16 in ’16: The Lightweights

The lightweight division in MMA has long been considered the deepest division in the sport.  With the large quantity and quality of prospects out there, that will not change any time soon.  I had a difficult time eliminating fighters from this group of 16.  I believe all 16 of these guys could jump into the UFC or Bellator and be competitive.  However, some stand out about the rest.

  1. Mateusz Gamrot – 11-0 – 25 years old – Poland

Gamrot’s striking is solid.  He is not a liability on his feet as many wrestlers might be.  However, striking is not hisgamrot bread and butter.  His kicks are maybe one of his best attributes.  He also has decent knees when he has confidence to throw them.  He needs to be careful about taking damage as he closes distance.  The holes in striking are improving, but still have a ways to go.   Gamrot falls into the wrestling base group.  His MMA wrestling is very good and is even improving.  He can usually take opponents to the ground at will.  I would not call Gamrot a submission stylist, but he has shown the ability to finish with submissions.  I believe that right now, Gamrot is not only the best lightweight prospect in Europe, but he is the best lightweight prospect in the world.  I would not hold your breath on Mateusz jumping to the UFC.  He is currently signed to Polish promotion KSW, which not only pays well, but also does not have a UFC-out clause.  It is possible that Gamrot will want to eventually prove himself on the UFC level.  Regardless, he is a fighter to watch.

2.  Khusein Khaliev – 15-1 – 28 years old – Russia

Khaliev would have been a top-3 prospect at the welterweight class, at lightweight he is even more imposing of a khalievprospect.  The Russian fighter has spent significant time training in the United States and has emerged as one of the sport’s brightest prospects.  He is a member of the K-Dojo in New Jersey where he is surrounded by solid training partners.  Khusein has a solid wrestling base.  He has shown very good explosion on some of his takedowns.  I believe that he has the ability to take any fighter down.  He also is a real submission threat.  He has submissions in his arsenal from every position which makes him a threat anywhere the fight goes.  Another thing that stands out to me is that Khusein has very good transitions.  Most of those transitions are to gain a better position to finish the fight.  On the feet, Khusein seems to like to throw spinning attacks, which he has been able to land with some accuracy.  He is a bit unorthodox on his feet, but has been effective.  His best work, however is on the ground, where he is able to control his opponents.  I have some worries that Khaliev could get picked apart on his feet if he is unable to get his opponent down.  That should not be a huge concern on the regional level, but in the UFC he will need to improve his technical striking.  I am honestly surprised that he has not been called by the UFC yet.  I believe that we could see him in the UFC soon, joining his brother, Adam.

3.  Thiago Moises – 8-1 -21 years old – Brazil

The RFA lightweight champion is quickly creating a buzz for him to get signed by the UFC.  At just 21-years old, moises-300x300Moises is one of our younger prospects.  He already has done some impressive work inside the cage.  Moises has very good submissions skills.  When he gets to the ground he is always a threat.  The helicopter armbar that he landed on David Castillo was really a thing of beauty.  He is not a particularly large lightweight, which could give him some problems, but he is dangerous.  His wrestling is decent, but not dynamic and he tends to utilize jiu jitsu takedowns more than traditional wrestling takedowns.  Moises is training with American Top Team, which is surely going to help improve his wrestling game.  Moises’ striking is decent, but not great.  He does not throw much with great conviction and tends to throw single shots rather than combinations.  There are times where his defense on the feet us suspect, but his chin has held up so far.  Moises needs to be careful to not be so content giving up positions.  Moises has a big heart and seems to have good cardio.  I believe that his skills are rapidly improving to the point where he is close to UFC ready. Moises is scheduled to fight Zach Freeman on September 30th.  A win there should do the trick.

4.  Shamil Nikaev – 6-0 – 21 years old – Russia

Shamil Nikaev goes by the moniker “Little Fedor”.  He really does at times look like a lightweight version of Fedor. shamil_nikaev Nikaev is a strong lightweight.  He is not tall for the weightclass, but he is very stocky.  One of the most impressive aspects to his game is the pressure that he is able to apply.  He constantly applies pressure.  I believe the best aspect of his game is his ground work and grappling.  There are occasions where he really rag dolled his opponents, throwing them around the cage.  His top control is also very strong.  In short, you do not want to be on the ground underneath Shamil Nikaev.  On the feet, I really like Nikaev’s movement.  He stays on the move which makes him difficult to hit.  However, there are times where he can be suckered into wild exchanges.  It looks like Nikaev has some power in his hands, but has not really been known as a finisher.  Five of his six fights have gone to a decision, so I believe Shamil needs to strive to be a bit more of a finisher.  Nikaev does put punches together in combinations and he actually does have good boxing technique.  I think Shamil Nikaev can be the total package.  He is not quite big league ready, but I do not think he is far off.

