Here are my top 10 Middleweight prospects in 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 Keith Berish
Keith made his MMA debut in 2009, and scored a win over a solid regional fighter in Phil Dace. He only fought once more between that fight and 2013. In 2013 he scored two stoppage victories, including a 2nd round submission over Patrick Walsh, who was on the list of fighters that will be on TUF: 19. Keith's next fight is scheduled for January 24th at Ring of Combat 47.
Keith has a solid wrestling base, and is a BJJ Brown Belt that lets him control opponents very well from the top. He trains and coaches at Black and Blue MMA in Kingston, NY. While this camp is not known for producing high end MMA talent, he is not far from the New York City, and New Jersey area that is flush with top camps. It would be an easy adjustment for Berish to jump to some of the better camps in his area.
#9 Ben Reiter
Reiter wrestled at Heavyweight for the University of Pennsylvania in 2007, but never was an elite talent at the division 1 level. I saw once article list him as an All-American wrestler, but he is not listed among the Penn All-Americans, and only lettered on their team for the one season. He is a physically strong fighter and uses his wrestling game very well in MMA as he likes to close the distance and use a clinch to take his opponents to the mat. Once he has his opponent on the mat he has very good ground and pound. His striking is a work in progress, but it is serviceable to get him to his wrestling.
Despite growing up in New York, and attending college in PA, Reiter has found an MMA home in the country of Peru, mostly in the Inka Fighting Championships. 11 of his 12 fights have been in Peru, and 10 of those have been for Inka FC. The biggest challenge of his career to date came two fights ago when he faced Strikeforce veteran Marcos Rogerio de Lima (11-2) in a fight that ended in a draw.
Reiter's camp is listed as F-14 Arequipa, a Muay Thai academy in Peru. They have not produced any fighters of note, so Reiter will probably be well served to spend time at other camps as he continues to develop. Ben is originally from Long Island, and there are many great camps in the NYC, NJ, or Philadelphia area if he wanted to return to the area he went to college.
Reiter - Zopilote - Reiter's pro debut, Yes they are not wearing gloves at the request of his opponent.
#8 Bakhtiyar Abbasov
After starting his career 2-2, Abbasov has reeled off seven straight victories, six by stoppage. He has won Judo, and Sambo championships in his native Azerbaijan, giving him a very good martial arts base for MMA.
Bakhtiyar has very good striking, and isn't afraid to throw spinning kicks, or head kicks. He has power but can get a little wild at time as his punches start to loop into some serious windmills. During these exchanges he also starts leaning in, and can get off balance trying to land a big punch. I could see a good wrestler taking advantage of his aggression to plant him with a double leg, or a striker uses the opportunity to counter. In the fights I've seen he has been able to fend off the takedowns of his opponents for the most part, but it will be a legitimate concern when he steps up in competition. He is also a very powerful fighter, and can deliver a slam of his own if his opponent gets in close.
Bakhtiyar trains with the Azerbaijan fight club in his native country. If he could move to one of the more prominent teams, his existing skill could be refined, and he could go from prospect to contender in short order. I think his ceiling is in the top 15.
#7 Ricardo Abreu
Abreu is a two time BJJ World silver medalist, and the 2010 European Champion. He holds several wins over Andre Galvao when both were Brown Belts. In 2006, Abreu stopped competing in BJJ due to a lack of sponsorship, but came back to active competition in 2009 where he scored his biggest accomplishments.
There is not sugarcoating that Abreu's MMA competition to this point has sucked, but he has done what good fighters should do, and that is finish all of his fights quickly. He also hasn't been tremendously active, with two fights in 2011, and one each in 2012, and 2013. Abreu has power in his hands that becomes more dangerous as people try to guard against his ground game.
He has trained at Nova Uniao when he was focused on BJJ coming through the ranks. Ricardo now trains with the Wand Fight Team alongside Wanderlei Silva, and recent UFC singee Beneil Dariush. Abreu has also helped fighters such as Tito Ortiz, and Michael Bisping prepare for fights over the year, so he has no shortage of connections to the big MMA shows.
#6 Bubba Bush
Bush is a very powerful wrestler, who likes to drag people to the mat and work them over on the mat. While he doesn't have the elite college background like fellow MW prospect Chris Honeycutt, Bush still uses he wrestling very effectively, and it is the cornerstone of his game. He also holds a brown belt in BJJ, so once the fight hits the mat, he can effectively work submissions.
He lost to UFC fighter Andrew Craig back in 2011 by 5th round TKO when he gassed late in a close and competitive fight. His other loss is by DQ for strike to back of head against Artenas Young in a fight that he was winning up to that point.
Bubba trains and is a coach at Brazos Valley MMA in College Station Texas, and American Fight Company. Neither of these teams have produced many high level fighters, but Bush has taken opportunities to train with Texas based UFC fighters Tim Kennedy, Andrew Craig, and Colton Smith in the past. If Bubba can link up with top training partners on a regular basis then he could continue to progress. I see his ceiling in the world top 20.
Bush is fighting Roger Narvaez (6-0) on February 21st during the LegacyFC 28 card. Winning that fight could get Bush some offers from Bellator, UFC, or WSOF.
