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Searching for Future Champions: MMA's Top 25 Prospects, 25-23

We take a look at the first three prospects of the top 25 in our Searching for Future Champions series.


Welcome to the second installment of the Top 25 Prospects in MMA. We'll travel around the world, from south Florida to Japan and Brazil to the United Kingdom and everywhere in between, to bring you the most promising young fighters in the world. In case you missed the first piece, remember that we're focusing on fighters who started young, who are only a few years into their careers, with serious bonus points for those who train at high-level camps. Additionally, fighters who have already appeared in the UFC are ineligible, as are those currently signed to Bellator. Most importantly, this isn't a list of the 25 fighters who are most prepared for the highest levels of competition, but those who have the best chance of becoming mainstays of their division's top ten and potentially challenging for a title down the road. Without further ado, let's jump into the list.

25) Steve Mocco, Heavyweight (4-0)

Age: 31

Camp: American Top Team

Although he's only been fighting for a year, many have pegged the former Olympic wrestler Mocco as a potential future star in the heavyweight division. Why? I'll cite Bloody Elbow's own eminently quotable Mike Riordan, who wrote extensively about Mocco when his move to MMA first became public:

Steve was the greatest high school heavyweight...ever. He was built like something imagined by Maurice Sendak and he wrestled with brutality, a brutality he did not hesitate to unleash on any quality of competition. Whether he was wrestling the pud who took up wrestling because it was the only sport without cuts, or a collegiate All-American, Steve would attempt to obliterate his opponent with extreme prejudice.

A description like this certainly doesn't bode poorly for someone whose job is pummeling or twisting another human being into unconsciousness or submission. So what does Mocco bring to the table? Obviously, he's a truly world-class wrestler, with a seventh-place finish in Beijing and two NCAA Division One national championships under his belt. He also has a significant amount of experience in Judo. Check out his signature foot sweep:



That Judo background, combined with his extensive wrestling experience, translates to a nearly unshakeable top game. Three of his four wins have come by topside submission (arm triangle, north-south choke, and kimura), and there's no reason to think that he won't continue to improve that facet of his game. His squat frame (6' even) should help him push opponents up against the fence and aid him as an in-fighter, though we haven't seen much of that from him yet. His striking is still a work in progress, obviously, and there's no reason to think that he'll ever rival his fellow Olympian Daniel Cormier as a wrestle-boxer. That's not his game, and it likely never will be.

So what can we expect from Mocco in the future? He's only a year into his career, and he remains pretty raw as a fighter. Based on what I've seen, he needs at least another year before he's ready to compete against topflight heavyweights: a bout with a journeyman like Mike Kyle or Tim Sylvia would be a perfect step up in competition for him. Given his age, Mocco doesn't have the time to take a long detour to Bellator if he eventually wants to compete with the world's best.

Luckily, all current reports have him training at American Top Team with the likes of Antonio Silva and Mark Hunt, along with a host of other talented fighters and consistently outstanding coaching. Combined with his nasty attitude and the work ethic that made him a world-class wrestler, all signs are promising. While his lack of striking and late start in the sport suggest that he's unlikely to win a title, there's every reason to think that he'll eventually be a fantastic addition to the heavyweight division's top ten or even top five.

Edited to add video of Mocco's last fight against Alonzo Roane (thanks to DPK for the link):

24) Michinori Tanaka, Bantamweight (9-0)

Age: 23

Camp: Reversal Gym

There's a lot to like about Michinori Tanaka, who should be the undisputed pick as Japan's top prospect. The current bantamweight champion of Guam's Pacific Xtreme Combat, he already has two five-round fights under his belt despite the fact that he's only a three-year veteran of the sport. Most importantly, he's shown substantial improvement from fight to fight, and he certainly possesses the athletic gifts necessary to succeed at the highest levels of the sport.

Showcasing solid technical movement and footwork, Tanaka fires a powerful right hand and left hook. He complements them with hard, snapping low kicks, and he's recently added a deceptively quick high kick to his arsenal. Don't be fooled by his lack of knockouts: the power is there, but he prefers to jump on hurt opponents and work for submission finishes instead of finishing with punches. I tend to view this as a positive rather than a negative, since it points to promising instincts when it comes to phase-shifting. Striking, however, isn't Tanaka's best asset; instead, it's his ultra-quick shot, which he prefers to finish with a single leg or trip. His takedowns from the clinch are likewise excellent.

