rankings until I see him against another elite prospect to see if he’s improved since the disappointment against Wetzell.
Fernando Laurenço: Improved from unranked to #13 prospect
Laurenço is not a super well-known name despite his very impressive 9 win streak due to two main factors: He has never fought outside of Brazil, and 8 of those 9 wins have come by decision. There is no questioning the effectiveness of his attack, as he mixes good striking fundamentals with a controlled jiu-jitsu style to score points on his opponents and deny them opportunities to counter-attack, but the lack of highlight-reel finishes has definitely hindered his ability to go viral, which is something that would really help his international profile given that most people do not pay much attention to the Brazilian regional scene. They really should though, as there are so many talented fighters in the country like Laurenço who simply lack a platform to show their skills to the world. That talent level shows up in the opponents that he has beaten on his way to his current ranking: Luiz Filho (10-3), João Oliveira (7-2), Eduardo Dinis (8-3), Marcelo Guarilha (12-7), João Oliveira a second time (9-3), Paulo Pizzo (9-2), and in March 2022 he went 25 minutes with Leonardo Willians (10-2) and came out ahead to claim the title for SFT, which in my eyes is the country’s #2 promotion behind Future FC. Those are just the guys he’s beaten in his current win streak, and it shows how many consistently talented opponents one must beat to rise to the pinnacle of Brazilian MMA. It is worth noting that while most of those opponents were talented, none graded out as true international-level prospects, so for that reason Laurenço enters towards the bottom of the rankings for now. He’s someone that I would love to watch on this year’s Contender Series to see how his game compares to a top talent from elsewhere in the world.
Ary Farias: Improved from unranked to #14 prospect
The Brazilian takeover of the bantamweight rankings continues, as Farias becomes his country’s 6th prospect at 135 pounds, which makes it one of the few divisions where Russians are not the dominant nationality. The jiu-jitsu superstar rejoins the rankings due to the wave of departures this week, and as its been 6 months since his last fight, hopefully he is getting a big opportunity lined up for whenever we next see him.
Khaseyn Shaykhaev: Improved from unranked to #15 prospect
Shaykhaev rejoins his brother, #5 prospect Khuseyn Shaykhaev, in the bantamweight rankings, and like Farias he has featured on this list before but was pushed out following a loss. Khaseyn suffered his first career loss in his last fight but it was a very close contest against a tough veteran. He’s been exposed as a one-trick-pony with his wrestling, but that one trick is excellent. Shaykhaev’s current skills are not up to the level of some of the other fighters in the rankings, but if he’s able to develop even pretty good striking and decent ground and pound, he would have the potential to be a top-tier contender.
Bokang Masunyane: Fell from #5 prospect to unranked
Masunyane finally got a fight this week after last competing in September 2020, but unfortunately for ONE’s #2 flyweight contender he got outgrappled immediately by #1 contender Jarred Brooks. Brooks hopped onto his back after they spent a short time pushing each other around the cage, and Bokang manage to defend rear naked chokes for 3+ minutes while trying to use the fence to scrape his opponent off. However, with less than a minute left in the fight he eventually left his neck exposed and got dropped to the ground unconscious rather than choosing to tap. This was the first loss of his career, as he had previously gone 8-0 with two of those wins coming for ONE, and it is enough to drop him outside of the rankings. I rate Brooks as a top-20 flyweight in the entire world, so losing to him isn’t terrible, but Masunyane’s wrestling is normally his specialty, so seeing him beaten so comprehensively is a big blow to his stock. He’s still young at 27 and isn’t too many fights into his career, so he should be able to bounce back from this and continue his promising career, but this will be his last appearance in the rankings as he will reach the fight limit of 10 while signed with a major promotion in his next appearance.
Charles Johnson: Moved from #9 prospect to unranked (signed to UFC)
After his impressive title defense earlier this year for LFA, I said that Johnson looked ready for the next level and that came true this week, as the UFC signed him to a deal. He’s getting a very difficult debut fight against Muhammad Mokaev, who is one of the top young fighters in the world and was once the #1 prospect in my flyweight rankings before his move to the big show. I think Johnson will have an advantage on the feet given his Muay Thai training and his ability to attack with a wide range of strikes, but I don’t think his wrestling defense is strong enough to stop Mokaev’s grappling onslaught. Johnson has proven to be dangerous off of his back with submissions but never against anyone who can control positions in the same way, so he may spend a long time on the ground in his debut. However, I do think Johnson has the overall skillset to stick around for at least a few years as a mid-roster flyweight for the UFC.
