Prospect Rankings Update: May 2022

PFL 3 at the Esports Stadium Arlington in Arlington, Texas, Friday, May 6, 2022. (Cooper Neill / PFL)
Dilano Talyor making his major-promotion debut at PFL 3 in Arlington, Texas, Friday, May 6, 2022. (Cooper Neill / PFL)

Before we get into the prospects this week, there’s some important news: I will be moving to MyMMANews.com, as MMAProspects is currently in transition following the departure of the site’s founder. The rankings and this monthly series will continue over there, and I’ve put together a rules breakdown and summary of notable past prospects to introduce the series to any new readers or people who need a refresher.

After a crazy month of action in April, the fights kept on coming in May as organizations around the world continue working back towards their pre-pandemic operations and scheduling, while new shows continue to pop up around the globe. Russian MMA also started to kick back into gear after most of the country’s promotions were inactive during the first few months of the war. Russian Cagefighting Champions (RCC) got the month off to a great start, as an incredible 5 prospects took part in their May 6th show. As always, this series is based on my top 15 prospect rankings for each weight class.

May 2-8

Heavyweights:

Kirill Kornilov: Remained #2 prospect

Kornilov stayed undefeated (13-0-1) this week with a decision win over former UFC fighter and KSW title challenger Luis Henrique (13-7), who is a dangerous submission threat at heavyweight. This fight was another beautiful demonstration of the relatively unique skillset Kornilov has for a heavyweight, as he has the hand speed of a middleweight and uses that to pick his opponents apart with jabs and short hooks from his lead left hand while mixing in quick straight rights that take advantage of his long arms to land without the possibility of getting hit by a counter. He also mixes up speeds very well, as most of his strikes are quick and just intended to touch but he will sporadically mix in a power shot that often takes people by surprise. This fight was fought at his preferred pace from the beginning, as he patiently stalked Henrique and methodically accumulated damage on his face. By the end of the fight, the Brazilian wore a mask of blood while Kornilov looked untouched and was barely even breathing hard, which speaks to his fantastic cardio. Henrique repeatedly rushed into a clinch and pushed Kornilov against the fence to try to win with his grappling, but Kirill did a great job of immediately digging underhooks, landing a few short elbows or knees to the body as punishment, then pushing on one side to turn his opponent and escape back into space. This defense was so effective that eventually Henrique resorted to throwing desperate and telegraphed overhand bombs in an attempt to land a lucky shot, but Kornilov is far too good at distance management and head movement to let that happen. He started as a kickboxer and usually makes heavy use of his legs as part of his long range attack but threw just a few this week and only targeted the calf, likely to make it harder for Henrique to catch one for a takedown. The intelligence of that strategy was proven in round 3, as a slightly sloppy low kick led to the only successful takedown of the night. However, Kornilov immediately built his way back to his feet, landed a crunching knee to the gut, and circled off the fence to continue his deconstruction of his opponent.

This was an essentially flawless performance from Kornilov, with the only thing missing being a finish. However, I rated him much higher than Henrique coming in so he remains #2 for now, as #1 prospect Ali Isaev is also an exceptional talent and has a level of wrestling better than anything Kornilov has faced so far. I think either fighter would step directly into the top 20 heavyweights in the UFC and would probably give tough challenges to several of the top 15. Kornilov has turned 31 since we last saw him, putting him over the age limit, and his next fight will bring him to 15 and the fight limit, so his tenure in the rankings is limited but his potential to be a world-class heavyweight is not.

Sergey Bilostenniy: Remained #9 prospect

Bilostenniy continued his unfortunate trend of fighting inferior veterans this week by facing Fernando Rodrigues Jr. (13-7), a 34-year-old can-crusher from Brazil who was 2-5 in his last 7 fights dating back to 2017. This was easily the worst performance we’ve seen from the Russian powerhouse, as his 4 previous fights had all ended by way of first round knockout but this week he barely scraped by with a split decision against what should have been one of his easiest opponents to date. He won round 1 convincingly, showing some of the solid boxing that makes him so dangerous and doing a good job digging underhooks and reversing positions when his opponent pushed him against the fence. However, he started to wear out early in round 2 and his punches got wild and sloppy, which only drained the gas tank faster. Rodrigues took advantage of his tiredness by pressing him against the fence and digging some hard knees to the body, which weakened Bilostenniy enough that he got taken down, mounted, and likely would have been finished with ground and pound if the bell hadn’t saved him. Round 3 was incredibly ugly, as the two exhausted fighters spent long stretches staring at each other, throwing occasional pillow-handed punches, or sloppily wrestling against the cage. Bilostenniy took some more knees to the gut but landed enough solid-looking hooks to convince two of the judges to score the round in his favor and give him the split decision victory.

