In a previous article, we took a look at some of the free agent talent in the middleweight division with Karl Amoussou and Gerald Harris topping out our list of potential buys for promotions. Now, we'll focus on some of the rising stars of the welterweight division. Keep in mind that these prospects and veterans are fighters that have the ability to sign with other organizations or may be on the verge of being able to shop the free agent market. Some fighters, who have great talent and ability, were left off the list due to their contract status. 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.
Rising free agent stars
One of the most desirable talents among the stable of free agents and up-and-comers in the worldwide welterweight division has to be 2008 U.S. Olympic wrestler and two-time NCAA Division I wrestling champion Ben Askren (3-0). Currently at 3-0, Ben is beginning to gain some interest from the bigger promotions looking to capitalize on his winning ways and background. Most fans know that solid wrestling credentials normally predict successful MMA fighters, and Askren seems to be on the right path with three first round finishes in three MMA bouts.
While Askren's background is a sure sign that he'll be a legitimate threat down the road in the sport of mixed martial arts if he continues to improve and win, there are other reasons why he's been highly-touted by training partners and coaches. He's been one of the few wrestlers to transition to MMA and take an active role in learning jiu-jitsu from the start. Unlike some of the heavily-credentialed wrestlers in the UFC and other organizations that rely on wrestling as a counter to jiu-jitsu, Askren has made it a priority to learn jiu-jitsu to make him even more of a threat on the ground.
He's also been heavily recruited by camps around the country as a guy who can come in and give current UFC fighters the proper wrestling training they need. In return, Askren has improved his stand-up skills and ground and pound techniques while also working with already successful fighters who have made their way to the bigger shows. Another sure sign that Askren will more than likely find his way into the UFC or Strikeforce soon.
The appeal: With his taking to jiu-jitsu at the earliest stages of his MMA career, his heavily credentialed wrestling background, and his desire to train with some of the best fighters in the world, he should easily become potential staple of the UFC's welterweight division. He already looks like the second coming of Josh Koscheck with his afro. All jokes aside, Askren's powerful offensive wrestling and ability to power opponents to the ground is mesmerizing to watch. Add in the jiu-jitsu he's learning, and you have the makings of a dangerous submission fighter with the best of both worlds.
Arizona Combat Sports is slowly becoming one of the better gyms in North America, and they also house some of the best up-and-coming talent in the nation as well. One of the more interesting members of their team is welterweight fighter Jacob "Tick Tock" McClintock (6-0), who most recently TKO'd Beau Baker at UWC 7. The 21-year-old is undefeated with four TKO finishes and two armbar submissions wins, all ending in the first round.
McClintock is mostly known for his jiu-jitsu pedigree. At age 13, he began studying under Gustavo Dantes, but quickly became one of the best jiu-jitsu practicioners in the world, finishing 3rd in the world as a purple belt at age 16. He won the nationals as a brown belt, and he's currently a second degree brown belt under Gustavo Dantes. It's safe to say that McClintock has black belt level jiu-jitsu that is going to give nearly all of his opponents something to think about on the ground.
With a solid camp like Arizona Combat Sports, he'll only to continue to improve. His wrestling is becoming a solid addition to his skill-set, and his striking will become another weapon in his arsenal. McClintock also has a lot of time on his side as he's only 21 years old. He definitely has the makings to be a future champion in any of the larger organizations.
The appeal: McClintock's jiu-jitsu prowess has been talked about for years. At such a young age, he was able to tap Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belts with both his youth and inexperience by basically being a prodigy to the sport. While he hasn't blown up onto the BJJ scene like B.J. Penn did in only three years time, McClintock could potentially become a real threat in the welterweight division down the road. His jiu-jitsu is as slick as they come, and his camp will only continue improving his wrestling and striking skills. He'd be a welcome addition to any of the large promotions. Image courtesy of Combat Lifestyles.com
While not considered a "rising" star as he did have a stint with the UFC, Danillo Villefort (9-3) should still be considered a prospect who could make some waves in larger promotions. The God-son of Antonio Rodrigo "Minotauro" Nogueira, he holds a Brazlian jiu-jitsu black belt like his Godfather with a considerable amount of experience in the Judo as well. He only been to decision once, and he's easily a likeable prospect who can finish opponents via TKO or submission.
He's currently training at American Top Team in Florida, and he's made significant improvement in his time with the camp. At 4-0, he dropped two straight losses via TKO, and most fans would probably believe he was just another jiu-jitsu guy that didn't have a complete skill-set to compete in MMA. Fortunately, he rattled off five straight victories after a length layoff to improve with notable wins over Mike Campbell and Mike Massenzio.
The appeal: His bout with Jesse Lennox was quite unfortunate since he was cut due to an accidental headbutt. He was abruptly released from the UFC, but I felt it was a bit premature considering the nature of the cut. Villefort can still punish opponents with some power, and he has a slick ground game that will endanger a lot of opponents while he's on his back. He doesn't fall into the mold of being a boring defensive grappler, so that should, at the very least, garner some interest from overseas or Strikeforce.
While the IFL did financially fail in the end, it did manage to produce and give some exposure to some of the names we see today. Jay Hieron, Ben Rothwell, Roy Nelson, Wagnney Fabiano, Brad Blackburn, and many more all fought under the IFL's banner, and most of those fighters have either moved on to the UFC or Strikeforce. Delson Heleno (16-5) could be another one of those imports.
