Here are my top 10 Welterweight prospects leading into 2014. I've disqualified guys who have fought for UFC, Bellator, and WSOF as they have graduated from prospect status. In this listing I've tried to balance potential, and upside with their current MMA resume. I also consider age, martial arts base, training environment and level of activity over the last year.
I don't have a set schedule right now for releasing the rest of the weight classes, but I will try to get as many as possible out over the next month. My goal is to keep these list as living document, so as a fighter wins/loses, or get signed by one of the bigger organizations I will try to continuously update this throughout the year.
Top 10 Prospects
10 Alberto Mina
Mina had dropped off the MMA scene with his last fight in August 2011, but then burst back on the scene in late December when he need less than a round to smash a quality prospect in Glenn Sparv.
Alberto holds Black Belts in Judo, and BJJ and qualified for ADCC in 2011. In his fights, Mina is looking to use his Judo and BJJ skills to get the fight to the ground. Once it is there, he is generally all over his opponents and looking for and creating openings for submissions.
Mina is now coaching and training at Epic MMA Club in Hong Kong. The team has only existed since 2012, but at Epic he is training with fellow accomplished BJJ Black Belt Rodrigo Medeiros, and One FC LW Vuyisile Colossa. It is a quality, but not elite training environment if he is going to push himself against the best in the world. In the past he has also coached and trained at London Shootfighters in England.
One of the things that could make Mina an attractive commodity for UFC is that he is a Brazilian, who spend significant amount of time training and fighting in the UK, and now he live and fights in Asia. He has ties in some of UFC's biggest markets.
#9 Danny Roberts
Roberts comes from a boxing background but is improving his ground game with every fight. He has a very good jab, and chopping leg kicks, but can get a little hesitant as he worries about takedowns from his opponents. Danny also throws very good knees to the body when he gets in close.
Striking is his strength but Roberts is not lost on the ground, and has decent takedowns of his own. When he takes people down he tends to leave his head in a position where his opponent can control it, and attack with chokes, or sweeps. It is part of his game that he will have to continue to improve moving forward.
His only loss came in the 2nd fight of a one-night tournament to a very good middleweight Pavel Doroftei (11-2). In that fight you can see very clearly why Roberts has committed to Welterweight, as Doroftei used his Sambo, and Judo base to throw Roberts several times which leads to the submission.
I could see Roberts developing into a top 30 welterweight. Welterweight is either the deepest or 2nd deepest division in MMA so that is a complement to the potential of this fighter. The problem he faces as he moves up the ladder is that welterweight is home to many fantastic grapplers, and wrestlers who will take advantage of his weaknesses. If he can continue to evolve his complete MMA game than he stands a chance to have a very good MMA fighter. I honesty think he might be a better fit for Bellator than UFC.
The brother of Current UFC Lightweight Anthony Njokuani, Chidi has likely been very close to scoring a UFC deal a couple of times before suffering set backs. Chidi had reeled off three straight stoppage victories back in 2011, but was then stopped by current UFC Fighter Brandon Thatch. He rebounded with four straight wins including three stoppages, but then earlier this year took a catchweight fight at 180lbs against a very solid Middleweight prospect in Jermy Kimball. Njokuani came up short in that fight, Kimball signed with Bellator, and Chidi is again rebounding to get into the big show. Since the Kimball loss he has scored a KO victory to get back on the winning track.
As you might guess, if you have seen his brother fight, Chidi's biggest weapon is his Muay Thai game. He has great size at 6'3, and his reach with both his arms and legs is going to be an advantage in most of his fights. He struggles on the ground, and needs to continue to improve his takedown defense, and techniques to get back to his feet.
Njokuani is associated with several gyms including Janjira Muay Thai, One Kick's Gym, and Sergio Penha BJJ. Through these teams he not only is in a training environment with his brother, but Bellator fighter David Rickels, and recent UFC signee Ryan Benoit have trained there as well. This is a solid but not spectacular training environment to hone Chidi's physical tools. I would put his ceiling in the top 30 welterweights in the world and I expect someone to give him a chance, as his strike first style can be highly entertaining.
