Harrison (Jeff Vulgamore/Combat Press)

Out of Obscurity: Emerging Stars to Watch For in 2017

Every week, Combat Press takes a look at regional, developmental and international cards from the upcoming weekend, previewing from each a single fight to which people should pay close attention. This is a nearly 52-week task each year.

Through this venture, we discover those prospects that fight in the obscurity of the regional, developmental and international circuits, waiting for their shot at the bright lights and big stage of the UFC. It all begins in the small convention centers and high school gymnasiums.

Prospects come and prospects go. They don’t all make it, but plenty grab our attention. Here are 25 such prospects from 2016. They stand out as emerging stars to watch for in the coming year of 2017.


Denis “The Russian Bogatyr” Goltsov
Record: 19-4
Age: 26
2016 Notes: 3-0 record, ACB heavyweight championship win

The 26-year-old Goltsov has been competing professionally since August 2010. The Sambo Piter product had an up-and-down start to his career, amassing a 5-4 record and never winning more than two fights in a row during that stretch. After his first nine fights, though, something clicked for the sambo specialist. He has gone undefeated through his last 14 bouts while scoring 11 stoppages. The Russian has suffered a loss to former Bellator heavyweight champion Alexander Volkov, but he has added to his resume with wins over Roy Boughton, Brett Rogers, Peter Graham, James McSweeney, Mike Kyle and Paul Buentello. His most recent victory, a unanimous decision nod over Salimgerey Rasulov, catapulted the towering 6-foot-5 heavyweight to the throne as the new Absolute Championship Berkut heavyweight titleholder.

2017 Outlook: In a division that’s always desperate for new talent, Goltsov could be the next prospect to get a shot at the big stage. He has experienced defeat more than many of the prospects on this list, but the heavyweight competitor has put those losses far in the rearview mirror. A 14-fight winning streak that includes 11 stoppages? Why has the UFC not come calling yet?

Light Heavyweight
Jordan Johnson
Record: 6-0
Age: 28
2016 Notes: 3-0 record, RFA light heavyweight championship win

Johnson came to the Resurrection Fighting Alliance by way of Arizona’s Power MMA camp after stints at the MMA Lab and then Alliance. He debuted in 2014 and pummeled his first two opponents with strikes. His third fight came in the RFA cage, where he needed just 48 seconds to submit Gemenie Strehlow. Johnson continued his rampage in 2016 with a 52-second submission finish of Ryan Debelak and a third-round submission of Shaun Asher. Johnson’s next stop was a headlining bout for the vacant RFA light heavyweight crown. Johnson went the distance while dominating fellow prospect Lemarcus Tucker. Johnson’s record lacks the big wins of some of the other men on this list, but he’s already risen through the ranks of the RFA while handing out five finishes.

2017 Outlook: Johnson could quickly emerge as a light heavyweight signing for the UFC if he adds another finish or two under the new Legacy Fighting Alliance banner. He does lack the notable victories of some of his counterparts on this list, however, and could spend a good part of the coming year adding to his resume while competing in the LFA.

Leonardo Leite
Record: 10-0
Age: 38
2016 Notes: 3-0 record, Iron FC light heavyweight championship win

Brazilian Top Team’s Leite is more well known for what he has accomplished on the grappling mats than for what he has done inside a cage or ring. Easily the oldest prospect on this list, the 38-year-old is a two-time world champion in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and is highly decorated in jiu-jitsu and judo competition. He spent approximately two decades competing in those martial-arts disciplines before launching his professional MMA career in 2013. Leite scored two submissions and two decision nods through his first four fights, all of which took place in Brazil. Then Leite signed with Legacy Fighting Championship and made his promotional debut in late 2014. He challenged and defeated Myron Dennis for the league’s light heavyweight strap. The victory was his first of two consecutive TKO stoppages. The second of those finishes came in Leite’s move to middleweight to vie for the vacant Legacy crown against fellow title hopeful Larry Crowe. Leite defended his middleweight belt against Ryan Spann in 2015, but he has been out of the spotlight in 2016 while competing for Final Fight Championship, Iron FC and Fight2Night. The Brazilian submitted Julio Juarez in the first round to claim the Iron FC light heavyweight crown, but his most notable victory of 2016 came via majority decision over veteran fighter Moise Rimbon.

2017 Outlook: It’s never too late to become a UFC star. Leite’s advanced age gives him a small window of opportunity, but his talents and continued winning ways put him in line for an opportunity at either middleweight or light heavyweight.