This fight exposed his stamina as a clear flaw in his game despite being a smaller heavyweight who usually weighs in around 230 pounds, and he’ll need to do a lot of work on his cardio because he can’t rely on always knocking his opponents out in the first round. This brings Bilostenniy to a 5-win streak, but he’s faced 5 straight veterans who weren’t on his level with the last 4 being Brazilians, who are frequently brought in to lose to Russian prospects. The relatively weak competition combined with how disappointing his performance was in this fight means that he doesn’t move up the rankings at all for this win, and I even debated moving him down a few spots. This was his debut for Russian promotion RCC after good runs with ACB and Open FC, and I hope that his next fight comes against one of the promotion’s other top heavyweights like #11 prospect Anton Vyazigin or #8 prospect Alexandr Maslov, as that would provide much more clarity on how good he truly is as a fighter.

Middleweights:

Mikhail Ragozin: Improved from #5 to #4 prospect

Ragozin won his 3rd consecutive fight against tough opposition for RCC and moved to an impressive 20-5 overall with a decision win over Mikhail Allakhverdian (11-3). Ragozin had a clear speed advantage on the feet and landed some quick punches and leg kicks to open the fight which made his opponent grapple, which is pretty much always the game plan for Allakhverdian anyway. Ragozin got pushed against the fence a couple times but prevented his opponent from landing any significant strikes or progressing position and then used a good body-lock throw to get a takedown in the later part of the first round. Once he got on top he stayed in dominant position and started peppering down short shots, none of which were going to knock Allakhverdian out but they were sharp enough to open cuts and cause swelling. After recognizing that he had the advantage on the ground as well as the feet, Ragozin started shooting his own double-leg takedowns in the middle of the cage and was successful several times, spending much of the fight in top control accumulating damage. He got reversed by a nice guillotine sweep but stayed calm, worked his way back to his feet, landed a few powerful combos, then got back to the wrestling. This well rounded performance secured him a seemingly-easy decision win over a tough prospect who had caused problems for lots of fighters with his strength and wrestling but was unable to do so against Ragozin. He moves up one spot in the rankings because I had him ranked as a considerably better prospect coming in so this was the expected result, and he remains an excellent and well-rounded fighter who would fit well in top Russian promotion ACA or maybe somewhere like ONE. However, he turns 31 later this year and is already well over the fight limit for these rankings, so his time to shine in this series is limited.

Welterweights:

Boris Medvedev: Remained #11 prospect

We last saw Medvedev in December 2021, where he launched himself into the rankings with a well-rounded decision win over UFC and PFL veteran Glaico França (22-6). He took on another Brazilian this week in Junior Marques (10-3), as the RCC card was stacked with Russia vs Brazil matchups, but despite the good record Marques has consistently lost when facing credentialed opponents and was a big step down in competition for Medvedev after his last fight. He did exactly what you’d hope to see against a weaker opponent and dominated the entire fight on his way to a round 1 win by TKO. Medvedev typically fights southpaw and throws a good jab, which he uses to set up a mix of leg kicks and quick hooks that he digs to the liver or curves upwards into the chin. He was landing combinations on his opponent every time he pushed forward and did a great job keeping his feet under his body to not over-extend while striking and prevent his opponent from countering with a takedown or power strike. I was very impressed by his composure, as he was clearly hurting Marques with his shots but didn’t go crazy or get reckless looking for a finish. Instead, he started throwing longer combos and attacking more frequently, getting one knockdown with a liver shot and landing hard shots while his opponent recovered then getting the finish just seconds later with a well-placed combo directly to the chin followed by some huge hooks on the ground. While this was a great showing for Medvedev, he was clearly better than his opponent coming into this fight so doesn’t improve in the rankings following this win. He’s now on a 6-fight winning streak with 5 of those for RCC, so I hope to see him get a title shot the next time he’s booked to fight

Dilano Taylor: Improved from #14 to #8 prospect

Taylor continued his rapid rise into welterweight stardom by pulling off an upset split decision victory over the better-known and much more experienced João Zeferino (26-9), who has been successful with PFL for years and also had a couple fights with the UFC. Taylor impressed with a win over a strong wrestler in his PFL Challenger Series opportunity back in February, and while he wasn’t originally signed to the 2022 edition of the PFL tournament, several competitors pulled out with injury and visa issues, which opened up a spot for him. He got into a dogfight with Zeferino, who is a deadly submission threat and also boasts some dangerous striking, but Taylor showed that his skillset is equally well-rounded and managed to deal just enough damage to sneak away with the split decision in his full PFL debut. This brings his winning streak to a very impressive 8 consecutive fights, and he’s managed to succeed even with large jumps up in competition over the last year. He’s now 9-1 as a pro and has therefore reached the fight limit with a major promotion, but since he is still just 25 years old he will remain eligible for the rankings for the rest of the PFL season. If he can continue to take out skilled veterans like Zeferino, Taylor could be pushing for one of the top prospect spots by the end of the year even though welterweight is probably the most stacked division in the rankings right now. As it is, he makes a big jump this week but I’m holding off on pushing him too high due to how close and competitive the fight was.

