I'm going to take a shot at this, and knock out the list of the best prospects heading into 2014. My goal is to keep these list as living document, so as a fighter wins/loses, or get signed by one of the bigger organizations I will try to continuously update this throughout the year.
Here are my top 10 Heavyweight prospects leading into 2014. I've disqualified guys who have fought for UFC, Bellator, and WSOF as they have graduated from prospect status. In this listing I've tried to balance potential, and upside with their current MMA resume. I also consider age, martial arts base, training environment and level of activity over the last year. I have some fighters with higher ceilings farther down the list than others, because they still have more to prove.
I don't have a set schedule right now for releasing these, but I will try to get as many as possible out over the next month.
#10 Cody East
East has won five in a row four by first round stoppage since suffering his only loss to MMA vet Tony Lopez back in April 2012. In that loss East started out very well, but started to gas in the 2nd round, and Lopez was able to finish him in the 3rd.
Cody was a New Mexico State Champion wrestler but has been working on his striking. In addition to his five MMA victories in a row, he also won a very low level (and ugly) boxing match in Texas last spring.
East has trained at Greg Jackson's with fighters like Travis Browne, and Frank Mir in the past. That is a great environment for East to be in as he is sure to improve. I think his ceiling is in the top 25.
Cody has spent time in jail for a 2008 abuse incident, and more recently in 2012 for a probation violation. Like his brother Tyler, who just got out of prison this spring, East's past could be a factor in keeping him out of one of the bigger shows until he can put it a little bit farther in his past. .
#9 Tony Johnson Jr.
Tony Johnson was an Ohio State Wrestling champion in High School and was recruited to wrestle at Iowa State. Life apparently got in the way, and Johnson never completed his time at Iowa State. He is a tremendous athlete and also a standout football player, clocked as fast as 4.5 sec in the 40 yard dash.
Johnson was 6-1 but then did not fight for nearly two years in part due to a contract dispute with Bellator. He fought for Bellator back in 2011, defeating current UFC fighter Derek Lewis, but then did not fight again anywhere until this summer when he defeated former UFC Champion Tim Sylvia in OneFC. In his second fight back he was rocked early, and held off late by Chris Lokteff suffering a split decision loss. Johnson's other loss is to top UFC fighter Daniel Cormier, so it is safe to say that he has not avoided fighting very good competition so far.
The concern with Johnson is how much he lost during his two years off from the sport. If he has lost some of his athletic ability, it will reduce his advantages that he has over people. He is now training at American Kickboxing Academy alongside great fighters like Cain Velasquez, and Daniel Cormier. Training with some of the best Heavyweights in the sport should help push Tony, and improve his prospects over the next few years. I think Tony could be a top 10 HW if he puts it all together.
#8 Chris Lokteff
Lokteff recently picked up the biggest win of his career when he knocked off fellow top prospect Tony Johnson Jr. at OneFC 12. That win cemented a 4-0 2013 campaign for Lokteff, that saw him rebound from his only career loss in Oct 2012. That loss is the only thing keeping Lokteff from moving higher up the rankings as it came to a rather inexperienced, and uninspiring fighter named Sam Kei.
Lokteff has made very good progress for a guy that had no significant athletic experience before beginning MMA back in 2010. He trains with Integrated MMA in Brisbane, Australia. At integrated he trains with Adrian Pang a 30 fight MMA veteran. I think Chris will be a solid addition to any of the big organizations, but I have trouble seeing him fighting his way higher than the 15-20 ranking range.
#7 Anthony Hamilton
Hamilton started out his career 6-0, but then dropped back-to-back fights to current UFC fighter Walt Harris, and former UFC fighter Fabiano Scherner. Since then he has rebounded and stopped his next 5 opponents. The highlight of this most recent winning streak has to be the incredible head kick KO of previously undefeated Smealinho Rama to win the MFC Heavyweight title. Hamilton had successfully grappled with Rama in the 1st round, and then hit the big Head kick just seconds into the 2nd round.
Hamilton trains with Greg Jackson at one of the top camps in the world. For his win over Rama he had UFC contender Travis Browne in his corner, and has access to some of the best to work with. At age 33 I would hope he could get a shot at UFC soon, but we will have to see how his MFC contract play out. He is scheduled to face TUF 10 veteran Darrill Schoonover at the MFC event on January 17th.
#6 Yosef Ali Mohammad
Weight: 238 lbs
Yosef is a Swedish ADCC champion, who is extremely athletic for a Heavyweight. He also has very fluid, and powerful striking, as all three of his wins have come inside of 1:25 in the first round. The only loss on his record appears to come with some controversy, as it came in his second pro fight against then 6-0 Viktor Pesta where he was initially ruled the winner by split decision, but they it was overruled by the governing body after the fight was reviewed.
He trains with Avam, which isn't a powerful team. I think that this would be a great training partner for Alexander Gustafsson moving forward if he can get linked up with his countryman. Yosef has the highest ceiling of any heavyweight on this list as I think he has all the physical tools to be a serious title contender down the road. A few more big KO's and someone will give him a shot very soon.
#5 Viktor Pesta
Pesta has solid wrestling and very good control when he puts his opponent on the mat. His standup is not great, but when he got hit against Christian Colombo, he reacted well by closing the distance, hitting a nice double leg takedown, and through the ensuing scramble on the mat he got the back and finished the fight.
His fight with Yousef Mohammad was initially ruled a split decision victory for Mohammad, but the SMMAF governing body in Sweden (Mohammad's home country) over ruled the decision, and awarded Pesta the victory. If anyone has tape of the fight I'd love to see it.