Trevin “The Problem” Giles
Record: 8-0
Age: 24
2016 Notes: 4-0 record, RFA win over Josh Clark,
Legacy win over Ike Villanueva

The 24-year-old Giles has already made the rounds in the “Triple A” level of MMA. His pro debut came under the Legacy banner in 2014. He needed just 75 seconds to pick up his first victory and then just over two minutes to capture his second win, also in the Legacy cage. After two TKO victories, including one over Larry Crowe, with the Fury FC promotion, Giles again returned to Legacy and notched a second-round submission win. He strayed once more, this time heading to the Caribbean Ultimate Fist Fighting organization for another TKO win. He made his way to the Resurrection Fighting Alliance, where he turned in a second-round submission finish of fellow prospect Josh Clark. “The Problem” jumped back to Legacy for his most recent outing, a headlining contest in which he submitted Ike Villanueva. The Elite MMA Houston export has never seen the scorecards.

2017 Outlook: With victories under the Legacy and RFA banners, it’s likely that Giles will be in the Legacy Fighting Alliance title hunt in early 2017. If he continues to win and avoid the scorecards, he’ll be an attractive fight-finisher ripe for addition to the roster of one of the top-tier promotions.

Alexey Kunchenko
Record: 15-0
Age: 32
2016 Notes: 3-0 record, M-1 welterweight championship win and successful title defense

Kunchenko, 32, only debuted as a pro in 2013. He has faced some tough veteran competition, but his most notable victories, in addition to his title-clinching win and recent title defense over Murad Abdulaev, came against Bellator veterans Ron Keslar and Carlos Pereira. The Boets product has a foundation in Muay Thai and has registered 11 of his 15 wins by way of strikes. After capturing the welterweight crown from Abdulaev, Kunchenko returned to action in early September in a non-title catchweight bout and worked his way to a unanimous decision nod over Eduardo Ramon. His title defense against the aforementioned Abdulaev went the full five rounds and also ended in a unanimous verdict for the Russian up-and-comer.

2017 Outlook: Kunchenko is a strong striker who has spent the last two years proving his worth against veteran competition. His recent decision victories put a damper on his streak of highlight-reel striking finishes, but the 32-year-old has a strong case for a step up to the big leagues.

Saul “The Hangman” Rogers
Record: 12-1
Age: 27
2016 Notes: 2-0 record, Tankō FC win over Andre Winner

Rogers has never lost inside the Octagon. He’s never made an official appearance inside the UFC, but he does have four wins inside The Ultimate Fighter arena. The 27-year-old’s only loss came in a 2012 Cage Contenders match-up with Shay Walsh. Rogers, a 6-0 fighter with roughly a year and a half of pro experience at the time, was submitted by Walsh in the third round. The SBG Mainline fighter regrouped for a four-fight winning streak that included decision nods over John Maguire and Mick Sinclair. Rogers then entered the TUF competition, where he defeated Paulo Boer and then marched through Billy Quarantillo, Ryan Hall and Marcin Wrzosek to advance to the finals of the lightweight bracket. The British fighter was slated to meet Artem Lobov at the finale event to determine the season’s winner, but visa issues prevented him from doing so and the aforementioned Hall was inserted in his place. Rogers never got another opportunity inside the Octagon. Instead, he defeated fellow TUF alum Andre Winner under the Tankō Fighting Championships banner and then signed with Absolute Championship Berkut, where he met and submitted Michel Adelina.

2017 Outlook: There’s little question that Rogers belongs at the highest level of the sport, but the UFC hasn’t opted to take another chance on the lightweight prospect. For now, he competes under the ACB banner. He was set to fight again at last weekend’s ACB 50, but his bout against fellow prospect Musa Khamanaev was rescheduled for a later date. If Rogers continues to win while fighting abroad, it’s going to be increasingly difficult for the UFC and Bellator to ignore this rising British star.

