There are plenty of fighters throughout MMA who deserve a shot in the UFC. Here are the top five featherweight prospects for 2017.
Welcome to year six of my annual “prospects the UFC should sign” series, in which I examine five MMA prospects per division the UFC should sign this year. It’s a series that started during my time at Bleacher Report, continued with my tenure at Today’s Knockout and stays alive this year through FanSided.
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In this piece, I examine the featherweight division. Since Conor McGregor’s recent departure from the division, Jose Aldo and Max Holloway own the two belts that need unification. Outside of that, there are tons of hungry 145ers hoping to jump into the picture. However, more top-level fighters are always welcome.
With that, I take a glimpse at five featherweights the UFC needs to sign. I’ll try my hardest to stay away from fighters who are currently in top organizations (Bellator, WSOF, etc.), but a couple may pop up. In the past, I’ve had some great picks on the list and some that haven’t worked out. Below are the previous year’s selections, followed by the five men the UFC should offer roster spots to this year.
Doo Ho Choi*
Doo Ho Choi*
Ivan Buchinger** (LW & FW)
*Indicates fighter was signed by UFC **Indicates fighter is ineligible due to two years on the list
Raoni Barcelos (11-1, Brazil)
On this list for the second time, Brazil’s Raoni Barcelos has proven he’s a fighter that can fight at a high level and find success. His decision to come fight in the United States has supercharged his career.
The 31-year-old fighter is a member of the Ruas Vale Tudo team, which you can see in his style of fighting. While one could easily call him a Brazilian jiu-jitsu specialist given his background and submission stylings, Barcelos is really a classic vale tudo fighter, with powerful punches and ground-and-pound to match.
His only career loss came against the unheralded Mark Dickman, a Bellator veteran that should get more notoriety than he has. Barcelos hasn’t lost in four bouts, two of which came in 2016. He started off the year scoring a unanimous decision over the tough Bobby Moffett, before earning a TKO victory over the durable Dan Moret. Both wins were RFA title defenses.
The fact he’s an RFA Champion is certainly going to help his case when it comes to the UFC. Generally, RFA titles are quickly followed by UFC contracts. In fact, it’s a little surprising Barcelos hasn’t made the jump already.
Magomed Idrisov (7-0, Russia)
Russian Magomed Idrisov is another making a second appearance on this list. He ascended the ranks in a tough regional MMA scene quickly and has become a top contender for the featherweight title in the M-1 promotion.
Idrisov trains with a reputable Russian camp in Goret which has produced some top-level fighters. The gym tends to produce well-rounded, physically tough fighters, and Idrisov certainly fits that mold.
He likes to throw punches in bunches, and does so with a great deal of power. Three of his seven career wins came by knockout, while the other four were decisions. There’s definitely room for him to increase his finishing rate, but he’s been taking on some pretty tough opponents.
He didn’t have a very busy 2016, as he took just one fight. In that bout, however, he scored his biggest victory to date, knocking out Ivan Buchinger, another man who has made this prospect series twice. If Idrisov can increase his fight load in 2017 and continue winning, the UFC will have little choice but to sign him.
Paddy Pimblett (13-1, United Kingdom)
The United Kingdom has a rich fighting history, even if most of it centers on the boxing ring. However, the UK has recently produced some very good mixed martial artists, including UFC Middleweight Champion Michael Bisping. Trying to follow in Bisping’s footsteps is Paddy Pimblett, a young up-and-comer who looks to be one of the UK’s best prospects.
The youngest fighter on this list, Pimblett is just 22 years old, which makes the fact he has 14 pro fights to his name all the more impressive. The Liverpool native is talented, but his physical gifts make him a hard fighter to simulate in training camps — he’s 5 foot 10, very tall for the featherweight division.
Pimblett hasn’t lost since 2013, and is currently on an impressive nine-fight winning streak. During that streak, he earned the Cage Warriors Featherweight Championship, a piece of hardware that will certainly push him toward the front of the line when the UFC comes calling for fighters. He was 4-0 in 2016, beating the likes of Ashleigh Grimshaw, Teddy Violet and UFC veteran Julian Erosa.
Pimblett has worked hard to improve his striking, though most of his wins come by way of submission. Seeing as the UFC is heading to London in March, Pimblett, like the other Brits in this series, should be on a shortlist of fighters the UFC may sign going into that event.
Michael Tobin (12-0, Australia)
Australia has always been an underrated spot for MMA talent, even though the country has provided the UFC with some good fighters. The latest fighter on the Australian production line of MMA talent is Michael Tobin, a young fighter who has sprinted out of the gate and onto many scout’s radars already.
The 24-year-old has quickly made an impact on the Australian MMA scene, picking up a dozen wins in as many attempts. He comes from a judo background, but has transitioned seamlessly to Brazilian jiu-jitsu. He likes to ground opponents quickly and uses a variety of techniques, from chokes to joint locks, to finish them.
Tobin has really only beaten lower level opponents at this stage in his career. After not fighting in 2015, he took three fights in 2016, earning first round submissions in all of his bouts over questionable opponents. Tobin will need to prove himself against tougher competition if he wants to attract the attention of the bigger MMA promotions.
Still, given the UFC is always looking for Aussie talent, and Tobin is a young, talented upstart, he could easily find himself on its radar sooner rather than later. If he’s able to develop his striking, and prove himself against better opponents, he could be a younger, higher-ceiling version of countryman Dan Kelly.
Salman Zhamdalaev (13-1, Russia)
Salman Zhamdalaev is the next Russian fighter in this series. The Fight Club Berkut member has quickly become a hot commodity in the featherweight division.
At 27 years old, Zhamdalaev is a top Russian featherweight prospect with a ceiling that’s continually rising. He gets better with every fight, which is especially impressive given the type of talent he’s been facing. He was the winner of the Akhmet Fight Show Featherweight Tournament this year, an important accolade that has strengthened his resume.
His background is in Greco-Roman wrestling, but he’s worked very hard on his stand up game, training his boxing at a good gym in Grozny. He hasn’t lost a fight since his debut in 2012, and now has 13 wins in a row. He was 3-0 in 2016, winning big bouts over France’s Kevin Petshi, Brazil’s Fabiano Silva and fellow Russian/Bellator veteran Magomedrasul “Frodo” Khasbulaev, the biggest win of his career.
That win over Khasbulaev likely put Zhamdalaev on the UFC’s radar. Beating a fighter of that level over a five rounds is a big accomplishment, and one that may ultimately see him make the jump to the UFC.