Grappling is both Tanaka's strength and a potential source of future problems. He has an excellent submission arsenal, with finishes by mounted triangle, armbar, and rear-naked choke, but he isn't as aware of his positional grappling as he probably should be. He can be reversed from top position, and has a tendency to get himself into trouble in scrambles (see the video of the Caleb Vallotton fight below for numerous examples). He also relies far more on his substantial athleticism to repel takedowns and escape from bad positions than technique at this point in his career.

Given these positives, you might ask why Tanaka isn't ranked substantially higher. Two reasons: first, he's a bit undersized for bantamweight (5'5"), and a drop to flyweight might be the best option for him. Second, there are legitimate questions about his training environment. Reversal Gym is one of the better camps in Japan, by all accounts, but Alpha Male it certainly is not. It's possible that Tanaka will continue to improve at his current gym, but it's more likely that he hits a wall within a year or two. If he gets to a better team, the top ten of his weight class is certainly within reach.

Michinori Tanaka vs Kyle Aguon (via Атай Атанаев)

PXC 36 - Michinori Tanaka vs Caleb Vallotton (via PXC MMA)

And here he is against recent UFC signee Russell Doane:

❤❤❤ URIAH: PXC 34 (russell doane vs. michinori tanaka) 1 of 3 ❤❤❤ (via iamkoreanbug)

❤❤❤ URIAH: PXC 34 - (russell doane vs. michinori tanaka) 2 of 3 ❤❤❤ (via iamkoreanbug)

❤❤❤ URIAH: PXC 34 - (russell doane vs. michinori tanaka) 3 of 3 ❤❤❤ (via iamkoreanbug)

23) Nick Newell, Lightweight (11-0)

Age: 27

Camp: American Top Team

Let's get it out of the way right now: yes, Nick Newell is the one-armed fighter. One-handed is actually a better description, as his left arm ends just below his elbow due to a condition known as congenital amputation, leaving him without a left hand or forearm. No, this isn't an advantage for him, and conversely, I haven't included him on this list out of some misguided desire to be politically correct. He's a legitimate prospect with excellent athleticism in one of the most talent-rich weight classes in MMA, with finishes in ten of his eleven wins.

A former wrestler at Division 3 Western New England, Newell's game predictably revolves around the takedown. He has a quick shot, and finishes well with a variety of foot sweeps; his throws from the clinch are also a dangerous facet of his game, and he consistently scrambles well in transition. From the top, Newell is an absolute beast. His ground and pound is outstanding, particularly his left elbow, and he has a variety of effective guard passes. Once he's established a dominant position, Newell will rain down blows before finishing with something from his deep arsenal of submissions, which features a fantastic guillotine.

As one would expect for a former collegiate wrestler four years into his professional career, Newell's striking is a work in progress. The lack of a left hand is a distinct disadvantage at range, and several of his opponents have demonstrated that it's possible to hit him with a right hand or kick, though none have been able to fully capitalize on this opening: given that both he and Justin Gaethje, who throws an enormously powerful right hand, are signed to WSOF, we should soon find out precisely how problematic this really is. For his part, Newell features hard left kicks from his southpaw stance, throws a decent right hand, and has recently added a dangerous spinning elbow to his arsenal. Although he won't be winning a Glory tournament anytime soon, Newell's striking has shown consistent improvement.

Newell reminds me a great deal of a more athletic Jim Miller, with a good wrestling game, dangerous submissions, and solid-enough striking to threaten opponents at range and facilitate closing the distance. He trains at an outstanding camp, American Top Team, and seems to get better in every fight. WSOF has a number of good lightweights on their roster, and with a signature win, Newell could find himself in the UFC soon (despite Dana White's comments to the contrary). If he continues to develop, and there's every reason to believe he will, the top ten is a legitimate possibility.


History is Made -- Nick Newell Becomes XFC Champ on AXS TV (via AXS TV Fights)

XFC 15 - Denis Hernandez vs Nick Newell (via JIUJITSUPHANTOM)

Nick Newell ''Notorious'' Highlights 2013 (via Naser Jr)

Check back soon for the next installment in the series.