Love them or hate them, you cannot deny the UFC is great at one thing, and that’s finding MMA talent. Although they may miss the old star to the likes of Bellator, the UFC is still jam packed full of talented and ambitious young fighters. So in honour of all the young MMA talent out there, here is my list of the best rising stars in each UFC weight division.
Heavyweight: Jared Rosholt 11-1
28 year old Jared ‘Big Show’ Rosholt spent many of his years in the shadow of his brother and former UFC fighter Jake Rosholt, but since making his own way into the UFC, Jared has make a statement that this is one wrestler you do not want to get close to.
Using his Division one standard of wrestling, Rosholt has notched up three UFC wins since joining the company late last year. Rosholt’s game plan come fight night is simple, get close to you and put you on your back for as much time as possible. Although this style may not be favoured by every MMA fan, with many of them calling Jared a ‘lay and pray’ fighter, you cannot deny its effectiveness in the cage allowing Rosholt to take the fight where he wants it and control his opponents.
In his first two fights in the UFC, Rosholt took decision wins over highly touted newcomer Walt Harris, and Daniel Omielanczuk, who was riding a 12 fight win streak. Although both of these wins were impressive, they were nothing compared to his last bout taking on top ten ranked Soa Palelei who himself was on an 11 fight KO win streak. Although this fight was a lot more taxing than his previous bouts, Rosholt again used his aggressive wrestling to take another decision win and cement himself amongst the division’s elite.
With his dominant fighting style and training out of Team Takedown, the same team as UFC welterweight champion Johny Hendricks, Jared Rosholt is only going to get better and more dominant as he continues his career. How he will fare against the highest level fighters in the division we don’t know, but if they cannot stop his takedowns it will be a long night for any man who occupies the division and hopes to take out the rising contender.
Light Heavyweight: Patrick Cummins 6-1
Former barista Patrick ‘Durkin’ Cummins’ UFC story made headlines earlier this year as he stepped up to fight Daniel Cormier after only four MMA fights. Despite losing this fight, Cummins made a name for himself as not only an extremely physically gifted fighter, but also a mesmerising personality that could see him do very well in the future.
Since his loss to Cormier, Patrick Cummins is riding a two fight win streak besting Roger Narvaez and Kyle Kingsbury, and if he can continue this streak he will be knocking on the door of the top 15 within the first half of next year.
Cummins’ fight with Cormier heralded much attention due to the amount of hype and trash-talking produced by Cummins before the fight stating he made Cormier cry and break in training for the Olympics. This obviously got under Cormier’s skin leading to many heated arguments and even a shoving incident pre-fight. This all made an unknown Cummins a much more interesting matchup for the highly ranked Cormier. Although Cummins was clearly outclassed by the much more experienced Cormier on fight night, Cummins’ personality and taking this fight on short notice led to him getting another shot in the UFC.
In his next fight against undefeated Roger Narvaez, Patrick showed that he is much more than he showed in the Cormier fight, dominating and finishing Narvaez. Cummins’ next fight came against UFC and Ultimate Fighter Veteran Kyle Kingsbury. Cummins showed his true potential in this fight taking on a real long term UFC competitor in a match in which he dominated the returning Kingsbury and earned himself a unanimous decision nod.
Despite only being 2-1 in the UFC Cummins has all the makings of a true contender in the Light Heavyweight division with his Olympic level wrestling, God-given athletic capabilities and very marketable personality. If the UFC keep him busy with fights don’t be surprised to see him shoot his way into the Top 15 sooner rather than later.
Middleweight: Sean Strickland 15-0
23 year old Sean ‘Tarzan’ Strickland has very much flown under the radar thus far in his UFC career, but don’t be mistaken, this is one extremely talented mixed martial artist who is looking to takedown the best at the 185lb weight limit.
Just looking at Strickland’s record tells you all you need to know about the potential of this young man. Undefeated in 15 pro fights, and finishing 11 of them, Strickland has all the makings of a top contender at middleweight with his extremely well rounded fighting style being able to KO or submit you at any point in the contest.
Strickland debuted in the UFC against Ultimate Fighter veteran Bubba McDaniel. Despite McDaniel’s huge experience edge, Tarzan was able to finish him in the first round by rear-naked choke showing everyone in the division that this man without a doubt belongs in the UFC.
