I know, I know. You’ve probably had it up to here with all the year-end awards of 2017 and what to watch for in 2018. But I couldn’t help myself and decided to add on more log to the fire. Besides, as much as we all grumble about them, we generally end up reading them. At least I limited myself to just one fighter per division….
I wanted to refer to this piece as under-the-radar prospects, but it felt inappropriate to refer to some of these fighters as prospects. Referring to them as fighters still on the up-and-up felt too wordy, though more accurate. So we’ll just refer to them as fighters under the radar. I did make it a requirement that they had at least one fight in the UFC under their belt, so if you want to shoot names from the regional scene at me, please hold off. I know there are a lot of great names there and I’m aware of most of them, but I had to draw a line somewhere.
Justin Willis: Anyone who saw Big Pretty’s destruction of Allen Crowder knows what I’m talking about. That it was on Fight Pass limited the amount of eyes, but Willis reinvigorated talks of him being a hot prospect after a lackluster UFC debut where he played it safe. Training at AKA with the likes of Cain Velasquez, Daniel Cormier, and Luke Rockhold, Willis has no shortage of talented training partners who can teach him a few tricks of the trade. He’s also far more athletic than you’d guess looking at his pudgy frame. At the age of 30, he’s an infant for the division. I have no clue how quickly the UFC is looking to rush him up the ladder, but I’ll be surprised if he isn’t pushing for a spot in the top ten before the year is out.
Dominick Reyes: Some may claim Reyes isn’t under-the-radar, but I heard nothing about him before his highlight reel head kick in his last regional fight and the UFC doesn’t seem to be pushing him. Thus, I’m including him. Admittedly, tearing through Joachim Christensen and Jeremy Kimball doesn’t do much to prove he’s a star for the future, but his long frame, penchant for violence, and lack of experience – he’s only been a pro for three years – screams that the kid has a bright future. Given that light heavyweight continues to be as deep as a Limp Bizkit ballad, it shouldn’t take long before his name begins appearing next to the established names of the division.
Trevin Giles: Paulo Costa and Eryk Anders are the obvious choices here, but they’ve been getting a nice push from the UFC. So I’m going with Giles. Part of the reason he hasn’t been getting much of a push is his heavy reliance on fundamentals. The UFC brass loves flash and Giles isn’t going to go out of his way to provide it. Can’t blame him. His simple combinations have led to a pair of violent finishes over James Bochnovic and Antonio Braga Neto. Giles isn’t freakishly long, but he knows how to effectively fight long. Did I mention his ground-and-pound? Violent as hell….
Elizeu Zaleski dos Santos: Believe me, I know that dos Santos doesn’t fit the profile of most of the people on this list. He’s already 31 after all with five UFC contests under his belt. But cut me some slack. This was a difficult division to pick as all of the youngsters who were formerly flying under the radar have already broken out. So no Darren Till or Vicente Luque. Given he’s on a four-fight win streak, you’d think dos Santos would be given a push. Instead, he’s still fighting the likes of Lyman Good and Max Griffin. Solid fighters, but they have one UFC victory each. Until the UFC shows dos Santos some love, I’m going to say he’s flying under the radar. Given his three FOTN bonuses in his last four contests, that’s a crime.
Magomed Mustafaev: When you haven’t fought in over a year, it’s really easy to be under the radar. But Mustafaev had a lot of steam behind him prior to entering the UFC, scoring a win over Abubakar Nurmagomedov, Khabib’s little brother. He recorded wins over Piotr Hallman and Joe Proctor after that before falling to Kevin Lee in November of 2016 in a fairly competitive contest. That loss looks better and better as time goes by. He hurt his arm in the fight and hasn’t been seen since, but I can’t imagine he’ll be on the sideline for too much longer. The Dagestani isn’t a classic grinder, though he can take down his opponent almost any time he wants and has a hell of a penchant for violence. I know I’m going out on a limb picking Mustafaev here, but the dude has talent.
