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. While this is a not necessarily a list of true free agents contractually speaking, it represents fighters who are not under contract with UFC, Strikeforce, or Bellator; the top three televised promotions in North America.
It kind of goes without saying that the UFC has the lockdown on Middleweight talent and has been busy acquiring guys like Riki Fukuda and Jorge Santiago recently. Strikeforce has a few names sprinkled throughout the rankings, the problem is that, like their other divisions, they a pretty thin lineup which results in Robbie Lawler fighting a title contender bout almost every other card. The UFC has 42 middleweights listed on their site (including curiously enough, Royce Gracie), while Strikeforce has 14 (I've excluded Frank Shamrock, Matt Lindland, Nick Diaz, and Jason Miller...looks like they need some help from the UFC updating their website as well). Bellator has the usual 8 fighters and none of them can really compete with their champion Hector Lombard, who desperately needs to move on to the UFC for a challenge.
Mamed Khalidov (22-4-2)
SBNation Rank: 15
Fight Matrix: 14
Khalidov is one fighter that simply has to move on to the UFC, period. He has stoppage wins over current UFC fighters in Santiago (TKO), Igor Prokragac (kneebar), and recently former title contender James Irvin (armbar). Khalidov is in his prime at 31 years old and is equally dangerous in both the standing and grappling areas earning 10 TKOs and 11 subs...the guy is a proven finisher. Despite rumors of a Bellator appearance, my hope is that he signs with the UFC.
Thales Leites (19-4-0, UFC 5-3)
SBNation Rank: 20
Fight Matrix: 17
Leites has a ton of talent, superior BJJ, and is also in his prime at 30. Unfortunately, he also has the butt scoot debacle of UFC 97 versus Anderson Silva floating around in Dana White and Joe Silva's memory. Leites went from UFC title contender to undercard prelim where he lost by split decision to Alessio Sakara and was promptly shown the exit. Harsh indeed, considering wins over Pete Sell, Nate Marquardt (albeit questionably), and Drew McFedries, but it shows what is expected of top talent in the UFC. Leites may not be invited back to the UFC for a while and Strikeforce may have balked after seeing the first submission loss of his career to Matt Horwich last year, but they could still use his talents to strengthen the roster. In the meantime he continues to fight under the MFC and Superior Challenge promotions, recently defeating veteran Jeremy Horn by split decision.
Denis Kang (34-12-2, UFC 1-2)
Fight Matrix: 22
Kang is another American Top Team MW who should be fighting on bigger cards than he has in the past few years. The Pride veteran once went on an amazing 22 fight win streak defeating the likes of Andrei Semenov, Murilo Rua, and Akihiro Gono, but after losing a split decision to Kazuo Misaki at the Pride WW Grand Prix finals his fortune faded a bit. Kang is still only 34 and his abilities in both the striking and grappling areas should garner him an invite back into the televised market. Strikeforce would definitely benefit from having him on their roster.
Jesse Taylor (18-6-0, UFC 0-1, SF 0-2)
Fight Matrix: 30 (LHW)
Young guys often make terrible decisions that can haunt them. Taylor has made a definite effort to erase his past digressions through an incredible work rate. Since getting caught in a Peruvian necktie by CB Dolloway back in 2008, ‘JT Money' has gone 12-3 in an alphabet soup of promotions across the world, losing only to Jay Heiron, Luke Rockhold, and Thales Leites in that time. The UFC still might not be sold on Taylor, but a return invite to a Strikeforce Challengers or Bellator tournament could be in his future. On a side note Taylor and Kang are set to meet at Canadian promotion Battlefield Fight League 8 on May 28th, with the winner most likely getting back into the big show.
Paulo Filho (22-3-1)
Fight Matrix: 42 (LHW)
Ah, the enigma that is Filho. Can he perform under pressure? Is he really a LHW? Do the voices in his head sound like Marvin the Martian or Regan in the Exorcist? No one really knows and that can be very off putting for big time promotions. What is known is that Filho has a ton of potential at middleweight (most of his current loses have been at 205), has taken on and beaten the cream of the crop during his Pride and WEC days and is in still only a month away from 33. A smooth talking manager and a drop back down to 185 might be the only thing holding him back...and I would bet that many fans would love to see him on a UFC or Strikeforce card. Filho vs. Sonnen 3 anyone?