Unlike the major sports in North America such as the NFL or the NBA, MMA's farm system is largely a sporadic mix of international events, homegrown North American regional events, a vast amateur wrestling circuit, Russian Sambo tournaments, Olympic judo competitons, ADCC grappling tournaments, and the list goes on. It's difficult to say that any other sport mimics this type of chaos in the recruiting process, but fan interest, the power of information, multimedia, and technology truly bring those hidden gems into the spotlight.
Other sports have some similar recruiting systems that are fairly chaotic. High schools, colleges, various B & C-level leagues, international competitions, different national leagues in different countries, and amateur competitions throughout the world are all grounds for recruiting opportunities in football, baseball, basketball, and hockey. Most of those sports, however, have much larger fanbases than mixed martial arts, and those future stars are normally in the spotlight and discovered immediately. That isn't so true in our sport.
With that said, I'm going to give a little exposure to the various free agent fighters and up-and-coming talent within the landscape of mixed martial arts that could make their mark in the future, which will include newcomers as well as veterans of the sport. Also check out smoogy's Light Heavyweight breakdown at the UG as we both collaborated from his own listing to produce these larger lists of free agents and rising stars.
Gerald Harris (13-2) is easily one of the best middleweight prospects currently outside of a major promotion. He was a cast member on The Ultimate Fighter Season 7, defeating Mike Madallo to enter the house. He was abruptly defeated by Amir Sadollah in the second round to end his chance for UFC stardom. Before the show, the Oklahoma-native went 5-0 before running into the stiffer competition that the International Fight League (IFL) offered. He dropped a controversial split decision to Fabio Leopoldo and lost inside the first round to the heavy-handed Benji Radach.
Following the show, Harris trained with Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, but eventually moved to Arizona Combat Sports to train with C.B. Dolloway, Ryan Bader, and Matthew Riddle. Harris is currently on an explosive winning streak of seven straight wins, climaxing at a vicious beatdown of prospect Nissen Osterneck at Shark Fights 6 in September. It took Harris a mere 0:46 seconds to crush Osterneck into a chilling unconsciousness that floored him for nearly a minute.
The appeal: Harris has improved significantly over the past two years. Most notably, his power coupled with his wrestling ability is a formidable combination. Not only can Harris crush opponents with his striking, but he's also a competent wrestler who can gain takedowns against other skilled wrestlers and put his power to their chin on the floor as well. Harris should be a hotly desired prospect considering he finishes fights and displays incredible power. He could easily gain casual fan interest with the right marketing and placement on televised cards. Strikeforce would be crazy not to want to fill out a middleweight division with someone like Harris.
Karl Amoussou (11-2-1) is a product of M-1's Challenge series that functions on a team vs. team format. Dubbed as the "Psycho", it's pretty easy to formulate the type of style that Amoussou brings to the table. He's been likened by many to a pure 185 lb. Wanderlei Silva in the past, and his aggressive power punching style will remind you of the hard-hitting Silva from PRIDE. He went 5-0-1 in his first six fights, displaying a submission game stemming from BJJ and freestyle wrestling experience. Following a decision loss to Arman Gambaryan in his second stint with M-1, he went 6-1 in seven bouts, only losing to newly-signed UFC fighter Lucio Linhares. Within the span, his style had changed from submission artist to an aggressive punching machine with four of his six wins coming by way of TKO/KO stoppage.
The appeal: Interestingly enough, Amoussou is of French descent. While the country isn't well-known for housing formidable fighters at this stage in its progression, Amoussou seems to be on a track to break that assumption. A black belt in Judo, Amoussou brings not only a submission game to a fight, but his exciting pace combined with his power punching should be a selling point to major promotions. While his contractual obligations to M-1 are unclear at this point, Amoussou will likely gain interest from various organizations if he continues to tear his opponents apart in devastating fashion.
Tamdan McCrory (11-3) will make the move up to middleweight following his loss to John Howard at UFC 101. He was 3-3 in the UFC after going 8-0 in less than a year back in 2006. His first fight in the UFC was roughly a year after he started fighting professionally. The 6'5" McCrory has a dangerous striking game coupled with a Greco-Roman wrestling background and submission game. He's a recognizable UFC fighter that will probably garner interest from all major promotions in the U.S. and overseas.
