Welcome to the first installment of my multi-part investigation of the top 25 prospects in MMA. I'll be applying the criteria I laid out in my last piece, which used the 2011 and 2012 World MMA Scouting Reports as a dataset to examine the variables that influence the future success of young fighters. Without spending too long on the same ground, let's take a brief look at the three most important factors:
1) Age at professional debut. On average, the most successful prospects started fighting around age 22, with a standard deviation of 3.5. There are exceptions to this - the heavier weight classes tend to start fighting later in life, for example - but in general it takes something really special, like extraordinary athleticism or power, for older men to be successful.
2) Length of career. Generally speaking, if a prospect hasn't made it to the UFC within seven years of beginning his career, it's unlikely to happen, and if they do reach the highest levels of competition, the odds are against them being particularly successful. Why? By and large, a fighter tends to hit his prime around the fifth year of his career, and that peak generally only lasts until about his ninth year of competition.
3) Training camp. This is more complicated, but the environment in which a prospect is trained is by far the most important factor. Young fighters from major camps, such as Jackson's, Alpha Male, or American Top Team, are more than three times as likely to reach the UFC, and to be successful once they've arrived.
I began the process by combing through FightMatrix, DPK's absolutely essential weekly prospect reports, a variety of other prospect lists, and Sherdog's fight finder to create a spreadsheet with close to 200 possible candidates. Next, I used these three major criteria to narrow the list down to a more manageable 75, and then began watching tape and doing research. In essence, this process is a combination of both data-driven and more traditional scouting methods.
Why not do a more traditional (in an MMA context at least) list by weight class? One reason: young talent in MMA isn't evenly distributed from flyweight to heavyweight. A list of ten heavyweights or even ten middleweights is likely to include a lot of filler, with a substantial proportion of fighters who simply don't have what it takes to make a real impact in the UFC, Bellator, or even WSOF. Moreover, the distribution of talent can change drastically from year to year. A list of top welterweights in late 2012 would have included recent signees Alex Garcia, Brandon Thatch, Rashid Magomedov, Dhiego Lima (TUF 19), and Cathal Pendred (also TUF 19), to name only a few, and it takes a while for new prospects to emerge.
I wanted to do something different with this list, and focus on the prospects who are most likely to be future mainstays of their division's top 10 or even potential champions. The desire to focus on the young fighters most likely to break through at the sport's highest levels means that some of my ranking choices might seem odd, so I want to clearly lay out my reasoning and criteria. For each of the roughly 75 candidates whose fights I watched, I rated them in six categories: striking, grappling, wrestling, raw athleticism, power, and upside. A prospect like Sergio Pettis, for example, would have ranked highly in upside since he was only two years into his career when the UFC signed him, while someone like Elvis Mutapcic, who's more than six years into his career, wouldn't get great marks for future potential. Tyrone Spong would obviously get top marks for his striking, while the 2011 version of Cody McKenzie probably wouldn't.
Consistently applying those criteria narrowed down the list, leaving us with the top 25 prospects and a collection of other young fighters to keep an eye on. The good news is that the regional ranks are stuffed full of talent right now, and I couldn't bear to not mention these guys. Without further ado, then, let's move on to the honorable mentions.
1) Yosdenis Cedeno: Lightweight (9-2)
A young fighter working out of south Florida, Cedeno reminds me a of a much more explosive John Makdessi. He's shown off some flashy spinning and jumping kicks, but he also packs real power in his fast, technical hands. He clearly wants to strike, and at this point it looks like his takedown defense relies heavily on his substantial athleticism, though it's been good enough so far. The flashes of grappling that he's shown have likewise been impressive, but too brief to reach any meaningful conclusions about his real skill in that facet. The fact that he's already nearly five years into his career and trains at a solid but mid-level camp keep him out of the top 25, but his crowd-pleasing style should make him a fun addition to any promotion that signs him. He's ready for a step up now.
2) Brandon Ropati: Light Heavyweight (7-0)
This New Zealand native shows off big power in his punches and kicks, slick throws from the clinch, and a punishing and surprisingly advanced top game to go along with his absolutely exceptional athleticism and strength. The only reason he isn't in the top 25 is because he hasn't fought since August of 2012, and I haven't been able to find any information on his current whereabouts or plans: if anybody knows what's going on with him, please let me know in the comments. The comparison with James Te Huna is almost too easy, but Ropati has a much more diverse striking game, better takedowns, and consequently a much higher ceiling. If he can grab another win or two, he'll be ready for the UFC.
3) Luis "Japa" Rafael Laurentino: Bantamweight (24-0)
A product of Brazil's Renovacao Fight Team, the 21-year old Laurentino has already racked up 24 wins in the first year and a half of his career, mostly against subpar opposition. While the level of competition is a matter of concern, he's young and still developing, and having wins by both head kick KO and gogoplata on a prospect's record certainly doesn't bode poorly for his future chances. The talent is obviously there, but he badly needs to make his striking more of a threat to allow him to better implement his deadly submission and positional grappling games. At this point, he's nowhere near ready for the UFC, Bellator, or even WSOF, and another year in the regionals is necessary for his growth.
4) Satoshi Ishii: Heavyweight or Light Heavyweight (10-2-1)
For a prospect, Ishii sure seems like he's been around forever. The Olympic Judo gold medalist is only four years into his career, however, and he's still 26, so he has a lot of time yet to develop, and recent wins over Tim Sylvia, Sean McCorkle, and Jeff Monson point to his obvious talent. With that said, he seems content for the time being to pick up wins against over-the-hill heavyweights in Japan - he's booked against Kazuyuki Fujita for the annual New Year's Eve show - and I haven't heard about him doing any training stateside in the recent past. It's hard to tell whether he'll ever reach the highest levels of the sport.
(Fun fact: Ishii and I used to live in the same building in Los Angeles, and he has the craziest cauliflower ear I've ever seen. Seriously, it's ridiculous.)
5) Warlley Alves de Andrade: Welterweight (6-0)
A product of X-Gym, home of Jacare Souza and many other deadly submission artists, this 22-year old is a likely candidate to compete for the Jungle Fights welterweight title in the near future. He boasts an ultra-aggressive submission game and functional wrestling, and while his striking is still a work in progress, he's shown flashes of serious power in the left hand he likes to wing from his southpaw stance. At this point, he still needs a year or two to develop, but that's the only reason he isn't in the top 25.
The next installment in this series will begin the top 25 list proper, so keep your eyes peeled.