Searching for Future Champions: June 2014 update

Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sp

Patrick Wyman takes a half-yearly look back, complete with GIFs and video, at the 25 Searching for Future Champions prospects and their progression.

When I set out to do a top 25 list of MMA prospects, I wanted to focus on 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. This is the third installment in that process; check out the first and second here. I forewent a recap in May, because not that much happened, but there's been a flurry of recent fights and a number of bookings over the last few weeks.

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 too much on the short term at the expense of looking toward future 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.

The impetus behind studying these fighters over the long term was 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 take a look at how they've fared since I first scouted them.

Signed to the UFC: Mirsad Bektic (1-0), Aljamain Sterling (1-0), Mike Rhodes (0-1), Pedro Munhoz (1-1), Niklas Backstrom (1-0), Jim Alers (1-0), Michinori Tanaka

Overall results: 15-3, 5-2 in the UFC

1. Mirsad Bektic: 1-0 (win vs. Chas Skelly, 4/19, UFC on Fox 11)

2. Aljamain Sterling: 1-0 (win vs. Cody Gibson, 2/22, UFC 170)

3. Justin Gaethje: 1-0 (win vs. Richard Patishnock, 1/18, WSOF 8; WSOF lightweight champion)

4. Thomas de Almeida: 1-0 (win vs. Vinicius Zani, 3/30, MMA Super Heroes 3)

6. Henry Cejudo: 1-0 (win vs. Elias Garcia, 1/31, Legacy Fighting Championship 27)

7. Mike Rhodes: 0-1 (loss vs. George Sullivan, 1/25, UFC on Fox 10)

8. Pedro Munhoz: 2-1 (win vs. Billy Daniels, RFA 12, 1/24; loss vs. Raphael Assuncao, 2/22, UFC 170; win vs. Matt Hobar, The Ultimate Fighter Brazil 3 Finale, 5/31)

10. Sheymon Moraes: 1-0 (win vs. Felipe Alves, 4/12, Nitrix Champion Fight 20)

11. Niklas Backstrom: 2-0 (win vs. Max Coga, 3/22, Europa Fighting Championship; win vs. Tom Niinimaki, UFN Berlin, 5/31)

14. Marlon Moraes: 1-0 (vs. Josh Rettinghouse, 3/29, WSOF 9; WSOF bantamweight champion)

16. Jim Alers: 1-0 (vs. Alan Omer, 4/11, UFC Fight Night Abu Dhabi)

20. Walter Gahadza: 1-0 (vs. Shaun Lomas, UWC 24, 4/19)

21. Gleristone Santos: 1-0 (vs. Alvin Robinson, Titan Fighting Championship 28, 5/16)

22. Max Nunes: 1-0 (vs. Boris Miroshnichenko, 4/6, ProFC 53)

25. Steve Mocco: 0-1 (vs. Smealinho Rama, 2/21, WSOF Canada)

Let's discuss some of the recent action. Mirsad Bektic overcame a brutal illegal knee to take a hard-fought decision against Chas Skelly at the Fox show in Orlando and flashed some drastically improved striking skills to complement his wrestling and top games, though it's clear that he still has a lot to learn to compete against the UFC's best. At the Abu Dhabi card shortly beforehand, Jim Alers showed why people have been high on him for years in taking a close decision from the likewise-heralded Alan Omer. Black House's Pedro Munhoz got back on track after a brutal debut against Raphael Assuncao with a vicious knockout win over Matt Hobar on May 31st (click for the GIF), showing off heretofore-unseen power in his hands and kicks.

The most impressive UFC debut, however, belongs to Sweden's relatively unheralded Niklas Backstrom. He stepped up on two weeks' notice against the experienced and well-rounded Tom Niinimaki at last Saturday's Berlin card and locked up an amazing, no-hooks rear-naked choke. Check out the GIF, and then take a look at TP Grant's excellent breakdown.

Outside the UFC, Brazilian Top Team's Gleristone Santos finally made his US debut for the revamped Titan Fighting Championship in May, brutalizing UFC vet Alvin Robinson on the feet and on the ground for the TKO stoppage in the second round. Check out the GIF, courtesy of the talented Caposa. Santos is ready for a step up in competition, and possesses all the skills of a top-15 featherweight right now.

Thomas Almeida put on a hell of a performance in wearing down and eventually finishing Vinicius Zani back on March 30th:

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Sheymon Moraes made his return from a long layoff due to a knee injury in April with a slick counter elbow KO:

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Moraes recently signed a contract with World Series of Fighting, and he's one to keep an eye on. If he continues to develop under the expert tutelage of the Nogueira brothers, the experienced Muay Thai competitor might end up being the best of this whole bunch of talented young prospects. He also possesses boatloads of swagger and charisma, which certainly doesn't hurt his chances.

Now that we've recapped the recent action, let's take a look at what the future has in store for these guys.