Murad “Strangler” Machaev
Record: 20-1
Age: 30
2016 Notes: 2-0 record, Fight Nights Global win over Alexander Sarnavskiy

Machaev, a Master of Sport in combat sambo and judo, trains with some of the best at the Krepost Fight Club in Moscow. He spends his days working alongside the likes of UFC fighter Zubaira Tukhugov, top Russian prospect Oleg Borisov and ONE Championship veteran Yusup Saadulaev. The “Strangler” has won 11 fights in a row since tasting defeat for the only time in his 21-fight career against Marcin Held at Bellator 77 in 2012. The 29-year-old has put together an impressive resume despite not piling on big-name victories. Machaev owns wins over the aforementioned Tukhugov, WFC champion Ivica Trušček, KSW tournament champ Niko Puhakka, Bellator veteran Alexander Sarnavskiy and BAMMA vet Jack McGann. He was also the only man to defeat ONE Championship veteran Alexey Polpudnikov in his past 12 bouts. Machaev recently picked up his biggest career win against Bellator tournament finalist Sarnavskiy at Fight Nights Global 44 in February. He went on to submit McGann in a September bout at Fight Nights Global 51.

2017 Outlook: Machaev already had one run at the top-tier promotions when he appeared under the Bellator banner in 2012. He wasn’t able to capitalize on the opportunity, going just 1-1 in the Bellator cage with a decision loss to the aforementioned Held and a decision victory over LT Nelson. Machaev has put together a strong resume since his lone defeat, and there’s a possibility that 2017 could be the year when he gets his second chance at the big show.

Andre “The Bull” Harrison
Record: 14-0
Age: 28
2016 Notes: 3-0 record, three successful defenses of the Titan FC featherweight title

Harrison made his pro debut in the Ring of Combat cage as a lightweight in late 2011. He transitioned to the featherweight division in his sophomore bout and picked up three victories at 145 pounds and a win at a 140-pound catchweight before competing for the vacant Ring of Combat belt against Matias Vasquez. Harrison put Vasquez away with strikes in the first round to claim the crown. After more than a year of inactivity, he returned and took a split decision win in a title fight against Jeff Lentz. The former NCAA Division II All-American wrestler then signed with Titan FC and claimed decision wins in his first three Titan appearances, including a title win over Kurt Holobaugh. Harrison has remained consistent since claiming the Titan crown. He has made four successful defenses of the belt while defeating the likes of Des Green, Steven Siler, Deivison Ribeiro and Alexandre Bezerra. The latter three of those victories make up his 2016 campaign. Many of Harrison’s recent opponents, including the aforementioned Lentz, Holobaugh, Green, Siler and Bezerra, as well as Cody Bollinger, have some form of Bellator or UFC experience. It’s no fluke that Harrison, who trains out of Bellmore Kickboxing Academy and Joe Scarola’s Gracie Barra Long Island and teaches at Empire MMA in Queens, has gotten to where he is today. His training partners include UFC fighters Dennis Bermudez and Chris Wade. Harrison still has one more scheduled bout for 2016 after a slated fight with The Ultimate Fighter alum Julian Lane fell through. Harrison is set to meet Bruce Boyington as part of the World Series of Fighting 34 event on New Year’s Eve.

2017 Outlook: Harrison’s experience under the Titan FC banner and his upcoming fight with the WSOF are indicative of Harrison’s standing as likely the most big-league-ready of our 25 prospects. Harrison has never been much of a finisher, which might explain why he’s not already on the UFC roster, but his grinding approach has given him a number of big wins. He might be destined to compete in promotions beyond the UFC, but he’s turning into one of those fighters who might be a year or two away from appearing in top-10 lists as the one non-UFC member of the elite.

Raoni Barcelos
Record: 11-1
Age: 31
2016 Notes: 2-0 record, two successful defenses of
the RFA featherweight title

Barcelos, 31, debuted in 2012 and stacked up victory upon victory through his first seven outings. He stopped all but two of those foes, and he was forced to settle for a decision nod in his RFA debut against UFC and WEC alum Tyler Toner. Following his fight against Toner, Barcelos suffered his first defeat when he was submitted by Mark Dickman at RFA 14. He responded by defeating Jamal Parks to earn a crack at RFA gold. Barcelos decisioned Ricky Musgrave to capture the featherweight belt. In 2016, he made his first two successful defenses of the title with wins over Bobby Moffett and Dan Moret. The former Shooto Brazil featherweight champion has compiled six wins via strikes and one victory by way of submission. The breakdown of his finishes can be misleading, though. He has trained in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu since a very early age under his father, Laerte Barcelos, and holds the rank of black belt.

2017 Outlook: Barcelos has to be frustrated that he’s still toiling around in the RFA despite a title victory and two successful defenses. Why has the UFC not come calling? Well, it may be a combination of factors, including the Brazilian’s loss to Dickman and his inability to finish Musgrave or Moffett. The BJJ black belt delivered an impressive showing against Moret, and there’s already a great initial pairing waiting for him in the UFC against Lando Vannata, a rising star who was slated to meet Barcelos in the RFA before receiving the call-up to the Octagon.

