'Tis the season for big lightweight showdowns, with UFC and Strikeforce titles up for grabs in consecutive weeks, so now seems like a better time than any to take stock of the current free agent landscape at 155lbs. Considering the healthy mix of established talent and emerging prospects currently available, there are plenty of fighters that major MMA promoters could employ to make an impact now or in the near future. This installment of the Free Agent Notebook is an attempt to capture a snapshot of the top free agent candidates in the weight class and identify the best opportunities for them to further their respective careers.
Along with a short profile, I have attached my pick for which promotion might provide the "Best Fit" of immediate opportunities and long-term gains for each fighter, mostly for the sake of argument. As always, these are strictly my personal opinions, for entertainment purposes only, and the specific free agent status of each fighter may vary!
FREE AGENT NOTEBOOK VOL. 2 - LIGHTWEIGHT FREE AGENT TOP 10
1. Takanori Gomi (30-5) Japan
As has become the custom for sought-after Japanese free agents, Takanori Gomi has conducted a tour of America, meeting with UFC and Strikeforce officials and visiting top pro MMA gyms like American Kickboxing Academy. While this public courtship ritual may have a secondary effect of boosting his public profile (and, in turn, his asking price) in the USA and Japan, Gomi seems genuinely determined to embark on an American MMA career. His high price tag will ensure that he is introduced as an instant contender for whatever promotion he ends up with.
Best Fit: UFC
Takanori Gomi def. Takashi Nakakura
2. Roger Huerta (20-3-1) USA
After initially announcing he was walking away from MMA to pursue his acting career, Roger Huerta did an about-face and declared his passion for the sport reignited shortly after dropping a decision to Gray Maynard in September. It was his only fight in 2009; coupled with the fact that his last win was two years ago in his acclaimed fight with Clay Guida, it seems like Huerta is a very long way from a title shot if he were to re-sign with the UFC. Perhaps Roger will try for the springboard effect of conquering his division in another prominent promotion, like Vitor Belfort and Antonio Rogerio Nogeuira did in Affliction?
Best Fit: Strikeforce
3. Williamy Freire (14-2) Brazil
Williamy "Chiquerim" Freire has taken the hard road so far in his career, coming up mostly through the small Brazilian MMA shows, eventually ending up in Shooto Brazil. After posting a 4-1 mark there and winning the title, Freire was called up to compete in the biggest Shooto series in Japan, where he immediately established his contendership by taking out top lightweight Yusuke Endo. At October's Vale Tudo Japan card, he took the 154lb Shooto World Championship belt from Kenichiro Togashi, joining a rich lineage that includes Tatsuya Kawajiri, Joachim Hansen, Takanori Gomi, Caol Uno and Yuki Nakai. Hopefully Sengoku's affiliation with Shooto will result in Freire joining their lightweight ranks in 2010.
Best Fit: Sengoku
4. Maximo Blanco (4-2-1) Venezuela
As a member of the Yoshida Dojo, Maximo Blanco is represented by J-Rock, a management company owned and managed by Takahiro Kokuho. But with Kokuho's departure from his other gig as Sengoku PR and matchmaker, all of their Yoshida Dojo fighters, save Hidehiko Yoshida himself, have been declared free agents. Blanco, a Venezuelan freestyle wrestling product and current King of Pancrase, possesses outstanding athletic ability and stamina. His MMA skills need polishing and his lack of restraint has led to a few unfortunate outcomes, but "Maxi" is a blue chip talent that ought to be coveted by any major MMA promotion. His affinity for Japan, not to mention his crowd-pleasing fighting style, make him an ideal candidate for the DREAM 70kg division.
Best Fit: DREAM
Maximo Blanco def. Katsuya Inoue
5. Patricio Freire (11-0) Brazil
Though he is a known commodity and feared opponent in the Brazilian scene, Patricio "Pitbull" Freire is relatively anoynmous elsewhere in the MMA world, but that seems sure to change before the end of 2010. Freire is a top-level muay thai talent by MMA standards, capable of applying constant pressure and forcing opponents into his preferred rhythm and distance, where he bides his time before capitalizing on any opportunity with blinding quickness. On the downside, Freire is smaller than the smallest UFC lightweights like Frankie Edgar, a fact not lost on his handlers despite having competed for most of his career at 155lbs. So when Freire does make his move to the world MMA stage, it could be at featherweight. Regardless of what path he chooses, Patricio Freire has the potential to be an elite MMA fighter.
