Here are my top 10 Bantamweight 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'm going to finish with Flyweight soon, but it might be a couple of days or a couple of weeks as I'm going to be getting very busy next week. I'm not planning on doing any of the women's division right now as I want to make sure I take the time and get a good list. I may look at doing those over the summer. My goal is to keep these list as living documents, 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 Luis Rafael
Rafael has only been a pro since June 2012 and still found time for 24 fights in that time. While most of his competition has been very weak he did take a step up in October when he defeated Claudir Dutkevis (10-3) by UD. In general it appears that Rafael is using frequent fights against over matched competition much in the same way that other fighters schedule their sparring sessions in the gym.
15 of Rafael's 24 wins have come by way of submission and he is looking to take the fight to the ground. He has a nice entry on his double leg shot, but needs to work on finishing it when he gets in deep on his shot attempt. Luis is developing his standup game but he is still a work in progress. He is not the powerful striker but has developed some nice combinations and will work to the body. Luis did score two head-kick KO's this year and if he can continue to develop this skill it will only make the rest of his game more dangerous.
Rafael trains with the Renovacao Fight Team that is home to UFC fighter Luiz Dutra Jr, and former UFC fighter Jose Maria Tome. There are also several Bellator veterans in this camp, showing that trainers have a record of getting fighters into the biggest shows. Rafael's first fight of 2014 is scheduled for February against an 0-1 fighter, so it looks like more of the same for now, but he will need to step up his level of competition if he is going to get taken seriously by the Sean Shelby's or Sam Caplan's of the world.
#9 Renato Carneiro
Starting with Judo as a kid Renato switched to BJJ, then added Muay Thai as he has continued to add new skills to his martial arts skill set. He is a former Law Student who recently gave up on that pursuit to follow his dream of becoming a professional fighter.
Well-rounded is the best way to describe Carneiro's MMA skills. I don't think he jabs enough to take advantage of his long frame, but he throws a good straight right hand, and knees to the body. He has three submissions on his record, but the one of Mauro Chaulet came after he dropped him with a punch and was just able to pounce on a RNC.
Carneiro trains with the Constrictor team in Brasilia that is home to several UFC talents. Rani Yahya, Paulo Thiago, and some other rising fighters are part of this gym and can help guide Carneiro towards the bigger shows. This is a good training environment with a growing track record of producing quality fighters with the tools to compete at the highest level. I think Carneiro's ceiling is inside the top 25.
Carneiro was scheduled to fight other top prospects Mario Israel and Thomas de Almeida towards the end of 2013, but Israel pulled out with an injury, and then Carneiro was injured before the Almedia fight could happen. Either of those fights would likely be the last step towards landing the winner in the UFC if they can be rescheduled for 2014.
Birchak is the current MFC Bantamweight champion and was a good high school wrestler growing up in Arizona. He placed in the state tournament three times but never took it farther than that. His natural athletic ability jumps off the screen when you see him on tape, and if he can harness that to go with his wrestling base he could become a factor in the BW division.
Using his wrestling base, Birchak has good takedowns, but is not dominant with his top control. He is very aggressive with this striking, takedowns, and trying to advance position, but he also leaves his openings that his better opponents can threaten with by getting position and attacking with submission attempts. .
Anthony trains at Rise Combat Sports in Tucson, AZ. Current UFC fighter Chris Cariaso, who also serves as the head trainer runs rise. While Cariaso has a very good resume and looks to be building a nice team, he and Birchak stand out when you look at the fighters at this gym. If Birchak isn't getting challenged day in and day out by his training partners I worry that he will continue to try and skate by on his great athletic ability instead of refining the techniques that he will need when he steps in against his athletic equals. I think Birchak has top 15 potential.
#7 Yuta Sasaki
Sasaki was the 2010 Shooto Rookie champion at 143lbs. Earlier this year he demonstrated that he continues to build off of his wrestling base and won the ADCC Asia trials.
