MMA Futures Scouting Report: Defining “Prospects”

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Welcome to the first edition of the MMA Futures Report.  This weekly piece will highlight all things prospects.  In the sport of MMA there are always fighters on the rise.  There are always fighters on the verge of breaking into the UFC or other major MMA promotions.  All other sports have scouts and other people who look into their sport’s best prospects.  As a sport, MMA began with limited skill sets.  Usually a  fighter had a martial arts background. Perhaps a guy would have a wrestling or jiu jitsu background.  However, what we saw in the early days is that those particular fighters were not very skilled in other disciplines. What we see now is that higher level athletes are entering the sport with high level skills in all martial arts disciplines. This is the future of MMA.

Big Three LogosI have found that one of the most misunderstood words in MMA today is the word “prospect.”  Perhaps no word has become more cliche.  Perhaps no word has become more mis-used in the MMA vernacular.   I have heard the term used in such a variety of ways and applied to such a wide variety of fighters.  I have seen fighters ranked in the top 10 in the world hailed a “good prospect”.  I have seen fighters who are thirty-five years old and over referred to as a “prospect”.  I have seen UFC, Strikeforce, and Bellator veterans referred to as prospects.  The reality is that there is some ambiguity here.  I am not trying to sound postmodern, but the world is difficult to clearly define.  I would contend that it is harder to define who is a prospect and who has gone past the “prospect” stage in MMA more than other sports.  When does a fighter stop being a prospect?

When we started making lists of the top prospects in each weight class, we had to make some type of clear cut distinctions between who was a “prospect” and who was not. For us, we decided that a prospect was a fighter who had never had a contract with a major promotion (UFC, Strikeforce, or Bellator). Also, we thought that some type of age cap had to be made. We made that age 33. The amount that a fighter can improve post-33 is limited. Admittedly, there are exceptions to these rules. There are fighters who have really developed post-prime. However, that is the exception, not the norm. I have a hard time classifying a guy with 30 fights (even 20 fights) as a prospect. I have a hard time calling a 35-year old journeyman as a prospect.  It is quite insulting as a matter of fact.  So, when a guy signs with a major promotion, sink or swim, we remove them out of the realm of “prospects” and into the world of “established”. There is nothing wrong with that. Being an established fighter is not an insult. In fact, I would contend it is quite the compliment. It is saying a fighter is world class.

There will always be people who make prospect lists who include guys in their mid-30’s and have more experience than UFC champions. There will always be people who classify highly ranked fighters with big named wins on their resumes as “prospects”. However, I think there needs to be some consistency with terms.  We might be able to argue age and experience. We might be able to argue ceiling, potential, and upside. The truth is, a prospect is someone who has the prospect of being on a world class level. Once they start fighting elite competition on a regular basis, they are no longer have the prospect of being high level…they already are.

Prospects

Don’t misunderstand… “prospect” does not mean someone who is still improving their skills.  If that was the extent of the definition, then everyone would be a “prospect”. I would wager that 43-year old Dan Henderson would tell you that he is learning and improving as a fighter. If that was the definition, Jon Jones would be merely a “prospect” because he has yet to reach his athletic prime. It seems that for most people there is very little space that a fighter can find between “prospect” and “washed up”. I think there are far more fighters in that middle area than we allow. I think there are more fighters who fall into the “established” and “world class” category.

So, let’s be careful throwing the term “prospect” around.  Let’s be more willing to admit when a guy moves out of the realm of “prospect” and into the realm of “world class” or “established veteran”. In the end, we may be arguing semantics. However, words mean something. Words are vehicles of thought. I think it is good to use the right words in the right ways.

With all that said, let me give you ten names that fit the bill quite well. These are the guys that I believe right now are the best prospects in the sport regardless of weight class… 

1. Nicolas Dalby –

Nicolas Dalby
Nicolas Dalby

The product of Denmark is 12-0 in his professional career. Dalby looks to take that mark to 13-0 on September 13th when he takes on Gael Grimaud in his first Cage Warriors welterweight title defense. At 28-years old I look for Dalby to be in the UFC by years end. A win in his next fight certainly makes his case. I do not know if Dalby is the best long term prospect on this list, but I would say he comes in at number one because he may have the best case to get into the UFC right now.