He is listed as training at Penta Gym Prague, and Shooters MMA, but neither location has much of a professional profile. Viktor is young enough, and talented enough to keep moving up the rankings. I think he will be a solid guy who could rise right to the cusp of the world top 10.
Pesta vs. Ulhir- Pesta's 3rd pro fight
Ishii is the 2008 Olympic Gold medalist in Judo. His career got off to a rough start as he was match with an accomplished veteran Hidehiko Yoshida in his first pro fight, and Fedor not long after. Since a year off after the Fedor fight, and some reports that he had serious, potentially career threatening injuries, he has returned and been very active this year. Since last December 31st he has won 6 fights, and will have his 7th in just over a week at the Inoki Bom-Ba-Ye New Years eve event. The list of guys he has beaten includes well know UFC veterans Tim Sylvia, Sean McCorkle, Pedro Rizzo, and Jeff Monson. There has been speculation that he will drop to LHW at some point, but against Monson he weighed in above 240lbs so I don't see that move coming soon.
Ishii will need to continue working on his striking, against Monson he appears to have a rinse and repeat cycle of a few weak jabs, followed by his left hand. Monson has never been known to be a dangerous striker, Ishii landed the only takedowns in the fight and yet it was a very close fight. Ishii's clinch as you would expect from an elite judo practitioner is his strength. He has some very nice takedowns on Monson in their fight, and launched a much bigger McCorkle in their fight. Ishii looked very tired by the end of the Monson fight, even though it wasn't fought at a grueling pace, but I will give him a little bit of a pass, as that was his 6th fight in 10 months at that point.
Ishii is likely earning a decent paycheck headlining cards in Japan right now. I do not know if he is tied up contractually to IGF in Japan, where he has fought most of his recent fights. UFC would certainly have to pay Ishii above the standard rate for a new fighter, and that could be a factor that keeps him out of the UFC for at least a little while moving forward. I could see his career arch being similar to Michael Bisping's. He would lose to better fighters early in his career, but if UFC gave him some favorable match-ups as the most popular fighter in a key market, he would stick around long enough that he could develop into a top 10 fighter.
Magomedov signed with Bellator in April 2012, but due to visa issues has never competed for the organization. I am not clear if he is still under contract with Bellator as it has been over a year and a half since he signed and he has fought three times in Russia since, including his last win over former UFC Champ Tim Sylvia.
Ruslan brings a Karate based kickboxing background with him into MMA, and he has very quick head kicks. He does not have a ton of power on his punches and kicks, but he usually beats his opponents to the punch. He had Tim Sylvia a little rocked early in their fight, but could not finish. Magomedov appears to have very good cardio as he did not slow down much in his fights. From a strategy standpoint he appears content to get a lead in the first couple of rounds, and then switch from strike first offense to counterstriking in the last round.
While I'm confident that Magomedov's striking would hold up inside the UFC or Bellator, I haven't seen a lot of his grappling. He has two submissions on his record, but the unknown is how he would react to a quality wrestler, and BJJ fighter dragging him to mat. I think he is a sure bet to be in the top 25 if given the right fighters to prove himself against, and could potentially get close to the top 10.
#2 Marcin Tybura -
Marcin has stopped all three opponents since moving to M-1, and 8 of 9 as a pro. He is looking to get a clinch, move to body lock and then take the fight to the ground. Once he is on the ground he uses his ground and pound very effectively. It is not super powerful GNP that will end the fight in one or two punches, but it is almost non-stop with lighter punches. Marcin is a BJJ Purple belt, and he is active in competing around Europe in competitions. He will look for a sub if it is there, but he is not going to give up position hunting for one allowing him to maintain top position and continue with his ground and pound attack.
Trains at United Gym with a bunch of guys with Sherdog profiles, but nobody that stands as an equal talent to Tybura out of that gym. As UFC looks to expand in Europe, and has a live event planned for Poland in 2014 Tybura will be a prime target. Tybura seems comfortable with his game plan and I think his ceiling is inside the top 10 if he is given the opportunity.
#1 Steve Mocco
Mocco is a 2 x NCAA Division 1 Champion, and 4 x finalist. He was also a 2008 Olympian for the United States in Freestyle wrestling on the same team as Daniel Cormier, Ben Askren, and Henry Cejudo. In addition to his wrestling, Steve has a very strong Judo background. Very few MMA fighters in any weight classes can match the wrestling credentials of Mocco, and he has used that effectively so far in his career. In his 3rd pro fight, he rag dolled, and smothered Lew Polley, a much more experienced fighter who sells himself as a wrestler.
Mocco is training with American Top Team, which includes the likes of Top Ten Heavyweight Antonio "Bigfoot" Silva. His striking is very much a work in progress, and that is a skill that he will have to continue to improve in order to help set up his takedowns and trips.
A concern with Mocco is that he has gotten a late start at MMA, not dedicating himself to the sport until he was 30 years old. In any other weight class I would be more concerned, but in recent history we have seen fighters with equal or lesser wrestling ability such as Brock Lesnar, Shane Carwin, and Daniel Cormier make successful transitions to MMA around age 30. The other concern with Mocco is that he will become a big, powerful, wet blanket that just smothers his opposition without entertaining the crowd. This might keep him from breaking through to the big organizations, even if he could beat guys on both rosters today. I have trouble seeing Mocco being a top 5 Heavyweight, but I also feel confident that he is the most sure bet on this report to win fights in any organization that he ends up in.