Njokuani - Lyman Good- World Combat League Kickboxing in 2008
#7 Marif Piraev
Piraev burst onto my radar with a 1st round submission of Benjamin Brinsa (13-1) in December. Brinsa was signed by UFC in 2013, but never competed for the organizations due to his ties to a Neo-Nazi group. By defeating a fighter that UFC wanted on the roster, talent evaluators are certainly checking into Piraev.
He has a Sambo background and trains at the Fight Nights team along side Bellator Heavyweight champ Vitaly Minakov, and UFC flyweight Ali Bagautinov. Marif has also traveled to Phuket Top Team with his teammates to focus on his striking. These are solid camps that have talent at the highest level, so he is in a good training environment.
I think Piraev can be a top 25 fighter. He looks like he is getting physically stronger from his earlier fights, and his win over Brinsa is a great win to open doors for him down the road.
#6 Nicolas Dalby
Dalby works full time in IT for a tech company, while training as much as he can, and ramping up his training prior to fights. He was scheduled to face a quality fighter in Assan Njie (13-2) last March, but the fight fell through when Njie pulled out. That fight could have put either fighter into the UFC or Bellator, but instead Dalby won a rematch with Ivica Truscek. He has since added a TKO over Morten Djursaa to cap off his 2013.
An aggressive striker who will attack his opponents with kicks to the body and head means that Dalby's opponents will be under pressure from the opening bell. I think he is vulnerable to strong wrestlers, as his aggressive striking leaves him open to takedowns. Once he was taken down he struggled to get out of the position, or attack his opponent from his back. This could cost him against better competition if he cannot regain his feet.
Dalby trains at Rumble Sports alongside recent UFC Signee Mats Nilsson but not too many other top end fighters. It is unlikely that Dalby will give up his full time job, and jump to MMA full time without a surefire deal with one of the bigger organizations. UFC is expected to do at least 6 cards in Europe this year, Dalby would seem like a natural fit, and I could see him rising into the top 40 welterweights in the world.
#5 Warlley Alves de Andrade
Alves trains at X-Gym with the likes of Jacare Souza, Diego Nunes, Paulo Thiago, and Alan Patrick. That is a strong camp to be associated with, as he will get pushed and challenged as he continues to develop. It is also a good sign that he has found his way to the Jungle Fights banner where his last four fights have been. Jungle fights is the top promotion in Brazil, and UFC has signed numerous Jungle Fights Champions in the last year alone. Warlley is in consideration for a JF title shot in his next fight, which would be a step up in competition, but also a potential springboard into bigger promotions.
Patrick Wyman has Warlley in his honorable mention for the top 25 prospects in his Search for Future Champions series. I agree with his assessment that Alves is a little raw right now, but the tools necessary for success are present. He has serviceable wrestling, will attack with a submission as soon as possible. He does have some pop in his punches as well, but his technique on the feet is going to need some work.
#4 Walter Gahadza
UK (By way of Zimbabwe)
Gahadza came in at number 20 on Patrick Wyman's list of searching for future champions, and it is going to be a challenge for me to write anything that he didn't have in his piece.
Walter grew up in Zimbabwe, before moving to England as a teenager. His sport was track and field, specifically sprinting. Gahadza has finished 11 of his 13 opponents in the 1st round with a near even mix of submissions (5), and (T)KO (6).
Training in MMA for just over four years now Gahadza is working diligently on his wrestling with an eye towards competing against the stronger wrestlers he will face when he moves outside of competing in England. His camp is Sure Grip Vale Tudo, which has not produced much UFC caliber talent. If he wants to stay in England there are many quality camps he can visit to find quality training partners.
He was scheduled to face undefeated Ryan Scope (7-0) in August but the fight fell through when Scope pulled out. The Scope fight has been rescheduled for February 22nd on a Made 4 the Cage card. The winner of that fight will be in a good position to garner attention from the bigger organizations, and his manager said that UFC has called and is already showing interest in Walter.
Gahadza - Marty Highlight
Gahadza - Johnston Highlight
#3 Colby Covington
Covington was a Junior College National Champion while wrestling for Iowa Central Community College... the same Junior college that has been the home of Jon Jones, Cain Velasquez, and former Bellator Champion Joe Soto during their college careers. After a brief stint at Iowa, he transferred to Oregon State where he was a two time PAC-10 Champion, and Division 1 All-American his senior season in 2011.
