We return for the fourth installment of our Searching for Future Champions series with a pair of promising featherweights. Check the story stream on the right side of the page for previous installments of this series, where I've discussed in depth the methods and criteria for inclusion. The earlier pieces are also linked at the bottom of the article.
17) Georgi Karakhanyan, Featherweight (23-3)
Team: Millennia MMA
Years Pro: 7.25
World Series of Fighting's current featherweight champion, Georgi Karakhanyan, is as experienced and well-rounded a prospect as you're likely to find out there right now. Two of his three losses were dealt by Bellator champions Joe Warren and Patricio Freire, which gives you an idea of the level of competition Karakhanyan has faced over the course of his seven-year professional career. He's currently riding a nine-fight winning streak, with victories over veterans Din Thomas, Hiroyuki Takaya, and Waylon Lowe to go along with a submission finish of uber-prospect Lance Palmer. Karakhanyan brings a diverse and vicious game into the cage that's complemented by his excellent athleticism, and the only reason that he isn't higher on the list is the fact that he's already deep into his career. "Insane" is effectively a finished product at this point, but that finished product is a fine thing indeed.
While he doesn't pack enormous power in his punches, Karakhanyan is a smooth and polished striker with strong movement, a good command of angles and footwork, and a diverse array of jumping knees and spinning strikes to complement his excellent command of the basics. A karate practitioner from a very young age, the resulting quick feet and ultra-fast kicking game remain the most salient and effective part of his striking repertoire, though there's reason to believe he's getting better at keeping his feet under him and thus generating better power in his punches. Karakhanyan's striking defense leaves a little to be desired; while he effectively controlled the distance and landed the cleaner shots against relative striking novice Lance Palmer, the Alpha Male product was repeatedly able to close the distance against the taller Karakhanyan and land quick combinations on the inside. It's the same tendency that got him knocked out by Patricio Freire a couple of years ago, and the lack of progression in that facet is a touch worrisome. (UPDATE: Karakhanyan informed me on twitter that he knew he was down two rounds against Freire and thus had to take the chance in order to win, which shows admirable in-fight self-awareness.) A good comparison for his striking game might be Tarec Saffiedine, especially the sharp low kicks after punching combinations and the tendency to find a nice rhythm on the feet, though Karakhanyan has more power in his hands.
Offensive wrestling and the clinch game are not Karakhanyan's strongest suits, though he occasionally shoots a nice single-leg. He's had some trouble with guys pushing him up against the fence and grinding him, as Din Thomas was able to do for significant portions of their bout. Defensively, however, he's much stronger: he effortlessly stuffed a number of excellent takedown attempts from Palmer, including several where the four-time All-American was deep on his hips, and he's spoken publicly about the time he's been putting in on the mat to rectify a deficiency that caused him problems earlier in his career.
Karakhanyan shines on the ground. He's an exceptionally dangerous scrambler, and is adept at finding submissions in transition, especially his ultra-tight guillotine. He's perfectly willing to lock up the neck and jump guard from the clinch, though he's not as reckless as that statement might imply - he picks his spots carefully, and is unlikely to burn out his arms on pointless attempts. From top position, he shows outstanding submission defense and solid if not outstanding ground striking. Karakhanyan also has a strong and active guard: he chains submission attempts together nicely, keeps his hips active, and will strike off his back to keep his opponent off-balance while he hunts for triangles and the like. Grappling is probably Karakhanyan's best skill set.
"Insane" currently trains out of Millennia MMA in southern California. It's a fine mid-level camp, home to such fighters as Lorenz Larkin and the late Shane del Rosario; Karakhanyan might need to move to a larger camp to reach his full potential, though he's still improving and winning fights as is. In any case, as I alluded to above he's basically a finished product, without the upside of some of the other fighters on the list; however, he's a strong candidate to reach the top 10 or even higher if things break right, and Karakhanyan is ready for that kind of competition now.
Georgi Karakhanyan vs Din Thomas//// Legacy FC 19 (via ArachPortal)
Georgi Karakhanyan - new HL - Road to the UFC (HD) (via ArachPortal)
16) Jim Alers, Featherweight (12-1)
Team: Tough as Nails MMA
Years Pro: 5.25
This name should be familiar to those who remember Leland and Smoogy's scouting report from two years ago, because Florida's Jim Alers was featured as the fifth-ranked featherweight on their list. He's gone a perfect 6-0 since then, racking up a strong series of wins against excellent competition in CWFC as their featherweight champion. He was scheduled for a fight with Conor McGregor in September of 2012, but the Irish phenom pulled out due to injury. If he hadn't, then there's a strong possibility that we wouldn't be talking about the verbose McGregor with nearly as much relish now: that's how good Alers is. He brings exceptional athleticism, solid striking, and beautifully integrated wrestling and grappling into the cage, and he's improving at a rapid clip.
The kindergarten teacher packs solid power in his hands. Alers' boxing is basic, but generally effective: he keeps his chin tucked, his hands high, and throws hard 1-2 combinations right down the pipe as he comes forward. Additionally, he's shown flashes of a developing counter game, and he's gotten better at keeping his head moving in the pocket, though he remains fairly hittable in exchanges. His footwork and movement likewise leave a bit to be desired, but they're improving. All told, power and willingness to engage minimize the effects of the flaws in his game.
In any case, striking is only the bridge that gets Alers to his destination: he's adept at using his punches to set up his level changes and clinch entries, which are quick, explosive, and effective. Alers excels at getting deep onto his opponent's hips and dragging them down with a variety of singles and doubles, especially when they back up to the cage. He also has a good command of clinch takedowns, including trips and the occasional lateral drop. He could stand to work on his clinch striking: he's beastly strong when he's pressing his opponent into the cage, and consistently creates openings for strikes, but doesn't exploit them. Alers might not possess the fluid wrestling technique of a D-1 All-American, but he makes up for it with his athleticism and especially his ability to disguise his entries with his striking.
Alers is a rare beast, the grappler who has the takedown chops (he wrestled throughout high school) to consistently implement his lethal ground game. A winner of the ADCC East Coast trials, he shines anywhere on the mat: he has excellent guard passes, a solid guard that's very difficult to neutralize, and outstanding submissions in transition. Moreover, he beautifully integrates his powerful ground striking with his overall grappling game, making him very difficult to deal with. Want to stop his guard pass? He'll punch you in the face repeatedly. Defend against his ground striking? He'll pass your guard and work to a dominant position, with nicely-chained submission attempts following shortly thereafter. Despite his solid striking and good wrestling, grappling is Alers' bread and butter, and he has no illusions about that fact.
A professional for more than five years, Alers is ready for a step up in competition right away. He's perfectly capable of winning a Bellator tournament or competing with the bottom half of the UFC's featherweight division, and moreover, he's still improving. He currently trains at a number of smaller gyms in Florida; most fighters at smaller camps tend to hit a wall, but Alers has continued to improve at a rapid clip, so he could be an exception to the general correlation between camp size and future success. As Zane Simon pointed out in the comments, he's also done some work at Roufusport, and the desire to build on his skills is clearly there.
Given his athleticism and skills, Alers could easily crack the top ten of his division, and possibly higher.
Cage Warriors 59: Jim Alers v Martin Svensson (via Cage Warriors TV)
Cage Warriors 53: Jim Alers v Joni Salovaara (via Cage Warriors TV)
Jim "The Beast" Alers (via tonydicarlo)