The only downside is that the UFC will likely invite him back to the promotion if he gains a win or two at his new weight. He may not agree to a contract with Strikeforce in that regard, but he wouldn't be a bad acquisition for DREAM or Sengoku to use, or possibly some of the smaller regional promotions in the United States. If he is open to the idea of a new contract though, Strikeforce should pounce.
The appeal: McCrory's height and length will continue to present problems to any of his future opponents, but he could stand to improve his grappling significantly, especially with his lengthy limbs. He could become a legitimate force within the middleweight ranks if he can bulk up, add some power, improve his striking from a technical standpoint, and take advantage of his length on the floor. There is a lot of potential there considering he is only 22 years old. Image courtesy of MMAJunkie.com
Current DEEP Middleweight champion Riki Fukuda (15-4) is a successful Japanese fighter who a lot of people have forgotten about despite his controversial decision loss to Joey Villasenor at EliteXC: Uprising back in September of 2007. He's gone 7-1 since the loss with a major upset victory over Murilo "Ninja" Rua at DREAM 8 that he took on short notice.
Fukuda's major weakness in gaining attention is his inability to finish, but he does manage to produce a lot of offense in his fights with his striking. He's a formidable wrestler with solid conditioning who has the ability to take a lot of punishment and continue forward. He would be a healthy addition to any middleweight division around the world, but I'm more inclined to believe he'll be picked up by DREAM.
The appeal: Fukuda's wrestling and overall toughness is something a lot of promotions should desire, but he'll remain a favorite in the Japanese scene. While he isn't much of a finisher, he has been involved in some exciting wars of attrition in his career. The bouts with Joey Villasenor and Murilo "Ninja" Rua should be an indication of what he can bring to the table. After all, he took on Rua and won on very short notice. He'll likely remain in Japan as a part of the DREAM vs. DEEP match-ups, and he could find his way onto the DREAM 12 card.
Queue the Russian Oi, to ne veter music made famous by Fedor Emelianenko, Alexander Shlemenko (24-3) is easily the best Russian fighter in the middleweight division. Shlemenko has rattled off nine straight victories along with stints in BodogFIGHT, M-1, and Jungle Fights. His losses come from his run in Jungle Fights in which he ran into Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza and Jose Landi-Jons back in '05-'06. Most fans would say his record is padded with easy wins over subpar Russian competition, but he has managed to begin his involvement in more challenging fights.
While Shlemenko is no Fedor, he does show some promise. He defeated Robert McDaniel twice in 2008, one of the showings coming on a ShoXC event on October 10th of 2008. He ended the bout via a flying knee to the body in the first round. He won a decision victory in Russia against the dangerous Lithuanian Petras Markevicius, one of the only men to ever beat Gegard Mousasi, in his next performance, and he's scheduled to battle former UFC fighter Jordan Radev at Fight Festival 26 this weekend in Helsinki, Finland.
As with any Russian fighter, Shlemenko's background consists of Sambo, but he's also well-versed in Muay Thai and wrestling. He isn't the strongest fighter off his back, and he had problems with McDaniel in their fight as he lost position a number of times. He was able to escape, but better fighters will give him bigger problems. He's primarily a striker though, and he'll be looking for the highlight knockouts over trying to wrestle on the floor. Strikeforce should definitely try to pick up Shlemenko as he was already featured on ShoXC.
The appeal: Shlemenko's ground game is lacking a bit, and he needs to improve his wrestling and grappling abilities to truly be effective against better competition. The upside is that Shlemenko is a willing participant in an all-out war of striking if a fight comes to that. He has a solid Muay Thai base with flying knees, clinches, and strikes, and he could make for a nice addition as an exciting prospect with finishing power. Image courtesy of Sherdog.com
David Louiseau (18-9) continues to remain somewhat relevant in the sphere of regional drawing power and name recognition within a major promotion. While Louiseau hasn't been able to defeat mid-level competition within the UFC, he still remains a guy who could be a solid gatekeeper within the MFC or Strikeforce. He was unable to defeat Ed Herman at UFC 97, but he has still shown some submission acumen along with knockout power in the regional circuit against lesser competition.
