Today we'll take a look at Sweden's top prospect, the ultra-talented Niklas Backstrom. For previous editions, where I've discussed in depth the methods behind my madness and the criteria for selection on the list, check the story stream on the right side of the page. I've also linked the previous pieces at the bottom of the article.
11) Niklas Backstrom, Featherweight (6-0)
Years Pro: 4.25
Sweden's Niklas Backstrom has flown well under the radar during his career, fighting no more than twice per year while competing regularly on the submission grappling circuit (he's a national champion). Exceptionally quick and light on his feet for such a big man (an even 6'0"), Backstrom showcases a sneaky wrestling game, rapidly improving striking, and silky-smooth grappling interspersed with devastating ground and pound. While he's still a bit raw, the Allstars product is poised to make his way to the UFC with a few more wins on the regional circuit.
Let's get the underwhelming stuff out of the way first. Backstrom isn't really a striker, and his early fights showed an almost complete lack of skills at range: he didn't have many strikes in his arsenal and he was defensively limited. In his more recent fights, however, Backstrom has shown marked improvement. He's begun to put his freakish length to work with a steady diet of extremely fast kicks at all levels, as he mixes up round kicks, elliptical kicks to the thigh, and side kicks to maintain the range until he's ready to close the distance. There's no way around the essential fact that Backstrom's striking needs work - his punching game is still pretty basic, and is limited to single shots rather than combinations - but the fact that it's clearly gotten better is an encouraging sign.
The clinch, on the other hand, is more to Backstrom's liking. He uses his height and natural leverage effectively, and shows surprising strength to go along with considerable technical prowess in that area. Backstrom is a highly dangerous striker in tight: his knees in particular are absolutely vicious, and once he has the clinch he'll uncork a steady diet to the body and head, while switching between double unders, over-under, and the double-collar tie with ease and finesse. He weaves those strikes together with his sneaky takedowns: again, he shows surprising strength and excellent technique, as he looks for big slams, trips, and throws, and he changes levels fluidly and with great timing on his reactive takedowns.
Once the fight reaches the mat, Backstrom is exceptionally dangerous. I mentioned his grappling credentials in the introduction; while he doesn't have many submission finishes to his credit, he prefers to utilize his heavy base and positional awareness to uncork absolutely vicious ground striking. If Backstrom gains top position, watch out, because a steady stream of powerful, torquing punches and elbows is sure to follow. Moreover, he beautifully weaves his ground striking together with positional advancements: he'll stand up in his opponent's guard, uncork heavy shots, and then quickly pass to side control. He's also quite savvy in transitions, and is always looking for his opponent's back. Once Backstrom gains a dominant position, it's extremely difficult to shake him off. Unlike many fighters with Backstrom's length, he's not content to mess around with his guard; he looks for a quick sweep or submission attempt, and if it isn't immediately there, he looks to regain his feet or create a scramble in which he's almost sure to come out in top position.
Despite his relative lack of experience (six victories and one no-contest due to extreme referee incompetence), Backstrom has beaten pretty good competition on the European circuit, with an equal mixture of solid journeymen and young prospects. It's been difficult for him to find fights, as several potential opponents have either turned him down or pulled out of scheduled bouts, but he currently has a fight scheduled against German prospect Max Coga in England for March 22nd. This is the perfect step up for Backstrom, and with one or two more victories in 2014 he should be ready for the highest level of competition. The Swede has a ton of upside: he's young, very athletic, and trains with some of Europe's best fighters at Allstars, home of Alexander Gustafsson (when he isn't at Alliance), the currently-incarcerated Reza Madadi, and Nico Musoke. Allstars has a proven track record of producing quality talent, and Backstrom has consistently improved from fight to fight. If he can work a bit more on his striking, Backstrom has a great chance of reaching the top ten or even higher.