Few things in the world of sports are more exciting than the debut of a truly hyped prospect. The LeBron Jameses and Mike Trouts of the world don't come along very often, and there's a certain pride for sports fans in being able to say that they knew that guy way back when, that they could see the greatness lurking before it blossomed into stardom.
The World MMA Scouting Report, hosted on Bloody Elbow in 2011 and 2012, was the first and to date the best large-scale effort of its kind in MMA. Top-100 prospect lists are posted annually for baseball, while the NBA and NFL drafts inspire legions of fans into caring a great deal more about obscure colleges and 40-yard dash times than anyone ever thought possible. Despite this groundswell of interest, detailed top prospect lists are a rarity in MMA, partially because of the fractured and fragmented nature of the sport outside of the top three promotions.
Like many people, I greatly enjoyed the Scouting Report. We're now nearly two years removed from the publication of the last prospect on the list, failed TUF competitor Dileno Lopes, enough time for 47 of the fighters mentioned in the Report to make it to the UFC, 37 of whom are still signed to the promotion. An additional 19 competed in a Bellator tournament, while 24 are still young enough to make their move to the big leagues in the near future. Leland and Smoogy's success can't be overstated: they identified a UFC champion (Chris Weidman), two Bellator champions (Dudu Dantas and Vitaly Minakov), a UFC title contender (Glover Teixeira), and two TUF champions (Rony Jason and Chris Holdsworth), along with a host of other talented youngsters who will undoubtedly make their mark in years to come, including Sergio Pettis, Brandon Thatch, and Gunnar Nelson.
Despite the general prescience of the Scouting Report, a substantial number of fighters haven't found success. There's no shame in scouts being wrong about young talent: evaluators miss regularly on prospects in professional football, basketball, and baseball, all of which devote more resources to organized scouting and have a much deeper and richer history of prospect development from which to draw than MMA. For every LeBron James, there's a Darko Milicic; for every J.J. Watt, there's a Vernon Gholston; and for every Buster Posey, there's a Jesus Montero. Given the youth of MMA compared to other sports with a more established history of scouting practices, I wondered whether it might be possible to build on Leland and Smoogy's outstanding foundation and make a start in nailing down the factors that might be predictive of a prospect's future success.
To answer this question, I decided to use the World MMA Scouting Report as my data set. I examined a series of more than ten variables, including the prospect's age at the time of his first fight, years spent as a professional competitor, base style (wrestling, BJJ, boxing, etc.), country of origin, and the size and quality of the training camp. While it isn't possible to isolate any single factor that by itself predicts a prospect's future success, the results are suggestive. First, age matters: fighters who began their careers after age 25 are substantially less likely to make it to the UFC, and if they do make it, to have success once they're in the big leagues. Second, it takes prospects a lot longer than we'd think to progress to the point where they're ready to compete against UFC-caliber fighters. It's very, very rare for a guy with fewer than two-and-a-half years of experience to make it to the UFC, and conversely, fighters with more than eight years of professional experience have usually missed their window of opportunity and are unlikely to ever reach the sport's highest levels. Finally, a prospect's training environment is by far the most important factor: fighters coming from the sport's major camps (such as Alpha Male, AKA, Jackson's, or Roufusport) are much more likely both to make it to the UFC and to have success once they've arrived.
It's important to note that these are general patterns within the sample, not definitive facts. I don't mean to suggest that an older prospect can't be successful, that there's no room for true phenoms or late-blooming journeymen, or that fighters from small camps have no hope of making it to the sport's highest levels - merely that the odds are substantially stacked against them. Additionally, I've chosen to focus solely on the UFC here: suffice to say that the same variables influence success in Bellator, but their model for prospect scouting and signing differs enough that it would needlessly complicate the conclusions.
With those disclaimers out of the way, let's examine age first. For fighters who made it to the UFC, the average age at the time of their first fight is 22.6 years, with a standard deviation of 3.3. If we look at the fighters who fall more than one standard deviation outside the mean - Stipe Miocic, Jimi Manuwa, Yoel Romero, Papy Abedi, Costa Philippou, Tom DeBlass, Robert Drysdale, and Stephen Thompson - we first notice that two of them, Abedi and DeBlass, have been released from the organization, with the former being a rather spectacular bust. Miocic is a bit of a special case, since he had a substantial amateur career (3.5 years) before turning pro, and in any case, heavyweights generally tend to start fighting later in life.