Bush - Joshua Strahan Pro Debut
#5 Chris Honeycutt
Honeycutt comes to MMA armed with great amateur wrestling credentials. He wrestled for the Edinboro University program that has produced MMA fighters Josh Koscheck, Justin Wilcox, and Shawn Bunch. During his time at Edinboro, Honeycutt qualified for the National tournament four times, was an All-American two times, and in his senior year was a national finalist at 197lbs. Chris planned on moving to MMA before he finished his college career, and even has said that it is something he planned on since high school. Immediately after graduating from college, Honeycutt headed out to Fresno, CA to begin his training at Josh Koscheck's training facility out there.
Honeycutt is working to round out his game, but his striking is very much a work in progress at this point. When he encounters resistance, Chris is quick to switch back to his wrestling roots, and can use those skills to put just about anyone in the division on their back. His most recent fight was a five rounder, but under the Up and Comer's promotion, the rounds were only 3 minutes each. This leaves some questions about how he will handle the longer 5 minute rounds against better competition.
Training with Josh Koscheck at Dethrone Base Camp is a good move, as Koscheck was able to very successfully transition his wrestling skills into MMA. He will also be training with UFC, and Strikeforce veterans like John Salter, Billy Evangalista, and Lavar Johnson. These are solid training partners who will help a young fighter with an elite wrestling base continue to develop his all around game. In at least one interview, Honeycutt said that he might drop to Welterweight, but after wrestling his last year of college at 197lbs and competing in MMA to this point at 185lbs, I'm not sure that is still his plan. I think Honeycutt could be a top 10 fighter down the road.
Strickland got his start in MMA as teenager who just enjoyed fighting. He had spent time playing football, but when he moved to a school district that did not have a football program, he started to pick up fighting.
At only 21, Sean is a blend of athletic ability, youth, and in-cage experience that could blend perfectly as he enters his prime. He has improved his striking, and good power that has lead to five TKOs in his last seven fights. Strickland is not lost on the ground as he owns a Purple Belt in BJJ, and can use it to control the fight when it hits the mat.
Strickland trains at Cquence Jiu-Jitsu, and is the biggest fighter of note to come out of that camp. I've read that he makes frequent visits to other gyms around Southern California, so hopefully he is spending time working with gyms that have a history of getting guys ready for the highest level of the sport. It is tough to see him getting the type of training if he stays in his current camp and doesn't explore.
#3 Max Nunes
Nunes did not have an extensive Martial Arts base growing up, but has been impressive since turning pro in 2010. He is a well-rounded fighter, who likes to strike into the clinch, and then use trips to gain top position. Once on top, he uses his long arms to land some impressive ground and pound and finish the fights. He has good power, as he rocks opponents with strikes both standing and on the ground. Max showed good cardio, looking fresh in the 3rd round against fellow prospect Marcin Lazarz even though it was the first time he had been past the 2nd round.
His fights with Lazarz, and Jason Jones at Light-Heavyweight did open up some questions though. Nunes was rocked early in the Lazarz fight, and then was smothered for most of the 2nd after being taken down a couple of times. Jones was also able to take him down, and then work into a submission. If he moves to the bigger shows he will be exposed to more wrestlers, and will need to add to his bottom game. All that being said, Nunes finished the Lazarz fight, and now that he is at Middleweight he should be able to use his physical advantages better.
Max's ceiling is inside the top 10 in the world. He has a very good skill set, and should continue to improve as he steps up in competition. Patrick Wyman is very high on him in his Searching for Future Champions series, and I agree.
#2 Ramazan Emeev
Russia (Sherdog list him as being from Azerbaijan)
Emeev has a combat Sambo base, and is the M-1 Challenge middleweight champion. Ramazan has some real pop in his hands, and the ability to fight in all facets of the game that we are coming to see from the quality Sambo guys.
Two recent victories over UFC veteran Mario Miranda show that he is improving, and compete at higher levels. The first fight between the two was very close, but Emeev rocked Miranda early in the 2nd fight, and was able to get the stoppage in the 3rd round displaying the power he has in his hands.
Ramazan trains at Gorec with recent UFC signee Rashid Magomedov, so there is some talent in his camp. He is not a big Middleweight, and I believe that some of his early fights were at Welterweight. If he gets signed by UFC I wouldn't be surprised to see him drop weight. In either weightclass I could see him getting into the top 15 if he continues to develop.
Poland (Born in Chechnya)
What can I say about Khalidov that hasn't already. He is ranked 12th in the Bloodyelbow middleweight rankings, but there is almost no way he can rise any higher without signing a deal with UFC, or Bellator. I've heard rumors that he makes anywhere from $30K-$50K a fight for KSW in Poland, and has turned down a UFC offer in the past because he can make more in his home country while having a final say in his competition.
Khalidov is dangerous anywhere in the cage, and is a great finisher. He has powerful striking and very good submissions. The biggest question surrounding him is his gas tank, as he has faded late in the only recent blemishes on his record a loss to Jorge Santiago, and draw with Ryuta Sakkurai both from 2010.
Training at the KSW sponsored team, Khalidov is in a training environment with some of the best fighters in Poland including fellow KSW stalwarts, and top prospect like Jan Blachowicz.
I think Khalidov would handle the bottom third of the UFC's MW division pretty easily, be above .500 in the middle third, but struggle a lot against the top third of the division. He is the surest thing at Middleweight when it comes to a fighter that could win fights in the UFC.
Summary: There are some very good prospects on this list, with a mix of UFC ready and younger prospects that are probably a year away.