Here are my top 10 Featherweight 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 couple of weeks. 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 Chris Fishgold
Fishgold is a BJJ brown belt that uses his skills very well in MMA. After missing all of 2012 with a combination of his own injuries, and his opponents pulling out of fights, he racked up three victories in 2013, and should be in good position for some bigger fights in a very solid (for the regional scene) CWFC Featherweight division.
Grappling is Chris's game and he wants to get the fight to the ground as soon as possible. If he is on his feet it is only for a little striking to set up a takedown or find a way to get the fight to the ground. Once on the ground he will attack with submissions and is very good at getting back control where he can hunt for RNC, or use ground and pound. Fishgold's gas tank is a legitimate concern at this point as he started gassing late in the 2nd round, and had to dig deep to hold on in the 3rd of his last fight. He may not of had a full training camp for that fight and it was the first time he went past the 2nd round, but it is something to watch going forward.
Chris trains at Next Generation Gym, alongside top 10 Welterweight prospect Danny Roberts. This is a quality, but not exceptional camp when it comes to developing top-level fighters. Fishgold will have to continue developing his striking as he steps up in competition, if for no other reason to keep his opponents honest, and give him an avenue to victory over the strong grapplers he will encounter near the top of the division. I think Fishgold's ceiling is right around the top 25.
#9 Brian Ortega
Ortega is a recently promoted BJJ Black belt who has been training in BJJ since he was 12 years old. He recently signed with RFA, the express lane into the UFC, and submitted Jordan Rinaldi in his promotional debut over the summer. Next up Brian will face Keoni Koch (5-0) for the RFA FW title on January 24th.
Ortega has some decent striking, but the ground game is his bread and butter. He is comfortable anywhere on the ground and has racked up four subs, including his last two fights by triangle chokes.
Training at the Blackhouse gym in California puts Ortega in one of the best training environments out there. This gym is home to fighters such as Lyoto Machida, Anderson Silva and has very strong ties to UFC. Other fighters such as UFC vet Justin Lawrence also train there, providing him with very good training partner options. Ortega trains his BJJ at the Gracie Jiu Jitsu academy under Rorion, Rener, Ryron and Ralek Gracie. I view Ortega as a very similar fighter to Fishgold, but he is in a better training environment, and his potential is inside the top 25 a few years down the road.
#8 Marat Gafurov
Age: 27 (One site has him listed at 29)
Gafurov is the current M-1 Featherweight Champion and holds a win over Mairbek Taisumov who recently made his successful UFC debut. He got his first martial arts experience in Wushu-Sanda as a youth before getting interested in BJJ, and shortly there after combining his martial arts skills. Like many of his fellow Dagestan fighters he eventually began competing in Sambo competitions. He is currently a Brown Belt in BJJ, and the Russian ADCC champion. All this experience gives him a very strong martial arts background to build his MMA game around.
Marat's striking can go from looking a little mechanical with his jab, to a little wild when he chooses to exchange. It is not where he wants to spend his fights. When the opportunity presents itself he is looking for the takedown, and to drag the fight to the ground where he can implement his ground game.
He trains at Legion Fight team that in the past has included Rustam Khabilov. This is a solid fight team, but I wouldn't be surprised to see him make the jump to another team if given a shot at the UFC.
#7 Andre Harrison
Harrison is the current Ring of Combat Featherweight Champion with pretty good amateur wrestling credentials. He was a Junior College All-American at Nassau Community College and a Division 2 All-American in 2010 wrestling for Fort Hays State in Kansas.
After winning his first three fights by decision mainly through the use of his wrestling, Harrison's coaches told him that if he did not start finishing fights he would never get to the UFC. The result has been an emphasis on his striking game that has helped him round out his game and get three stoppages in a row.
Andre trains at Bellmore Kickboxing Academy with UFC fighters such as Costa Philippou, Gian Villante, Ryan LaFlare and others. This is a quality camp with an established record of putting fighters into the UFC. I think Harrison could be a top 15 fighter down the road if he continues to progress.
#6 Arnold Allen
Allen is not UFC ready today, but his potential and young age are big reasons he is on this list. Arnold has an amateur boxing and kickboxing background. He started his amateur MMA career at age 16, where he went 7-0 before turning pro at age 18.
Despite his boxing background Arnold is an aggressive grappler who will sacrifice position to hunt for a submission. It hasn't cost him much yet, but it could catch up to him down the road, but I could also very easily see him refining his grappling just a little bit and becoming a very dangerous opponent for even the best in the world. Allen can also deliver some very good ground and pound from inside his opponents closed guard, where he uses his long arms to punch and elbow his opponents
He currently trains at BKK fighters, with some quality regional scene talent like Jack Mason, and Sean Carter (8-1), but no UFC level fighters. One commentator compares him to a young Carlos Condit... and after watching more tape on him... I can see it. Condit is one of my favorite fighters, so I don't give that comparison lightly, and I think that is the best case for Allen. I think he has a ceiling inside the top 10... but right now he is a long way from that.
#5 Raoni Barcelos
Barcelos represented Brazil in the 2009 World Freestyle wrestling championships, and has competed at the Pan-Am Games for Brazil. He has a very strong wrestling base, and competed in BJJ tournaments throughout his wrestling career, working his way up to being Blackbelt.
In the cage Raoni uses his striking to set up an outstanding double leg takedown where he can then control his opponent and get about any position he wants. Against UFC veteran Tyler Toner he had no problem getting his takedown, and then advancing to mount numerous times. Barcelos also has some power in his hands as he scored a clean KO of Joao Herdy Jr with a short left hook in their fight.