The second noteworthy fact about these venerable gentlemen is their athleticism: they range from well above average (Philippou and Thompson) to truly spectacular (Manuwa and especially Romero). DeBlass and Abedi, on the other hand, really didn't have it. When we compare these successful prospects to those who didn't make it to the highest levels, it becomes clear that it takes something special for an older prospect to develop to the point where they can successfully compete in the UFC. Conversely, there doesn't seem to be any particular benefit or drawback (at least in this context - career longevity is another story) to debuting before age 19 or so.
Next, let's turn to development time. There was an age when a high-level prospect could be expected to jump into the shark-infested waters at the highest levels of competition mere months after making his debut: Alistair Overeem fought in RINGS a week after his first professional fight, while Big Nog, Fedor, and Shogun Rua all made it within a year, and Georges St-Pierre first fought in the UFC a mere two years after his MMA debut. That pattern, however, is much less common today, though there are of course exceptions such as Jon Jones, who made it within three months.
The data bear out this emerging pattern. Prospects who made the leap to the UFC quickly include Chris Weidman (two years), Sergio Pettis (two years), Max Holloway (a year-and-a-half), and Stephen Thompson (two years), but for every fighter who has done so successfully, there's a Tom DeBlass, Joey Gambino, or Wagner Prado who clearly wasn't ready for the big leagues. There will always be room for true phenoms in the UFC, but it's becoming more and more difficult for fighters to be ready for the multitude of opponents and styles they're expected to face at the highest levels of competition with minimal time to prepare. It will be interesting to see how this pattern changes with the UFC's shift to a model in which competition with other organizations demands that they pick up prospects earlier and earlier in their careers.
The flip side to fighters who develop quickly are the late bloomers. On average, prospects made it to the UFC around the five-year mark of their careers (standard deviation of 2.4), but there were a few who took their time on the regional circuit before getting to the big leagues. Glover Teixeira falls into this category, but his late debut is easily explained by his recurring visa issues; more typical examples include Antonio Carvalho, Tor Troeng, Jose Maria Tome, and Adriano Martins. Carvalho and Tome have already been released, while Troeng and Martins seem likely to carve out nice niches for themselves in the middle of their respective divisions. The larger point, however, is just how few fighters at that stage of their careers will ever make it to the UFC. By and large, if you haven't made it seven years into your career, it's unlikely to ever happen, and even if you do, it's unlikely that you'll stick around for long.
There are substantial differences in this statistic depending on country of origin. Americans and Canadians are much more likely to be picked up early in their careers than European or especially Brazilian fighters. Erick Silva, for example, took six-and-a-half years to reach the UFC, as did Hacran Dias and Antonio Braga Neto; even Rony Jason, who's normally classified as a prospect, was in the sixth year of his career when he won the first season of TUF Brazil. There are a number of possible explanations for this phenomenon, but the best is probably the greater difficulty associated with scouting foreign prospects and the increased cost of bringing them to overseas cards. Unless they're really, really good, it probably isn't worth it. Again, it will be interesting to see how this changes with the UFC's greater emphasis on international development.
Finally, let's examine the impact of a prospect's training environment. The argument of this section is simple: young fighters who train at large, well-known gyms are much more likely than their compatriots both to reach the UFC and to have success once they've arrived. Of the 150 prospects listed on the Scouting Report, 52 of them (roughly 35 percent) trained at major camps such as Alpha Male or Roufusport, with another 18 at mid-level camps such as The Pit Elevated or Tiger Schulmann's. Of the 47 prospects who reached the UFC, however, 30 of them (64 percent) trained at major facilities, with another four at mid-range camps. The pattern couldn't be more clear: young fighters at big camps are more than three times as likely to successfully reach the big leagues, at least partially because they're more likely to receive exposure than prospects training out of unknown gyms.