Lightweights:

Kenneth Cross: Fell from #14 prospect to unranked

Cross has bounced on and off the rankings several times now, and this week he leaves once again due to impressive performances from other prospects. Its now been about 6 months since his last fight with XFC in December 2021, and the promotion has yet to put on another show since then, so Cross may be searching for a new contract on the US regional scene as he looks to continue building his resume.

Jay Jay Wilson: Fell from #15 prospect to unranked

Wilson’s return to the rankings ends up being very brief, as good wins from other prospects push him out of the top 15. Since he’s unlikely to fight again for at least a few more months, his standing going forward will continue to depend on the success or failure of fighters around him in my rankings.

Felipe Douglas: Improved from unranked to #12 prospect

Brazil is never short on high-potential prospects, and Douglas showed that he is yet another talent to watch out for by winning the interim lightweight title for SFT. This fight technically happened at the end of April, but the results and video weren’t published until this week so he ends up in this article instead. This win brings him to a 20-5 record, which makes him the most experienced lightweight in these rankings and one of the most experienced prospects regardless of weight class, but at 29 years old he’s still firmly in his prime and is fighting like someone with many years of high-level competition ahead of him. Douglas’ fight this week was his 5th for Brazil’s #2 promotion SFT and he’s won all those fights against tough opponents: José Santana (9-3), Clécio Oliveira (16-11), Estabili Amato (10-2), Marcio Andrade (21-6), and this week Alex Sandro (11-3). In fact, he’s won 7 of his last 8 fights dating back to 2018, with that only loss coming in a shot at the Titan FC title against Rafael Alves (17-9), who is now in the UFC.

Douglas is a well-rounded fighter and he clearly demonstrated that this week against Sandro. He was on the front foot from the start of the fight, constantly closing the space with his opponent and pushing him back to the cage. He throws fast combinations when he opens up with punches and did a great job mixing in hard rips to the body when his opponent shelled up to guard his face, and he uses those combos as cover to allow himself to step into the clinch position without worrying about return fire. He also threw an unusual tomahawk elbow at least 3 times during the fight to close range and bring himself into a good position to take control with his grappling. Once he had his foe against the cage he was almost impossible to shake off and delivered a variety of strikes, including interesting short kicks to the calf using the front of his foot in a way I hadn’t seen before. None of the shots were particularly devastating but they provided good cover for sporadic takedown attempts with good trips and throws from the body-lock, and I think Douglas would have dominated every round against the cage if the ref hadn’t been impatient, as he sometimes broke things up after less than 30 seconds of wrestling. His takedowns were only occasionally successful and he didn’t do a ton from top control on the ground but it was a good way to mix things up and keep Sandro guessing at what might come next. All the close-quarters work clearly taxed his opponent more than Douglas, and after a takedown against the cage early in the 4th round he hammered away with approximately 20 consecutive straight rights while using his body weight to smother Sandro, and the ref was forced to step in. None of the shots on their own was going to knock anybody out but the accumulated damage was evident and he was just going to continue piling on. Douglas in now SFT’s interim champ, as current title holder and #9 prospect Manoel Sousa (8-0) has made the move to CFFC in the USA and may be looking at a spot on the Contender Series later this year. If that doesn’t pan out, I’d absolutely love to see him fight Douglas, as they’re both very talented in all areas of MMA and would likely give each other 25 minutes of war.

Aleksandr Grozin: Improved from unranked to #14 prospect

Grozin is yet another talented prospect who fought for RCC this week, as the promotion made a return from a several-month war-induced hiatus with a stacked card of fights. He’s compiled a very impressive 18-4-1 record across several regional promotions despite still only being 25 years old, and he’s faced quite good competition along the way. 12 of those 18 wins have come by decision, with almost all of the finishes against weak fighters at the start of his career, but Grozin is far from a boring fighter. He’s got strong wrestling and excellent BJJ that allows him to counter many of the other high-level grapplers that proliferate in Russia, and he’s also very skilled standing. He showed off those striking skills this week against Andrey Augusto (12-3-1), who is another talented prospect I’ve been tracking. Grozin is a southpaw and throws great kicks with his left leg, targeting the head, body, and legs of his opponent and making it difficult to predict where his next attack will be headed. He also has very sharp boxing and throws crisp jabs that he builds off of to create fast and effective combinations. His target selection with his punches is well balanced and he hit his opponent this week with many clean straight lefts directly to the stomach and liver. He shows good bouncy movement on his feet, a solid high guard to block return shots, and lots of subtle fakes with his body and hands to keep his opposition off balance. He was ahead for basically the entire fight and made a very talented opponent look quite ordinary on his way to a decision victory.

