Check the story stream on the right side of the page or the links at the bottom of the article for previous installments, in which I've discussed the methods behind the selection process and criteria for inclusion.
1) Mirsad Bektic, Featherweight (7-0)
Camp: American Top Team
Years Pro: 2.5
At long last, we've finally reached the top spot on the Searching for Future Champions countdown. A product of American Top Team, Mirsad Bektic immigrated to the United States from war-torn Bosnia as a child and settled in Nebraska. As one of his coaches, former UFC fighter Rich Attonito, put it, "He's seen hard times, you know? And hard times make hard people." That's a fitting way to describe him.
Bektic is the most physically overwhelming fighter on my list, a hulking mass of muscle, explosiveness, unchecked aggression, and raw power who doesn't so much defeat his opponents as pound them into a bloody pile of quavering jelly. Physicality is the name of Bektic's game, but don't be fooled: that physicality is only effective because it's controlled by a cunning, polished, and well rounded approach to fighting. He's not the best wrestler on this list (Henry Cejudo), nor is he the best striker (Tyrone Spong) or grappler (Pedro Munhoz), but he seamlessly blends all of his different skills together to create a whole that's worth much, much more than the sum of its parts. That's what MMA in 2014 is all about, and no fighter on this list better embodies the inseparability of the different components of the sport than Bektic.
After arriving in the United States, Bektic practiced karate for a number of years. That background isn't really visible in the variety of strikes he throws, but it's obvious in his incredibly quick feet, excellent movement, and ability to cover distance quickly. That karate-style blitz is the heart of his striking repertoire, and in fact it's really the foundation for the entirety of what he wants to do in the cage: Bektic's game is predicated on keeping his opponent relatively close to the fence, where he can unload hard punches and work his takedowns most effectively, but it's his footwork and movement that enable him to make this strategy work time and again. There's nothing particularly complex about his actual strike selection, as he flicks a sharp jab, hard cross, and punishing overhand, usually in two or three punch combinations, but he has excellent timing, a good innate sense of the range, and absolutely brutal power. That power is largely the product of clean weight transfer, especially with his right hand: his feet are almost always directly under him as he throws, and combined with his explosiveness, it imbues his shots with real, head-snapping pop. The threat of Bektic's takedowns helps ensure that his opponent's hands are lower than they should be, making his strikes all the more likely to land. It's clear that he has a deeper striking repertoire than this - there's plenty of video of him throwing nice round kicks at all levels in training and sparring - but it's not something he's shown all that much in his actual fights. Defensively, he pulls his head off-line as he throws and shows solid head movement, though he can be hit occasionally. In general, however, Bektic's offensive output is so overwhelming that his opponents rarely have the opportunity to throw much in return, especially with their backs to the cage.
As I mentioned above, the heart of Bektic's game involves using his quick feet and striking to force his opponent to the cage, where he can then duck under for the takedown. This GIF is a good example, as Bektic throws a hard 1-2 combination as he moves forward, secures an underhook, and then tosses his opponent to the mat:
Sequences like this are very much Bektic's bread and butter, whether the strikes lead to a double-leg blast, an upper-body throw, or a trip. He has a diverse array of takedowns, excellent timing on his reactive shots, and transitions seamlessly from one attempt to the next if his opponent stuffs the initial attempt. His technique on all of them is excellent despite his lack of a wrestling pedigree: his level changes are excellent and he really drives forward on his double-legs, he runs the pipe beautifully on his singles, and his footwork is smooth on trips and throws. In each case, his brutal strength makes it difficult to stay standing if Bektic decides he wants his opponent on the mat. Nobody's really tried hard to put him on his back, so it's difficult to say what his defensive wrestling really looks like, but there's no reason to think it's not at least solid. His clinch game isn't quite as advanced, and openings for knees and elbows go largely unexploited, but that's not out of the ordinary for a young fighter at his stage of development. His strength and clean positional technique in the clinch are promising, and he could eventually develop into a proficient in-fighter with more time and practice.
Once Bektic succeeds in putting his opponent on the mat, he really goes to work, showcasing some of the most relentless and devastating ground and pound I've ever seen. Check out this GIF for a primer:
He generates tremendous force from top position, even when his opponent has him tied up with wrist control and a closed guard, and he has the cardio to throw shots with this kind of power for all three rounds if necessary. To be clear, it's usually not necessary - only one opponent has survived long enough to lose a lopsided decision - but it bodes well against the tougher competition he's sure to face as he moves up the ranks. Don't be fooled into thinking that Bektic's top game relies solely on raw physicality, though. He has excellent guard passes that he integrates beautifully with his ground striking, a boulder-like base that makes him nearly impossible to shake off, and good posture that largely shuts down his opponent's submission attempts from the guard before they happen. In his more recent outings, he's complemented his ground and pound with the threat of topside submissions, namely the arm triangle, and I expect this facet of his game to blossom as he grows and develops. For good measure, Bektic is also a solid scrambler. In short, Bektic's ground game represents the marriage of exceptional strength and athleticism with surprisingly polished technique and awareness: look at the GIF and note how he keeps his opponent close to the cage to shut down his hips. He does little things like this consistently, and they point to both the quality of the coaching he's received and his own instincts.
Bektic has spent much of his time at American Top Team since the beginning of his professional career. There are few better places for a young prospect than ATT: his coaches are top-notch, and he has access to numerous UFC-level training partners at or near his weight. Moreover, all of them rave about Bektic, especially his work ethic. To quote Jason High, who was kind enough to weigh in on his training partner to me, "Mirsad is a beast. He works his ass off, and he's doing everything right," while Thiago Alves and Brad Pickett expressed similar sentiments.
Bektic has the training situation and the physical tools to develop into a legitimate future champion, but I'd caution that he might need a little more time before he makes the jump to the UFC. He's currently signed to the revamped Titan Fighting Championship (which has an out clause that allows fighters to leave for the UFC), and that's the perfect environment for him to develop a deeper toolbox before facing the world's best competition. He could certainly win fights against the bottom of the UFC's featherweight division right now, but there's no real downside to waiting a little while, and a lot of potential benefit to getting better without the pressure of a high-stakes bout hanging over his head. I'd be surprised, however, if he weren't on the UFC roster by this time next year.
Searching for Future Champions will be back with a full recap and breakdown of this year's list this week, so keep your eyes peeled.
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