At 5'10, Sasaki has great reach for the Bantamweight division, but in some of his fights he hasn't really used it. When he does he can be a devastating striker using his length and keeping his opponents at the end of his punches. Sasaki also has a very good ground game, where he uses his length to sweep or attack with submissions that have helped him to seven submission victories all by Rear Naked, or Guillotine choke.
Yuta trains at Suruga Dojo which I don't see listed as the home to any other high profile fighters... but they have associations with some other gyms around Japan that are homes to the best JMMA fighters. Sasaki has improved greatly over the last few years, so it looks like the training he is receiving has him headed in the right direction, but he needs the right challenges day to day if he is going to maximize his potential. I think his ceiling is inside the top 10.
Sasaki's manager has reported that he is not interested in fighting for UFC at this time and expects to continue fighting for Shooto in Japan for at least another year.
Sasaki vs. Yamamoto Fight starts around 3:40 ends around the 3:52 point.
#6 Sheymon Moraes
An elite striking background gives Moraes a very dangerous skill set to build his MMA game off of. He has spent extensive amounts of time training and competing in Muay Thai including time in Thailand against some great competition. A KO win over UFC veteran Pedro Nobre last September put Moraes on everyone's radar, but a knee injury robbed him of competing in MMA during 2013. He is expected to return in early 2014.
Striking is Moraes game and he wants to keep it on the feet. If you are not ready to take some shots to the body, do not sign up for a fight with Moraes as he will punch, kick, and knee his opponents in the body breaking them down over the course of the fight. If he gets top control when it goes to the ground he is very capable of using punches and elbows to end the fight by TKO.
Moraes trains with Team Nogueira in Brazil surrounding him with great MMA talent. There are few better veterans in the MMA to train with than the Nogueiras, and through them he is also associated with the Blackhouse gym that is home to even more elite fighters. Moraes was brought on as a coach alongside Nogueira during season 2 of TUF Brazil while he was recovering from his knee injury. I think Moraes has top 5 potential if he focuses on MMA and continues to develop the other aspects of his game.
Patrick Wyman has Moraes at #10 on his Searching for Future Champions list, and if he hadn't missed all of 2013 in MMA then I probably would have had him higher on my list.
#5 Mario Israel
The Jungle Fights Bantamweight Champion has finished all nine of his opponents (6 x KO/TKO 3 x Submission), and brings some serious power into the cage. In a division that is criticized for not having finishers, Israel packs a punch and can end the fight with one good punch.
Even though he has a background in BJJ, Israel wants to keep the fight standing and is looking to exchange so that he can land his very heavy strikes. He has fight-changing power that can take his opponent out suddenly.
Mario trains at Top Life Amazonas alongside UFC fighter Adriano Martins and some other quality fighters from the Brazilian scene. He is also a friend and former training partner of Diego Brandao. This appears to be a good environment for Israel to continue his development. Israel pulled out of his scheduled November title defense against a very good fighter in Renato Carneiro due to injury.
Tanaka is building a very good resume and would be a great addition to the UFC today. He is a former Shooto rookie champion, and the current PXC Bantamweight Champion with a quality win over current UFC fighter Russell Doane by Submission.
Tanaka has a great single leg takedown, and outstanding grappling from his top control. He is great in scrambles, which helped lead to his five submission victories. Even though Michinori gets dominant position frequently, he really doesn't attack with Ground and Pound much, as he is looking for the control and then the sub. He has pretty good striking but he doesn't blend it well with his ground game. He doesn't spend too much time striking, but it looks like he has a decent stand-up game, as he will throw a quick combination that he finishes with a head kick. An improvement to his game would be to blend his striking and takedowns better.
I compare Tanaka very favorably to Demetrious Johnson. If he drops to Flyweight I think he could be a top 5 fighter, and potential world champion. If he stays at Bantamweight, I think he could fight his way into the top 10, but his smaller frame will eventually catch up with him against the absolute best in the world.
Like Yuta Sasaki, Tanaka's manager indicated that he is also focused on Shooto for 2014, and not looking to make the leap to UFC right now.