His Muay Thai/Taekwondo background serves as his base for his power, but it hasn't produced the success he's sought over the years. He's managed to gain some solid submission ability, but he's definitely not a formidable force in the jiu-jitsu department. The good news is that Louiseau is only 29 years old, so he has some years to improve. He's currently training at Greg Jackson's gym in Albequerque, New Mexico, and he has stated he plans to try out for the eleventh season of The Ultimate Fighter. If rejected, MFC would be a perfect place for Louiseau to land as it operates in Canada, a place where he could draw some crowds. Don't count out Strikeforce though.
Another veteran that is in the same boat as David Louiseau is former WEC champion Joe Doerksen (43-12). He's never been able to defeat top notch talent, but his record is laden with sporadic wins of some interest. He defeated Denis Kang, Ed Herman, Chris Leben, Riki Fukuda, Brian Foster, and Ryan McGivern. He's fought some of the best in the world within his weight class, and he still has the skills to give mid-level talent a formidable test.
Doerksen's submission grappling ability and respectable boxing ability could easily find their services in promotions such as Strikeforce, MFC, DREAM, or even Sengoku. Sengoku has contracted him for two bouts, both wins for Doerksen at Sengoku 6 and 10 respectively. He's managed to put together a four-fight win streak, and he should be given some interest from some major promotions as a mid-tier level fighter or gatekeeper. He won't win a championship any time soon, but he's a suitable fighter for a non-UFC middleweight division.
South African-born wrestler and American Kickboxing Academy fighter Trevor Prangley (21-5) could also be categorized as a veteran who hasn't passed the test against upper-echelon talent. With a solid record, Prangley has been lost in the mix as he only had one fight in 2008 following his Strikeforce tournament finals lost to Jorge Santiago near the end of 2007. 2009 has been a different story as Prangley has fought three times, defeating Antonio McKee-product Emanuel Newton for the MFC Light Heavyweight championship at MFC 21 back in May.
Prangley's stint in the UFC wasn't ideal for his career as he dropped decisions to both Chael Sonnen and Jeremy Horn while defeating Travis Lutter via decision at UFC 54. He hasn't shown a knack for finishing fights against better competition, and that may ultimately be the reason why major promotions have left him alone. The fact of the matter is that the middleweight division worldwide is lacking solid fighters such as Prangley, and he'd be a welcome addition to any division looking to gain experience and a respectable stable of fighters. Along with Prangley's tendency to go to decision, he's 37 years old. Not exactly a great selling point, but he still remains a competitor to this day.
The middleweight division doesn't have a plethora of rising stars within its ranks, and it's a division that has a lot more veterans who will have some worth in promotions such as Strikeforce, DREAM, or Sengoku along with the vast array of regional promotions trying to produce talent. Gerald Harris and Karl Amoussou definitely have produced performances that hint at the possibility of both men being stars in the making, and Tamdan McCrory has lengthy career ahead of him to improve his skills.
Fukuda and Shlemenko are different stories. I doubt we'll see Fukuda make the trek back to the States soon, but there are always surprises in the world of MMA. He's a formidable opponent for any of the talent outside the UFC right now, and he could potentially make his way to the UFC with some improvement in terms of finishing opponents. Will that happen? It's tough to gauge the interest in Fukuda since he's fairly hidden in Japan.
Shlemenko's ground game is probably his most worrisome attribute. McDaniel was making him look bad in their encounter at ShoXC in the first round until Shlemenko unleashed a flying knee to his midsection at the end of the round, and I'd imagine more competent wrestlers and grapplers would control him easily. He'll need improvement, but we haven't talked about a Russian MMA star with the exception of Fedor in quite some time.
The veterans in this list could potentially make their way into dark matches in the UFC, but they'd make for solid tests for rising talent in a number of organizations. You could probably add Jeremy Horn to the list as well.