Searching for Future Champions: MMA's Top 25 Prospects, 22-20

Victor Decolongon

Continuing the Search for Future Champions series with prospects 22-20.

Welcome to the second installment of the Searching for Future Champions series. Today we'll be taking a look at the prospects ranked between 22-20: Max Nunes, Gleristone Santos, and Walter Gahadza. Check the Story Stream for the earlier installments of the series, where I've discussed in depth the methods and criteria for inclusion. For the moment, suffice to say that we're focusing on fighters who started young, who are a few years into their careers, with serious bonus points for training at big camps.

22) Max Nunes, Middleweight/Light Heavyweight (12-1)

Age: 24

Camp: New Wave Academy (London)

Years Pro: 3.5

Sweden's Max Nunes, who's had some hype around him for a couple of years now, has hit a bit of a rough patch recently. Journeyman Jason Jason thoroughly dominated him before choking him out, and Nunes followed that performance by dropping to middleweight and taking a hard-fought decision, which included a knockdown by way of liver kick, from the unknown Ion Pascu. Given these last two bouts, you might ask why Nunes is still on the list, and you'd be posing a completely valid question.

There are two answers. First, Nunes is one of the very few legitimate prospects coming up the ranks at either 185 or 205; these divisions have been due for a turnover for quite some time, and while we're just seeing the changing of the guard at middleweight, light heavyweight still looks much as it did two years ago. This feeds directly into the second point: real prospects are a rare commodity, and Nunes has boatloads of potential. His frame is outstanding - he's a solid 6'4" - with room to grow into a monstrous LHW by the time he hits his physical prime. Moreover, he has eye-popping athleticism, great speed, and is exceptionally light on his feet for such a big man. You can't teach those kinds of physical tools, especially in a division(s) that is thin on up-and-coming talent.

From a skills perspective, there are shining positives and a couple of negatives. Nunes has a great kicking game: at range, he'll uncork a variety of front kicks, round kicks at every level, and a nasty jumping low kick/high kick combo that's served him well. However, he's still working on integrating them into his still-developing boxing game. He's also shown a nasty repertoire of knees and elbows in the clinch. With that said, Nunes doesn't yet have much to offer between kicking range and infighting, and this is where his recent opponents have had success against him on the feet. He needs to work on his hands, especially getting his weight behind his punches and stringing them together into combinations.

His takedowns are already solid, though there's still room for improvement. Nunes prefers to work from the clinch, where his height becomes an enormous advantage, using a variety of trips and throws. Defensively, his height also makes him vulnerable to shot takedowns, and a number of his opponents have had success getting him down. His length and striking instincts from his back suggest that his guard could eventually become quite dangerous; it definitely needs work if his takedown defense doesn't improve considerably.

Top position is where Nunes really shines. He has serious thunder in his ground and pound, and has finished multiple opponents with strikes from inside their guards. Moreover, once he passes (which he does regularly), he maintains a very heavy base, and has little difficulty maintaining top position. His repertoire of topside submissions seems to be fairly limited at this point, but again, his real weapon is his vicious ground striking. It's difficult to overstate how much damage he can do if he gets his opponent to the ground, and his capacity for knockout blows in this position makes me think that a good striking coach could put some serious mustard on his punches on the feet as well.

The biggest question mark about Nunes is his training environment. He currently seems to work out of UFC veteran Nick Osipczak's New Wave Academy in the UK, and while it's not the worst-case scenario, it's a long way from being the best gym in London, let alone a legitimately world-class facility. A little digging on Twitter tells me that Nunes did some training at Allstars in Sweden (home of Alexander Gustafsson, among others) for the Pascu fight, and if he continues to train there, that certainly bodes well for his future development.

