I've enjoyed reading Leland Roling's World MMA Scouting Report articles on up and coming prospects, which led me to wonder about the veteran fighters who are not on the top promotional cards and where they fit in the scope of the MMA landscape.
This is basically a fan's eye view of the top free agents in each weight class. While this is a not necessarily a list of true free agents, it represents fighters who are not under contract with UFC, Strikeforce, or Bellator; the top three televised promotions in North America.
While many consider the heavyweight division thin, it is probably the toughest party to crash when it comes to the Zuffa aligned UFC and Strikeforce promotions. Bellator's Grand Prix-style format seems to suit only the younger prospects, but the dangling carrot of a $100k payday and MTV2 deal may entice some veterans. The UFC currently has 24 HWs on the roster (of which I was surprised to see Heath Herring who I thought had been released earlier this year), Strikeforce has 15, and Bellator a mere 6 under contract.
Pedro Rizzo (19-9-0, UFC 9-5)
USA Today/SB Nation Rank: 18
Fight Matrix Rank: 18
The highest ranked HW outside of the Big 3, Rizzo is a rugged veteran of World Vale Tudo, UFC, and Pride competition who has defeated a number of former UFC Heavyweight champions, yet never while they had the title. His epic title fight losses to Randy Couture at UFC 31 and UFC 34 rank as some of the best bouts ever, albeit long ago. While currently riding a three fight win streak, Rizzo is long in the tooth at age 37 and seems to have lost his drawing power with the top promotions despite his world class striking. The UFC would unlikely pay for an aging HW just to be a gatekeeper as they already have those in spades. Strikeforce is also stacked at the top end after a signing the remaining talent for their HW Grand Prix, but if they have a spot for Ray Sefo they could definitely find a spot for Rizzo.
Shamil Abdurahimov (12-1-0)
Fight Matrix Rank: 19
Roling identified Abdurahimov as the #2 HW prospect in the world this month for good reason. The 28 year old Russian's notable wins include a decision victory over Jeff Monson and TKO wins against Sokoudjou and Marcos Oliveira, all on the way to capturing the ADFC Open Weight Grand Prix title. Considering his youth and talent, the UFC will most likely sign Abdurahimov within the year.
Gabriel Gonzaga (11-6-0, UFC 7-4)
USA Today/SB Nation Rank: T-23
Fight Matrix: 26
After getting cut by the UFC following a loss to Brendan Schaub, Gonzaga hastily announced his retirement. Last month Gonzaga thankfully decided that at 32, canasta and shuffleboard weren't fulfilling his competitive fire. ‘Napao' will attempt to resurrect his promising career in September by challenging for the Reality Fighting championship. Once he has broken the ice with a win in regional competition, Strikeforce seems like a logical step back into the big show for Gonzaga. He's dangerous on his feet or on the ground and still has a lot of tread on the tires, but definitely has to retool his striking defense considering TKO losses to Junior Dos Santos, Shane Carwin, Fabricio Werdum (twice), and Randy Couture.
Ricco Rodriquez (46-11-0)
Fight Matrix: 32
Rodriquez is a former UFC HW Champion, ADCC Submission Wrestling (Absolute) World Champion, and Pride veteran. Unfortunately, as high as Rodriquez has climbed the ladder of success, he has fallen just as low due to contract disputes, weight issues, and failed drug tests that have plagued his career. Despite all of these issues, Rodriquez has maintained a stellar record over the last three years compiling an 18-3 record. While he is attempting to reinvent himself as a light heavyweight, he is probably better suited as a trim heavyweight. Prior to a bout with former TUF cast member James McSweeney, Dana White said that he would consider a Rodriquez return to the Octagon. Hopefully we will see ‘Suave' back in the big show.
Marcio Cruz (7-2-0, UFC 2-2)
Fight Matrix Rank: 37
To put it simply, Cruz is a master grappler and is arguably the best heavyweight submission fighter to crossover from BJJ to MMA. He is a 6-time BJJ World Champion, 5- time Brazilian BJJ National Champion, 8-time Pan-American BJJ Champion and 2003 ADCC World Champion, with wins over other notable BJJ masters including Roger Gracie, Gabriel Gonzaga, Fabricio Werdum, and Mike Van Arsdale. Cruz also has MMA wins over Frank Mir and Rafael Feijao Cavalcante, but hasn't fought a MMA bout in over a year due to a cervical spinal injury. If and when he returns, the 33 year old Brazilian would need a tune-up fight or two before someone offers him a contract. It would be a welcome sight for MMA fans to see him back in action.
Mike Whitehead (26-7-0, UFC 0-1, SF 1-1)
Fight Matrix Rank: 40
Whitehead has been another one of those fighters that causes a bit of head scratching. He seemingly cracked under pressure on TUF Season 2 giving up in his fight with Rashad Evans and declaring that he was done as a fighter. After his lone UFC appearance came in the form of a unanimous decision loss to Keith Jardine at UFC 57 (at 205), Whitehead then went on an astonishing 13-fight win streak. Since then he has beaten UFC vets Kevin Randleman, Chase Gormley, and Eddie Sanchez, while losing only to Mo Lawal. His record, age (30 in June), experience, and athletic gifts resemble a fighter that should be a mainstay in a top level promotion, while brushes with the law, shaky self-confidence, and questionable desire cast a shadow those same achievements. Bellator might well be Whitehead's only shot at getting back onto the big show.