Paddy “The Baddy” Pimblett
Record: 13-1
Age: 21
2016 Notes: 4-0 record, Cage Warriors featherweight championship win and successful title defense

Pimblett checks in at just 21 years old, but “The Baddy” already has 14 fights under his belt as a pro. He made his debut in 2012 and won his first four fights before stumbling against Cameron Else in a 35-second submission loss. The Next Generation MMA Liverpool product responded to the loss by capturing nine straight wins while stepping up to face more experienced competition. Pimblett has finished three fights via TKO and scored one submission due to strikes, but chokes account for the majority of his victories. He captured the featherweight title in the Full Contact Contender promotion and made one successful defense of the belt. The British fighter most recently snagged the vacant Cage Warriors featherweight crown with a first-round TKO of Johnny Frachey in September and defended the crown with a unanimous decision win over The Ultimate Fighter alum Julian Erosa in November.

2017 Outlook: Pimblett is a young gun who could be on the fast track to stardom. His one submission loss is concerning, but the kid was just 18 years old at the time and has progressed by leaps and bounds since the loss. His title run under the Cage Warriors banner puts him on everyone’s map. He could make his first appearance in the big leagues in 2017.

Jason “The Specimen” Soares
Record: 10-0
Age: 27
2016 Notes: 2-0 record, two successful defenses of
the Fight Time featherweight title

The undefeated Soares claimed the Fight Time featherweight belt in 2014 when he submitted Randy Barosso in the first round of their Fight Time 21 meeting. “The Specimen” has won three subsequent fights, first notching a decision victory over Paulo Silva and then successfully defending his crown with a submission finish of Danny Chavez and a decision nod over Guilherme Faria. However, the 26-year-old does have one exhibition loss on his resume. He fought Julian Erosa on The Ultimate Fighter 22 and landed on the wrong side of a majority verdict. The Freestyle Fighting Academy export has just one knockout win and two decision nods. The remaining seven victories came by way of submission.

2017 Outlook: The loss Soares suffered to Erosa was enough to put a stake through the heart of his UFC chances for the near future, but the featherweight prospect continues to win in official action. He’s done well against middling competition, but 2016’s victories over Chavez and Faria marked a step up. He’ll need to continue to climb the ladder in 2017, but he has the privilege of doing so in a promotion that does receive some national exposure. If he can post submission finishes against increasingly tough competition, Soares will land on the UFC’s radar.

Alex “Leko” da Silva
Record: 18-0
Age: 20
2016 Notes: 3-0 record, Brave CF 2 win over Daniel Swain

If Paddy Pimblett’s record by the age of 21 isn’t enough to impress, we present you with Alex da Silva. He is just 20 years old, but he has already amassed an impressive unblemished mark through 18 pro fights. “Leko” is still early in his development, however, and many of his opponents have lacked experience and winning records. The Astra Fight Team product has done all of his damage in a short time after debuting in January 2014. He was 8-0 by the end of his first calendar year as a pro, and he kept up the pace with seven fights in 2015. He slowed to only three outings in 2016, but he made massive steps up in competition to defeat the likes of Marcelo Piazza and RFA veteran Daniel Swain. Da Silva, an Aspera mainstay who made his pro debut with the organization and even fought there as an amateur, has not seen the scorecards since turning pro. He has finished 12 opponents via strikes and six by way of submission. He ended all of his 2016 contests by knockout or technical knockout, including a 67-second finish of sub-.500 fighter Welinton Dias.

2017 Outlook: Da Silva ventured outside of Brazil for a visit to Bahrain to meet Swain. The youngster’s ability to score a big victory on foreign soil is a very encouraging sign, but his resume still features far too few notable names. He’s primed to be a young breakout star, but his opportunity might not come until late in 2017 or perhaps even later.