With all those positives, it may seem like Grozin should have already been in the rankings, but he’s not without flaws as a fighter. He slowed down noticeably after the first couple minutes of round 3 this week, which is understandable given the volume he’d thrown, but its happened before and has been particularly costly in his title fights when he’s had to go into the later rounds. That goes into his second negative, which is that his few losses have come in some of his biggest opportunities. He’s spent most of his career at featherweight and lost a shot at the AMC title in 2020 to Mukhamed Eminov (13-1), who is currently the #13 prospect at 145 pounds. That fight went the full 25 minutes, and while Grozin flashed his skills early the superior cardio and wrestling of Eminov allowed him to take control as the fight went on and come out with the decision. Even more disappointing for Grozin was his title shot for Open FC in May 2021, where he was the heavy favorite against Bruno Roverso (16-5) and won the first few rounds but was unable to secure a finish and wore himself out before getting TKOed in the 4th round. Roverso was someone who seemed to be brought in to feed to Grozin, so that loss was a significant blow to his stock. He got a shot at an interim title for OFC in his very next fight after Roverso got injured and finally managed to win a 5-rounder with a decision over Bakhytbek Duyshobay Uulu (9-2), who was nowhere near his skill level, but unfortunately Grozin missed weight for that fight so was still unable to get his belt. He fought at lightweight for the first time since 2018 this week and I had hopes that the easier weight cut would improve his cardio, but his performance in the last few minutes of this fight leaves me concerned about that element of his MMA game. Overall, Grozin certainly has a ton of potential and is technically skilled in all areas of fighting at a young age but needs to improve his consistency and conditioning if he wants to take the next step towards elite prospect status. There’s no shortage of other great Russian prospects at both lightweight and featherweight and I’d like to see him take one of them on in his next fight, hopefully for another title to see how his 5-round preparation has progressed in the last year.

Featherweights:

Fabacary Diatta: Fell from #13 prospect to unranked

It’s been a rough couple of weeks for Bellator’s crop of prospects at the lighter weight classes; both Jornel Lugo and Nikita Mikhailov lost in the wild card round of the Bellator bantamweight tournament last week and dropped out of the rankings, and now Diatta suffers the first loss of his career after starting undefeated as both a pro and an amateur. This was a huge upset, as his opponent Jordan Barton (6-2-1) had lost to the two best fighters he’d previously faced including his Bellator debut. However, this fight showed exactly why I hadn’t ranked Diatta higher earlier, as despite his evident combination of speed, power and striking skill he had not proven that those skills translated against higher-level opponents. I admittedly did not think Barton was going to be the one to expose his deficits, as I didn’t have him ranked anywhere among the 450 featherweight fighters on my lists, but he used a fantastic combination of wrestling pressure and a stiff jab with evasive footwork to control most of the fight and prevent Diatta from fully unleashing his explosive striking attack. The fight ultimately went to a split decision but I thought it was clear than Barton won round one and I also gave him a much closer round three because his controlling tactics kept him from taking much damage, while round two was marginally in favor of Diatta. He probably will not be returning to these rankings, as he will turn 26 and hit the major-promotion age limit in October and his next fight will bring him to the fight limit at 10.

Shamil Gasanov: Improved from unranked to #15 prospect

The dominant fighting style in my current prospect rankings are grapplers from Russia, often Dagestan in particular, and the 12-0 Gasanov is no exception. Many of his Dagestani compatriots build their style off sambo, and while Shamil is certainly a strong wrestler he is also a jiu-jitsu world champion, which gives his attack a more deadly submission element than some of his compatriots but at the expense of less effective ground and pound. His undefeated record is pretty clear evidence that his style works and he’s finished 10 of those wins including 7 finishes by guillotine or rear naked choke. He hadn’t previously entered the ranks because most of his competition was pretty bad, but he scored the biggest win of his career back in March with a guillotine win against Akhmed Balkizov (11-3-1) to secure the title for regional Russian promotion ProFC. Balkizov is a very dangerous grappler in his own right and was the first fighter on my shortlist that Gasanov had beaten, so that victory boosted him massively up the rankings. However, there still just wasn’t space for him until this week due to how much talent is stacked at featherweight, but luckily for him Diatta’s upset loss opens up a place at the bottom of the rankings. Most of the major US-based promotions don’t seem to be signing many Russian fighters currently, but Gasanov seems like someone who would be a great addition to the ACA roster where he could compete against some of the other top talents that feature higher up my rankings.

Flyweights:

Makoto Takahashi: Improved from #13 to #12 prospect

At just 21 years old, Takahasi is tied with Lucas Brennan and Khasan Magomedsharipov as the youngest prospects in the rankings, but those other two have records of 6-0 and 7-0 while Takahashi has more fights than both combined with a crazy 13-1-1 record. Up until this week all but one of those wins had come by decision, with the lone exception a round two guillotine of Seiichiro Ito (12-3-2) in a 1-off appearance for Rizin back in 2020. He doubled his career submission total this week with a perfectly executed ninja choke in the third round, getting the tap from Yamato Fujita (8-3) and earning himself the DEEP flyweight title. The two fighters has been engaging in a high-paced fight in the earlier rounds, with both fighters landing strikes and exchanging ground positions with the fluidity that only the lightest divisions can manage. This was a good win for Takahasi, as he proved that his finishing ability is starting to develop as he develops physically and showed that he has the striking technique necessary to stay out of danger from good strikers like Fujita. However, he only move up one spot because I’d graded him the much stronger prospect coming into this fight so this win was still just a moderate boost to his evaluation. The UFC could use an infusion of new flyweights in my opinion, as the division always produces exciting fights but doesn’t have the depth of some other weights, and the combination of youth and experience that Takahasi offers make him an ideal developmental prospect for whichever organization picks him up.

