Last October, I wrote a series of articles outlining some of the top free agents and prospects in the market that were available for various promotions to incorporate into their rosters or build their rosters around. This eclectic mix of international prospects, isolated regional stars, former UFC veterans, and successful journeyman warriors have since been claimed by promotions such as Bellator, DREAM, Sengoku, Strikeforce, and the UFC, and they've been given the opportunity to shine against better competition.
While it would take quite a bit of time to go over every single prospect and free agent I laid out back in October, I've decided to focus on some of the more successful fighters in the weight classes along with a couple of rising stars to keep an eye on that were also mentioned on the list. Keep in mind that I didn't mention everyone, especially many of the European prospects like Rogent Lloret and Alexander Volkov because I really didn't want to spend hours compiling a seventeen page article. Below is simply a brief rundown of some of my favorites that managed to live up to the hype so far this year.
Check out the previous installments of the prospect and free agent series from back in 2009 here: Welterweights, Middleweights, Light Heavyweights, Heavyweights, smoogy's Lightweight piece
Boom: To grow, develop, or progress rapidly; flourish.
This category comprises of individuals who had rapid growth in the last nine months. They may not have progressed in terms of skill, but they've managed to string together quite a few wins along with some exciting performances along the way.
Gerald Harris (17-2, 3-0 UFC) is by far the most successful fighter out of the group. He fought at UFC Fight Night 20, a mere three months after I dubbed him one of the most desirable talents available in the middleweight division, against John Salter, winning via TKO in the third round. In his second appearance with the promotion, Harris knocked out Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt Mario Miranda inside the first round, proving he could avoid the grappling prowess of Miranda while also continuing a trend of finishing fights.
While his first two victories proved that he belonged in the UFC, his latest win over David Branch may have solidified him as a rising star within the minds of UFC brass as he spectacularly slammed Branch into unconsciousness in the third round of their battle at UFC 116.
After finding out he wasn't even going to be given the opportunity to fight on The Ultimate Figher 7 Finale, Harris has now rattled off nine straight victories and become a powerhouse threat lurking in the lower-to-middle echelon of the UFC's middleweight division. Solid submission defense, huge power, and great wrestling, he'll be a dangerous fight for anyone looking to progress to the top of the division, and his spectacular slam, which was featured on ESPN and commented on by Lebron James, certainly helps market him for the future. Check out the interview he did with our own Jonathan Snowden and the BloodyElbow.com community here as well, very entertaining stuff.
The other clear cut choice in the "Boom" category is two-time NCAA Division I wrestling champion and 2008 U.S. Olympic wrestler Ben Askren (6-0). Since dubbing him one of the best welterweight talents available in October, Askren has won three straight bouts, two against former UFC veteran Ryan Thomas and an impressive, dominant performance over highly-touted welterweight prospect Dan Hornbuckle at Bellator 19 in the welterweight tournament final.
Interestingly enough, he's also become the poster boy for a new generation of fighter -- a heavily credentialed, elite status wrestler who can actually work submissions and use Brazilian jiu-jitsu to his advantage on the ground in combination with his wrestling. Mark Coleman, Dan Henderson, and Randy Couture can never truly say they were diverse submission threats, but Ben Askren could potentially become one of the most dangerous welterweight fighters in the world if he can round out his striking.
Other Booming Prospects
- Alexander "Storm" Shlemenko (30-4): Some cause for concern came with his knockout loss to Jordan Radev a few days after we ran our piece pushing him as one of the better talents in the lean middleweight division, but Shlemenko has since gone 6-0 with victories over Sean Salmon, Matt Major, Jared Hess, and Bryan Baker to solidify a shot at Bellator's middleweight champion Hector Lombard. He's still relatively young, highly-experienced, a huge knockout threat, and... Vadim Finkelstein doesn't have him under contract. It's a win-win for everyone.
- Damian Grabowski (12-0): There were a few questions about whether or not Grabowski could be as dominant against better competition as of late, but punching out fellow prospect Michal Kita certainly answered any doubt. He also managed to submit Dion Staring for the second time in his career. He has signed on with Bellator to battle Scott Barrett in the first round of Bellator's heavyweight tournament, creating an unique opportunity for Grabowski to become well-known among fans in the States.
- Joey Beltran (12-3, 2-0 UFC): It's probably a given that Beltran will never vie for the UFC heavyweight title, but he's had an impressive, almost Cinderella-like run to get where he is today. Defeating Houston Alexander in a regional event back in January after losing a five-round title bout to Tony Lopez in October, the UFC added Beltran to the UFC 109 ticket, pitting him against Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt Rolles Gracie in what was deemed by many fans, including myself, as a squash match for Gracie to win. Beltran went on to upset Gracie, then win a decision over Tim Hague at UFC 113 roughly three months later. From regional prospect to successful UFC fighter in a matter of six months is definitely a feat deserving a mention on our list.
- Phil Davis (6-0, 2-0 UFC): The 2008 NCAA Division I wrestling champion has had quite the climb. With only six fights currently under his belt, Davis seems to be a prospect that could rapidly become a threat in the shark tank that is the UFC light heavyweight division. A decision victory over Brian Stann and a submission victory over Alexander Gustafsson have made his year perfect thus far, but time on the shelf may be what Davis needs to become as threatening as the prospect of Ben Askren joining the UFC's welterweight division. Davis has the potential to add a vast submission game to his repertoire, and he could become one of the newest members of an expanding group of talented wrestlers who can submit opponents on the ground with ease.
- Raphael Davis (9-1): A win over Demetrius Richards during Bellator XXII's main card made the televised portion of the event, and it certainly doesn't hurt to get Davis a little buzz. The 6'3", 205 pounder out of California is a threatening Brazilian jiu-jitsu artist who could see some real offers from bigger promotions soon. I'm not exactly sure why he wasn't included in some sort of tournament field with Bellator, but any exposure on television is a good thing for Davis.
- Jan Blachowicz (11-2): Another Polish prospect makes the "boom" list so far this year as Jan Blachowicz hadn't fought since 2008, but came back into the mix rattling off two straight wins in tournament fashion at KSW 13 in May. He defeated Julio Brutus and Wojciech Orlowski via first round finishes, both in the same night. He turned around and defeated Nikolai Onikienko a little over a month later. Hopefully, we'll see Blachowicz take a step up in competition. I believe he'll take on Daniel Tabera in the KSW Light Heavyweight tournament finale in September.
- Hae Joon Yang (5-0) & Dong Yi Yang (9-0): Hae Joon Yang and Dong Yi Yang are both South Korean-born fighters who may possibly be the first of a generation of elite-level athletes coming out of Korea. Hae sits at around 230 lbs. in the heavyweight division while Dong Yi competes at middleweight. Both men have had impressive wins in 2010 with Hae knocking out Edmund Cavalcante Jr. in the first round at the M-1 Selection Finals, and Dong Yi punching out Bill Suares in May. Strength of competition is obviously a factor, but both fighters have shown some skill in their previous battles despite fighting sub-par fighters. Dong Yi Yang recently signed with the UFC, and I imagine Hae Joon Yang will have no problems punishing M-1's draftees for the rest of the year.