He is listed as training at Ruas Vale Tudo that is home well know names such as Pedro Rizzo, and Marco Ruas. With his outstanding wrestling and grappling skill set, I expect him to get invitations from other camps, especially now that he is fighting in RFA. I think Barcelos's ceiling is in the top 15, and I expect him to get a shot in the UFC with only one or two more fights.
#4 Martin Buschkamp
Record: 7-0 1 NC
Germany (Born in Brazil)
Buschkamp has competed in Karate, no-gi grappling, BJJ, and wrestling while honing the skills that give him a very well rounded MMA game. He recently signed with Cage Warriors FC early last year, and then dominated veteran fighter Matteus Lahdesmaki in his promotional debut.
Martin is a high paced striker who prides himself on the pace that he can keep in a fight. He will throw punches, front kicks, low kicks and high kicks in volume to keep his opponent off guard. While striking Martin uses feints, and pretty good head movement to avoid the counter strikes from his opponents. One drawback to his game would be that I didn't see game changing power, as he looks to wear down his opponent with volume more than one big punch. His grappling is outstanding, as he transitions from striking to takedown very well, and his first six victories all came by way of rear-naked choke.
Buschkamp trains at Planet Eaters in Germany with UFC veteran Peter Sobotta, and some solid regional level fighters. This is a solid camp and Sobotta has ties to some other quality camps in Europe, as well as outstanding grapplers like Robert Drysdale, and Dean Lister. I think Buschkamp's ceiling is inside the top 10, and he is probably one quality win away from a chance at the UFC.
USA (By way of Bosnia)
Bektic is a native of Bosnia who immigrated with his family first to Germany, and then to the United States by the time he was 8 years old due to the civil war in his home country. He took up Karate and boxing as a youth, eventually migrating and into MMA where he went 9-0 as an amateur before turning pro.
In the cage Bektic is very aggressive and will push the pace on his opponents. He is comfortable striking but does his best work in top control on the ground. Once Bektic is on top, his ground and pound is relentless, and he just unloads on opponents until the ref stops the fight.
Mirsad is currently training at American Top Team, which is an elite training environment. The ATT roster is littered with UFC, and Bellator caliber fighters along with other outstanding rising prospects. I think his ceiling is inside the top 10, and I think he will be in the UFC before too long. Bektic is managed by the owner of Victory Fighting Championships, where he has had three of his pro fights, he has also fought for RFA, and Titan FC, so he should not have any problems staying active until the UFC comes calling.
#2 Gleristone Santos
Santos has been a professional since 2005, so despite his young age he has been around the block and in with some very tough competition already. A concern for me is that he has been in professional MMA for nine years already, and that is a point where many fighters start to decline. As of right now he has not shown any signs of this, and appears to be hitting his physical prime with a great blend of talent, physical ability and experience. He has won seven in a row, since losing a LW bout to UFC veteran Carlo Prater in 2011. Santos recently signed with Titan FC, but I doubt he will be there for longer than one or two fights before signing with the UFC.
Gleristone has crushing power with both hands, and good technique to set it up. He will throw kicks, and there is a little capoeira influence in his game, as he isn't shy about throwing some of the spinning kicks I associate with that discipline. His ground game is very solid, and working with an experience veteran like Murilo Bustamante will make sure his BJJ game is ready for bigger challenges.
Santos trains with Brazilian Top Team, which is headed by UFC veteran Murilo Bustamante, and home to another recent Titan FC signee Pedro Nobre. This is a very good, but not elite training environment. I expect Santos to continue to develop, and he has top 10 potential. Patrick Wyman has a similar assessment in his "Searching for Future Champions" piece on Santos.
#1 Jim Alers
Alers hometown of Orlando, FL will host the UFC on FOX 11 show in April, and I'd be very surprised if he is not on the card. Jim is the current CWFC champion, riding an eight fight winning streak and just looked great with a 2nd round submission on the CWFC New Years Eve card. He was a high school wrestler who transitioned to BJJ now owning a Brown Belt in the discipline.
Alers does not have spectacular striking, but it is very functional to help him get the fight to the ground. He did show some new wrinkles in his most recent fight, such as feinting towards a takedown, and coming over the top with a big right hand. Jim also used knees in the clinch, and then transitioned into a very nice lateral drop when his opponent responded to him. Jim is very good at timing his opponent's counterstrikes and dropping below them for nice double leg takedowns. On the ground he always seems to be in control, and working for dominant positions where he can set up submissions.
Until very recently he has trained most of the time at Alliance Jiu-Jitsu, and Gracie Barra in Orlando. I've seen that he has spent some time at Rofusport in Wisconsin, but is still based at several gyms in the Orlando area. While I think some other fighters on this list have higher ceilings in the long run, I look at Alers as UFC ready, and a sure thing for the top 20 right now who could flirt with the top 10 before he is done.
Summary: I expect the top three on this list to be on the UFC roster in the very near future. These prospects have some very high end potential, and that has me excited about the future of this division. Cage Warriors FC in Europe has done a very good job cultivating quality Featherweights with Alers, Buschkamp, Allen and Fishgold coming through their ranks. When Alers gets signed by UFC it will be very interesting what fight they set up for their next Featherweight champion. CWFC was also the home of Conor McGregor not too long ago.
Note: I passed on Bekbulat Magomedov, as you may remember he was signed by UFC back in November, but still had to fulfill a contractual obligation with RUFF in China. He won that fight, but I haven't heard any update since on his status. Since UFC publically tried to sign him, I passed on putting him on this list.