May 9-15

Light Heavyweights:

Simon Biyong: Moves from #7 prospect to unranked (10th fight in major promotion)

Biyong is a physical specimen at light heavyweight, standing 6’6 tall with defined muscle all over his body yet still possessing a solid gas tank for the division. While he’s nowhere near as well known as his Cameroonian compatriot Francis Ngannou, he is part of the same wave of talent that has come out of Africa in search of more established MMA scenes in Europe and other parts of the world. Biyong built his reputation on the Italian regional scene with a series of impressive knockouts, but his competition was never that great. That all changed when Bellator signed him in 2021 and matched him against Christian Edwards, who at the time was 4-0 and one of the hottest prospects in the world. They had a very competitive fight that saw Biyong come out as the loser of a decision but both men showed that they had the talent to compete at a high level. While Edwards has struggled since, Biyong took a year off from competition to further refine his skills before making his return this week against another hyped and undefeated prospect, Luke Trainer (5-0), who actually checked in just outside the rankings as the #17 prospect under the eligibility criteria.

Biyong pressured early with his wrestling, pressing his opponent against the cage and then taking him to the ground, which is a smart strategy against someone who has shown strong long-range striking in the past like Trainer. However, Simon wasn’t able to do much damage from his controlling position and got reversed then threatened by rear-naked chokes and strong ground strikes. He managed to survive the round and came out throwing hands in round two, connecting with a powerful combo that dropped his opponent and let him take full mount relatively easily. However, Biyong got somewhat overzealous chasing the finish and started going crazy with wild and sloppy hammerfists instead of picking his shots to maximize damage. He still delivered a pounding but visibly took a lot of energy out of his reserves and was unable to get the finish. Round 3 was similar to the prior round, as Biyong got another early knockdown and this time was more measured in his ground and pound, as he recognized Trainer’s toughness meant that he was going to be difficult to finish. There were some scrambles for position but Biyong managed to come out ahead most of the time and did enough to secure a unanimous decision win, his first victory for Bellator. However, that brings him to 10 total fights (8-2 record), and since he’s well over the major-promotion age limit at 31, he must be removed from the rankings.

Diyar Nurgozhay: Improved from unranked to #15 prospect

Kazakhstan is usually known for its talents in the lighter weight classes, as the 3 previous representatives in these rankings are all flyweights, but the hulking Nurgozhay breaks that trend in a major way. He’s undefeated at 7-0, is clearly still improving at age 25, has a good build and obvious strength for the weight class, and got the signature win of his career in October 2021 for Eagle FC, winning a dominant decision over Magomed Magomedov (12-3) after previously facing weak opponents. However, even that win comes with a huge caveat, as Magomedov had previously fought exclusively as a lightweight and somehow made the 50-pound and 3-weight-class jump to take on Nurgozhay, who used his superior strength to toss the Russian around the cage for 3 rounds and beat him up on the ground. I had been hoping that Diyar would have another fight before I put him into the top 15, as there is still so much unknown about his true talent level given that his previous 6 opponents had records of 4-2, 0-0, 0-0, 0-0, 2-1, and 18-21, but the departure of Biyong opened up a spot at the bottom of the rankings that for now goes to Nurgozhay.

While he’s certainly a promising fighter, getting ranked despite the major questions regarding his competition speaks to the overall lack of depth at light heavyweight across the world, as new talents simply aren’t emerging fast enough to keep up with the demand from top promotions or the attrition caused by age and fights limits or fighters losing. As mentioned above, Luke Trainer was someone else who was hovering at the edge of the rankings and definitely would have entered if he’d beaten Biyong, but with his first career loss he will now need a while to build back to that position and may be ineligible by then. Nurgozhay has a very high ceiling given what he’s put on tape in his relatively short career, but his floor is also much lower than most prospects on this list. I’d love to see him take on #7 prospect Shamil Akhmedov (8-0), who is also undefeated and signed to EFC, as that would be a great test of both of their skills against their toughest challenges to date.

Middleweights:

Kerim Engizek: Moved from #5 prospect to unranked (age)

Engizek turned 31 this week, and as I mentioned after his win last month that birthday makes him ineligible for these rankings. However, he is one of the top prospects out of Germany as the reigning middleweight champion for EMC and welterweight champion for GMC, as with an impressive 10-fight win streak he seems destined for the global stage sooner rather than later.