Despite the obvious issues, which are apparent largely because of the fact that he's already received so much attention, Nunes is only three and a half years into his career. His physical tools are truly outstanding, and there are few prospects on this list with more upside than Nunes. Moreover, he's already beaten some of the best competition the UK's regional scene has to offer, and he could certainly compete at the lower levels of the UFC's middleweight or light heavyweight divisions. With that said, he's still a bit raw - the Pascu fight showed that he still has trouble at boxing range - and needs another six months to a year to develop before he's ready to make a serious run at the UFC. If, however, he consistently gets himself to a gym (like Allstars) where he'll be surrounded with top-notch coaches and training partners on a daily basis, the top ten, top five, or even higher are legitimate possibilities in the future.

(Note: a fight between Nunes and undefeated BAMMA middleweight champion Scott Askham appears to be in the works.)

Max Nunes vs Kevin Thompson BAMMA 11 (via max nunes)

BAMMA 14: (Main Card) Max Nunes Vs. Ion Pascu (via BAMMA UK) (Most of the first round is cut off by bad video quality)

BAMMA 12: (Co-Main Event) Max Nunes Vs. Marcin Lazarz (via BAMMA UK)

21) Gleristone Santos, Featherweight (25-4)

Age: 25

Camp: Brazilian Top Team

Years Pro: 8.25

In previous installments of this series, I argued that fighters who haven't made it to the highest levels of competition by the seventh year of their careers probably never will, and even if they do, they're unlikely to have much success. I believe Brazilian Top Team's Gleristone Santos is an exception to this rule. Just over eight years into his career, he already has boatloads of experience, has beaten the best available competition on the regional scene in Brazil, and boasts full, well-rounded skill sets.

Originally a lightweight before a loss to the much larger Carlo Prater convinced him to drop down, "Toninho Furia" is an enormous featherweight, clocking in at a thick and imposing 5'9". He uses that size to his advantage in every facet of his game, throwing leg kicks and straight punches at range, muscling opponents around in the clinch, and keeping opponents pinned to the mat with a brutally heavy base from top position. It would be easy to write off Santos as a big featherweight, but he complements that size with great quickness, athleticism, and deceptive explosiveness.

While Santos' striking defense can get a bit porous in exchanges, his offensive striking is absolutely outstanding. He throws mean low kicks as his opponent circles and waits at range, flicks out a sharp jab, and follows his more probing strikes with crushing combinations of hooks and overhands, which he follows with powerful kicks, as he closes distance. He'll also whip out more exotic techniques from time to time, including wheel kicks, jumping knees, and spinning backfists. He's capable of working from both stances, and his left kick from the southpaw stance is particularly dangerous, especially when he goes to the body. Counterpunching is also becoming a greater part of his repertoire, and he's shown an improving ability to pull his head offline as he throws. Overall, he shows a highly polished game on his feet, with excellent timing, constant movement, and a true veteran's understanding of angles to complement the big power in his strikes.

Santos' enormous strength is his best asset in the clinch. He's shown some ability to use hip tosses and trips to put his opponent on his back, but he prefers to keep it standing. In terms of clinch striking, he'll throw knees when he's in control, and has a nasty Thai clinch, but otherwise he tends to push off to create distance. His takedown defense seems solid, at least against the regional-quality competition he's faced so far.

When the fight hits the ground, Santos is far from lost. He's an excellent scrambler with a solid repertoire of sweeps and a number of topside submissions (most notably the arm triangle), but his best asset is his heavy base and potent ground and pound. It's hard to shake him, especially if he uses one of his solid guard passes and reaches a dominant position. Again, however, this isn't really his preferred game; he's most likely to end up in top position as the result of a scramble or because he's knocked his opponent down.

Brazilian Top Team has been Santos' home for most of his career, but he's also spent time at Tiger Muay Thai in Phuket, Thailand (where he had at least two Muay Thai fights) honing his standup. That quality training shows in his game: he's as smooth and polished a fighter as you'll find at the regional levels, and he's shown a great deal of improvement from his earlier fights. Given how far into his career Santos is - more than eight years - it should be clear that he doesn't have a ton of upside, meaning the more relevant question is how good he is right now. I'd argue that he's pretty good indeed: he could legitimately win a Bellator tournament or give the guys on the fringes of the UFC's top fifteen featherweights a pretty stiff test. When I say he's an very good striker, for example, I don't mean by the standards of regional competition, but compared to the deep end of the talent pool at the highest levels of MMA. He's ready to take the next step up right now.

