We return for the fifth installment of the Searching for Future Champions prospects series. Today's edition features one of the world's best kickboxers, Tyrone Spong, and another talented striker, the late-blooming bantamweight Marlon Moraes. Check the story stream on the right side of the page for previous installments, where I've discussed in depth the methods underlying the selection process and the criteria for inclusion. I've also linked the earlier pieces at the bottom of the page.
15) Tyrone Spong, Light Heavyweight (2-0)
Years Pro: 1.25
The moment that the "King of the Ring" strapped on a pair of four-ounce gloves and stepped into the cage for World Series of Fighting, he instantly became one of if not the best strikers in MMA. His kickboxing career needs no introduction: a professional since the age of sixteen, he's only lost six times in more than 80 bouts, and he holds notable wins over the likes of Melvin Manhoef, Remy Bonjasky, Peter Aerts, Rey Sefo, and Danyo Ilunga. The Blackzilians member only has two MMA fights under his belt, but his outstanding athleticism, world-class striking, and relative youth combine to make him the brightest hope for the future in a division thin on up-and-coming talent.
Let's get the bad stuff out of the way first. We have no real idea what Spong's grappling looks like: he hasn't been to the ground in either of his two MMA bouts, and while he trains with a number of good-to-outstanding grapplers (Overeem, Belfort, Rashad Evans, Jorge Santiago, etc.), it's hard to evaluate the quality of a skill set we haven't seen. The same goes for his wrestling. His second opponent, Angel DeAnda, tried briefly to take him down, but DeAnda isn't a wrestler by trade and the shot was half-hearted at best. We can surmise that Spong's takedown defense is developing - he's a great athlete, which helps with sprawling and balance, and he trains with outstanding wrestlers - but again, it's hard to say for certain. We do know that Spong's clinch skills are exceptional: he's a master of subtle movements and control of his opponent's body, he's proficient with Thai-style dumps, and he throws brutal knees and punches in tight. So far, his clinch work has translated to MMA quite well, but we'll have to see how he'd deal with someone who likes to work takedowns from that position.
Striking is Spong's bread and butter. He was trained for a long time by Mr. Perfect himself, Ernesto Hoost, and that shows in his vicious low kicks and tendency to work the body with a mean left hook. For striking purists, there are few things better than watching Spong at work. He throws everything hard, with serious power and perfect technique behind every strike. He counters nicely, does a great job of maintaining his preferred distance, and his footwork is clean and precise. With that said, there are some facets to his game that could get him in trouble against high-level competition. First, he throws a relatively low volume of strikes. While he's always the guy landing the harder and cleaner shots, someone like Alexander Gustafsson might be able to take a decision from him on pace alone. Second, and much more important, Spong still tends to rely on covering up to avoid his opponent's shots in tight. That strategy works much better with larger gloves, and one need only look at some of Overeem's problems to see what happens with that at the highest levels of MMA. This is basically nitpicking, though, and i's hard to imagine Spong losing a fight that transpires mostly on the feet.
"King of the Ring" might seem a bit old to be a superstar prospect, but there have been plenty of top-notch light heavyweights and heavyweights to reach the top ten after starting their careers relatively late. There's only one real concern about Spong as a prospect, and that's his degree of commitment to MMA. He's still fighting regularly for Glory, and it's nearly impossible to compete at the highest level of two sports simultaneously; it's hard to see him rising too high in MMA without focusing on it exclusively at least for a year or so. If he does commit, however, Spong has the athleticism, skills, and training environment to be one of the very best on the face of the planet. The calls for him to be in the UFC immediately are a touch premature - he needs at least another year of solid training before he's ready to deal with top-flight competition - but the sky's truly the limit in a thin division without much rising talent.
14) Marlon Moraes, Bantamweight (12-4-1)
Team: Ricardo Almeida BJJ
Years Pro: 6.75
World Series of Fighting's Marlon Moraes may not have the well-deserved kickboxing accolades of Tyrone Spong, but he's nevertheless one of the best strikers on this list of prospects. A smooth athlete with a ton of high-quality experience, Moraes brings solid ancillary skills to complement his crisp Muay Thai game. A relative veteran with almost seven years of experience, the late-blooming Moraes holds wins over veterans like Miguel Torres as well as some of the more decorated prospects in the division. He might not have quite as much upside as some of the other guys on the list, but he's shown massive improvement since moving to Ricardo Almeida's gym to train alongside such fighters as Frankie Edgar.
I'd argue that Moraes would be the best striker in the UFC's bantamweight division were he to be signed today. He's exceptionally light on his feet, with outstanding movement and footwork. In short, he does all of the little things - control of the distance, command of angles, and timing - that separate good strikers from great ones, and those subtleties are the product of a substantial professional Muay Thai career in his native Brazil as a teenager. The former Brazilian national Muay Thai champion can truly do it all on the feet. He's fantastic moving forward, throwing two-to-four punch combinations and finishing with strong kicks at all levels, and his counter game is just as good. All of his strikes pack dynamite, too, and he's capable of finishing a fight with a single shot at any time. Even more impressive is his defense: unlike many Brazilian Muay Thai practitioners, Moraes shows off good head movement and keeps his hands high as he backs away, which makes him quite difficult to hit cleanly. A good comparison for his striking game might be Edson Barboza - they've been friends and training partners since the age of nine - but Moraes throws a higher volume of strikes and is less hittable.
Wrestling isn't really Moraes' game, but his takedown defense has shown massive improvement over the last year or two. The angles and movement that I mentioned with regard to his striking are every bit as important to his defensive wrestling: he rarely stands still and stays well away from the cage, which makes it difficult to get a clean shot at his legs or chain together multiple takedown attempts, while his great athleticism and balance makes it even harder to get him to the mat. Offensively, Moraes has begun to show some Frankie Edgar-style snatch singles and dumps to complement his striking and break up his opponent's rhythm. Moraes rarely looks to spend long in the clinch, but in those brief flashes he's demonstrated good positional awareness and strong knees.
It's harder to get a read on Moraes' grappling. He started training in BJJ at 15 and has three submission victories on his record, but we frankly haven't seen much of it, especially recently. In the short spans of time that he's spent on the ground, he's demonstrated good awareness of his opponent's submissions, heavy hips, and decent ground striking. Again, however, this isn't really Moraes' game: his grappling just needs to be good to survive against specialists, and so far it has been.
Despite the fact that Moraes is something of a late bloomer by prospect standards, he's still improving at a rapid clip. He's added more wrestling and better takedown defense, and his movement on the feet is better than ever. He splits his time between south Florida and New Jersey, and in both cases he's surrounded by excellent coaches and training partners. Despite his continuing improvement, Moraes' wins over Torres, Tyson Nam, and a slew of other talented young fighters show that he's ready for the highest levels of competition right now. I'd say he's a win away from the top ten as it stands, and his ceiling is the top 3 or even higher.