Shamil Abdulaev: Improved from unranked to #15 prospect

When Abdulaev most recently dropped out of the rankings at the start of March, I bemoaned his 2.5+ years of inactivity and wondered what was stopping him from taking fights. My wish was granted just a week later, as small Russian promotion International Professional FC put on its 5th event and featured Shamil as part of the main event. Unfortunately his opponent was nowhere near his caliber, as Sherif Mohamed (9-6) has bounced around the regional scene for a while beating inexperienced opponents but losing to proven talents. Abdulaev did exactly what you want to see from regional mismatches like this, as he took his opponent down early then worked him over with ground strikes to get the finish after just 2 minutes of the fight. It still wasn’t enough to push him immediately back into the rankings, but with Engizek’s departure a spot has once again opened up for a prospect who has been on then off the top 15 more than just about anyone else. Hopefully this return gets him noticed by a larger promotion in Russia like RCC, Eagle FC, or even top dog ACA, as Abdulaev’s 13-1 record is fantastic considering the competition he’s faced and the only loss came by split decision to former ACA champion Salamu Abdurakhmanov. However, at 31 he’s over the age limit and his next fight will take him to the fight limit of 15, so his stay in the rankings will likely be brief.

Flyweights:

Murad Magomedov: Moved from #1 prospect to unranked (age in major promotion)

Imran Bukuev: Moved from #3 prospect to unranked (age in major promotion)

Magomedov (11-0) and Bukuev (14-2) have many similarities as fighters and prospects, as they are both great wrestlers and two of the top talents in ACA’s competitive flyweight division. Magomedov is a better striker but both are definitely happiest when grappling. Neither has an official age listed anywhere online, but by using their listed ages in some recent videos of their fights both have turned 26 within the last month or so. That makes them both ineligible since they’ve already passed the fight limit in a major promotion, but both are talents to keep an eye on in the future as they have the potential to win major titles in Russia and potentially join even larger promotions. Not many Russian prospects are getting signed during the invasion of Ukraine, but both fighters are still improving and should have good careers as top flyweights for years to come.

Vartan Asatryan: Improved from unranked to #14 prospect

Asatryan immediately slots in as one of the most experienced prospects regardless of his weight class, as his 24-9 record has more losses than you typically see in these rankings but most of his career has come against tough opposition for promotions like Tech-Krep, M-1, and AMC Global. Despite all that experience, Asatryan is still just 28 years old, as he began his career 11 years ago at age 17. He has two wins over current UFC flyweight Zhalgas Zhumagulov (14-6) and has also beaten current #12 prospect Arman Ashimov (12-3-1) along with other talented but lesser known prospects. He has a good blend of grappling and striking skills, and while his punch selection is pretty limited he is very accurate with the shots he picks, though he does lack KO power. Like the fellow Russian prospects Asatryan is replacing, wrestling is a major part of his gameplan and he is good about constantly inflicting damage without leaving many opportunities to break his control. This leads to a lot of decision wins, especially at the higher levels where his opponents are less likely to be trapped by one of his submissions, which are quite good but not at an elite level. Asatryan is on a 3-fight winning streak with the most recent win coming by decision in for AMC global back in February. He took on Vladimir Alekseev (9-1), who was a rising prospect that I had been watching but was outmatched essentially across the board by Asatryan. That fight could easily have been a title eliminator, and a title win for a good promotion like AMC might be what Asatryan needs to finally get a chance with a top-level promotion like ACA.

Steve Erceg: Improved from unranked to #15 prospect

Erceg made it into an early edition of the rankings but got pushed out because the competition he was facing just wasn’t as good as other prospects worldwide. However, with the spots that have opened up the last few months he makes a return to the #15 spot. However, his stay will be brief as he is scheduled to take on one of the USA’s top flyweight prospects in Clayton Carpenter (5-0) on an episode on Dana White’s Contender Series in July. That fight will likely remove him from the rankings either by winning and getting a UFC deal or by losing and dropping below other prospects. Many people have been favoring Carpenter in the build up because of the tendency he’s shown for highlight-reel knockouts but Erceg is very athletic and is a dangerous submission threat, so I personally have the fight going in his favor if he get get it to the mat before taking too much damage on the feet.

May 16-22:

Welterweights:

Eduard Vartanyan: Moved from #5 prospect to unranked (re-signed with ACA)

Vartanyan left ACA towards the end of 2020 and has featured in both the lightweight and welterweight rankings after signing with Open Fighting Championship and easily handling tough Brazilians Michel Silva (22-8-1) and Raimundo Batista (14-2) in 2021. However, this week he returned to Russia’s top promotion and his ideal weight class at lightweight as the main event for ACA 139. He was originally scheduled to face Luis Pena, who is talented but comes with baggage after he was released from the UFC following a domestic violence arrest. However, with the current invasion of Ukraine its not exactly a great time for Americans to travel to Russia, so Alain Ilunga (13-5), the current interim champion for top South African promotion EFC, was brought in as a short notice replacement. It wasn’t the most thrilling fight, as much of the first two rounds was spent with the fighters jockeying for position against the fence, and while Vartanyan was able to use some slick trips to get take downs he was unable to maintain his positions for long or inflict substantial damage. I was impressed with the strength and toughness that Ilunga showed given the massive difference in my pre-fight grades for the fighters and the fact that he didn’t have a full training camp to prepare for Vartanyan’s multi-faceted attack. However, there was only so long he could hold out, as in the third round Eduard snaked his arm around Ilunga’s head from behind then used a beautiful twist to pull guard and secure an incredibly tight guillotine+neck crank combination that forced a quick tap. That brings his winning streak to 6 straight fights against good opponents, but since he is back with a major organization and is well over then age and fight limits for those promotions, he must leave the rankings. This was actually very good timing for his return, as Vartanyan was going to turn 31 next month and be forced out of the rankings anyway. While this ACA return means we likely won’t see him in an American promotion in the near future, he will remain a world-class lightweight and will probably be in line very soon for a 3rd title match against Abdul-Aziz Abdulvakhabov, who defeated him by split decision over 5 rounds back in 2017 and knocked him out in the first round in 2016.