In his next bout, Strickland took on another former Ultimate Fighter member in the undefeated Luke Barnatt. The Brit Barnatt was hailed himself as a huge prospect in the division, so it’s safe to say Strickland’s work was cut out for him. Despite this fight being a lot more taxing than his last, Tarzan was able to take a split decision victory over Barnatt and propel himself into true rising star status amongst MMA fans and media alike.
Being so young and obviously talented, it’s easy to predict that Strickland can only grow as a competitor, and there is no better place for him to do this than in the UFC. With an absolute murders row of a top ten at middleweight, it is a very tall task for Strickland to try and break his way into it, but at only 23, Tarzan has nothing but time on his hands, and definitely the potential to make it all the way to one of the best in his division.
Welterweight: Ryan LaFlare 11-0
A true dark horse in the welterweight division, Ryan LaFlare has made a name for himself by taking his opponents all three rounds and breaking them mentally. With unstoppable cardio and world class takedown defense, LaFlare is able to frustrate and wear out his opponents and this far, has looked on a different level than his credible foes.
Currently riding a four fight win streak in the UFC, LaFlare is currently ranked number 14 in the world, not bad for someone who has only been in the company for 17 months. LaFlare’s ranking is not surprising however, due to the sheer dominance he has displayed in all four of his UFC wins. Despite not having a UFC finish to his name, LaFlare has beaten some of the highest regarded young talent the UFC has to offer, besting Ultimate Fighter veterans Ben Alloway and Santiago Ponzinibbio, Ultimate Fighter winner Court McGee and ten fight UFC vet John Howard.
In all of these fights LaFlare used great kicks and defensive wrestling to win the stand-up exchanges, and his own brand of aggressive takedowns to win the ground portions of the fight aswell giving him unanimous decisions in all of his fights. Despite having obvious natural talent, training at Bellmore Kickboxing Gym with UFC fighters Costa Philippou and occasionally middleweight champ Chris Weidman can only continue to grow the game of LaFlare and im sure it won’t be long before we see him take his first UFC victory by stoppage.
LaFlare was scheduled to take on another undefeated prospect Gunnar Nelson in July but was side-lined by injury, and sadly that is the last we have heard from him for the time being, but taking the proper time off to heal correctly is the smartest move for LaFlare right now. At 30 years old, LaFlare is in his fighting prime and is looking to take on the welterweight top ten in his return which will probably be early next year.
With a few more wins LaFlare will put his stock up from prospect to genuine contender and could well be fighting in the top 5 by this time next year.
Lightweight: Al Iaquinta 9-3
Ultimate Fighter finalist Al Iaquinta hasn’t had the most stellar start to his UFC career, but at times has displayed skills that could rival any fighter in the top five in his weight class.
Making it all the way to the finals of The Ultimate Fighter Live, Iaquinta took two decision wins on the show, one being over current top 15 ranked Myles Jury, and one vicious elbow knockout win over Andy Ogle. In the finals Iaquinta met up with his teammate on the show Michael Chiesa, despite looking strong in the fight he succumbed to a rear naked choke in the first round.
Iaquinta bounced back from his TUF defeat to go on a three fight win streak decisioning Ryan Couture, Piotr Hallmann and Kevin Lee all with relative ease. Iaquinta had a disappointing next fight taking on unknown Mitch Clarke; Al dominated the whole fight until he was caught in a beautiful D’arce Choke from the bottom in round two putting him to sleep.
After the Clarke fight, many people thought Iaquinta’s potential had go down the drain, but Al bounced back in the best way he could taking on Rodrigo Damm earlier this month. In this bout Iaquinta showed the world why he is regarded as one of the best prospects in MMA as he dominated Damm everywhere the fight went and used striking resembling the bantamweight champion TJ Dillashaw eventually knocking Damm out in spectacular fashion with a series of elbows in the final round.
This win gave Iaquinta a lot of redemption from his loss to Clarke and showed everyone he is not going anywhere but up in the rankings. Currently training at Serra-Longo team in New York with middleweight champion Chris Weidman, Iaquinta has one of the best teams in the world behind him and has even be heralded as a future champ by Coach Longo.
With a well-rounded game, aggression and KO ability, if Iaquinta fights like he did in his last bout, he would be trouble for any man on earth at 155lbs.