Upcoming fights:

2. Aljamain Sterling: vs. Hugo Viana, UFC Fight Night Atlantic City, 7/16

3. Justin Gaethje: vs. Nick Newell, WSOF 11, 7/5

4. Thomas Almeida: vs. Caio Machado, Legacy Fighting Championship 32, 6/20 (for Legacy BW title)

5. Lance Palmer: vs. Nick LoBosco, WSOF 10, 6/21

7. Mike Rhodes: vs. Robert Whittaker, UFC Fight Night Auckland, 6/28

12. Islam Makhachev: vs. Yuri Ivlev, M-1 Challenge 49, 6/7

16. Jim Alers: vs. Lucas Martins, UFC Fight Night Atlantic City, 7/16

17. Georgi Karakhanyan: vs. Rick Glenn, WSOF 10, 6/21

18. Rick Glenn: vs. Georgi Karakhanyan, WSOF 10, 6/21

20. Walter Gahadza: vs. Ryan Scope, Made4theCage 15, 8/23

22. Max Nunes: vs. Scott Askham, BAMMA Fight Night, 6/7

23. Michinori Tanaka: vs. Roland Delorme, UFC 174, 6/14

24. Nick Newell: vs. Justin Gaethje, WSOF 11, 7/5

Analysis:

Aljamain Sterling should be a mild favorite over Hugo Viana in Atlantic City next month. Viana is a perfectly solid fighter with potent if wild striking and excellent takedown defense, so he presents an interesting challenge for a prospect who still relies on his wrestling and grappling to win fights. Still, the Funkmaster will be coming in off a full camp (unlike his debut, which he took on three weeks' notice) under the tutelage of Matt Serra and Ray Longo, and that bodes well for his chances here.

Gaethje-Newell should be a fantastic scrap. Gaethje will be and should be the substantial favorite; Newell's lack of a left hand bodes poorly against a guy who throws the kind of heat-seeking rights of which Gaethje's capable. On the other hand, Newell's incredibly dangerous with his wrestling and submissions in transition, and if Gaethje gets careless - it's been known to happen - it wouldn't be shocking if he locked up a choke.

There's every reason to think that Thomas Almeida will cruise through his fight against Caio Machado for the Legacy bantamweight title. He's 16-0 with 16 finishes (12 KO, 4 SUB), and I have to think a UFC offer will be waiting for him after he takes the belt home: he has absolutely nothing left to prove on the regional level.

I don't know much about Lance Palmer's opponent, Nick LoBosco, but a quick glance at his record reveals little reason to think that he'll be competitive with one of Alpha Male's prize prospects. He had a rough outing against Georgi Karakhanyan back in December that showcased some of the limitations of his game: simply put, he ran out of ideas after a strong first couple of rounds against a much more experienced opponent. Hopefully, a seven-month layoff will help to deepen his skill sets.

Rhodes-Whittaker is one of the more intriguing battles of young and talented UFC signees that'll take place in the next couple of months. There's no getting around the fact that Rhodes looked mediocre in his UFC debut, but that'll happen when you have to cut more than 30 pounds on ten days' notice. Whittaker, on the other hand, is on his way to becoming a fairly major disappointment. He has the physical tools, but his game isn't developing the way it should for such a promising guy. Rhodes, on the other hand, has the benefit of Duke Roufus and top-notch training partners, and with a full camp under his belt he has a pretty good shot at bouncing back.

Islam Makhachev has been really under the radar for most of his career, but the lifelong training partner of Khabib Nurmagomedov is a talented offensive wrestler, striker, and grappler with a deep Sambo base. He makes his return after a ten-month layoff this weekend against the unheralded Yuri Ivlev. If Makhachev can shore up his takedown defense (a drop to his natural weight of 145 should help with that) and string together a few more wins, he could be a nice sleeper pick.

After an awesome scrap with Alan Omer, Jim Alers will make his return to the octagon against Chute Boxe's precocious and talented Lucas Martins. Martins is a great athlete with a ton of potential, but he's still extremely raw, and I doubt he'll be able to overcome Alers' polished and ever-improving game.

Georgi Karakhanyan and Rick Glenn will meet in a battle of polished and advanced prospects. Karakhanyan will probably be the favorite - he's been more active lately and has a better strength of competition - but if he tries to mess around on the feet and in the clinch against Glenn's high-pressure, volume-based style, he's going to find himself in real trouble. People haven't been talking about this bout as much as Gaethje-Newell, but it's an intriguing fight with the potential to be a real barnburner.

Gahadza-Scope has been in the offing since August of last year, and it looks like it'll finally happen. Gahadza is another dark horse of a prospect, training out of a small gym in England, but he has peerless physical tools and a few surprisingly advanced aspects of his game. The winner of this fight should be on the cusp of a UFC offer. Speaking of England, Nunes-Askham is coming up on Saturday, and it should decide the top middleweight prospect in Europe, maybe in all of MMA. Askham is likely to be the favorite, but it's a competitive fight, especially now that Nunes has started training with the crew at Allstars.

Finally, Michinori Tanaka is set to make his UFC debut against the perennially underrated Roland Delorme. Delorme will have a substantial edge in size, experience, and the overall depth of his skill sets, and I'd be surprised if Tanaka doesn't drop to flyweight afterward.

The rest:

Henry Cejudo pulled out of a planned Legacy title fight against UFC vet Damacio Page. This is the latest red flag in an MMA career that's been full of them, and at this point there's no reason to think that he's ever going to dedicate himself to the sport. Speaking of Olympic wrestlers, there's been no sign of Steve Mocco since his loss to Smealinho Rama back in February, and it's looking more and more like he's exploring other options. Tyrone Spong is out for the foreseeable future with a broken leg, and even when he does return it's hard to see him focusing on MMA considering the kickboxing opportunities available to him in Glory.

Ramazan Emeev hasn't fought since last year, and has had a number of scheduled bouts fall through, but hopefully we'll see him back in action before too long; ditto for Marif Piraev. The uber-talented Mansour Barnaoui has also fallen off the radar since beating UFC vet Colin Fletcher back in December, but I'd give it a few more months before starting to worry. He's a young guy with a bunch of other interests, and I think we'll see him fighting again before the end of the year.

We'll be back late next month for another recap. Questions? Critiques? Concerns? Fights that I've missed? Hit me up in the comments or on Twitter.

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