Gabriel Bonfim: Improved from unranked to #15 prospect

Bonfim joins his brother Ismael, my current #7 lightweight prospect, in the rankings after both have impressed in LFA’s recent shows in Brazil. Gabriel is the current LFA welterweight champion after submitting Eduardo Garvon (13-3-1) with a D’Arce choke in just over a minute back in March. He also has a stellar 12-0 record overall with all of those wins coming by finish, typically with a variety of chokes despite his high-level background in boxing. However, the one thing that’s kept him from entering the rankings much earlier is his level of competition, as his first 10 opponents ranged from decent to pretty bad. His breakthrough win came in July 2021 LFA debut when he knocked out Brenner Alberth (8-0) in the 3rd round but unfortunately he suffered a concussion in that fight and was unable to compete in the finals of that night’s tournament. Garvon was a solid opponent with a good record but he’d never proven himself at a high level and was a short-notice replacement for Quemuel Ottoni (12-3), who recently won the Jungle Fight title and is someone I rate much higher than Garvon. Regardless of that minor critique, Bonfim is a very exciting prospect at just 24 years old with great athleticism, highly technical striking, a long track record of submissions, and the LFA title that has sent so many fighters to Bellator or the UFC. Gabriel definitely has the potential to massively outperform his ranking and I would be surprised if he doesn’t get a look on this year’s edition of the Contender Series given Dana White’s love for undefeated records, but he just hasn’t beaten enough elite competition to justify putting him above the prospects above him for now.

May 23-29:

Middleweights:

Shamil Abdulaev: Fell from #15 prospect to unranked

After just sneaking back into the rankings two weeks ago thanks to his return to actively fighting, he gets pushed out again this week and continues his somewhat ridiculous trend of bouncing on and off the bottom of the rankings. He’ll become ineligible with his next fight, but given what middleweight has showed me while maintaining these rankings he could easily return before then if another fighter is removed.

Eli Aronov: Improved from unranked to #10 prospect

Aronov was someone I had deep down of my watchlist, as he was 5-0 coming into this week and has great backgrounds in both Greco-Roman and Freestyle wrestling. However, all of those wins had come on the notoriously weak Israeli MMA scene, including a win on the Bellator prelims against a 2-2 opponent back in 2019 when the promotion put on an event in Israel. I also had some concerns about his height, as he’s just 5’10 but had been fighting exclusively at light heavyweight. He erased all those worries this week by taking his first international fight with Unified MMA in Canada, where he was given a very hard debut matchup against deadly finisher Mariusz Ksiazkiewicz (10-1), whose only loss came by decision in the 2020 Contender Series in a fight where he broke his hand and had recorded consecutive 1st-round KOs of strong opponents to win a title for Unified and make his LFA debut as the main event. I thought Ksiazkiewicz was on a trajectory to get re-signed to DWCS or even directly to the UFC if he’d beaten Aronov, but instead the 25-year-old prospect dominated his taller and more experienced opponent for essentially the entire fight.

This was my first time watching Aronov live and he looked absolutely stacked with muscle for the middleweight division, which is a dangerous combination with the great cardio he’s built during his wrestling career. He showed a powerful and well-timed double-leg takedown early in the fight then pushed his opponent up against the cage and blasted him with strong dirty boxing when he worked back to his feet. His wrestling skills really shined in the diversity of his takedowns against the fence, as he used outside sweeps, whizzer throws, hip tosses, and a variety of other well-executed techniques to return his opponent to the mat. Ksiazkiewicz is very strong and explosive but Aronov was tossing him around like it was nothing, and that dominance continued on the ground. He keeps a great heavy base to maintain top control but also postures up enough to land hard hammerfists and consistent vicious elbows to the side of his opponent’s head when working from side control or half guard, which almost finished the fight just before the end of the first round. He showed a good ability to keep his weight low while advancing position to not leave too many openings, and in the few scrambles that happened he had surprising flexibility for someone so muscular and fluidly came out in top position. Aronov got knocked down by a punch to start round 2 but it seemed more like he was off-balance while looking to grapple, as he didn’t seem to be damaged by it when his opponent tried to get on top and finish him with a guillotine. Instead, Aronov immediately exploded and unbalanced Ksiazkiewicz then came out in top half guard, where he continued to deliver relentless punishment. He tried for an arm-triangle choke about halfway through the round but quickly abandoned it and regained total control when he realized he wasn’t going to get the finish. He gave it another shot to end the round, smoothly transitioning from side control on the left side into 3/4ths mount and then dropping off to the right side to apply a ferocious squeeze that forced a quick tap.