5.  Maxin Divnich – 12-1 – 27 years old – Russia

Divnich is a Ukrainian fighter who trains out of the very solid Alexander Nevsky gym in St. Petersburg, Russia. maximdivnich Divnich has very good striking.  Specifically, his kicks are very effective.  he kicks like a mule.  He targets the body and legs often and has the ability to go high with a kick as well.  His punches also are very effective.  He has very hard body punches that he likes to use.  Also, Maxim carries power late into rounds.  He had a quick and spectacular body kick finish over Max Coga.  He seems to be gaining confidence in his striking ability.  He is not the quickest lightweight you will see, but his power certainly makes up for that to some degree.  On the ground, I would like to see him value positioning a little more in grappling exchanges.  His submission defense has obviously held up well, but I imagine that could be tested against better submission stylists.  Maxim needs to improve his takedown defense and be a little more stubborn about positioning.  Divinich is still young enough to continue his development.  Maxin has a fight scheduled for October 9th in M-1.  I expect that after he finishes his contract with M-1 that he will look to fight in North America.

 

6.  Alexandr Shabliy – 15-2 – 23 years old – Russia

Shabliy is one of my favorite lightweight prospects. He trains out of a solid gym in Peresvet Fight Team in Russia.  Like most Russian prospects, Shabily has a solid ground game highlighted by good wrestling.  alexandershabliy He is a real finisher.  There are several fights in which he showcased good offensive and defensive wrestling.  I was impressed with his ability to take fighters down when he needed to.  He also has finished several fights with submissions.  He has shown to be a leglock threat, finishing a few fights with impressive leg lock submissions. I also love his striking.  He switches his stance often and appears to land with accuracy.  He has brutal knees when he gets in close.  Shabliy fights long for his size.  Shabliy also has knockout power in his hands.  Out of all the lightweight prospects, Shabily may have the best highlight reel as well.  He is a true finisher.  Shabily appears to have taken his game to a different level in the last few years.  He has emerged as a legit prospect.  I think he has the skill set to do really well in the big shows.  I can’t imagine UFC will even come close to signing all the talent in Russia, but I do think they should take a look at Shabliy.  In fact, if I was forced to bet on which of these prospects has the best chance to do well in the UFC, I would have to consider Shabliy.

7.  Milan Zerjal – 7-0 -26 years old – Serbia

Zerjal is a Serbian who has settled in Las Vegas to train with Xtreme Couture.  Zerjal brings a 7-0 professional record milan_zerjalto the table.  Zerjal’s striking is a work in progress.  He has shown flashes of really good technique, but he has a ways to go in that department.  Don’t misunderstand, he solid on his feet, but it is on the mat that he seems much more comfortable.  He can be accurate with his strikes, when he gets loose.  He does not have one punch knock out power, but I think his power is improving.  Zerjal has a very slick ground game.  His father is a well known jiu jitsu practitioner in Europe. Zerjal is a BJJ blackbelt himself.  I also like Zerjal’s takedowns.  He has very powerful takedowns and when he is in top position, he is a handful. His single leg takedown is very effective. He likes to posture up and land ground and pound.  Another thing that stands out is that he brings a very intense pace.  Zerjal has good transitions on the ground. Also, his submissions cannot be ignored.  This is his preferred method of finishing. I do believe that Zerjal will need to improve his takedown defense in order to compete in the UFC.  I considered eliminating Zerjal from this list due to his inactivity, but in the end determined that omitting him would dimish the list as a whole.

8.  Marif Piraev – 13-1-1 – 24 years old – Russia

Known as the “Lion of Dagestan” Piraev is a fighter to keep an eye on in the near future. Marif has both a boxing and marif_piraev_fullsambo background and has solid striking.  His kicks come up very quick.  He appears to have very fast hands as well.  He needs to be a little bit more guarded on his feet.  Training at Fight Nights team, he is surrounded by very high level training partners.  Overall, Piraev’s submissions are really good.  He looks for armbars and chokes from his back constantly.  He appears to be a serious submissions threat anywhere the fight may go. He is very aggressive in his submission attacks.  He is willing to give up position for the possibility of a submission.  One of the main flaws in his game is that he seems to be a bit too easy to takedown.  While, it is nice that his submissions game is high level, he needs to be able to stay on his feet.  When he pursues takedowns he is very effective.  His top game looks very strong.  Piraev had previously fought at welterweight, I believe he is much better suited for the lightweight division.  Piraev’s sole loss came at the hands of top lightweight prospect, Mateusz Gamrot.  Piraev needs a little more experience and seasoning, but he is not far from being one of Europe’s best lightweights.

