The idea that a handful of Bellator fighters could hold their own in the UFC is hardly a momentous statement.
The UFC is king in MMA, particularly because of the vast depth and talent of their overall roster. There's no disputing that. However, asserting that fighters in smaller promotions are somewhat comparable to the UFC's mid-tier populace, or at least worthy of an opportunity to test their mettle in the big leagues, is often received with haughty derision and sneering cynicism.
The standard ammo to shoot down their chances generally consists of rattling off the most elite UFC fighters in the corresponding weight class, i.e. the best in the world, and confidently professing how they'd trample the outsider. That would be a valid recourse to assess whether a non-UFC competitor belongs amongst the top-five fighters on the planet, but that's rarely the case; there are exceptions, such as my #1 candidate below.
For the bulk of this list: let's hold them to a fair and realistic standard by accounting for the UFC's bottom-floor talent as well as the penthouse level by finding an agreeable compromise somewhere in between. Therefore, with the featherweight division (145 pounds) standing as the targeted division for this exercise, please reference entirely worthwhile but low-on-the-totem-pole UFC reps like Dustin Neace (23-18), Josh Clopton (6-1), Godofredo Pepey (8-1), Akira Corassani (10-3), and Joey Gambino (9-2) along with the top-tier assassins such as Jose Aldo, Chad Mendes, Ricardo Lamas and Chan Sung Jung.
Though it might be unnecessary, allow me to include an important qualifier: I mean absolutely no disrespect to the entry-level featherweights. They've shown the potential to survive in the UFC, I'm thrilled they're getting a shot and I'm intrigued to see how they'll stack up. And that same philosophy applies to the following 5 Bellator featherweights, whom I believe are equipped to stay afloat in the UFC or appealing enough to warrant a chance to prove it.
1. Pat Curran (17-4) -- Bellator featherweight champion
After a medley of surprising upsets at lightweight (Roger Huerta and Toby Imada) and an admirably resilient decision loss to potent finisher Eddie Alvarez, Pat Curran dropped to featherweight and now holds Bellator's 145-pound strap and the #3-slot in Bloody Elbow's Meta-Rankings.
Upside: Curran stands out from most other non-UFC candidates for two reasons: he's competed against widely recognized lightweights in Huerta (once top 10) and Alvarez (now ranked the #10 lightweight) but, most importantly, he's a legitimate 3-dimensional fighter. 3D skill-sets are still quite uncommon in MMA, even at the top level -- for example, the only UFC champions that have firmly cemented 3-dimensional qualities are bantamweight Dominick Cruz, lightweight Ben Henderson and light-heavyweight Jon Jones.
Though I think everyone lent a nod of respect for Curran's stubborn durability against the high-flying Alvarez, there were some murmurs that he was too cautious and hesitant. Problem solved: Curran's transition to featherweight was accompanied by a ridiculous surge in offensive output, as outbursts of flying knees, high-kick knockouts, laser-precise boxing and even the seldom seen Peruvian Necktie submission have propelled him to 4-straight wins with 3 stoppages. His last was the merciless curb-stomping of Joe Warren to overtake the throne, which is depicted in the gif above.
For a detailed analysis of Curran's unreal defense and highly technical striking acumen, check out the gif-heavy Judo Chop that Jack Slack, Fraser Coffeen and I collaborated on.
Downside: His nickname -- "Paddy Mike"? I'm all for avoiding cliche nicknames but that one belongs bedazzled across a retired auto worker's sweatshirt.
2. Daniel Straus (21-4)
Straus has an unusual wrestling background. He was being trumpeted as a future superstar in high school but was declared academically ineligible toward the end of his senior year. This precluded him from the state tournament but Straus did win the nationals as a wild-card entry. While he can't boast the Division 1 or All-American accolades that distinguish most of MMA's top wrestlers, his potential is enormous, his takedowns are well attuned for the sport and he's not a one-trick pony.
Upside: Excellent wrestling, tight and improving kickboxing and the keen ability to mesh his striking and wrestling together. Straus' 21-4 record is a little deceiving: he started his career lukewarm with a 3-3 start (one loss was to Pat Curran) but has stomped on the accelerator since by winning 17 of his last 18. His wins in that sequence include former WEC lightweight Karen Darebedyan and former UFC middleweight Gideon Ray, while "Pitbull" Freire accounts for his sole defeat.