Salman “The Angry” Zhamaldaev
Record: 13-1
Age: 27
2016 Notes: 3-0 record, Akhmat Fight Show featherweight tournament championship

The 27-year-old Zhamaldaev lost his 2012 pro debut to Antun Račić, but he’s been perfect ever since. His first nine victories came via stoppage, but he’s struggled in more recent outings. Zhamaldaev, who has a background in Greco-Roman wrestling, closed out 2015 with a split decision nod over Joni Salovaara and opened 2016 with a unanimous verdict against Kevin Petshi. The victory over Petshi came in the quarterfinals of Akhmat Fight Show’s tournament, allowing Zhamaldaev to advance to a semifinal match-up with Fabiano Silva. Zhamaldaev eked out a split decision against Silva to land in the tourney finals, where he clashed with Frodo Khasbulaev, an accomplished veteran. The Fight Club Berkut product went five rounds with Khasbulaev and emerged with the decision nod to take the tournament’s top honors.

2017 Outlook: Zhamaldaev’s 2016 campaign added to an increasingly impressive resume. Entering the year, he already held striking stoppages of veterans Francisco Cylderlan and Alonzo Martinez, but his victories over Silva and Khasbulaev cemented his status as a top prospect. The Russian fighter might be just a victory or two away from a spot on the big show.

Tom “Fire Kid” Duquesnoy
Record: 14-1
Age: 23
2016 Notes: 3-0 record, BAMMA bantamweight championship win and successful title defense

This year’s easy pick for super prospect, the 23-year-old Duquesnoy recently headlined BAMMA 27, which served as the preliminary card to Bellator MMA’s 169th event. He’s a former BAMMA featherweight champion who dropped to bantamweight in 2016 after successfully defending his 145-pound title in his previous two fights. The “Fire Kid” destroyed Damien Rooney via strikes in just 82 seconds to post a successful bantamweight debut and advance to a title tilt with Shay Walsh. After just 75 seconds, Duquesnoy landed an elbow to knock out Walsh and capture the 135-pound crown. His first defense came against Alan Philpott at BAMMA 27. The French fighter secured a rear-naked choke in round two to finish Philpott. Duquesnoy has now compiled an impressive 14-1 mark that includes victories over Teddy Violet, Krzysztof Klaczek, Brendan Loughnane and the aforementioned Walsh and Philpott. His only loss came in his fifth career outing, where he suffered a submission defeat at the hands of Makwan Amirkhani, who is now undefeated through three UFC fights. The young fighter has trained in combat sambo since age 12, has worked his wrestling with the French national team and has traveled to gyms in Europe and the United States to further hone his skills. One of his recent landing spots was Albuquerque, N.M., and the Jackson-Winkeljohn camp. He has a very well-rounded game and few flaws.

2017 Outlook: If there’s one man on this list who should be a guaranteed arrival in the big leagues, then that man is Duquesnoy. He has recorded 11 stoppages while running through a gauntlet of tough European competition. His loss to Amirkhani provides a possible future storyline if he enters the UFC, but his headlining spot at BAMMA 27 with Bellator MMA brass looking on could lead to a tenure with the other major promotion out there.

Demarte “The Wolf” Pena
Record: 12-0
Age: 27
2016 Notes: 1-0 record, one successful defense of
the EFC Worldwide bantamweight title

The 27-year-old Pena had a very quiet 2016, but he’s never been one to carry a heavy workload. In fact, only his rookie year of 2011 and his 2013 campaign resulted in more than two fights in one calendar year. Pena vacated his EFC Africa featherweight crown to challenge future The Ultimate Fighter competitor Nkazimulo Zulu for the bantamweight title in 2014. After five hard-fought rounds, Pena emerged with the belt. He successfully defended the title against Francis Groenewald in 2014 and Cedric Doyle in 2015, but he remained out of action in 2016 until his November meeting with Irshaad Sayed. The Fight Fit Militia product, who captured the EFC Africa featherweight title in just his third fight and went on to make five successful title defenses before making the move to 135 pounds, scored a unanimous decision over Sayed to record yet another successful title defense. Pena has seen the scorecards eight times, while only picking up two TKO victories and two submission wins. He’s gone to the championship rounds in an astounding nine of his 12 pro fights. “The Wolf” is a SASCA grappling champion and an undefeated amateur Muay Thai competitor through six contests, but he also has a background in Shaolin Kung Fu, karate and judo.

2017 Outlook: Pena is another fighter who might struggle to overcome his reputation for grinding out victories. However, his dominance against everyone thrown at him by the EFC Worldwide organization has to count for something. Pena did score a win over the aforementioned Zulu, who had the misfortune of running into Hiromasa Ogikubo in his first fighter during The Ultimate Fighter 24’s flyweight tournament. Pena appears to be a far superior and more well-rounded fighter than Zulu, and a more active 2017 could propel “The Wolf” to the big stage.