9.  Mansour Barnaoui – 12-4 – 23 years old – France

Mansour does not have a traditional martial arts background, but did start training in MMA at 15-years old.  We put barnaouia lot of stock into fighter’s age in correlation to their potential.  While Mansour did not begin training wrestling of BJJ at infancy, he began training in aspects of the sport at 15, which means his MMA base is MMA.  Mansour has shown a very solid all around game. He has shown a willingness to stand and trade, and when he does he really seems to get the best of the exchanges.   He has good power in his punches.   He has also shown good submissions ability.  Seven of his eleven wins have come via submission.  When he fought Colin Fletcher he not only showed good submission defense, but he showed great transitions.  He transitions from side control, to the back with ease.  He also locked up a very nice body triangle, trapping the leg of Fletcher a la B.J. Penn.  He is big and strong for the lightweight category and will continue to get bigger as well.  Another thing I like about “Tarzan” is that he throws very powerful punches from over top of the clinch position.  I think he still has a lot of room to improve in the wrestling department.  At just 23-years old Barnaoui is a real blue chip prospect.  He has already fought really good competition.  Furthermore, his four loses have come at the hands of Mateusz Gamrot, Ivan Buchinger, Islam Makhachev, and Kevin Lee.   He does have notable wins over Maxim Divinich, Currt Warburton and Colin Fletcher.  Mansour is currently riding a two fight losing streak, which certainly diminishes his stock to some degree.  He experimented with fighting down at featherweight, which may have been a bad idea.  I think that the talent is there for Mansour.  It seems there may be some issue with mentality or decision making that could be a factor.  I believe a change of camps could do him wonders.  Keep an eye on this French prospect, who could be a more familiar name in years to come.

10.  Soren Bak – 8-0 – 24 years old – Denmark

The 24-year old out of Denmark is another European fighter to keep your eyes on.  Bak is really emerging as a soren-bakprospect.  He has a solid all-around game and his shown improvement, especially in his striking.  In his most recent win, he showed that he also has knockout power in his hands.  I believe he needs to show a little more caution in striking exchanges and avoid taking any damage on the feet.  Bak’s striking still needs some work as some aspects still look awkward.  Soren is primarily a grappler, or at least that is where he has found the most success.  His takedowns are solid, but he really shows his skills in his smothering ground control.  Once he gets on top, opponents have a difficult time with him.  He is a gritty type fighter that can wear people down.  Five of his wins have come by way of submission, so it is clear that he is submission minded.  Watching his fights, you can see that he is quite confident in his ground game.  Bak is scheduled to fight at the EuroFC debut on October 1st.  I believe that a few more wins will garner a UFC or Bellator call.

11.  Aziz Pahrudinov – 15-0-1 – Ukraine

Aziz’s striking is wild at times, but when it lands he has been effective.  He generally uses his strikes to get to the azzipahinside where he can grab a body lock or look for a takedown.  He has not shown himself to really be able to out-box an opponent or pick someone apart on their feet.  He has displayed some toughness in his fights and I think he carries some power in his punches.  I think a lot of striking comes down to letting lose and letting his hands go a little more. He has a good ground game, highlighted by good ground and pound ability.  He really knows how to go for a finish.  Also, he has great submission abilities.  Ten of his Fifteen wins have come by way a submission of some type.  Also, only one of his fights has gone to a decision.  His wrestling is not as dynamic as several other Russian prospects, but his submission game is a bit more offensive.  He has a good guard game from the bottom.  He threatens with triangles and armbars.  When on top he does have good control and positioning.  The top position is where he really shines, but he is a threat everywhere on the ground.  Pahrudinov has a combat sambo background and it shows in his fight style.  I think at 155 pounds, Aziz has real potential.