This was an incredible performance from Aronov, and in a division where the rankings are stacked with talented wrestlers he shoots from obscurity straight into the #10 spot due to how dominant he looked against a very talented and proven opponent. The only question mark about him is his striking on the feet, as there simply isn’t much footage of it, but when your wrestling and ground attack is as deadly as Aronov’s you can afford to be somewhat one-dimensional. As an athletic and undefeated 25-year-old, he seems ideal for this year’s Contender Series, but since many of those fights are already booked, he may have to wait and challenge for a regional title somewhere in the USA or Canada. If that’s the case, #11 prospect Aaron Jeffrey, who is the current CFFC champ and has appeared on the Contender Series himself, would be a matchup I’d be very excited to watch to see if Aronov can duplicate this performance against someone else with a grappling background.

Lightweights:

Manoel Sousa: Improved from #9 to #8 prospect

Sousa made his debut in the rankings back in January with an impressive kimura in his CFFC debut, which put him into the #12 spot. However, with attrition in the rankings above him, he’s risen to #9 over the last few months without fighting. He got another chance to show his talents this week, and ironically after leaving the Brazilian regional scene for new competition in the USA, he ended up taking on a Brazilian veteran in Mauro Chaulet (14-8), who took the fight on short-notice. Sousa showed his power early, chucking his opponent to the ground after they locked up in a clinch and immediately taking side control. From there, he hunted another kimura finish, transitioned well to remain in top control and briefly took mount, and packed lots of pop into short punches from a body lock while kneeling next to his opponent, which is a difficult position to generate power from. He continued to show good variety in his punches and landed some clean hooks to the body when his opponent covered up his head, but there’s still room for improvement as he throws everything hard and looked tired towards the end of round 1. That led to him getting taken down, and while he was never in danger, higher-level opponents will definitely exploit his gas tank if he continues to look for the kill with every strike. However, Sousa came out rejuvenated in round 2 and landed hard punches with both hands that stunned his opponent and left him covering up against the fence. I was happy to see him displaying patience in that situation, as he picked his shots well including more work to the body and made every strike impactful, until eventually his opponent fell and 2 hard ground strikes sealed the deal. This win brings Sousa to 9-0, with all of those victories by first or second round finish. However, he only moves up one spot in the rankings because while his opponent was a tough veteran he was clearly nowhere near as physically gifted as the 24-year-old Sousa. He seems like an ideal candidate for the Contender Series, as his cardio will always be a question until he goes at least 3 full rounds, but if he doesn’t get his chance this year I’m sure CFFC would be delighted to bring him back for a shot at the title.

Featherweights:

Jason Soares: Moved from #7 prospect to unranked

Soares is a weird case in these rankings, as the 14-0 former Titan FC champ hadn’t fought since August 2019 but had shown tantalizing potential within the cage. He’s not too old at 32, so I’d kept him in the rankings in the hopes he’d end his inactivity. However, this week someone showed me an old Instagram post of his where he announced his official retirement, which I hadn’t been aware of before. Therefore, he’s leaving the rankings to make room for someone who still plans to fight.

José Delano: Improved from unranked to #15 prospect

The only reason Delano hasn’t featured on this list before is because featherweight is one of the most stacked divisions worldwide, but the departure of Soares opens up a spot for the Brazilian talent. Delano had a rough career start, going 1-2 in his first 3 fights, but those fights came back in 2014 when he was just 17 years old, meaning that he is now 25. He’s put together a 9-win streak since that second loss, finishing lots of relatively weak competition in small Brazilian shows then claiming the Shooto Brazil title back in 2020 with a decision against Luciano Benicio (14-4). He didn’t fight at all in 2021 but made a great comeback in March of this year, where he took on Jonas Bilharinho (9-1-1) in Brazil for the vacant LFA title. You may remember Bilharinho from his highlight-reel wheel kick KO in the 2021 Contender Series, and many people were shocked that he wasn’t signed after winning in such dramatic fashion. However, Delano exploited his opponent’s tendency to throw big single shots and outpointed him with a combination of well-timed grappling and quick, straight striking combos that did damage and allowed him to escape return fire. It was a good fight and went the full 25 minutes, with both fighters showing good cardio and output throughout the contest. Unfortunately, Delano missed weight by two pounds and was therefore unable to claim the belt, and that failure also hurt his bid to join these rankings sooner. However, he gets a chance at redemption just next week, where he takes on another well rounded prospect in Michael Stack (7-1) for the still-vacant LFA title. Stack is a strong wrestler and is also very competent and careful on his feet, so while I have Delano graded out higher currently due to fighting better competition, this should be a great tests for both prospects.