In what precise ways, however, do major camps help their young fighters make it to the UFC? The first and easiest answer is that the trainers at these facilities do a fantastic job of preparing their guys to face high-level competition, and this shouldn't be discounted. Coaches like Duke Roufus, Greg Jackson, Ricardo Liborio, and Rafael Cordeiro have a proven track record of producing fighters that dates back as much as 15 years. Simply put, coaches like these know what it takes to mold raw young talent into mainstays of divisional top-10 lists. This category includes everything from building basic skills to game-planning even to mentoring troubled young men with both a propensity and talent for violence. Anyone who's ever had a bad coach, regardless of the sport, will tell you precisely what kind of difference great coaching can make.
Second, the quality of training partners at a large camp is infinitely higher than what's available at your average small gym. The difference between doing wrestling drills with guys who competed for a year or two in high school and Division I All-Americans is pretty sizable, as is the gap between sparring with a Muay Thai hobbyist as opposed to a former professional kickboxer. Take Alexander Gustafsson as an example: it wasn't like he was an incompetent wrestler before losing to Phil Davis and subsequently moving to Alliance to train with him, but his takedown defense has now evolved to the point where it's effectively bulletproof. Fighters who develop in that kind of environment from the very beginning of their careers - Alex Garcia at TriStar or Andre Fili at Alpha Male, for example - are even better off, having honed their skills on a daily basis against some of the top fighters at or near their weight.
Third, big camps teach not only skills but also professionalism. Imagine walking into the American Kickboxing Academy as a young prospect and seeing Daniel Cormier, Cain Velasquez, Josh Thomson, and Luke Rockhold putting in skills training, and then once they're done, doing a couple hours of strength and conditioning work. It's one thing to understand, in the abstract, what it takes to be a professional fighter, but it's another entirely to see that kind of work ethic on display day in and day out. Alongside the benefits of actually training with that caliber of athlete, there's a great deal to be said for the passive evolution of one's expectations in an environment with a proven track record of producing high-level fighters. The flip side to the environment of a big camp are the ancillary benefits that accrue to prospects just from being around established fighters. Big-name guys get boatloads of supplements, extra equipment, and even things like clothing that are of little use to them but that can make a huge difference to young guys on the way up, and anecdotally I've seen this happen a fair few times.
We've established that there are several major factors that play into the future success of a prospect. With these things in mind, let's revisit the World MMA Scouting Report and identify a few of the listed fighters who still have a good shot of making it to the UFC and succeeding once they've arrived.
1) Pedro Munhoz: A product of Black House and Kings MMA, Munhoz has shown off a developing striking game to go along with his already-nasty submission prowess. He's four-and-a-half years into his career, and has nothing left to prove on the regional scene after his win over Jeff Curran in August. He should be in the UFC within the next six months.
2) Aljamain Sterling: Now training out of Serra-Longo in New York, Sterling has continued his progression up the ranks. He's still a bit raw, but I expect to see him in the UFC within the next year.
3) Lance Palmer: Yes, he lost to Georgi Karakhanyan a little over a week ago, but he showed off a much-improved striking game in losing to a much more advanced prospect. The Alpha Male product is only two-and-a-half years into his career, and another year of development should see him in the UFC.
And now let's examine a fighter whose chances don't look so hot, Elvis Mutapcic. He serves as a test case in what happens when you have an obviously talented prospect who's never taken the next step by moving to a big camp: the loss to Jesse Taylor was both eminently predictable and completely avoidable had he spent some time working with top-flight grapplers and wrestlers. Essentially, it showcased his continuing inability to shore up the weak spots in his game. Now six-and-a-half years into his career, time's running out for Mutapcic. Even if he were to make the move now, he might never make up the ground he's lost in time to have a real impact in a major promotion.
Building on the outstanding work of Leland and Smoogy, we've made a start in identifying the factors that impact and shape a prospect's development. Base style and country of origin are relatively insignificant, but development time, age, and most importantly training environment all have a substantial influence on a young fighter's future development. With these things in mind, I'll be publishing a list of the top 25 prospects in MMA in the near future.