Best Fit: WEC
6. Rich Clementi (33-15-1) USA
Two months ago, I wrote that promotions like Strikeforce, Sengoku and DREAM all could use a veteran lightweight presence like Rich Clementi. Recovered from suffering a broken clavicle in a loss to Kyle Jensen in June, Clementi took a tune-up fight in Ireland in November, picking up a submission win and putting himself one step closer to a gig with another major promotion. Touting a four fight win streak in the UFC over Anthony Johnson, Melvin Guillard, Sam Stout and Terry Etim (all still with the company), Clementi hardly fits the profile of a "washout", despite dropping two straight on his way out of the company.
Best Fit: Strikeforce
Rich Clementi def. Sasuke Zapata
7. Tony Hervy (11-5) USA
As the reigning King of the Cage Lightweight Champion, you'd think Tony Hervy would earn a modicum of respect from fight pundits, but when he accepted a five round fight with Takanori Gomi at the Vale Tudo Japan 2009 event in October, Hervy was generally written off as being more anonymous competition for Gomi to beat on. True, the KotC title doesn't have quite the lustre it did in year's past, but Hervy brutally dispatched his opposition on the road to the belt. Against Gomi, he found himself in the third round competing, but losing, when Gomi poured it on with knees and an armbar attempt at the bell. Instead of folding, Hervy came back strong, winning the last two rounds and almost scoring a knockout finish himself in the fourth. Though he surrendered the decision, it was a gutsy performance that signalled his arrival on the world MMA scene.
Best Fit: Sengoku
8. Yves Edwards (36-15-1) USA
Though he hasn't scored one of his signature highlight reel finishes since surprising Edson Berto with a flying knee on an EliteXC card early last year, Yves Edwards has been quietly plugging away, notching a 2-0 record so far in 2009. Being one of the pioneering lightweight fighters in MMA history, it would be great to see Yves make another run in a major promotion. Perhaps he can recreate the success of fellow 155lb prototype Caol Uno by entering the fray in DREAM? As a veteran of the landmark PRIDE Lightweight Grand Prix in 2005, Edwards would be natural selection if a second DREAM LWGP were to be organized.
Best Fit: DREAM
9. Joe Ellenberger (10-0) USA
As a two-time NCAA All-American, Joe Ellenberger's fighting style is similar to his brother Jake, with a strong wrestling base complimented by dangerous submission skills and power punching. Fighting mostly for Victory Fighting Championship in Council Bluffs, Iowa as their lightweight champion, Ellenberger has run up enough of a winning streak to warrant a shot at something bigger. Perhaps he can follow his brother's footsteps and enter a mid-level league like Bellator FC or M-1 Challenge to put his name on the map?
Best Fit: Bellator FC
Joe Ellenberger def. Marshall Martin
10. Jason Young (6-2) England
Jason Young is not a name that is necessarily well known, even in his UK home base or among hardcore fans. However, he may be one of the best low-risk investments in the lightweight division, having the potential to develop into a great asset for any of the major MMA shows. Young possesses good height and reach for 155lbs; despite being primarily a muay thai fighter, he impressed with his ability to neutralize and reverse takedowns in his last fight, a decision victory over TUF 9 candidate Abdul Mohamed. Jason is the #1 contender in London's Ultimate Challenge UK promotion, but transplanting him to Strikeforce's Challenger Series now would provide an ideal environment to develop, as well as adjust to American MMA.
Best Fit: Strikeforce
BEST OF THE REST
Josh Neer (25-9-1): Mercurial talent who has maturity issues inside and outside the cage.
Gil Freitas (10-2): Hard hitting Brazilian puncher who often fights at 170lbs.
Francis Heagney (7-3): Ultimate Challenge UK Champ with impressive finishing skills on the mat.
Yusuke Endo (13-3-2): That guy who tapped Clay Guida. No, not Tristan Yunker. The other guy.
Paul Sass (9-0): UK favorite and proprietor of the dreaded "Sassangle".
All comments, questions, suggestions and objections welcomed!