Leandro “Pitbull” Higo
Record: 16-2
Age: 27
2016 Notes: 1-0 record, RFA bantamweight championship win

Higo was another fighter who barely turned up in 2016, but his overall success places him on this list. The Brazilian has a strong 2015 campaign that led to his placement opposite Joey Miolla in an April title bout to determine the RFA bantamweight champion. Higo needed just over two minutes to put Miolla away with a choke submission and capture the crown. The 27-year-old’s inactivity is nothing new, though. He spent nearly two years on the sidelines for a variety of reasons while watching four scheduled fights get scrapped. The Pitbull Brothers fighter, who has also worked with Team Nogueira, debuted in 2006 and compiled a 14-2 record before his hiatus. He returned to action in 2015 and made his promotional debut with the RFA with a win over Terrion Ware. Less than three months later, he handed Melvin Blumer a loss to move his mark to 2-0 under the RFA banner. He also appeared on The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil 4 in 2015, winning his opening bout against Maycon Silvan before losing to Bruno Rodrigues.

2017 Outlook: Higo’s success inside the cage is undermined by his lack of activity. His loss in TUF competition doesn’t help matters either. Higo has also suffered losses to Marcos Vinicius and UFC castoff Iliarde Santos. Despite these setbacks, the Brazilian still seems poised for a chance inside the Octagon if he can successfully defeat Steven Peterson in January.

Magomed “Tiger” Magomedov
Record: 14-1
Age: 24
2016 Notes: 2-0 record, Absolute Championship
Berkut interim bantamweight championship win and successful defense

“The Tiger” makes it on this list thanks to his victory over Oleg Borisov at ACB 50. Borisov, who entered the bout with an 18-1-1 mark, was also in the running for inclusion here. Magomedov, 24, made his debut in 2011 under the M-1 Global banner and picked up a victory. He stumbled in his sophomore appearance, but he has been perfect ever since. The DagFighter product has notched notable wins over veterans Yuri Maia, Paata Robakidze, Bruno Dias and Petr Yan. The victory over Yan came in an interim title fight. Magomedov, who was signed to the World Series of Fighting in 2015 but has never fought for the promotion, has a mix of Sanda, kick-jitsu and wrestling in his arsenal. At ACB 50, he made his first successful title defense when he submitted the aforementioned Borisov.

2017 Outlook: Magomedov already flirted with international exposure when he signed with the WSOF, but he never got his chance to shine with the American promotion. Instead, he has continued to fight — and win — on Russian soil. His December victory over Borisov should have turned plenty of heads in the MMA world. The big leagues should come calling again, and maybe this time one of those organizations will do more than simply put Magomedov’s name on a piece of paper.

Raufeon Stots
Record: 7-0
Age: 28
2016 Notes: 4-0 record, Victory FC 53 win over Jeff Curran

The 27-year-old Stots posted a 6-1 mark as an amateur before turning pro in 2015 and reeling off seven more victories. The Roufusport fighter even avenged his lone amateur defeat against Demetrius Wilson when he stopped Wilson via rear-naked choke in a Victory FC 47 fight. In addition to Roufusport, Stots has spent time at Miletich Fighting Systems and Premier Combat. He’s a two-time NCAA national wrestling champion who has finished two opponents with strikes and won two fights by way of submission. His last two stoppage victories came against seasoned veterans William Joplin and Charlie DuBray, but the real head-turner was his recent decision nod over grizzled UFC and WEC veteran Jeff Curran.

2017 Outlook: There are only a few fighters on this list who do not have double-digit win totals, and Stots is one of them. His victory over Curran capped a strong run in the Victory FC organization for a prospect who has also graced the stage with Legacy FC. He could be primed for a move to the new Legacy Fighting Alliance before catapulting to the UFC or Bellator.

Women’s Bantamweight
Taila Santos
Record: 14-0
Age: 23
2016 Notes: 1-0 record, Aspera FC women’s bantamweight championship win

Santos, 23, has 10 finishes via strikes and just two submission victories. Only three of her fights have gone beyond the first round. Santos went the distance in her 2013 pro debut, but has only seen the three-minute mark of the first round four times in her subsequent 13 outings. Six of her stoppages came in less than 90 seconds, and three of those checked in at less than a minute. Santos suffered through a frustrating 2016 campaign in which she only set foot in the cage once. Fortunately, her one appearance came in a championship tilt. Santos claimed Aspera FC gold with an 87-second knockout — via a punch to the body, no less — of Laisa Coimbra. The Brazilian had been due for a huge step up in competition in two prior bouts that were eventually scrapped. She was first set to lock horns with fellow Brazilian prospect Mariana Morais, but Morais withdrew from the Aspera FC 32 bout. Then, Santos was knocked out of her Invicta FC debut against Irene Aldana due to visa issues.

