Here are my top 10 Lightweight 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.
Top 10 Prospects
#10 Mateusz Gamrot
Gamrot is a decorated grappler having won the FILA European No-Gi Grappling Championships in 2013, and a FILA sanctioned European Amateur MMA championship in 2012. In addition to his grappling championship last year Gamrot picked up quality MMA wins over UFC veteran Andre Winner, and solid Polish fighter Mateusz Zawadzkie (9-2).
While grappling is his strength Mateusz is not lost on his feet and has developed a very nice jab that he uses to establish range. He frustrated Winner with it repeatedly during their fight but still mainly uses his striking to help set up his takedowns. As soon as his opponents commit to a strike and try to close the distance, he will change levels and go for either single or double leg takedown.
Gamrot trains at Ankos Zapasy Poznan, which is not an elite camp. Even training at this camp, he has made tremendous improvement in his game over the last year. I would not be surprised if he is invited to train with the KSW sponsored team that is home to many of Poland's best fighters.
It sounds like Gamrot will return to the MMA cage at KSW 26 in March against a to be determined opponent.
#9 Bekzod Abdurakhmonov
Bekzod got a late start in American folk style wrestling after growing up with a Freestyle wrestling background in his native Uzbekistan. This late start did not hurt him from having an outstanding college folk style career. He was a two time National Junior College Runner up, while competing for Colby Community College in Kansas. After transferring to Clarion University in Pennsylvania he qualified for the Division 1 wrestling tournament two time, placing 3rd and earning All-American honors his Senior year in 2012 while wrestling at 165lbs. He did not waste anytime transitioning to MMA, and his first Amateur MMA fight was in July 2012. Bekzod spent a year fighting on the amateur scene going 5-0, and since turning pro, he has stopped all of his opponent, with two submissions, and two TKOs. After his last pro fight in November, Bekzod turned around and took 4th place at the New York Athletic Club Freestyle wrestling event the next week.
I'm not 100% sure if Bekzod is still training with Team Nowhere in New Bethlehem, PA, but that is where was training during his time as an amateur. It is a small team, that has not produced any high profile Mixed Martial Artist yet. His older brother Muzaffar has a 1-1 MMA record, an assistant wrestling coach at Harvard and was Kenny Florian's wrestling coach at one point. Bekzod has competed mostly in the eastern PA, NJ, NYC area that is stacked with quality teams who would almost certainly love to bring a talent like Bekzod on board.
#8 Mansour Barnaoui
Barnaoui is on the type of roll that gets guys signed by the UFC, with consecutive 1st round stoppages over UFC veterans Colin Fletcher, and Curt Warburton. A pro since 2011, his only losses are to recent UFC signee Kevin Lee, and undefeated Islam Makhachev (9-0).
Mansour was more into skateboarding than any other sports, before be urged by a friend to pick up MMA at age 15. He has no traditional Martial Arts background, and has trained MMA since the start. Barnaoui had his first fights at 16, under the modified rules allowed in France (no GnP to head, no cages) that are not recorded on his Sherdog record.
He has to improve his head movement while striking, as Warburton who is not known for his striking was able to land some solid strikes, and Fletcher dropped him in the middle of an exchange coming very close to finishing the fight. Lightweight is deep with talented strikers, and if his defense doesn't improve it will cost him before too long. Mansour will also throw a flying knee at some point in the fight, and loves to use knees when the fight gets into the clinch. Against Warburton he missed some openings with for submissions, but then was spot on against Fletcher when it went to the ground, and aggressively attacked with sweeps, and subs against Islam Makhachev as well.
Mansour still lives and trains in France, which has not produced too many well know MMA fighters. I hope he can either jump to one of the better camps in England, or even over to the states so that he can harness his obvious physical talents.
#7 Frankie Perez
The Ricardo Alemdia Brown Belt has fought exclusively under the Ring of Combat promotion as a professional. He has a long frame that helps him implement his slick BJJ game on his opponents. Frankie will need to continue to improve his striking, as right now he primarily uses it to close the distance and hit his nice double leg takedown. Using his long arms to land ground and pound opens up the ground game, so that Perez can get into position to attempt submissions. If he misses on one sub, he is likely going to transition right into another.
Perez trains in a top-notch environment at Ricardo Almeida's. Frankie Edgar, and UFC vet Tom Deblass both train there, and Almeida has strong ties to Renzo Gracie and his academy. When I see him on tape, I start to think he could be a Diaz brother just based on his frame, and strong BJJ background. I fully expect Perez to continue to improve in this environment and he could become a top 25 fighter down the road.
Perez vs. Townsend Rd 3
Perez vs. Walker Rd 1
Perez vs. Walker Rd 2
#6 Islam Makhachev
Ukraine (By way of Dagestan)
Makhachev is a Russian Combat Sambo Champion originally from the talent rich Dagestan area.
He holds a very good win over fellow top prospect Mansour Barnaoui, where he was able to take Barnaoui down repeatedly with singles, doubles, and a couple of nice throws. Makhachev had a significant reach disadvantage in the fight, and was still able to land good punches repeatedly. He wings his punches a little bit, but like some of his fellow Russians he over comes this with good timing.
Makhachev has been a chief sparring partner of Khabib Nurmagomedov in the past, and Khabib was working his corner during the Barnaoui fight. He is not a very big Lightweight, and I would not be surprised if he makes the drop to Featherweight as he continues to step up in competition.
