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 flyweight division, a weight class that is caught in a stranglehold by longtime champion Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson. There is new, exciting talent being added the division, which could provide the UFC with great depth — and a potential successor to Johnson — in the future.
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.
2013: Sergio Pettis, Josh Sampo, Alptekin Ozkilic, Darrell Montague, Sean Santella*
2014: Henry Cejudo, Alexandre Pantoja, Pietro Menga*, Sean Santella*, Czar Sklavos
2015: Alexandre Pantoja, Hiromasa Ogikubo, Pietro Menga*, Nildo Nascimento, Allan Nascimento
2016: Hiromasa Ogikubo, Adam Antolin, Bruno Menezes*, Nick Urso, Rany Saadeh
2017: Jarred Brooks, Deiveson Alcantara, Bruno Menezes*, Askar Askarov, Yuki Motoya
Note: Bold denotes fighter was signed by UFC; * denotes fighter ineligible due to two years on list.
Making his second appearance in two consecutive years, Askarov continues to be one of the best flyweights in the world outside of the UFC. The 25-year-old Russian has an impressive resume and the skill set to go along with it.
The Fighting Eagle product is undefeated thus far in his career, but it has not been because he’s fighting cans. He’s fought notable opponents and done away with them in dominant fashion. He’s a dominating wrestler with a suffocating ground game, which is how he’s able to score submissions and ground-and-pound stoppages. He’s never been to a decision either, instead preferring to be an aggressive finisher.
Askarov only fought once in 2017, but it was an impressive third-round submission of respected veteran Anthony Leone. It should also be noted that Askarov has scored previous wins over UFC veteran Jose Maria Tome, Ukrainian vet Ruslan Abilitarov and former Polish prospect Marcin Lasota. That’s a solid lineup of victims.
Askarov is the Absolute Berkut Championship flyweight titleholder. He’s set for a title defense already in 2018 against fellow prospect Rasul Albaskhanov. If he can move to 10-0 with another finish against a quality opponent, it’s going to be hard for the UFC to ignore a top fighter for a division that is in need of an injection of talent.
The first of three American prospects in the flyweight list, Bice is quietly becoming a face to watch in the 125-pound class. The big-show veteran is getting better and better while taking on increasingly difficult competition.
A member of the underrated Factory X Muay Thai camp in Colorado, Bice uses the camp’s style to a T. He’s a technical striker with toughness who can grapple a bit as well. That said, he’s known for most of his wins coming by way of decision, so he needs to be more assertive in becoming a finisher if he wants to catch the UFC’s eye.
Bice went 3-0 in 2017, earning some impressive wins along the way. He opened up his campaign by tapping out Marc TongVan. He moved on to earn Legacy Fighting Alliance victories over Cody Land and Kenny Porter by decision. It should also be noted that he owns a 2014 decision victory over current UFC roster member Eric Shelton.
If Bice becomes more consistent in finishing fighters while continuing to take fights with big promotions like the LFA and Titan FC, he will do enough to catch the eyes of the UFC matchmakers.
Thanks to fighters like B.J. Penn and Max Holloway, Hawaii has really built a reputation as an island state that houses impressive talent, tough guys and great fighters. One of those guys is Dutro, a flyweight who has punched his way onto the radars of MMA scouts.
Dutro, who stands 5-foot-8, is a decently tall flyweight. He’s an aggressive striker with good power for a 125-pounder. He’s able to score stoppages with his hands. Dutro has not lost since 2013. He has been dominating in the Pacific regional scene.
After a busy 2016 in which he earned his biggest win to date over UFC veteran Darren Uyenoyama, Dutro slowed down in 2017 with just one fight. In that fight, Dutro needed just two rounds to put away Yusaku Nakamura with strikes. He will need more activity in 2018 if he wishes to get in good with the UFC brass.
Dutro is already scheduled to fight undefeated Japanese fighter Takumi Tamaru. Should Dutro score another impressive stoppage, especially via strikes, it would be curious if the UFC didn’t go after him to help add depth to the flyweight division.
Every year, this list includes a dark-horse fighter that may not have a ton of name recognition or buzz from MMA scouts, but who could be better than he appears to be. This year, that man is 23-year-old Texan Jonathan Martinez, a ferocious finisher with an aggressive style.
Martinez is a striker who has scored most of his finishes via knockout. He does so with variety and technique. He owns finishes via knees, kicks and punches. However, his last two wins have come by way of submission. He’s shown improvements and rounded off his game.
Martinez only competed once in 2017. Three of his fights ended up being canceled for one reason or another. His one appearance was a sub-minute submission win over Randy Hinds, who is a lower-level talent. This does not diminish the fact that it was an impressive finish. Martinez’s only loss came by way of disqualification against UFC fighter Matt Schnell in a fight in which Martinez was holding his own.
He’s still young and has more to prove, especially against higher levels of competition. If Martinez can get that experience and continue to be a destructive finisher, there’s no reason the UFC shouldn’t come calling for this exciting fighter.
It’s not often that this series will include guys who have already had a shot in the UFC, but Sherbatov was only part of one fight on The Ultimate Fighter. So, let’s make a concession. Despite his failure on TUF, he’s still a top flyweight prospect who should get another crack at the big show.
Sherbatov is a powerful striker with a boxing background. He can also tap out opponents on the mat. This well-rounded style has served him well. It’s tough to game-plan for Sherbatov. Plus, he’s a finisher, which makes him even more exciting to watch in the cage.
After failing on TUF in 2016, Sherbatov returned to the drawing board and came back strong in 2017 with two wins. He opened his campaign with a 44-second destruction of Martin Sandoval via strikes. He followed that up with an impressive decision victory over UFC and Bellator veteran Zach Makovsky.
As a TUF alum who has already dealt with the UFC matchmakers, Sherbatov has a good chance of returning to the promotion. It would be a shock if Sherbatov wasn’t on the UFC roster by year’s end.