#3 Pedro Munhoz
Munhoz is a two-time Brazilian National No-Gi champion. He has been a pro since 2008, but has had six fights cancelled due to opponents pulling out, slowing down his career trajectory slightly. Munhoz tried out for the recent season of TUF: 18 eventual won by Chris Holdsworth. He made the interviews with the TV people but feels he missed his chance when he told the producers that he doesn't talk much shit about his opponents. I personally thought he was UFC bound after a convincing win over Jeff Curran for the RFA title in August 2013, but he will have to defeat another tough challenger in Billy Daniels (7-0) at RFA 12 before he gets another look.
There are still some holes in Munhoz's striking, but he has improved it dramatically over the last few fights. His game is still grappling though and he is looking to get the fight to the ground. On the ground he is dangerous from any position and can threaten any fighter in the division.
Munhoz trains with Kings MMA, and Blackhouse gym. Those are both very good training environments for an outstanding talent like Munhoz. I think Pedro has top 10 potential, and should be in the UFC very soon.
#2 Thomas de Almeida
Almeida has only been past the first round once in his 15-fight career, and that fight ended by TKO in the 2nd round. He is a great finisher and should gets some more challenges fighting for Legacy FC.
Almeida isn't looking for the submission or to grind out victories, he is coming for the KO, and has all the tools he needs to get it. He stalks his opponents and attacks with powerful punches, elbows and kicks at the first opening they give him. When he gets taken down, he is instantly looking to get back to his feet. He was rocked in a recent fight, but quickly able to regain his feet, and score his own brutal TKO victory.
He trains with Chute Boxe in Brazil and also spends time with the Gold Team Texas headed by UFC, Strikeforce and almost every other promotion veteran Jorge Patino Chute Boxe is far removed from its glory days but these are still good training environments for Almeida to continue his development, and get into the Big Show. Considering his all action style and ability to finish I expect Almeida to get signed in the very near future.
Aldmeida vs. Silva Great comeback by Almeida
Sterling was a 2 time division 3 All-American wrestler for SUNY- Cortland in upstate New York. He also spent some time as an assistant coach at the university after graduation. Before he was done with college he started training at Team Bombsquad and took several amateur fights. Sterling turned pro as soon as his college eligibility was finished and rushed out to 7-0 record in 2011-2012. He almost certainly would have been in UFC by now if he did not have to sit from August 2012-November 2013 with a shoulder injury. His return in November was very successful as he scored a 1st round rear naked choke victory over Joel Roberts at a CFFC event.
Aljamain likes to throw kicks on the feet, and it could be attributed to his long layoff, but he got himself off balance leading to a half slip, half knock down in his last fight. Throwing the front kicks helps Sterling establish range, but when he closes the distance he has a very explosive takedown. He is developing as a finisher as he has ended his last three fights with Rear Naked Chokes.
Sterling recently made the jump from Team Bombsquad to Serra-Longo for his training. Serra-Longo is home to UFC Middleweight Champion Chris Weidman and several other great fighters, this is an elite training environment for an elite level talent. There was a thread on Sherdog back in December that implied Sterling was weighing an offer from Bellator, while being told by UFC that he needed to get a couple more fights. He hasn't signed with Bellator yet and I don't suspect that he will at this point. I expect him to be in the UFC very soon with one or two more fights as it is going to be hard for them to leave a talent like this available for too long. Sterling has a ton of potential, and is in the right training environment to harness it; I think his ceiling is inside the top 5 in the world.
Summary: If you are worried that the Bantamweight division doesn't have a ton of quality depth right now, just wait 12-24 months and this division is going to be a lot of fun. I could easily see many of these guys continuing to evolve and settling into the top 10-15 right next to other quality young fighters like Renan Barao, Michael McDonald, TJ Dillashaw and Marlon Moraes.
Note: Just like Bekbulat Magomedov at Featherweight, I passed on adding Jumabieke Tuerxun due to the reports from last March that UFC had signed him. He has been unable to fight for UFC because he is under contract in China until this March.