12.  Chris Fishgold -14-1-1 – 24-years old – UK

At just 23-years old this grappler from Liverpool, England has tons of potential.  training out of Next generation chris-fishgoldU.K., Fishgold has some really solid grappling coaches around him. Fighting under the Cage Warriors banner, Fishgold has really a great opportunity to test himself against really high level fighters and to expand his game as well. Chris makes no bones about it…he is a grappler first and foremost. He has good takedowns and really can control people from the top position.  He has finished his last four fights within the first round.  His submissions are really good.  One of the best aspects of his game are his transitions.  He has spent much of his career fighting down a weight class, but I expect him to continue his success at lightweight despite being undersized.  I believe that Fishgold could be the next guy from the UK to get into the UFC.  The current Cage Warriors lightweight champion has a clear path to the UFC.  He is slated to defend his Cage Warriors title on September 10th, and a win there could get him very close to his goal of getting to the UFC.

13. Herdeson Batista – 11-0 – 24 years old – Brazil

I have high hopes for the Team Nogueira lightweight prospect.  He already has a very solid looking 11-0 record which herdeson2includes some solid wins in the Brazilian fight scene.  In other words, by regional MMA standards his record is not padded.  He certainly has not competed against UFC caliber fighters, but I believe he is on the verge of that.  Herdeson has shown flashes of explosive striking including flying knees and powerful hands.  He seems to have good movement and does a good job avoiding pucnhes.  He is not a huge submission threat, but he does have submission skills.  I know that those inside the Team Nogueira camp think very highly of Herdeson and have high hopes for his MMA career.  I believe that he has the tools necessary to do well in MMA, but he will need to fight in bigger promotions in Brazil.  I think it is time for him to take a step forward in order to start drawing attention to himself.  I think that there is a good chance that with 2-3 more wins that Batista could get a UFC call up.

 

14.  Davi Ramos – 5-1 – 29 years old – Brazil

Davis Ramos is one of the best Brazilian Jiu Jitsu practitioners around.  He is a ADCC champion and world davi_ramos_-_mm11champion blackbelt.  Ramos is a bit older than most of our prospects at 29-years old, but he is relatively inexperienced when it comes to MMA.  I am not sure to what level Ramos is committed to his MMA career, but being the jiu jitsu ace that he is makes him a real threat to anyone.  He has some solid wins on his resume already, which he will need to keep doing to garner UFC interest.  He fought one time under the Bellator banner when he faced veteran David Rickels, which accounts for his sole MMA loss.  If Ramos can get his opponent to the ground, it is unlikely he will find anyone that is equal to him.  Ramos’ striking is not as bad as some others we have scouted.  He has decent punches, but does not seem to have tons of power.  I think Ramos would be worth a look for UFC, given that Bellator released him.  Ramos was scheduled to compete at an upcoming RFA event, but that fight was cancelled.  Given Ramos’ BJJ pedigree he could certainly find some UFC success if he is given the chance.

15.   Devonte Smith – 4-0 – 23 years old – USA

Smith is the most inexperienced fighter on this list, but his trajectory is trending upwards.  He has incredible devonte-smithpotential in MMA.   At just 23-years old Smith could be  guy who not only makes it to the UFC, but has a successful run there.  I believe that Smith may have the best upside on this list.  Known as “Johnny Kage”, Smith has developed quite a bit of buzz.  The word to describe Smith is “explosive”.  He has explosive power.  He is lightning quick with his attacks and his takedowns are dynamic.  He is really quite the athlete.  In his third professional fight, Smith landed some of the most devastating, jaw-dropping ground and pound I have seen.  Before turning professional, Smith had a successful amateur career.  So, Smith may be just 4-0, but he has MMA experience since he was 18 or 19 years old.   Smith has good wrestling and has shown that he is more of a power wrestler.  Smith has big goals in his career and he has the ability to achieve every one of them.   After watching Devonte’s fights, including his most recent win, I am on the Smith bandwagon.

16.  Grant Dawson – 10-1 – 22 years old – USA

Dawson is another prospect that has a higher ceiling than some of the fighters above him on this list.  In fact, were it grant-dawsonnot for his loss to Pulley, he probably would have cracked the top ten.  Dawson’s upside stems first of all from his age.  He is only 22-years old.   Dawson will need to clean up his striking a bit to take it to the next level.  He tends to throw wild looping punches.  He is not a power puncher, but he can be effective striking when he is pressuring his opponents and moving forward.  His best success on the feet comes when he lands in volume.  He is training now with UFC fighter James Krause and is surrounded by several other solid fighters in the gym.  Dawson is very strong from the top position and is a very good grappler.  He can be very dangerous with his ground and pound as well.  Dawson has the potential to be an elite level mixed martial artist.  He is scheduled to fight on October 1st.  I would be surprised if he is not already on UFC’s radar, but if he keeps winning fights in the way that he does he will get the call from them sooner rather than later.  Dawson is a real blue clip prospect with a very high ceiling.

 

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