Zabit Magomedsharipov: Maybe I’m cheating a bit here as the MMA media has been drooling at the performances of Mark Henry’s latest protégé, but the UFC hasn’t been doing anything to promote him. At 6’1”, Magomedsharipov is a giant for the division and he knows damn well what to do with those long limbs. He isn’t afraid to throw spinning attacks or get creative with his environment, using the fence to launch himself at Mike Santiago in his UFC debut. He then beat down another solid prospect in Sheymon Moraes. If there is anyone on this list I’d stake is a future champion, Magomedsharipov is the guy. If you haven’t seen this kid fight yet, go pull him up NOW. I promise you won’t be disappointed.
Nobody: The list of fighters fighting full-time in the division: Cris Cyborg and Megan Anderson. I said the rules were that they needed to have at least one fight in the UFC. There is nobody in this division that qualifies. That’s what happens when you form a division for a single person.
Ricardo Ramos: I wasn’t too keen on Ramos upon his UFC debut, remembering his loss to Manny Vasquez on the regional scene. Ramos has done enough to erase that from my memory now. He scored an easier than expected win over Michinori Tanaka upon his debut and proceeded to obliterate Aiemann Zahabi with a brutal elbow at the spectacle that was UFC 217, stealing away one of the performance bonuses on a card littered with huge names. Like many others on this list, Ramos is very long, but he doesn’t necessarily fight that way. He’s been most efficient closing the distance, fighting in the clinch and searching for submissions. Even scarier: he’s only 22-years old.
Aspen Ladd: A division that is losing fighters as many have fled to flyweight upon the creation of the division, I was forced to go with a fighter who is already ranked. Nonetheless, Ladd hasn’t received any sort of a push from the UFC, so she fits my criteria. Despite only five professional contests, Ladd is far more experienced than anyone would guess given her eight amateur contests with her only loss coming to Cynthia Calvillo. Some may point out Calvillo is a strawweight, but Ladd was cutting to flyweight at the time and only came to the conclusion that she belongs at bantamweight after she turned pro. The 22-year old also has a win over Sijara Eubanks, who was supposed to be challenging for the inaugural flyweight belt. Ladd’s boxing is still developing, but it’s her wrestling and ground-and-pound that will punch her ticket to success. I have to admit, I’m worried she may end up against an opponent she isn’t ready for with the division’s lack of depth, but only time will tell.
Naoki Inoue: The youngest fighter on this list at the tender age of 20, Inuoe isn’t simply riding on the coattails of his far more recognizable sister, Mizuki. Naoki dominated the since released Carls John de Tomas in his UFC debut this summer, tying him up in all sorts of precarious situations before settling for a decision. Inuoe was scheduled to appear in September before being sidelined by a shoulder injury. Those can take a long time to recover from, meaning it’s plausible we don’t see him at all in 2017. If we do – and his shoulder has healed properly – then expect the youngster to make a name for himself… provided the UFC handles him correctly.
Montana de la Rosa: It’s amazing how quickly this division filled up, though not necessarily a surprise. Rachael Ostovich and Shana Dobson also received consideration as there is little separating all three, but I went with de la Rosa as her ceiling feels the highest to me. Outside of her first two professional contests, her only losses have come to quality names in the aforementioned Calvillo, Mackenzie Dern, and Nicco Montano in the TUF tournament. Granted, de la Rosa doesn’t really have a quality win, but at 22, she has all the time in the world to develop her striking game. Her grappling is already on par with the best in the division.
Syuri Kondo: Perhaps the most difficult division to pick a single fighter from, I went with a major wild card. Kondo is best known for her professional wrestling career, crossing over into MMA less than two years ago. What gives me hope is she is the type who is determined to find success in whatever it is she does. She got about as high as she could in the Japanese wrestling scene, won a kickboxing title, and won the Pancrase strawweight title just over a year into the sport. Admittedly, her victory over Chan Mi Jeon wasn’t the most memorable performance, but Kondo is bound to improve as she gains experience. If nothing else, it will be interesting to see how well the former professional wrestler continues to cross over into the new sport.