Featherweight: Mirsad Bektic 8-0
If you were to ask a MMA insider who is the number one UFC prospect, the name on many of their lips would be Mirsad Bektic. The 23 year old American Top Team product is undefeated in MMA and is looking to take out every other contender one at a time.
Even before arriving in the UFC, Bektic was heralded as the new breed of MMA, with skills that were not only well rounded but dominant in each aspect of MMA. Mixing that with youth, conditioning and aggressiveness, you could see why Mirsad was one to watch in mixed martial arts.
Bektic made his UFC debut in April against fellow undefeated fighter Chas Skelly. In what was a very entertaining contest, Mirsad picked up a majority decision. This win seems even more impressive if you know the skill of Chas Skelly, narrowly missing out on a spot in this list himself!
Bektic used speedy footwork and takedown defense to negate the blackbelt submission game of skelly, and jumped in and out of range frustrating his opponent the entire fight. Bektic was able to capitalize on split second openings the entire bout to take the upper hand on Skelly, taking his back multiple times in the clinch and avoiding lazy strikes from his foe.
Since this fight, Bektic has been out of action due to injuries but MMA writers and fans alike are itching to see this man back in the cage and see just how far his talent can take him. Mirsad Bektic is an unusual name, but it is one you should remember and expect to see in the rankings in the coming years.
Bantamweight: Thomas Almeida 17-0
An unknown bantamweight to the casual fan, Thomas Almeida has been destroying competition on the minor MMA circuits and is set to make his UFC debut this November.
Before we get in depth about this Brazilian fighter, let’s rattle off some facts. Almeida is 17-0 as a professional with a 100% finish rate with 13 KO’s and 4 submissions and 15 first round finishes! If that wasn’t an amazing enough record, this man is only 23 years old. Since starting his career in 2011, Almeida has won bouts all over the world, and most noticeably in Legacy FC in the US, where he won their bantamweight title, spurring his move to the UFC earlier this year.
So far in his career, Almeida has looked like a fighter without fault, using world class footwork and speed to embarrass his opponents on the feet, and having produced KO’s by knees, elbows and body shots, it’s clear to see Thomas has power well above his weight class. Almeida is also no slouch on the mat, finishing four opponents with a variety of chokes and armbars.
Yes it is true that the UFC is a major step up in competition for the young Brazilian, but Almeida has more than earned his shot at the biggest MMA promotion in the world, arguably being ready for the UFC over a year ago.
In his debut he will face TUF veteran Tim Gorman, in what I believe is a very winnable fight for Thomas. Gorman famously left TUF due to injury and has since had one UFC bout in which he lost to Mitch Gagnon. Gorman is known for strong wrestling which could well be the antidote to Almeida’s devastating Muay Thai skills, but I believe Thomas is just on another level to Gorman, and he will quite rapidly make his way into the UFC top 10 with a string of devastating finishes. Do not be surprised if this fight is called off in the first round with Almeida’s hand being raised.
Flyweight: Kyoji Horiguchi 13-1
23 year old Kyoji Horiguchi may be Japan’s next hope for a UFC champion as he is looking to take the UFC flyweight division by storm.
Horiguchi fought most of his career in the prestigious Japanese organisation Shooto, and came into the UFC as a former Shooto champion at bantamweight, which for a guy who isnt a big flyweight is an extremely admirable achievement. Racking up a record of 13-1 with eight knockouts is well worthy of not, especially for such a light fighter. Kyoji is known for his heavy punches and stellar wrestling and judo game, which he has showed in both his UFC appearances. In his debut, Horiguchi finished bantamweight Dustin Pague with strikes dominating a much bigger opponent. Kyoji then moved to flyweight where he took on rising star and former Tachi Palace champion Darrell Montague. Kyoji simply outclassed the more experience Montague and proved that he is definitely a dark horse in the flyweight division.
Training with MMA legend Kid Yamamoto, Horiguchi is only improving his already tricky fight style that can very quickly frustrate his opponents. Up next for the young fighter is Jon Delos Reyes in his native Japan. Reyes is not a name fighter by any means, and if Kyoji fights like he is capable, this will be a quick night’s work for him. With an impressive win tomorrow night, Kyoji could well propel himself into the flyweight title picture, and could well prove a worthy challenger for long time king Demetrious Johnson.