The sixth installment of our Searching for Future Champions series takes a look at two recent opponents, France's Mansour Barnaoui and Dagestan's Islam Makhachev. For previous editions, where I've discussed in depth the methodology and criteria for selection, check the story stream on the right side of the page or the links at the bottom of the article.
13) Mansour Barnaoui, Lightweight (11-2)
Camp: Team Magnum
Years Pro: 3
A Tunisian-Frenchman working out of Paris, Barnaoui is a sterling example of the new generation of fighters making their way up the regional ranks. From his very first day in the gym as a 15-year old, he trained in MMA, and it shows in his diverse and well-rounded game. While he's still quite raw, especially as a wrestler, Barnaoui's exceptional physical gifts, youth, and steady improvement from fight to fight point to a bright future.
"Tarzan"'s striking is a work in progress, though it's craftier and more advanced than it appears at first glance. At range, he relies on a sharp jab, takes his head off-line as he throws, and whirls mean straight punches at a rapid rate. He loves to exchange, and with his chin in the air it seems like he's begging to get tagged. Barnaoui has extremely long arms, however, and he tends to fire away when his opponent's back is to the cage (so they can't generate much power), and just outside his opponent's preferred range, making it less likely that he'll get hit cleanly. It's a deceptive, veteran aspect of the young fighter's game, and it speaks to real experience and savvy. Barnaoui also has a very quick jumping knee that he likes to use to close distance, and he lands it with regularity. He does need to work on his defense - he's hittable in exchanges - and he doesn't keep his hands as high as he probably should.
Barnaoui's real strength is his clinch striking. He throws hard knees from double underhooks, over-under, and a vicious Thai clinch. They're not perfunctory knee strikes, either: he pushes his hips forward and gets good rotation, showing excellent technique, and he throws them at a rapid rate whenever he's locked up with his opponent. He also throws good elbows and punches, and the fact that the uses them consistently on clinch breaks shows an admirable instinct for creating offense in transition. Barnaoui's length gives him a substantial advantage in leverage when he's grappling for position, and he's surprisingly strong as well. Wrestlers, however, have been a problem for Barnaoui: his two losses were to recent UFC signee Kevin Lee and Islam Makhachev (profiled below), and both took him down with regularity if not great ease. His takedown defense isn't bad, exactly, but it does rely heavily on his athleticism, and that's simply not enough against high-level competition. Watching Barnaoui's last three fights, however, it's also clear that he recognizes the weakness and that he's working hard to correct it: he effortlessly shrugged off takedown attempts from UFC veterans Colin Fletcher and Curt Warburton.
While clinch work is a definite strength of Barnaoui's, he shines on the mat as well. His bottom game is outstanding: he has extremely active hips, a guard that's difficult to pass, and most important, a wide array of sweeps and submission attempts to keep his opponent guessing. Islam Makhachev got Barnaoui down repeatedly, but couldn't create any offense from top position, and was swept several times. Barnaoui's best skill in the grappling department, however, is MMA-specific: he excels in transitions, and has a knack for finding his opponent's back in a scramble. He also beautifully melds his ground striking, positional grappling, and submission game, making it extremely difficult to deal with him when he's on top or on the back. His rear-naked choke in particular is absolutely deadly, and his long legs make him almost impossible to shake off.
Barnaoui reminds me a great deal of the young Alistair Overeem, with his combination of vicious clinch knees, great athleticism, length, and sneaky-good grappling. He oozes upside and potential with his athletic gifts, exceptional instincts, and consistent improvement from fight to fight. Although Barnaoui seems to do most of his training at a small and unknown facility in Paris, according to his Twitter he's also making trips to Montreal to train at TriStar with the likes of Francis Carmont, Rory MacDonald, and their ilk. That's the perfect place for him to work on the biggest hole in his game, his wrestling. If he can improve that skill to the point where it's even average, he'll be a serious threat to reach the top 10 and possibly even higher, even in a stacked division. While he's still a bit raw - I'd say he needs one or two more fights at the regional level before he's truly ready for the UFC - he already has a lot of experience against pretty good competition, and I have no doubt that he could compete right now.
UPDATE: I reached out to Firas Zahabi, and he confirmed that Barnaoui is in fact training at TriStar.
12) Islam Makhachev, Lightweight (9-0)
Years Pro: 3.5
One of two fighters to defeat the aforementioned Mansour Barnaoui, Makhachev is yet another prospect hailing from talent-rich Dagestan, this time by way of the Ukraine. A Sambo champion with excellent takedown skills, good athleticism, and a strong top game, the undefeated Makhachev has an excellent base on which to build the rest of his game.
Makhachev isn't exactly what you'd call a polished striker at this point in his career. Working in a southpaw stance, he's mostly a puncher who relies heavily on his left hand, though he whirls out the occasional left kick, usually without much of a setup. Like the other Dagestani fighters we've seen, what Makhachev lacks in aesthetically pleasing technical prowess he makes up with excellent timing, sense of the range, and raw power; if he can begin to string his strikes together into combinations, he could become quite dangerous on the feet, especially with his opponent worrying about the threat of his takedowns.
The clinch and wrestling phases are the heart of Makhachev's game. He shoots an ultra-quick single leg, transitions seamlessly into a double, and times his shots perfectly while really driving forward on his takedowns. If that weren't enough, he also has a deadly array of throws and trips from the clinch, with some slick hip tosses and lateral drops to complement his fantastic leg attacks. He doesn't throw as many strikes in the clinch as he probably should given his positional skills, and his lack of size relative to the division (he's only 5'7) makes it difficult for him to really muscle his opponent around for an extended period of time. All told, however, this is probably the best phase of Makhachev's game.
Makhachev's other real strength is his top game. He maintains a heavy base, shows excellent awareness of his opponent's submission game, and packs some real pop in his ground and pound. He consistently looks to pass guard and find dominant positions, though he can be a bit overaggressive: Barnaoui, for example, was able to time his guard passes and repeatedly counter with sweeps. Makhachev is an excellent scrambler, and almost always ends up on top in grappling exchanges; even on the bottom, he keeps his hips active and looks for submissions, though it's hard to say he has a dangerous guard. If he can develop his submission skills to the point where they're a viable threat, he'll possess a truly outstanding top game and excellent overall grappling.
According to the M-1 broadcast of his last fight, Makhachev is trained by the head coach of Dagestan's Sambo team, and he's also a regular sparring partner of UFC lightweight Khabib Nurmagomedov. Aside from that, however, it's difficult to tell what his training situation really looks like; I can't read Russian, and even then he's kept a pretty low profile. Based on the tape, however, he's already a solid fighter with substantial upside if he finds the right coaches. It's also likely that he'll need to drop to featherweight to make the fullest use of his talents, as he was substantially undersized against Barnaoui, who isn't the world's most physically imposing lightweight. If those things happen, however, there's every reason to think that Makhachev could challenge for a spot in the top ten or even higher.