Arman Ashimov: Improved from unranked to #14 prospect
Ashimov joins Azat Maksum and Asu Almabaev as the 3rd Kazakhstani prospect on this list and all three of them fight at flyweight. He had a very successful 5-1 run for M-1 Challenge from 2017-2019 before the promotion folded, beating strong veterans like Mikael Silander (17-5) and Rodrigo Melônio (17-3) and undefeated prospects like Gadzhimurad Aliev (6-0) and Kayck Alencar (9-0). The lone loss came against the current #9 prospect Aleksander Doskalchuk, and it was due to a hand injury that stopped the fight between rounds 2 and 3. After about two years of inactivity during the pandemic, Ashimov made a successful MMA return with Naiza FC by crumpling Serkhan Valili (7-3) with a beautifully placed hook to the liver. He’s very light on his feet and maintains a striking threat while evading thanks to his footwork and balance. Arman also has very fast hands and strings together combinations well, which he showed by mixing up targets against his overmatched opponent and punishing him to the head and body before the final one-shot fight ender straight to the liver. At 12-3-1, he has a few more losses than many of the other top flyweights but he’s faced strong opposition in most of those fights and has shown the ability to win in all aspects of the game, whether that’s grinding out a decision win or getting an exciting KO. However, since he’s been somewhat inconsistent against the very best grapplers he’s faced, there is a bit of a ceiling on his potential. At 28 he’s far from old, so if he can take his defensive grappling up another level and learn to mix in some more kicks on the feet he could definitely become dangerous enough to take that next step up.
Alessandro Costa: Improved from unranked to #15 prospect
Costa is a 26-year-old Brazilian who trains and fights out of Mexico and is currently on a 5-win streak that includes a title win and defense for Lux Fight League, one of the country’s better promotions. You can see his jiu-jitsu background in his record through his first 8 fights: 6-2 with 5 armbars and a rear naked choke, with one of those being a flying armbar that ended the fight out of nowhere. However, he got KOed in one of those losses and dropped a decision in the other where he was too content to stay on his back, both of which speak to deficits he had is his overall MMA game early in his career. However, he’s greatly cleaned up those areas during his current win streak, which has seen him use greatly improved wrestling that takes advantage of his strength to control the positions of the fight on his way to the first two decision wins of his career and his first two TKOs, both of which came by ground and pound in his title fights. Those fights came against strong opponents in Jorge Calvo Martin (12-5) and Kike Gonzalez (10-2), which made the finishes even more impressive. Costa is an explosive athlete and as he’s learned to balance his attacks, his submission threat has started to create opportunities for his ground strikes. As opponents start to respect his striking more, that will open up more chances for his jiu-jitsu attack, and he will be a dangerously well-rounded prospect. He’s ready for that next step up in competition from the Mexican scene, and a shot at the LFA title that Johnson just vacated with his UFC signing would certainly be a good test of how far along Costa is in his development.
April 25-May 1
Adam Keresh: Fell from #14 prospect to unranked
Keresh earned his spot on the rankings just last month with his first round knockout of Chad Johnson (6-3) on the PFL Challenger Series. PFL may have been planning to build him up, as his MMA game outside of his striking is still pretty raw, but after multiple heavyweights pulled out of their first fights of the season he was called up to the main tournament against UFC and PFL veteran Klidson Abreu (15-5). Abreu had been on a rough streak of form that included a devastating KO loss, so there was definitely the potential for Keresh to pull off an upset of the more experienced fighter. He showed off his typical creative striking with a wide range of funky kicks and a surprising number of standing backfists but wasn’t able to find his range most of the time and had no answer to Klidson’s high level grappling. His technique for escaping from control against the fence or building back to his feet from the ground was pretty poor, and while he tried to use his raw strength to escape he was unable to do so now that he’s reached a level of competition where everyone is athletically gifted. This decision loss is the first defeat of Keresh’s career and it made it clear that he has some serious progress to do as a grappler if he wants to have success at the top level.
Adlan Ibragimov: Improved from unranked to #15 prospect
Ibragimov was pushed out of the rankings by Keresh’s big win and makes his return just a month later now that his spot is available again. ACA hasn’t been putting on events during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine but they’ve recently started booking shows for late May. Hopefully they’ll find a good matchup for Ibragimov and his powerful wrestling either at heavyweight or back down at 205 pounds.