Here are my top 10 Light-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 don't have a set schedule right now for releasing the rest of the weight classes, but I will try to get as many as possible out over the next month. 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.
#10 Stephan Puetz
Puetz has racked up his 9-0 record in under 2 years as a professional. He uses is large frame and physical advantages to impose his will on his opponents. If he can continue to refine his technique to fit his physical gifts he will be a very good fighter down the line. Stephan uses his size well, but should be watching every second of Alexander Gustaffson's career to figure out how he should be modeling his game plans.
He trains at Team MMA Spirit, which host numerous pro fighters, but nobody that has broken through to make a real impact on either the European regional or world scene. In his 4-0 2013 campaign, Puetz started to step up his level of competition as every opponent held a winning record, yet the perception is out there that he has been protected by his management to this point. I've seen rumors that he turned down a potential fight with current Bellator fighter Jonas Billstein when it was offered earlier this year. With some improvement and movement to a better camp, I think Puetz could make his way into the top 20, and his absolute peak would be in the top 10 if he maximizes his ability.
#9 Steven Cnudde
Cnudde is a Judo Blackbelt, who is a former Belgian Junior, and senior level Champion. He also secured top three finishes in numerous cadet, junior, and senior level tournaments around Europe between 2003 -2010.
In Cnudde's game you can see someone who is very comfortable grappling on the ground, and is aggressive while searching for submissions. He has good takedowns, and not just the trips, or throws that you might expect from his strong Judo base. In his most recent fight he scored a nice double leg takedown, and then never gave up top control as he hunted for submissions, and landed ground and pound. In his debut against Kelly Anundson an American Top Team fighter, and Division II All-American wrestler, he hit a very nice Arm bar off his back when Anundson left him the opening. Steven's striking is a work in progress, but it has improved from his first fight, to his most recent fight.
Cnudde only fought once in 2013, and will have to stay more active if he is going to get a shot at the bigger show. I could see him moving up these rankings with just a couple of more fights, and I think his ceiling is right around the top 10, but he is very early in his career at this point.
(Sherdog list his weight class as 155lbs... I'm not sure why, his fights have been against LHWs, and in Judo he was competing at 90KG or 198lbs in 2010)
#8 Steve Bosse
There has been speculation for several years that Bosse was heading to the UFC. As I am writing this, the rumor is out there that he was given his shot during TUF: 19, set to air in early 2014, and that he lost in the elimination round. If that is true, then I will drop him out of my top 10, but until I've seen that confirmed, Bosse will stay. Steve was a former professional Hockey player who made his name at the lower professional levels of the sport as an enforcer.
Steve is a striker who is very aggressive and will push the place. He has some takedowns, but they are primarily set up when fighters react to his striking leaving their legs vulnerable to the takedown.
Bosse left Hockey for good in 2008, and has since found his way to Tri-Star gym the home of numerous UFC fighters and veterans. At best I see his ceiling in the 20-25 range, but he would be entertaining against numerous opponents.
#7 Matej Batinic
Batinic started training MMA in high school, and is from the generation of fighters that has focused only on MMA from the start of their martial arts training. He is currently riding a seven fight winning streak, that includes avenging his only career loss.
I think Batinic will have to get physically stronger if he is going to be able to deal with the better grapplers in the division, but at only 20 years old he has time to fill out his frame and continue to improve in all facets of MMA. It is also hard to gauge his overall ceiling right now, but I would put it in the top 15 if he can link up with the right team.
#6 Iain Martell
Martell has a kickboxing background, but blends in his MMA game very well. If an opponent is just looking to stand and bang, then Martell will quickly take the fight to the mat with a solid double leg, and work his ground and pound. The MMA tape I've seen on Martell is generally from very early in his career, but you can clearly see that he is much more than just a kickboxer in MMA fights.
Iain has not faced the toughest strength of schedule yet in his career, and lost his only major step up in competition to highly regarded Max Nunes (who recently dropped to Middleweight). Iain has rebounded from his loss with a four fight-winning streak, and could be one or two quality wins away from a shot at Bellator or UFC. His Team Kaobon fight camp list numerous fighters with UFC and Bellator ties such as Terry Etim, Paul Sass, Mark Scanlon, and Andy Ogle. Iain could peak in top 15 if he continues to improve his game.
#5 Luis Phillipe
Philipe was scheduled to fight for Bellator back in 2012, but an injury forced him out of the fight, and since it has been back to the Brazilian Regional scene. Philipe fought four times in 2005-2006, including two wins over future UFC fighter Antonio Mendes. He then only fought once between 2006-2013. He has returned this fall and won two fights under the Bitetti Combat banner.
