Welcome to year eight 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 continues this year at Combat Press.
Let’s examine the welterweight division, a weight class that is loaded with talent and is constantly providing new guys toward the top of the division.
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: Gunnar Nelson, Alex Garcia, Kenny Robertson, Chidi Njokuani, Gregor Gracie
2013: Jim Wallhead, Cathal Pendred, Ryan Ford*, Tyler Stinson, Assan Njie
2014: Nicolas Dalby, Ryan Ford*, Eduard Vartanyan*, Gael Grimaud, Ali Arish
2015: Danny Roberts, Max Griffin, Nicolas Dalby, Eduard Vartanyan*, Borys Mankowski*
2016: Belal Muhammad, Alexey Kunchenko, Anatoly Tokov*, Abubakar Nurmagomedov*, Khusein Khaliev*
2017: Muslim Salikhov, Alexey Kunchenko, Borys Mankowski*, Abubakar Nurmagomedov*, Mukhamed Berkhamov
2018: Mukhamed Berkhamov*, Sean Brady, James Nakashima, Robert Soldić, Alex Lohore
Note: Bold denotes fighter was signed by UFC; * denotes fighter ineligible due to two years on list.
Brady makes his second consecutive appearance on this list. He has continued to progress as one of the best welterweight prospects in the world. The 26-year-old Philly fighter has gradually increased his level of opposition while continuing to look like a guy with a bright future in the UFC.
Brady is a tad short for a welterweight, but it doesn’t seem to hamper him much. The Renzo Gracie disciple strikes long and aggressively, while having a refined ground game with solid submission ability. He spent his career in the Cage Fury FC organization until 2018, when he went 2-0 outside of the promotion. He bested UFC veteran Colton Smith and then defeated Gilbert Urbina in the main event of Legacy Fighting Alliance 49.
It’s only a matter of time before the UFC comes calling for Brady. Not only is he undefeated, but he’s built his record in organizations where the UFC tends to find new talent. He’s a competitor not afraid of being tossed in the meat grinder, and he would fit right in with the UFC welterweight division.
The winner of the $1 million Professional Fighters League Tournament, Magomedkerimov has put himself in position to be one of the best welterweights in the world. The big Russian, who stands 6-foot-1, quietly smashed his way through the competition to take the PFL season-one title.
Magomedkerimov is well rounded. He has good striking, strong takedowns and an arsenal of submissions. He had a very busy 2018, scoring five wins under the PFL banner. In addition to decisions over UFC veteran Bojan Velickovic and Pavel Kusch, he scored finishes over Velickovic (TKO), Herman Terrado (rear-naked choke) and Ray Cooper III (guillotine choke).
The PFL tournament championship is an accolade that should be more than enough to have the UFC calling. Magomedkerimov beat UFC and Bellator vets, plus the surging Cooper, in the tourney, so he’s more than proved he’s capable of competing at a high level.
Nakashima has made this list for two consecutive years. He has been perfect through 10 careers fights and doesn’t appear ready to stop anytime soon. The MMA Lab rep recently signed with ONE Championship, which makes a UFC signing a bit tougher, but perhaps he’ll fights his way through the contract and can score bigger money with the world’s largest promotion.
A striker by background, Nakashima often likes to fight from a distance, where he uses technical and precise striking to pile up points. Unfortunately, that doesn’t lead to finishes. In fact, through his 10 pro fights, Nakashima has exactly zero knockouts or submissions. That being said, he has beat some very good fighters in his MMA tenure, including Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series veteran Kyle Stewart and current UFC roster member Chance Rencountre.
If Nakashima can start scoring more finishes and beating more notable opponents, it will be impossible for the UFC to ignore him. If he does finish out his time with ONE and becomes a free agent, the UFC could add him to further load its welterweight ranks.
Soldić makes this list again — this year is therefore his final appearance here. That’s quite something for someone who is just 23 years old. Soldić is an absolute murderer who has quickly amassed a record of 15-3 despite being so young. He’s likely the best Croatian to become an MMA fighter since Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic.
Soldić is a powerhouse, and that may be an understatement. The Croatian striker can finish guys in many different ways. He mixes it up well with kicks and punches, and he’s finished opponents with both techniques. Despite his nickname, “Robocop” is not robotic. He tears the body as much as he goes for headshots. He finishes opponents quickly, too. Most of his knockout wins have come in the first round. He gets going fast and hard. After a 2018 loss to Dricus Du Plessis, Soldić recovered to avenge the defeat. He also scored a vicious win over Vinicius Bohrer in his most recent outing.
Soldić’s KSW contract was what likely pulled him from a rumored UFC bout in Russia toward the end of 2018. For this reason, the UFC may have to wait a bit on him. However, he’s likely near the end of his contract and could soon land on the market. Given his penchant to get on the highlight reel and beat tough fighters, Soldić should be high on the UFC’s list of targeted signings.
With Paige VanZant as his wife, Vanderford definitely has no trouble getting attention and fights. However, there is no doubt in most people’s minds that Vanderford gets by on more than just his status as PVZ’s spouse. He’s a legit prospect with a good chance of doing big things in the sport of mixed martial arts. The strong, large 170-pounder has made mincemeat of his opponents en route to a perfect record thus far.
Vanderford trains out of Gracie Barra Portland under UFC veteran Fabiano Scherner. He is a former college wrestler with great intensity on the takedown and heavy positioning from the top. He’s quickly developed his striking, which consists largely of throwing bombs. When he lands, he does so in devastating fashion. His knockout of Edmilson Freitas in his last fight was definitely among the most violent in 2018. He also scored a win on DWTNCS in 2018, which surprisingly did not net him a UFC contract.
It may be awhile before the UFC can get its hands on Vanderford, now that the undefeated prospect has inked a deal with Bellator. That’s a real shame, though. Vanderford has the skills to compete with some of the best the welterweight division has to offer — Bellator has a pretty strong welterweight division of its own, but the UFC has more depth. Hopefully, the UFC can attract Vanderford away after his current contract runs its course.