Downside: Though it reflects his wrestling dominance, Straus is a decision-heavy fighter, having won 13 of 21 by decision. Exciting stoppages attract many fans but, even though it's not as pretty, powerhouse wrestling is a respected competency, especially when conjoined with sound striking and submission defense.
3. Patricio Freire (17-1)
This entry speaks for itself: "Pitbull" Freire is one of two brothers repping the vaunted Team Nogueira; both are appreciated by fans for their brawling mentality, scorching striking and BJJ black belts. Freire's only stain on the carpet is a considerably contentious split decision against Joe Warren. "Pitbull" implements his dual-pronged offense with a fervent and balanced ratio, having blitzed 6 foes by TKO with 7 career submission wins.
Upside: Training with the likes of Anderson Silva, Lyoto Machida and the Nogueira brothers provides instant credibility, as does Freire's proven track record as an exciting finisher with A-level striking and submissions. Though he's not a standout wrestler, his strength and overall toughness still makes him a threat with takedowns and takedown defense.
Downside: For a once-beaten gamer with thunder in his hands like "Pitbull," there's just not too much to list other than a lack of elite opposition, which every non-UFC fighter is forced to deal with.
A longtime staple in the featherweight top-5 rankings, Marlon Sandro also hails from a prestigious fight club in Andre Pederneiras' Nova Uniao academy, where he trains alongside the world's best 145er in Jose Aldo. Sandro burst into the spotlight during Sengoku's 2009 Featherweight Grand Prix, opening up with a slick standing arm triangle on former King of the Cage champion Matt Jaggers and a ruthless TKO of now-UFC bantamweight Nick Denis in just 19 seconds.
Another conspicuous decision comes into play for Sandro, who was knocked from the brackets by Michihiro Omigawa in the promotion's unique "must decision" rule to prevent draws. Furthering the controversy was the the fact that one of Omigawa's coaches resided on the judging panel. Sandro's remaining losses are all to top-ranked featherweights in the UFC's Hatsu Hioki along with the aforementioned Bellator champ Curran and top contender Straus.
Upside: Much like Freire, Sandro has a BJJ black belt but prefers to head-hunt with his fists and has also shown a decent grasp of wrestling. The former Sengoku champion and King of Pancrase has finished 9 fights in the first frame and has one of the deadliest uppercuts in the business. Sandro is currently ranked as the #17 featherweight.
Downside: A lack of consistency. Sandro was expected to own Bellator's featherweight class when he debuted with a gaudy overseas reputation but didn't entirely meet expectations.
5. Genair da Silva, aka "Junior PQD" (13-4)
I'm quite proud to present my sleeper pick here. Junior PQD is partially responsible for Sandro's deflated stock, as the fellow countrymen squared off in their Bellator debuts and fought to a near draw; Sandro eked out a split decision. Fans were quick to stamp Sandro as over-rated when it was more of a case of their unfamiliarity with da Silva, who trains at the Luta Livre based Renovacao Fight Team in Brazil.
Junior PQD might not have the sturdy record to support a run in the UFC, but his balls out, pedal to the medal fighting style should compensate fully. If there's one thing fans admire in a fighter, it's the fearless bravado to take risks and look to finish the fight at all costs ... and that defines Genair da Silva.
Upside: For a fighter with little stateside experience, da Silva has shown promising use of wrestling techniques and a vicious arsenal of elbows, both standing and on the ground. Those skills in conjunction with his frenetically paced kickboxing makes Junior PQD akin to an old school Wanderlei Silva type who jettisons strategy and safety in order to pour out a furious offensive onslaught.
Downside: Experience and exposure. Da Silva was set for last year's featherweight tournament but failed to make weight. This removed him from the tourney and pushed him down to the undercard, where he took out his frustration on Bobby Reardanz's leg, cracking it repeatedly until the referee was forced to intervene and deem the win a TKO via leg kick. Da Silva does hold a win over TUF Brazil winner Rony "Jason" Mariano Bezerra.