When I set out to do a top 25 list of MMA prospects, I wanted to do two different things. First, while I based it on established criteria, a data-driven method, and deep technical analysis, the project was still a relatively straightforward attempt at a scouting report. The second goal, however, was to use these 25 prospects as the basis for a (relatively) longitudinal examination of outcomes. It's now been a month since the publication of the top prospect, American Top Team's Mirsad Bektic, and it's time to take another look at our study group.
One of the most important things I learned from my examination of Leland and Smoogy's World MMA Scouting Report was that prospects often take longer to develop and reach the upper echelons of the sport than we'd think, on the order of years instead of months, and that it's important not to focus on the short term at the expense of looking toward the future and eventual outcomes. There are many different arcs that a top prospect's career might take, from the meteoric rise of a Georges St-Pierre or Chris Weidman to the long and winding road of a Carlos Condit. Moreover, a lot of prospects simply never put it all together, and no scouting report (regardless of the sport) can ever hope for a perfect rate of success. The impetus behind studying these fighters over the long term is to refine the underlying methods of this scouting report and thereby improve the criteria according to which we evaluate prospects. For reference, read the recap I wrote upon completion of the list, check the Story Stream on the right side of the page for links to the various scouting reports, and here's the top 25:
25) Steve Mocco, HW
24) Michinori Tanaka, BW
23) Nick Newell, LW
22) Max Nunes, MW
21) Gleristone Santos, FW
20) Walter Gahadza, WW
19) Ramazan Emeev, MW
18) Rick Glenn, FW
17) Georgi Karakhanyan, FW
16) Jim Alers, FW
15) Tyrone Spong, LHW
14) Marlon Moraes, BW
13) Mansour Barnaoui, LW
12) Islam Makhachev, LW
11) Niklas Backstrom, FW
10) Sheymon Moraes, BW
9) Marif Piraev, WW
8) Pedro Munhoz, BW
7) Mike Rhodes, WW
6) Henry Cejudo, FLW
5) Lance Palmer, FW
4) Thomas de Almeida, BW
3) Justin Gaethje, LW
2) Aljamain Sterling, BW
1) Mirsad Bektic, FW
And now let's recap what they've done since I scouted them.
Signed to the UFC: Aljamain Sterling (1-0), Pedro Munhoz (0-1), Mike Rhodes (0-1), Jim Alers, Michinori Tanaka
Sterling won a hard-fought decision over the game and tough Cody Gibson at UFC 170 on extremely short notice, while Pedro Munhoz dropped a brutal matchup against probable top bantamweight contender Raphael Assuncao, also on late notice. Mike Rhodes lost a close but uninspiring decision to the unheralded journeyman George Sullivan on the last Fox card. Alers is scheduled to make his debut against once-hyped prospect Alan Omer in a fantastic matchup of UFC newcomers in Abu Dhabi next month. Tanaka's signing was announced, but he has yet to be scheduled for a fight.
Other notable signings: Mirsad Bektic and Gleristone Santos are both signed to the revamped Titan Fighting Championship. Santos was scheduled to compete on their first card last month, but he was pulled from the fight at the last minute (along with his teammate Pedro Nobre) due to the failure to receive the proper visa. Steve Mocco competed on the first WSOF Canada card against Smealinho Rama, and dropped a close decision, though he looked pretty bad doing so.
Results since the publication of their scouting report: 4-3 (1-2 UFC)
2. Aljamain Sterling: 1-0 (win vs. Cody Gibson, UFC 170, 2/22/14)
4. Justin Gaethje: 1-0 (win vs. Richard Patishnock, WSOF 8, 1/18/14)
6. Henry Cejudo: 1-0 (win vs. Elias Garcia, LFC 24, 1/31/14)
7. Mike Rhodes: 0-1 (loss vs. George Sullivan, UFC on Fox 10, 1/25/14)
8. Pedro Munhoz: 1-1 (win vs. Billy Daniels, RFA 12, 1/24/14; loss vs. Raphael Assuncao, UFC 170, 2/22/14)
25. Steve Mocco: 0-1 (loss vs. Smealinho Rama, WSOF Canada, 2/21/14)
3. Thomas de Almeida: vs. Vinicius Zani, MMA Super Heroes, March 30th
9. Marif Piraev: vs. Benjamin Brinsa, May 3rd
10. Sheymon Moraes: vs. Felipe Alves, Nitrix Champion Fight 20, April 12th
11. Niklas Backstrom: vs. Max Coga, Europa Fighting Championship, March 22nd
16. Jim Alers: vs. Alan Omer, UFC Fight Night: Nelson vs. Nogueira, April 11th
19: Ramazan Emeev: vs. Andrei Semenov, M-1 Challenge 47, April 4th. He was originally scheduled to face Bellator veteran Vyacheslav Vasilevsky.
20. Walter Gahadza: tentatively scheduled to fight in May, perhaps vs. Ryan Scope, in Cage Warriors.
22. Max Nunes: vs. Boris Miroshnichenko, ProFC 53, April 6th
Zani is a solid opponent for Almeida, but not really a massive step up in competition. Assuming he beats Zani (and he'll be a substantial favorite), then he should get a top prospect or solid veteran in a winner-takes-all shot at the UFC. Piraev has already beaten the accused neo-Nazi Brinsa (who was briefly signed to the UFC) once, tapping him with a triangle choke in the first round, and there's every reason to think he can do it again. I still think he could use more seasoning before getting a shot at the highest levels of competition, however. Backstrom is the darkest of dark horses, an uber-talented Swede with some really quality wins despite limited action, and the winner of his bout with Coga will likely receive a shot in the UFC for their next European outing. Coga is a good prospect in his own right, but his willingness to play off his back makes me think that Backstrom's violent and rock-solid top game will carry the day.
Sheymon Moraes has been out since December of 2012 with a knee injury; he had a fight under Muay Thai rules in Cambodia in November, and he's had some trouble finding willing opponents on the Brazilian regional scene, so it will be interesting to see how he looks in his return against Alves, a decent journeyman. Don't be surprised if the Team Nogueira product, who has more than 70 Muay Thai bouts on his record, is on the fast track as well. The Emeev-Vasilevsky winner is also a strong candidate for a UFC berth. Vasilevsky dropped a decision to Maiquel Falcao in Bellator a couple of years back and has a strong record overall, so a win here should put Emeev on a lot of promoters' radars stateside if he wasn't before. UPDATE: Vasilevsky is apparently injured and has been replaced by Andrei Semenov, so disregard this analysis.
Gahadza is another dark horse, an athletic prospect with excellent takedowns and a violent top game. Cage Warriors has an excellent track record of producing UFC-ready prospects, namely Conor McGregor, Cathal Pendred, and Jim Alers, so signing up with them would be an excellent first step in getting Gahadza closer to the highest levels of competition.
We'll be back next month for another look at these prospects. Questions? Concerns? Criticisms? Any upcoming fights that I've missed? Sound off in the comments.