Welcome to year seven of the annual “Prospects the UFC Should Sign” series, in which we’ll examine five MMA prospects per division the UFC should sign this year.
This series started during my time as a writer for Bleacher Report, continued through my tenures at Today’s Knockout and FanSided and now it stays alive this year at Combat Press.
Let’s examine the featherweight division, a weight class that is loaded with good, young talent and is constantly and rapidly becoming one of the best, most entertaining divisions in the UFC.
In picking these prospects, I’ll try my hardest to stay away from fighters who are currently in top organizations, such as Bellator or the Professional Fighters League, but a couple may pop up. In the past, I’ve had some great picks on the list and some that haven’t worked out. Below are the previous year’s selections, followed by the five men the UFC should offer roster spots to this year.
2012: Doo Ho Choi, Joe Soto, Georgi Karakhanyan*, Lance Palmer, Henrique Bilcalho
2013: Doo Ho Choi, Andre Fili, Rick Glenn, Georgi Karakhanyan*, Deividas Taurosevicius
2014: Raoni Barcelos, Bekbulat Magomedov, Marat Gafurov, Gleristone Santos, Alexandre Bezerra
2015: James Jenkins, Ivan Buchinger*, Andre Harrison*, Henry Corrales, Mark Dickman
2016: Tom Duquesnoy, Andre Harrison*, Magomed Idrisov*, Rasul Mirzaev, Herbert Burns
2017: Raoni Barcelos, Magomed Idrisov*, Salman Zhamdalaev, Paddy Pimblett, Michael Tobin
Note: Bold denotes fighter was signed by UFC; * denotes fighter ineligible due to two years on list.
With a nickname like “The Angel of Death,” you better be a great fighter with a violent style. Aguilar lives up to this nickname. He has become a very good featherweight prospect in the United States.
The native Texan is an aggressive striker with power and killer instinct. His style lends to a kill-or-go-out-on-your-shield approach, which is great for fans who like good fights. However, he has been knocked out before, and it will cause him to absorb damage over his career.
Aguilar went 2-0 in 2017. He won and defended the Legacy Fighting Alliance featherweight championship. Aguilar started off by knocking out UFC veteran Damon Jackson and then scored a convincing five-round verdict over Justin Rader.
Aguilar definitely has to be on the UFC’s radar from the standpoint of championship status and entertainment value. He’d be a great guy to sign for the UFC Fight Night card coming up in Austin, Texas.
There have not been many U.S. prospects as overwhelmingly impressive as Juan Archuleta, especially given he fights in multiple weight classes. Featherweight is the best division for him, so we’ll include him here.
A disciple of UFC veteran Joe Stevenson, the 30-year-old Californian has fought recently in the bantamweight, featherweight and lightweight divisions. He’s a very good striker, but he has a refined ground game, courtesy of his coach, the aforementioned Stevenson.
Archuleta is a four-division — junior welterweight, lightweight, featherweight and bantamweight — King of the Cage champion. He was 4-0 in 2017 with three finishes. His biggest win of the year came over Mark Dickman to close out 2017.
This much gold in one man’s collection is very hard to ignore. The UFC has to be taking a serious look at Archuleta.
Team Alpha Male has long been a gym loaded with talent, especially young prospects. One of the camp’s most promising prospects is Diamond, an undefeated 26-year-old who has dominated in his early career.
Diamond wrestled collegiately at North Dakota State, which explains why he went to work with Team Alpha Male, a camp full of guys with wrestling backgrounds. He’s a physical specimen who is immensely powerful and can outmuscle most guys he gets his hands on. Not only is his wrestling fantastic, he has a ton of power in his hands and can knock out guys with one punch.
Diamond was 3-0 in 2017. He captured the Global Knockout championship. He scored a decision victory over previously unbeaten Nathan Stolen, knocked out The Ultimate Fighter participant Ran Weathers and choked out Emilio Chavez to earn the championship.
Given his age, skill set and rapid improvements, Diamond is the type of guy the UFC needs to target. It definitely helps that Urijah Faber is his coach and in UFC President Dana White’s ear. Don’t be shocked to see Diamond in Reebok gear by year’s end.
It’s not difficult to land on this list when you’ve defeated a fighter that was previously on the list. Not only did England’s Grundy do that in 2017, but he compounded that by beating a UFC veteran in very convincing fashion.
Grundy has a background in freestyle wrestling, which plays significantly into his fight style. He aggressively gets in his opponent’s face and looks to drag them down to the mat. The Team Kaobon member will not only use wrestling to bring his opponent to the canvas, but he will attack with submissions. Most of his wins have come by tapout. Grundy is a finisher, in other words.
His only career loss came to UFC roster member Damian Stasiak, but he’s improved tenfold since then. His 2017 was very impressive. He defeated Yutaka Saito and Michael Tobin, the latter of whom was on this list last year. Grundy capped off his year by landing the Aspera FC featherweight championship with a convincing decision over UFC vet Fernando Bruno.
The UFC is coming to England in March. That’s the perfect time to snag Grundy, who seems like he’s starting to peak. He would be an intriguing piece in a tough featherweight division.
Making his second consecutive appearance on this prospect’s series, Zhamdalaev continues to stand out as one of the best featherweight prospects in the world.
Zhamdalaev is a wrestler with a Greco-Roman background, which explains his fight style of closing the distance and putting opponents on their backs. His top pressure and activity causes great displeasure and damage to opponents. Most of his recent wins have come by decision, but he does have submissions and ground-and-pound stoppages as well.
Zhamdalaev was 2-0 in 2017. Both of his wins took place in the World Fighting Championship Akhmat promotion in Russia. He opened his 2017 campaign with a unanimous decision over Alejandro Solano Rodriguez. He then scored a split decision over Felipe Froes, a solid prospect in his own right.
How the UFC hasn’t come calling on this guy yet is puzzling. He’s clearly a beast.