The clash between featherweights Jim Alers and Alan Omer might be buried deep on the prelims of this Friday's Abu Dhabi Fight Night, but don't be fooled by the bout's position on the card: these are two of the very best prospects at their weight in the world. Alers was sixteenth on my Searching for Future Champions list, and fourth among featherweights, while Omer was the fourth-ranked featherweight on Leland and Smoogy's World MMA Scouting report way back in 2011. Alers was their fifth-ranked featherweight more than two years ago, which should give us an idea of how long the two have been around.
These two up-and-comers make for an intriguing case study. I've been doing some large-scale digging into the UFC's track record with prospects, focusing on how long it really takes for young fighters to develop into high-level competitors, and the big takeaway has been that there are effectively two separate paths to the big show. The first is the one exemplified by such luminaries as Cain Velasquez, Jon Jones, Chris Weidman, Ryan Bader, and Chad Mendes, to name only a few, and it's generally the path followed by hyped American prospects from large camps. For these fighters, it only takes a couple of years - one for Cain, two for Weidman, less than two for Bader and Mendes, and a bare few months for Jones - to tear through the regional promotions and make it to the UFC. These are the true phenoms, fighters who coast on a dominant skill set (usually wrestling), raw athleticism, and power until their ancillary skills develop to the point where they can compete in any phase of the fight.
The second path is the one more often followed by Brazilian or European prospects, including Jose Aldo, Renan Barao, Raphael Assuncao, and Conor McGregor, to give a few examples. These fighters generally take between four and seven years to make their debuts; whether this is because of the difficulty of scouting foreign prospects or because it genuinely takes these guys longer to develop into UFC-quality fighters is difficult to say. I lean strongly toward the former, for the simple reason that when these fighters do face top competition, their years of experience against solid regional prospects and journeymen tends to serve them well.
Alers and Omer are outstanding examples of the second type. Alers is an American, but has spent most of his career (almost five and a half years now) fighting around the world in Cage Warriors. Omer, who made his professional debut way back in 2006, lives and trains in Germany. After making the final cut for the Bisping-Miller season of The Ultimate Fighter but being forced to pull out due to injury, he took a break of more than two years before returning to action in February, and has competed exclusively in Germany, the UK, and Poland. This is the road less traveled for high-level prospects, but it's one that should be recognized as a legitimate path with serious potential benefits for those who take it.
The real upside of this kind of extensive experience and the additional years of training that go along with it is the depth of the fighters' skill sets. It's not uncommon for even extremely talented young prospects on the fast track to get into a tough fight and simply run out of ideas after a strong round or two: it happened to Albert Tumenov against Ildemar Alcantara a couple of months back, to Mike Rhodes against George Sullivan, and while it was a controversial decision, one could say the same of Anthony Pettis' early-career loss to Bart Palaszewski. When you've only been competing as a professional for a couple of years, there are bound to be more-or-less glaring holes in your game. When you've been competing for five or six years, the thousands of additional hours spent in the gym tend to minimize this issue. With all of that said, let's take a hard look at what Alers and Omer bring into the cage.
Alers has racked up a strong series of wins against excellent competition in Cage Warriors 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 former kindergarten teacher packs solid power in his hands. Alers' boxing is relatively basic, but highly 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 counter game, and he's gotten better at keeping his head moving in the pocket, though he remains a touch hittable in exchanges. His footwork and movement likewise leave a bit to be desired, but they're improving. All told, power and the willingness to engage minimize the flaws in his game. Here's a GIF of Alers at his best, keeping his feet under him and throwing hard shots as he moves forward:
In any case, striking is only the bridge that gets Alers to his preferred 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 both his athleticism and his uncanny phase-shifting ability. Here's a GIF of Alers integrating his clinch striking with a gorgeous lateral drop:
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, especially his D'Arce and guillotine chokes. Moreover, he beautifully integrates his powerful ground striking with his overall grappling game. 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 excellent wrestling, grappling is Alers' bread and butter, and he has no illusions about that fact. Here's Alers hitting his signature D'Arce against BJJ black belt Marcio Cesar:
And here's video of Alers' last two fights:
Let's not forget about Alan Omer. Prior to his vicious first-round TKO win in February, he'd been on the shelf for more than two years while dealing with a variety of injuries and pursuing his life outside of MMA. Our own Zane Simon interviewed Omer last week, and the Iraqi Kurd had a lot of interesting things to say about his early life and path to the UFC; I highly recommend that you check it out.
Skill-wise, Omer is polished in nearly every facet of his game. He combines venomous submission grappling with excellent striking both at range and in the clinch, and while defensive wrestling has been a real problem for him in the past - he claimed at one point that his bottom game was good enough that he didn't really need it - that too seems to have improved during his two-year layoff.
Let's start with striking. Omer is a smooth kickboxer with excellent head movement, deceptive, stalking footwork that's reminiscent of Gegard Mousasi, chopping low kicks, and big power in his hands. His counter game in particular is crisp and dangerous. He has a tendency to keep his hands a bit low, he's a touch hittable, and he's been a bit too content to throw single strikes instead of combinations, but those flaws hardly outweigh the positives. Look at how he uses his left to steer his opponent into a vicious right hand along the fence in this GIF:
As I mentioned before, wrestling has been a problem for Omer in the past, but his latest outing showed signs of improvement. He sprawled quickly and limp-legged very nicely out of a single leg attempt, but most importantly he demonstrated a real commitment to delivering offense in transition. Look at the stream of punches and hammerfists he threw when his opponent was locked onto a single:
If anything, Omer is even better on the mat. He maintains a heavy base from top position and has a deadly guard; his triangle in particular is quick and lethal, and it's almost made up for the flaws in his takedown defense. With that said, he can still be controlled by a big, strong opponent with good submission defense, and he's more than a bit hittable on his back.
Here's some video of Omer in action:
These are two of the brightest prospects at 145, and Alers and Omer are excellent examples of the benefits of waiting a while to take the step up into the UFC. They have very few, if any, real holes in their game, and they have the benefit of a deep well of experience against some of the best competition the regional scene has to offer. Some prospects shoot through the smaller promotions like they're shot out of a cannon, and others take the road less traveled; in this case, the advantages of the latter are clear.