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 lightweight 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: Mairbek Taisumov, Lukasz Sajewski, Alexander Sarnavskiy, Guillaume de Lorenzi, Gordon Bell
2014: Lowen Tynanes*, Ivan Buchinger*, Marcus Edwards, Mansour Barnaoui, Musa Khamanaev
2015: Darrell Horcher, Lowen Tynanes*, Mateusz Gamrot*, Murad Machaev*, Ramazan Esenbaev
2016: Marc Diakiese, Gregor Gillespie, Mateusz Gamrot*, Bekzod Abdurakhmonov, Milan Zerjal
2017: Khusein Khaliev*, Murad Machaev*, Chris Fishgold, Abdul-Aziz Abdulvakhabov, Thiago Moises
Note: Bold denotes fighter was signed by UFC; * denotes fighter ineligible due to two years on list.
Abdul-Aziz Abdulvakhabov (15-1, Russia)
One of two men making their second consecutive appearance in this prospect’s series, Abdulvakhabov continues to be one of the best lightweights outside the UFC. The Absolute Berkut Championship lightweight titleholder continues to win despite tough, challenging opponents.
Abdulvakhabov is a well-rounded fighter. He possesses dangerous knockout power and a strong submission game. Not only does he finish most of his opponents, but he often does so in the first round. He does it with heavy strikes or by scoring takedowns and securing a submission.
The ACB champ was not very busy in 2017. He took just one bout due to a plague of injuries. His only fight was a rematch with fellow top Russian lightweight Eduard Vartanyan. Abdulvakhabov secured a split-decision win in a fight that was closer than their first encounter, where Abdulvakhabov scored a first-round knockout.
Hopefully, 2018 will be a busier year for the Russian, who lost a little momentum in 2017. However, he would still be a major addition to the UFC lightweight division.
Nate Andrews (12-1, United States)
The first of three lightweights representing the east coast of the United States, Andrews has come out of nowhere to become a top lightweight prospect.
A tall lightweight at 6-foot tall, Andrews’ natural gifts make him a tough match-up for many in the 155-pound class. The New England Combat Club member is already 33 years old, but he has just emerged in the East Coast regional scene recently. The best part of his game is his submission grappling. Most of his wins have come via tapout, including his last four.
After a very successful 2016, Andrews went a perfect 2-0 in 2017 while competing for the CES MMA promotion in New England. He submitted World Series of Fighting veteran Bruce Boyington with an impressive triangle choke before scoring a rear-naked choke over 30-plus-fight veteran Tyler Combs.
His presence in CES and his perfect record since 2014 certainly should give Andrews some attention from the UFC. It seemed possible that he would get a spot on UFC 220, but it didn’t happen. Perhaps the UFC wants him to get another win or two.
Chris Fishgold (17-1-1, England)
The second man making his second consecutive appearance on this list, Fishgold continues to be not only a top prospect from England, but a top lightweight prospect in the world.
The Liverpool-based fighter, who also runs with Phuket Top Team, is known for his submission skills, though he has worked hard on getting his striking up to par. He often times looks to close the distance, grab a hold of his opponent and drag them to the mat. He has good strength, making his chokes very effective.
Fishgold was not very busy in 2017. He only made it to the cage for one bout. The Cage Warriors lightweight champion defended his title against Alexander Jacobsen and needed just one round to submit the title challenger. That low amount of activity reversed a super-active 2016 for Fishgold.
The UFC is making a trip to England in March. The promotion always fills these cards with English fighters. Given the skills and accolades of Fishgold, the UFC should target him and bring a fighter with a great reputation to the UFC lightweight division.
Joseph Lowry (7-0, United States)
Lowry has quietly emerged from New Jersey as one of the top young lightweight prospects in the United States. The 28-year-old is undefeated as a pro and an amateur.
Lowry is known for his heavy hands and ability to finish fights with strikes. He has a good killer instinct and an aggressive style, which lends well to fan entertainment. He is the Cage Fury Fighting Championships lightweight kingpin, an honor he earned in 2017.
He went 3-0 for the year, winning his trio of fights via knockout. He earned the CFFC title with a one-minute finish of Mike Pope. He scored a one-punch knockout of WSOF veteran Richard Patishnock for his first title defense.
The UFC would be wise to target Lowry sooner rather than later. The UFC is already busy on the east coast of the United States in 2018, so he could fit on any of those upcoming undercards.
Robert Watley (9-1, United States)
A great way to get into this prospect’s series is to beat a guy that was previously on the list. That’s how Watley arrived here. He’s quickly emerged as a top American lightweight talent outside the UFC.
The 28-year-old Watley’s best attribute is his striking, which he uses effectively in earning stoppages and accumulating damage. He’s also a tough fighter who can stave off takedowns effectively, making things easier for him to bang on the feet.
Watley went 3-0 in 2017. He earned the XCC lightweight championship by knocking out previously undefeated Josh Visel. He then scored the biggest win of his career against Thiago Moises, who has previously appeared in this prospect’s list, to win the Legacy Fighting Alliance lightweight title. He capped the year off with a third-round knockout of Daryl Wilson to maintain title reign.
Owning LFA gold would imply that Watley is already UFC-bound. He’s another quality guy, like Andrews and Lowry, that could be added to any of the UFC’s East Coast events — Boston, Charlotte, Orlando, etc. — during the first quarter of the year.
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