After making his pro debut and fighting three times in 2012, Covington only fought once, in 2013, while seeing two fights cancelled. Colby also won a gold medal at the FILA World no-gi grappling Championships in June. He is training with American Top Team, so he is in one of the best training environment for anyone looking to get to the top levels of MMA. My take is that if you take an outstanding wrestler, and combine him with one of the best teams in the business, that is a good precursor to success in MMA. Covington is still early in his MMA career, but I would place his ceiling inside the top World top 15.
Covington does have a little legal baggage in his closet. His time at Iowa pretty much ended when he was charged with a DUI, and evading police, what he describes as a low point in his life. He was also charged with assault after reportedly punching a man during a fight in 2010 while at Oregon State. Both events happened prior to his All-American run in 2011, but they are on his record.
#2 Marcin Bandel
A Brownbelt from Drysdale Jiu-Jitsu - Poland, Bandel has been on a great streak with 11 straight first round submissions since starting his career 1-2. 8 of the 11 opponents in that stretch have .500 or better winning percentages, and a couple have been at Middleweight so it hasn't been just against scrubs.
I haven't seen much of Bandel's striking because he isn't worried about hanging out on the feet. If he can't hit a double leg, then he will grab a clinch, leg, or anything he can to get the fight to the ground, or into a grappling exchange. Once the fight hits the mat, he is going for submission, and constantly transitioning from one sub attempt to the next.
Marcin trains with Kick Fighters Lodz, and Drysdale Jiu Jitsu Poland. At Drysdale's he has ties to one of the best BJJ practitioners in the world, in Robert Drysdale, who is also on the UFC roster, but yet to make his debut. In addition to his teams in Poland, he spends time in German as the head grappling coach at La Familia Fight Club in Germany.
I think Bandel could get into the top 20 down the road. I worry what happens when he runs into a high-level wrestler who can keep the fight standing, or top-notch BJJ fighter who can match his ground game. I don't know if his striking will hold up at the highest level, but his attacking style will get him the chance to try.
#1 Mike Rhodes
Rhodes grew up playing basketball, and did not pick up any martial arts until he went to a kickboxing class in college. RFA is becoming an express lane into the UFC, and Rhodes is their Welterweight champion. I suspect he is on UFCs list of guys that they would call to fill a vacancy, but it probably one or two fights away from getting the call. He has fought as high as heavyweight (when he got his nickname biggie) as an amateur, before working his way down to 170lbs. He is a striker first, and his only loss is a short notice fight he took against current UFC fighter Brandon Thatch.
He is young, athletic, and is picking up the nuances of the sport rapidly as he trains with Duke Rufus and the team. He is a very effective counter striker, and can take advantage of an opponent's aggression with his accurate strikes. Mike can use his athletic ability to help fend off takedowns, but he will have to continue to improve in a division stacked with college wrestlers, and high-level BJJ fighters.
Rhodes trains with one of the best teams in the business at Roufusport, so he figures to have an upward trajectory for his career. Because of his late start to Martial Arts and athletic ability I suspect that he will continue to improve rapidly. His camp is full of UFC level talent such as Anthony Pettis, Sergio Pettis, Erik Koch, and Ben Askren.
Rhodes - Smith - Highlights
Summary: This weight class would have been much easier for me to profile just a couple of months ago. It has recently come out that UFC has fighters Cathal Pendred, and Dhiego Lima set to fight on TUF: 19 taking them out of the mix. They have also signed Rashid Magomedov, Andreas Stahl, Adam Khaliev, Albert Tumenov, and Hernani Perpetuo, all fighters who have yet to make their UFC debuts but would likely have been on or in serious contention for this list. Alex Garcia is another top prospect who signed with UFC in October and recently made his promotional debut. Prior to, and in the wake of the Ben Askren debacle, UFC has actually loaded up on almost all of the best Welterweight talent available, but it not getting much credit for it because they passed on Askren. Even with all of these recent signings this division remains stacked with talent and I went back and forth on this final list several times. It was very tough to balancing more seasoned fighters, with younger fighters who have more upside while picking this final list. UFC has over 80 Welterweights on the roster, and Bellator is likely going to sign some fighters to fill out their upcoming season, so I fully expect some of these guys to get signed very soon, and then I will debate who will move into the top 10.