Philipe has the physical tools to be a big time contender, but will need to tighten up his striking if he wants to maximize his talents. He has a tendency to start winging his punches, especially when he gets in an exchange. Against more technical strikers he is going to eat some brutal counter shots (Think Bader vs. Glover Teixiera). He has some solid takedowns, and ground game, but appears to want to keep the fight standing.
Training at Nova Uniao Kimura, Philipe is in a very good training environment around UFC fighters like Ronny Markes, and Jussier da Silva. I think his ceiling is in the top 25, but not much higher than 15.
Grishin is probably best known for his uneventful M-1 fight against Kenny Garner back in 2011. He took that fight on a weeks notice, and since 2009 his only losses are at Heavyweight to Garner, and Guram Gugenishvili who was considered a top prospect at the time.
Grishin has solid striking and likes to keep the fight standing. His conditioning has been a question mark in the past, but when he fights at Light-Heavyweight he seems to have a much better gas tank and physically is more comfortable against guys his own size.
Maxim has trained in the past with Fedor Emelianenko at the Red Devil Fight Club in Russia, but is now associated with the Strong Style fight team in the US. Strong style list fighters such as Stipe Miocic, Brian Rogers, and Jessica Eye on the roster. While not generally considered one of the top teams in the sport, if he is training with those fighters he should get quality instruction, and have outstanding training partners to push him forward. I think Grishin could win fights in the UFC right now, and get near to the top 15.
Blachowicz is one of the top fighters in Poland, and currently the KSW Light-Heavyweight champion. Jan could step into UFC today and win fights, but I'm not sure if we can expect to see tremendous improvement after 20 pro fights.
Jan has a well rounded game and can win a fight either on his feet, or the ground. I don't think either his striking or ground game is elite but, he blends them well into his overall MMA game.
He signed a one-fight deal with WSOF earlier this year, but they backed out of it when he would not extend the deal to include more fights. He also pulled out of his most recent KSW fight scheduled for December 7th with an injury. Jan is already ranked #25 by the BE meta rankings off the strength of recent victories over UFC veterans Sokoudjou, Mario Miranda, Houston Alexander, and Goran Relijic. I think he could rise in the rankings and peak around 15 if given the right match-ups.
#2 Patrick Cummins
Cummins was a two time All-American wrestler at Penn State after arriving on campus as a walk on. After college he was active on the international wrestling scene, and developed a relationship with Mo Lawal that eventually helped develop his interest in MMA.
Pat is having difficulty staying active. He claimed earlier this year that over 40 fighters turn down fights with him over the last couple of years. That was before he had two fights fall through in the last part of 2013. He also met with some bad luck by suffering an injury during the tryouts and casting for the upcoming season of TUF that features Light-Heavyweights. Through his contacts he has volunteered to fill in on short notice for UFC several times, most recently when Robert Drysdale was pulled from UFC 167 but they have yet to take him up on his offer.
Pat trains at Reign MMA alongside UFC fighters such as Mark Munoz, Jake Ellenberger and a deep roster of quality fighters. He should continue to improve his MMA game, but his late start in the sport could catch up to him eventually if he can't stay active. Pat's ceiling is inside the top 10, as his wrestling, and athletic ability could carry him past many guys in this division.
Nemkov brings a strong combat Sambo base into the cage, and has improved significantly over the last couple of years as he is just entering his physical prime. He is currently the M-1 Light-Heavyweight Champion. He has won eight in a row, and 12 of 13, with the only loss during that time coming to UFC vet Vinny Magalhaes back in 2011.
Nemkov trains at the Red Devil Fight Club, which was once home to Fedor Emelianenko. The roster at Red Devil while short on UFC vets, does contains numerous quality fighters and should be a good training environment. Bellator HW Alexander Volkov, and LHW Mikhail Zayats spend time training there. I think Nemkov's ceiling is inside the world's top 10.
Summary: I think the top three were pretty easy to pick, but after that I had to make some tough decisions. No other weight class will tempted me to adjust my criteria as much as this one. I would love to add WSOF vets like Tyrone Spong, and Hans Stringer, or young Bellator fighters like Brandon Halsey, Liam McGeary, and Linton Vassell that have yet to fight in the Bellator tournaments. I could very easily see some of these fighters on the bottom half of this list working their way out of the rankings as they step up in competition, and I'm really looking into their potential, over production to this point in some cases. As they say in baseball... "potential gets people fired," so don't be surprised if this list gets adjusted throughout the year.