2. Islam Makhachev –

Islam Makhachev
Islam Makhachev

The 22-year old Dagestani may be the next big thing out of the talent rich region. His training partner, Khabib Nurmagomedov raves about his skills. He boasts a perfect 10-0 record which includes a win over Mansour Barnaoui. It is quite possible that Makhachev is the best of the Russian lightweight prospects. Given his age and current skill set he really could do very well. Like many of the fighters under contract with M-1, I am not sure if there is an easy way out, but I am quite certain that he is on UFC and Bellator’s radar. He very well could be the next Russian to find big time success in the UFC.

3. Gleristone Santos –

Gleristone Santos
Gleristone Santos

The fighter known as Toninho Furia may be one of the most dynamic on this list. He is fun to watch. To be honest, out of all the guys on this list, he is the one that I am most surprised UFC has not picked up yet. He has a 26-4 career record and is just 25-years old. I believe that Santos could make waves in the featherweight division.

4. Marcin Tybura –

Marcin Tybura
Marcin Tybura

The 28-year old Polish Heavyweight has made his case for a call to the UFC. He boasts a perfect 10-0 record. On August 15th he will get his toughest test in the form of Damian Grabowski. Both of those guys have been calling for a UFC chance, so do not be shocked if the winner gets called. While I have some questions about his stand up skills, Tybura has a solid ground game that could notch him some wins in the UFC.

5. Larissa Pacheco –

Larissa Pacheco
Larissa Pacheco

At 10-0 and only 19-years old Pacheco has a bright future. The female bantamweight champion of Jungle Fight has to be on the UFC radar. Not only because she is a young prospect, but they always seems to pay attention to Jungle Fights. The dilemma for Pacheco is there really are not many credible opponents left in Brazil. It is time for her to start fighting stateside. Invicta would be a good option, but I think her sights are set on the UFC.

6. Damon Jackson –

Damon Jackson
Damon Jackson

Jackson really jumped up this list on the heels of a dominant win over Leonard Garcia to claim the Legacy FC featherweight title. Jackson has fantastic submissions and lives up to his moniker, “the Leech”. Jackson comes in with a 9-0 career record. He is just 25-years old, so he is still approaching his fighting prime. I think Jackson is a guy who could not only get into the UFC, but could also do well. The word on the street was that had Leonard Garcia won that fight he would have been offered a UFC contract, perhaps UFC sends that offer Jackson’s way.

7. Mizuki Inoue –

Mizuki Inoue
Mizuki Inoue

Inoue is a phenom. She is 19 years old and full of talent. Mizuki has a 7-2 record that does not tell the whole story. In her last fight at DEEP Jewels 3, she defeated Emi Tomimatsu, however because she missed weight, DEEP changed the result to a disqualification loss. I do know that the UFC wants this girl. When they starting planning out their female strawweight division, she was reached out to, however DEEP would not let her out of her contract. I would assume that whenever that contract is completed she will be in the UFC. Inoue fights Tomimatsu again on Saturday. If she can make weight consistently she could be a world champion…she is THAT good.

8. Leandro Higo –

Leandro Higo
Leandro Higo

Higo very well could have been much higher on this list. However, he has struggled to find opponents. He has had fights fall apart left and right. There are some questions concerning his ability to get a U.S.Visa. It looks as though he is no longer considering fighting at flyweight. He has asked for fights at bantamweight and even featherweight. So, the uncertainty there hurts him, and in reality probably hurts him with the UFC. All of that aside, Higo has tons of talent. Training with the Pitbull brothers and the Nogueira, he has a very well rounded game. I do think Higo will need one or two quality wins before he would sign with UFC. Currently in a deal with RFA, there is no word on his U.S. debut.

9. Mansour Barnaoui –

Mansour Barnaoui
Mansour Barnaoui

I believe Mansour is one of the brightest prospects on this list. He is just 21-years old and already has a solid 11-2 record. Those two losses have come to Kevin Lee and Islam Makhachev. However, Barnaoui also has notable wins over UFC veterans Colin Fletcher and Curt Warburton. The BAMMA lightweight champ is one fight away from the UFC, in my opinion. That is what his camp thinks too. I would imagine that we will hear pretty soon from BAMMA what is next for the young champion.

10. Pietro Menga –

Pietro Menga
Pietro Menga

Menga currently sits as my top available flyweight prospect. To be honest, it is not easy to find flaw in someone like Menga who has shown really good wrestling skills. We have seen him land really good takedowns, especially off of catching his opponents kicks. He has very technical grappling. Menga is 12-0 now and has hopes of a UFC contract offer. There had been a rumor a whole back that he was in talks with UFC, but nothing materialized. I would imagine those rumors become reality before too long.