2017 Outlook: If Santos had met and defeated Morais and Aldana, she might have been the one tangling with Leslie Smith at last weekend’s UFC on Fox 22 card. Now, Santos will have to hope to get back on track in 2017. She’s still signed with Invicta FC, but she needs to fight anyone and everyone the organization offers up if she wants to earn a title shot or a UFC bid by late 2017.

Magomed “Gladiator” Bibulatov
Record: 13-0
Age: 28
2016 Notes: 3-0 record, Akhmat Fight Show flyweight tournament championship

Bibulatov has been an absent champion for the World Series of Fighting. He captured the belt with an October 2015 victory over Donavon Frelow, but wasn’t able to return in March for a scheduled bout against Tyson Nam. Instead, the 28-year-old fought for Akhmat Fight Show in its flyweight grand prix and decisioned Irmeson Oliveira. Then, he went on to discuss goals that included winning the Akhmat tournament and testing himself against UFC competition. The one thing he did not mention was a WSOF title defense. He went on to deliver on his first mentioned goal, stopping Giovanni da Silva and Yunus Evloev to take the Akhmat Fight Show tourney’s top honors. In addition to his wins over Frelow, Oliveira, da Silva and Evloev, the flyweight has notched decisions over notables Taylor Lapilus and Said Nurmagomedov. He has a background in sambo and wrestling.

2017 Outlook: Bibulatov still has two fights on his contract with the American WSOF promotion, which could complicate his arrival on the UFC or Bellator stage. However, someone tough enough to emerge from a motorcycle accident and fight just one month later is probably someone that the UFC’s flyweight division needs on its roster.

Rogério Bontorin
Record: 10-0
Age: 24
2016 Notes: 2-0 record, one victory overturned to
a no-contest, Imortal FC flyweight tournament championship

If only Bontorin could have overcome the scales, he’d have one more victory on his resume. The Brazilian missed weight for last weekend’s Pancrase 283 match-up with top Japanese prospect Takeshi Kasugai. The result was a first-round armbar victory for Bontorin that will instead appear as a no-contest on the young up-and-comer’s record. Bontorin has yet to taste defeat since turning pro in 2013. The 24-year-old won six of his first seven fights by choke submission — the remaining contest went to the scorecards — before shifting to targeting limbs with his submissions in two of his last three outings, resulting in one heel hook and one armbar finish. The Brazilian has defeated veterans Israel Silva Lima and Ivonei Pridonik and handed Cristiano Souza the first loss of the prospect’s young career, but he has also seen his fair share of inexperienced and overmatched adversaries. The Noguchi Team and Gile Ribeiro product appeared in an XFC International flyweight tournament and most recently emerged as the winner of an Imortal FC flyweight tourney. He was set to make his Pancrase debut in October against the legendary Mamoru Yamaguchi, but he suffered an injury and was forced to withdraw from the contest.

2017 Outlook: Bontorin hasn’t had much luck outside of his native Brazil. First, he was forced out of his bout with Yamaguchi. Then, his win over Kasugai was negated by his failure to make weight. The young fighter has taken on a tougher schedule with his move to compete in Japan, but he needs to record an actual win against top competition before the UFC comes calling.

Pietro “Pitbull” Menga
Record: 13-0
Age: 28
2016 Notes: 1-0 record, Bellator 158 win over
Spencer Hewitt

The 28-year-old Menga is a British fighter who has been competing professionally since 2011. He has already made one appearance under the Bellator banner. The “Pitbull” impressed with a 41-second knockout of Spencer Hewitt, but the quick win wasn’t enough to land him an exclusive deal with the American promotion or with any other major organization. Instead, he was set to resume his campaign on the regional circuit in October with the ICE FC organization. Unfortunately, the bout fell through despite two scheduled opponents. Menga has put together a solid resume that includes victories over formerly undefeated Rany Saadeh for the UCC flyweight crown, prospect Sotir Kichukov for the Full Contact Contender flyweight strap and two victories over 40-plus fight veteran Steve McCombe. Menga’s only taste of defeat came in a submission loss while on the amateur circuit with the OMMAC promotion. The BAMMA veteran has submitted eight of his pro opponents and three of his amateur foes. He has also scored three stoppages via strikes in his professional career.