Heleno has won some notable bouts against Jake Ellenberger, Gideon Ray, Fabio Nascimento, and Daniel Acacio, but he did drop losses to Jay Hieron and Brad Blackburn at the end of his run in the IFL. Those losses are likely the sole reason why Heleno has moved on to M-1 Global instead of making a deal with Strikeforce or the UFC in the States. He's won three Brazilian national jiu-jitsu championships, and two Pan-American jiu-jitsu championships in his weight class, and he's transitioned those skills to the cage with 7 of his 16 victories coming by way of submission.
The appeal: He isn't the most appealing prospect on the list for the sole reason that his jiu-jitsu isn't offensive enough to put more experienced fighters into real trouble. Wrestlers could potentially control him from the top, but he could be a good acquisition for organizations looking to add some credibility to their welterweight division, or a promotion that features a few welterweights with powerful striking with lacking ground tactics. Strikeforce comes to mind in that department, and Heleno could fit well in their welterweight division with some other added acquisitions.
Lastly, Jon "War Machine" Koppenhaver or simply War Machine (10-3) is easily one of the most improved fighters on the regional circuit within the confines of the welterweight division. While his cocky attitude and uncensored thoughts spewing from his mouth can cause some concern for promotions, he has actually impressed me over the course of his last few fights with his skills in the cage.
He got trounced by Yoshiyuki Yoshida at UFC 84, but he rebounded with a five-fight winning streak that recently came to an end against David Mitchell, a fight that most people believe was won by War Machine. He's shown solid submission defense, good wrestling, great defense against transitions, and much improved striking ability over the course of the last year. While he probably won't beat the better competition in the UFC, War Machine's improvements signal that he does have some potential to be a solid mid-echelon competitor in the future.
The appeal: He's working well as a regional promotion "heel", and he's already mentioned the fact that he's making solid money due to the televised events and sponsorship dollars. It's not a bad way for him to fight often and make solid income, and his value as a figther is increasing since he is taking on decent competition in each of these regional bouts. I'm not sure if we'll see War Machine transition to a promotion like Strikeforce or go overseas any time soon, but there is no doubting the appeal he has as a guy fans will root against.
His improvements are also working out well for his career. He's technically much better at defending transitions from submission fighters, and I was very impressed by his striking ability against Mikey Gomez at XFC 9. He landed his power strikes at almost every instance standing, and the rare moments in which David Mitchell was toe-to-toe with War Machine ended with Mitchell being clipped by blows. It'll be interesting to see how much more he can improve in the coming year.
Veteran free agents
Ryo Chonan (16-10) has dropped off in talent since his days in PRIDE, but he will still be able to garner some interest from promotions in Japan as a fighter from that booming era. He'll always be famously known for his miraculous flying scissor heel hook submission of Anderson Silva, but he'll likely never reach those levels of fame ever again. He hasn't shown the knockout power that he used to possess, and that's somewhat of a problem for him when it comes to the North American scene, but he'll easily be someone who can draw a few fans in Japan.
Former UFC fighter Chris Wilson (14-6, 1 NC) has a much better outlook. Wilson was dropped from the UFC following his UFN 19 loss to Mike Pyle via a guillotine choke at the 2:15 mark of the third round. It was a devastating loss considering he dropped a split decision to John Howard at UFC 94, and a debut against Jon Fitch at UFC 82. Fitch earned a title shot following the win over Wilson.
Fortunately for Wilson, he's still a pretty good fighter with a few years left in the sport. He still holds a win over Jay Hieron, and Strikeforce may bring him into their promotion for a rematch of that battle from the IFL. He has solid striking ability, decent jiu-jitsu, and good conditioning. He should easily find a place to fight soon.
Roan Carneiro (13-8), Forrest Petz (16-7), and Pete Spratt (20-15) are all former UFC fighters that could be added to regional promotions as attractions. Petz and Spratt are probably the more desirable fighters in the North American scene as both men possess knockout power, and Carneiro can provide stiff tests to up-and-coming talent on the floor. I don't imagine any of those names will come out of their funk soon, but Carneiro has the most potential as he is the youngest.
Other free agents and up-and-comers
Julio Paulino (15-2) is a prospect from the deep north in Alaksa. He's managed to put together fifteen wins with only two losses, one coming from current UFC fighter Rick Story. Paulino could see some action from bigger regional promotions following his knockout win over Terry Martin at Arena Rumble back in September, nearly a year after his last bout. He has knockout power and finishing ability, so he'll likely make his way into a major event soon.
Brett Cooper (10-5) is another welterweight prospect that will easily make his way into a larger promotion. He had a stint within Affliction and in the IFL, and he has managed to pull off some impressive wins over Rory Markham, Conor Heun, Patrick Speight, and another rising star in Sergio Moraes over the weekend. Cooper has changed himself from primarily a wrestler to a powerful wrestler/knockout puncher. His training at Antonio McKee's Bodyshop has likely added to his power, but he's become much more of an exciting fighter than what he was early in his career.
Sergio Moraes (5-1) had a rough weekend against Brett Cooper, but that doesn't take away from the fact that he's a guy who could be eyed by some top promotions soon. He burst onto the jiu-jitsu scene last year as a complete unknown, but submitted Kron Gracie in the opening round of the Jiu-Jitsu World Championships. He went on to win the middleweight division to become champion. There has been talk that Bellator was very interested in using him, but I wouldn't be surprised if Sengoku or DREAM chime in soon either.
Kyle Baker (7-4) is a prospect coming out of the Washington, D.C. area who just recently won at UWC 7 against Tommy Truex. Our own Luke Thomas posted some thoughts on Baker's unique style, and that style has managed to rattle of wins over "Binky" Jones, Drew Fickett, and Levon Maynard. He still needs to improve his stand-up defense and striking ability, but he might gain some interest if he can produce another huge win.