#5 Scott Holtzman
Holtzman is a natural athlete who played Junior College baseball, and hockey. His need for competition took him to BJJ, and before long into MMA. Some may recognize Holtzman's name, because he was the fighter Nick Newell vacated his XFC Lightweight title instead of fighting. Newell said that Holtzman wasn't a big enough name, and the move to WSOF is working out very well for Nick, but I would have love to have seen that fight. Holtzman has since won the XFC LW title, and defended it once.
In the cage Holtzman does everything well. He has good striking, wrestling, and grappling on the ground. His Ground and Pound is powerful, relentless and he can either finish the fight, or set up a submission with it. He doesn't always do it, but there are flashes where he flows from striking to takedown in one fluid movement which is extremely effective. Scott is also very physically strong, and can control his opponents in the clinch up against the cage if the fight goes there.
The MMA Lab out in Arizona has been Holtzman's training home since April. This is a great training environment as Scott has trained with former UFC Champ Ben Henderson, and other UFC veterans like Jaime Varner, and Mitch Clarke. Holtzman should continue to develop his skills, and maximize his physical talent in this environment.
#4 Lukasz Sajewski
Sajewski was rolling back in 2010 when he improved to 8-0 by handing current Bellator fighter Marcin Held his first loss in a very close fight. Then he dropped off the MMA scene for two years reportedly with some knee injuries. Lukasz returned for one fight in 2012, and then was off for another year before returning in mid 2013 where he racked up three wins. Even with all that time off, he is still only 23 years old, and coming back right at the time UFC is expanding into Europe and looking for local talent.
In his fights Sajewski is looking to use his strong wrestling game to take the fight to the ground, and then use top control to land very effective ground and pound. He was able to fight off Held's leg locks and heel hooks effectively while making Marcin pay by eating punches. Two of his last three victories have been by armbar, and he can use his ground game to set up effective submission opportunities.
Sajewski trains with two-time Greco Roman Olympic gold medalist Andrzej Wronski, and considers wrestling to be his strongest asset. He also has a BJJ blue belt, even though on tape he looks to grapple at a higher level. Sajewski is young, talented, and already beaten some good competition. I think his ceiling is in the top 20 of the world.
#3 Carlos Diego Ferreira
USA (By way of Brazil)
Ferreira's last three wins should have him on the verge of a UFC or Bellator contract. He has picked up consecutive wins over UFC vet Carlo Prater, previously undefeated Christ Feist, and UFC/Strikeforce vet Jorge Patino earning the Legacy FC Lightweight title along the way.
Carlos is a BJJ black belt, and his grappling game is going to carry him as far as he can go in MMA. While his striking has improved his bread and butter is still the ground game, and where he will need to win fights as he progresses.
Ferreira would win fights in the UFC today if they signed him. He is currently training at his own school, as well as the Silverback fight club. Recent UFC signee Derrick Lewis has trained at Silverback in the past, and there are some quality regional level fighters there, but not much high end talent. His training environment is not elite, but it is also not a big liability. I think his ceiling is right around 30th in the world, but I consider him more of a sure thing to win some UFC fights than some of the others on this list.
#2 Gilbert Burns
A BJJ World Champion in 2011, and runner up in 2010, Gilbert has some of the best BJJ credentials in MMA. Burns' biggest problem might be keeping his weight down to the Lightweight limit. His first scheduled fight with Paulo Goncalves Silva last fall was cancelled when Gilbert missed weight, and then the second time around in early December was scheduled for a 161lbs catchweight.
In his most recent fight Burns did not even attempt a serious takedown attempt, which shows that he is working on his standup. While he was able to get a KO at the end of the 1st round showing some very good power, he struggled to create openings, and the first 4:45 of the round was very uneventful as both fighters pawed at each other and waited for the other to initiate the action. Burns strong point is still taking the game to the ground where he can use his elite grappling to open up ground and pound, and submission opportunities. Any opponent of his has to wary of this, and that will open up chances for Burns to strike.
Gilbert is training alongside his friend Vitor Belfort at the Blackzillian team in Florida. This team is stacked with talent, and after some early hiccups where fighters didn't appear to have great game plans, and coaching, I think they have started to get their things together recently. I think Burns could rise into the top 15 of a very deep Lightweight division down the road.
Tynanes is a 2nd generation fighter, his father Myles picked up a 4-2-1 record between 2001-2011. Lowen was a Hawaii high school wrestling champion andquickly transitioned to MMA after his high school career wrapped up.
He blends his strong wrestling background very well into a developing MMA game. In the Enomoto fight he closed the distance, landed a nice elbow, and transitioned immediately into a takedown in a great sequence. When he is on the ground you can really see his wrestling background, with BJJ influences as he uses top control to land GnP and really control his opponents.
Since turning pro, Tynanes has fought in Japan, USA, Philippines, and Malaysia. With UFC's expansion into Asia, this resume will serve Tynanes well, as he is a proven world traveler who can go into hostile territory, fight the hometown favorite and win in convincing fashion.
Tynanes camp is currently listed as Team Tynanes with his father, but also spends time at several other locations working on the different aspects of his game. He works Muay Thai at 808 Fight Factory alongside recent UFC signees Russell Doane, and Louis Smolka. MMA vets like Falaniko Vitale, and Harris Sarmiento also train at 808 providing Lowen with a very good environment to improve his game. I think Lowen has all the athletic ability and developing skill set to be top 10 in the world down the road.
Summary: Lightweight, just like Welterweight is a very talent rich division. UFC has over 80 Lightweights on its roster, Bellator has a very solid division, headlined by two top 10 LWs, and WSOF is building a quality Lightweight division as well. There are other fighters just off the top 10 that I would not be surprised to see sign with any of these organizations in the near future just highlighting the depth.