2017 Outlook: The UFC has already gone to the well of flyweight champions from other promotions while searching for new challengers for Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson. Menga wasn’t among the promotion’s selections for The Ultimate Fighter 24, but he could soon make his way to the Octagon as part of a wave of new blood.

Women’s Strawweight
Virna “Carcará” Jandiroba
Record: 10-0
Age: 28
2016 Notes: 4-0 record, Fight2Night 1 win over
Lisa Ellis

Jandiroba is a rising prospect with a solid background and a resume that already includes a couple of highlights. The Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt debuted in 2013 and finished her first five opponents, including veteran fighter Camila Lima, with choke submissions. Her sixth appearance resulted in a decision win over veteran Aline Sattelmayer. She notched another submission win, this time by armbar, against Anne Karoline, before scoring another finish by choke submission against Cristiane Lima. Jandiroba added two additional victories to her record in November. First, she submitted veteran competitor Lisa Ellis via rear-naked choke in less than two and a half minutes. Then, in her most recent outing, she snagged an armbar on the inexperienced Suiane Teixeira in just 46 seconds to move Teixeira’s record to 0-2.

2017 Outlook: The big knock on Jandiroba is the level of the competition she has met. The victory over Ellis gives her another legitimate mid-level name on a resume that already includes victories over fighters like Sattelmayer, Karoline and Lima, but her credibility drops when she goes up against fighters like Teixeira. Jandiroba has to keep fighting experienced opponents in order to break through to Invicta or the UFC.

Mackenzie Dern
Record: 2-0
Age: 23
2016 Notes: 2-0 record, Legacy FC 61 win over
Montana Stewart

Dern is a jiu-jitsu world champion who currently sits atop the rankings of female grapplers in the sport of jiu-jitsu. She holds an ADCC title, and she defeated Gabrielle Garcia during her quest for the open weight championship. Dern’s pro MMA career kicked off with a dominant victory over Kenia Rosas at Legacy FC 58 in July. Dern won the fight by unanimous decision. The 23-year-old, who is based out of the MMA Lab in her native Arizona, returned to action at Legacy FC 61 and claimed a first-round submission victory over her more experienced foe, Montana Stewart.

2017 Outlook: Despite her standing as the least experienced fighter on this list, Dern could be the one with the most solid path to the UFC. The elite grappler couldn’t get a submission in her debut fight against Rosas, but she still emerged with a one-sided decision. Dern performed better against Stewart. She should continue to see action under the newly formed Legacy Fighting Alliance banner, and she could punch her ticket into the Octagon with just a few more wins.

Men’s Strawweight
Yoshitaka “Nobita” Naito
Record: 12-0
Age: 32
2016 Notes: 2-0 record, ONE Championship flyweight championship win and successful defense

Naito has been a Shooto mainstay since his pro debut in 2012. The 32-year-old finished his first three opponents and scored decisions in his next four fights to earn a title berth against Shinya Murofushi for Shooto’s flyweight — that’s 115 pounds in Shooto-speak — title. “Nobita” battled Murofushi for nearly five full rounds before finishing the champ with a rear-naked choke with just three seconds left in the bout. With the dramatic late finish, Naito captured the title. The Paraestra Matsudo product returned to action 10 months later to make his first title defense against teenage prospect Ryuto Sawada. Naito emerged with an arm-triangle choke submission victory in the fourth round to retain the belt. His next successful defense came in a five-round battle with Junji Ito. ONE Championship then brought the star strawweight in to fight for its 115-pound title against the promotion’s formerly undefeated champion, Dejdamrong Sor Amnuaysirichoke. Naito claimed the gold with a fourth-round rear-naked choke of the defending champ. In his first defense of the belt, Naito submitted challenger Joshua Pacio in the third round.

2017 Outlook: If UFC President Dana White is still dreaming of adding a men’s strawweight division to the UFC, then this is the man who stars in those dreams. Naito is among the few elite strawweights in the world right now, and he’s defeated at least a few of his counterparts in that field, too. Since the UFC has yet to get into the strawweight game, ONE Championship continues to be the top league for these diminutive fighters. Now, it’s ONE’s job to get more eyeballs on Naito.