Check the story stream on the right side of the page or the links at the bottom of the article for previous installments, where I've laid out the methods behind the list and the criteria for inclusion.
4) Thomas de Almeida, Bantamweight (15-0)
Camp: Chute Boxe/Macaco Gold Team
Years Pro: 2.75
With fifteen finishes (fourteen in the first round) in fifteen outings, undefeated Thomas de Almeida is building some justifiable hype on the Brazilian and American regional circuits. A 31-fight veteran (29-2) of the Brazilian Muay Thai scene, that deep striking base is obvious in Almeida's deep repertoire of vicious counter combinations and expert application of leverage and knee strikes in the clinch. Almeida is a highlight-reel finisher with brutal power, excellent athleticism, a polished striking game, and good-enough ancillary skill sets that he could probably compete in the UFC today. If he waits a little longer to make his debut and round out his game, however, Almeida could well become one of the scariest prospects we've seen.
Clean, technical striking is Almeida's bread and butter, and he sets a blistering pace from the moment the first bell sounds. He has good footwork and movement, and likes to find his range with his quick jab and sharp inside and outside low kicks as he circles. Unlike many counter-strikers, Almeida won't simply wait for his opponent to make a move; instead, he employs a variety of strategies to force his opponent into engaging in Almeida's wheelhouse. The low kicks are a means to establishing Almeida's preferred distance and timing and showing them that staying at kicking range is a poor idea. Once his opponent begins to throw, Almeida really lets loose. His timing is absolutely superb, whether he's throwing a blistering three-to-five punch step-back combination or a vicious step-in elbow. Here's a GIF of one of those elbows:
The way that Almeida pulls his head off-line as he throws the elbow is worth noting, and it's a consistent facet of his game whether he's tossing out single shots at range to bait his opponent or unloading hard combinations in an exchange. This kind of head movement is Almeida's best defense, though he's also adept at parrying and blocking punches from his high, tight guard. It's possible to look at the tape of Almeida and think that he's lacking a bit defensively. I'd argue, however, that the fact that he's a bit hittable is more a function of his unrelenting pace than any particularly glaring flaw: percentage-wise, he avoids the vast majority of his opponents' shots, even in close-range exchanges. On the whole, Almeida is an exceptionally talented striker, with a counter game light-years beyond what his youth would suggest. He might not have the incredible diversity of skill or international experience of a Sheymon Moraes or Tyrone Spong, but he's as good a striker as any the UFC or Bellator's bantamweight division has to offer.
As you'd expect, wrestling isn't Almeida's strong suit at this stage in his career. His takedown defense isn't exactly bad - he knows how to sprawl, to apply head pressure and limp-leg against single-legs, and to use balance and leverage to avoid throws and trips in the clinch - but it simply hasn't been consistently tested against top-flight competition. It seems likely that a decorated and explosive wrestler would be able to take him down repeatedly if the fight were to happen tomorrow. Chute Boxe isn't exactly known for its wrestlers, while Macaco Gold Team doesn't have a wrestling coach listed, so whether he'll be able to acquire the necessary knowledge at those facilities is an open question. Almeida's much better in the clinch, though: he has excellent positional knowledge and transitions smoothly, uses excellent leverage and small movements to create openings for strikes or break off, and throws nasty knees, elbows, and punches in tight, as you'd expect from a fighter with a Chute Boxe pedigree. He's very strong, and no opponent has succeeded in pushing him around or consistently working strikes at close range. While his wrestling probably needs to improve to compete against the UFC or Bellator's best, Almeida's clinch game is already top-notch.
Almeida's ground game is a bit of an open question. I don't think I've ever seen him shoot for a takedown, and his opponents succeed in getting him to the mat rarely enough that extended grappling sequences are few and far between. He has, however, demonstrated the ability to rapidly scramble back to his feet if taken down, and in those brief instances where he has spent some time on the mat he's shown active hips on his back, a heavy base on top, and brutal power in his ground and pound. My bet is that he's a perfectly competent if not outstanding grappler, but it's difficult to say on the basis of the available footage. He does have some submission wins on his ledger, but none over highly skilled competition.
Upside is the name of the game here. Almeida's striking is already next-level, and in fact it's better than all but one or two fighters currently competing at bantamweight in the UFC. His physical tools are outstanding: he has fantastic explosiveness, strength, and power in his strikes, so there's no question about whether he's athletic enough to succeed against the best in the world. The big question mark, as far as I'm concerned, is whether his training environment is suitable for producing championship-level fighters. There's no question that Chute Boxe is long past its mid-2000s glory days, but it's had some success lately in producing fighters like Felipe Arantes and Lucas Martins, and those guys just aren't far enough into their careers to have a good idea of what they'll look like as finished products. I asked a few people with connections to the camp what it's like there now, and they assure me that there are still some good coaches there, so it's entirely possible that it's not an issue. In any case, Almeida could use another two or three fights against quality prospects or UFC veterans (perhaps a year in total) to round out his game, but if he continues to develop, watch out: the top 5 is a real possibility.
25-23: Steve Mocco, Michinori Tanaka, and Nick Newell
22-20: Max Nunes, Gleristone Santos, and Walter Gahadza
19-18: Ramazan Emeev and Rick Glenn
17-16: Georgi Karakhanyan and Jim Alers
15-14: Tyrone Spong and Marlon Moraes
13-12: Mansour Barnaoui and Islam Makhachev