Toninho Fúria Highlights (via BrazilianTopTeamTV)

Toninho Fúria vs Andrezinho Nogueira (via BrazilianTopTeamTV)

Toninho Fúria vs Bruno Machado (via BrazilianTopTeamTV)

20) Walter Gahadza, Welterweight (13-0)

Age: 26

Camp: Sure Grip Vale Tudo

Years Pro: 2.75

While Max Nunes and even Gleristone Santos are names that have been floating around for a while, Walter Gahadza is more of an unknown. Training out of Team Sure Grip in the UK, Gahadza brings to the table a potent mixture of athleticism, power, and a devastating top game. The immigrant from Zimbabwe is a former sprinter, and that explosiveness shines through in his takedowns and quick forward movement.

Gahadza's striking is a work in progress. He throws hard kicks at all levels from both orthodox and southpaw stances, and strings together potent two and three punch combinations as he moves forward. There's some pop in his shots, but better technique - i.e. bringing his feet with him when he punches and stepping into his kicks - will allow him to implement the power that he clearly possesses. Defensively, he has quite a bit of room for improvement; while he keeps his hands high in a tight guard, he tends to drop them in exchanges, he doesn't pull his head offline as he throws, and he can be hit consistently to the body at range. This isn't out of the ordinary for a fighter at his stage of development.

Striking isn't really Gahadza's bread and butter, though. Instead, it's his clinch and wrestling games, and at this point is striking serves as a bridge to get him to his preferred destination. Unusually for a fighter with his level of experience, Gahadza has excellent entries into the clinch and does a great job of changing levels and working reactive takedowns as his opponent moves forward. Once he's in the clinch, Gahadza uses his great strength to push his opponent against the cage and throw powerful knees and punches while he works for the takedown. He phase shifts well, moving from clinch strikes to takedown attempts, and he throws consistently on breaks. That instinct for creating offense in transition, along with the fact that you'll rarely see him groping for a clinch or shooting a takedown with a poor set-up, are excellent signs that bode well for his future prospects.

From top position, Gahadza is an absolute monster. He works effortlessly to half guard, and once he's there, showcases brutal ground and pound while keeping his hips down in a heavy base. We haven't seen much in the way of a topside submission game or consistent transitions to dominant positions, but then again, he hasn't yet needed them. The same holds true of his bottom game: we simply don't know much about it.

There are a lot of things to like about Gahadza at this point in his career. The physical tools are obviously there, and he's shown some surprisingly polished aspects to his game. There are two significant question marks, however, the first being the fact that most of Gahadza's wins have come against relatively weak competition, though he's beaten several solid regional journeymen. He was scheduled to face fellow undefeated prospect Ryan Scope last August, so the impulse to move up and fight better competition is clearly there. According to his Twitter, he's scheduled for a fight this February, though I haven't been able to dig up any information on the potential opponent.

The second and far more significant question revolves around his training environment. He's currently working out of Sure Grip MMA in Essex, which houses a few solid regional fighters, and it seems like he's also done some work with UFC light heavyweight Jimi Manuwa at his Lion's Pride gym. Eventually, however, he'll likely need to move to a facility that houses more highly-regarded coaches and training partners if he wants to move to the highest levels of the sport. Whether he stays in Essex or moves to a bigger camp, he's still pretty raw, and needs at least another nine months or a year before he's ready for the kind of competition he'll see in the UFC. If things break right for him, though, he's a real threat for the top ten, even in a stacked division like welterweight.

Walter "Sniper" Gahadza Highlight reel (via TEMPHUiBIS)

Walter Gahadza vs Alan Johnston - Made 4 The Cage @WALTERGAHADZA @SHOSHOMEDIA (via ShoShoMedia)

Check back soon for the next installment in this series.

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