There are plenty of fighters throughout MMA who deserve a shot in the UFC. Here are the top five lightweight 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 lightweight division, one of the most competitive in the UFC, and an exciting mix of veterans and up-and-comers. That said, there’s not so much talent in the weight class we can’t ask for a little more.
With that, I take a glimpse at the five lightweights 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.
Ivan Buchinger** (LW & FW)
*Indicates fighter was signed by UFC **Indicates fighter is ineligible due to two years on the list
Abdul-Aziz Abdulvakhabov (14-1, Russia)
Russia is currently the hottest spot for MMA talent in the world, and the lightweight division is no different. The first of three Russians on this list is Abdul-Aziz Abdulvakhabov, the Absolute Championship Berkut Lightweight Champion, who has somehow flown under the radar.
Still a young fighter at 27, Abdulvakhabov’s trophy case is already full enough to warrant him a chance in the UFC. ACB is a loaded organization that’s rapidly rising the ranks of MMA promotions, and Abdulvakhabov has already beaten some impressive names.
Abdulvakhabov has won 14 fights in a row since losing his MMA debut back in 2011. That streak includes two wins in 2016, in which he knocked out Eduard Vartanyan and forced a stoppage between rounds against Ali Bagov. Those are both impressive wins, but the first-round Vartanyan knockout stands out.
He’s a well-rounded finisher that has only won by decision three times. That in and of itself is super impressive. He looks like the type of guy that could make a quick ascension up the UFC ranks.
Chris Fishgold (16-1-1, United Kingdom)
Chris Fishgold is currently the Cage Warriors Lightweight Champion. That’s a great piece of hardware to have in your trophy case, as many Cage Warriors champions have moved on to the UFC. Good news, if you’re Fishgold.
Fishgold is a grappler by trade, and most of his wins come via submission. He loves going for chokes the most, and he’s constantly searching for a neck to get hold of. That said, he does work on his striking a bit in Thailand, running with Phuket Top Team on occasion. That’s good, as the more well-rounded he is, the more dangerous he becomes.
After a so-so 2015, Fishgold came back in 2016 with a strong year, really cementing himself as one of the top prospects from the United Kingdom. His 2016 record was 5-0. He started off his year beating a couple of cans, but finished strong by beating notables Adam Boussif, Jason Ponet and Nic Herron-Webb, a UFC veteran.
The UFC makes its return to London in March of 2017, so if it goes looking for some talent to fill the card, Fishgold should top their list. He would add to a division that’s an absolute shark tank at the moment, and it would give him opportunity to show what he’s all about on this biggest stage.
Khusein Khaliev (16-1, Russia)
Russian fighter Khusein Khaliev returns to the list after a successful 2016. If 2017 is anything like the last couple years, there’s no way the UFC can keep overlooking Khaliev.
At 28 years of age, Khaliev still has plenty of profitable years ahead of him. He’s continually improved under the K Dojo Warrior Tribe, a camp which has produced such big names as Alexander Yakovlev and Albert Tumenov, among others. There, he has turned into a very well-rounded fighter with powerful striking and good submission wrestling.
He has physical gifts to go along with those skills as well. At 5 foot 11, Khaliev is a tall lightweight, as well as a muscular, physical brute. He can ragdoll opponents at will, wearing them out and making them vulnerable to the finish. That’s how dangerous he is.
His only career loss came a few years ago against respected vet Yasubey Enomoto. Other than that, he’s been a stud, soundly winning most of his bouts. He scored two impressive finishes in 2016 in two outings, submitting Brazilian Alexandre Cidade before knocking out respected Russian Shamil Zavurov. If he continues this trend, the UFC should be in his immediate future.
Murad Machaev (20-1, Russia)
The last of the Russians on this lightweight prospect list, Murad Machaev is also returning to this list for the second time as a 21-fight veteran who has graced promotions such as Bellator and Fight Nights. With those credentials, including his outstanding track record, it’s a wonder he isn’t in the UFC already.
Machaev is 30 years old, so he’s approaching the pinnacle of his career. He doesn’t have as much time as most of these other 20-somethings, but he’s got the skills to match up with high level opposition and has great toughness.
Machaev is a submission wrestler with a background in judo and combat sambo. Those backgrounds have highly influenced his style, as he closes the distance, scores takedowns and goes to work on the mat. He has nine submission wins in his career, most of which come by way of choke. There’s a reason his nickname is “Strangler.”
Machaev is on an 11-fight winning streak and hasn’t been defeated since he lost a decision to Marcin Held in Bellator. Of those 11-straight wins, two came in 2016, as Machaev defeated highly touted Russian Alexander Sarnavskiy and British prospect Jack McGann. If he continues posting wins like that consistently, he’ll be a very sought after commodity.
Thiago Moises (9-1, Brazil)
Brazil has consistently produced some of MMA’s biggest stars, as the country lives, breathes, eats and sleeps MMA. Thiago Moises could be the latest in a long line of Brazilian stars.
At the tender age of 21, Moises is already a 10-fight veteran who has found success nine times in the cage. He came to MMA from the sport of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, where he found a lot of success after years of intensive training.
Moises is currently an RFA roster member (though the company will soon merge with Legacy FC), and has compiled a very impressive resume. His only loss came against underrated UFC roster member Jason Knight. Other than that, he’s been hard to handle, going 3-0 in 2016 against respected vet Dave Castillo, Jamall Emmers and Zach Freeman.
This submission specialist is a powerful man, so he can land a knockout punch. Still, he’s most successful when he’s on the mat. He’s still a young gun, so the UFC might let him marinate for a fight or two more. However, don’t be surprised if he gets the call this year. It will be hard to keep this guy out of the organization.