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 middleweight division, a weight class that has been filling up with talent. It’s been a roller-coaster ride in terms of title changes and growth.
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: Uriah Hall, Tom Watson, Elvis Mutapcic, Jake Rosholt, Chaun Sims
2013: Sean Strickland, Marcos Rogerio, Elvis Mutapcic, Michal Materla, Wes Swofford
2014: Ramazan Emeev, Scott Askham, Vyacheslav Vasilevsky*, Ben Reiter, Max Nunes
2015: Jack Hermansson, Alberto Uda, Vyacheslav Vasilevsky*, Anatoly Tokov*, Igor Svirid
2016: Ramazan Emeev, Khalil Rountree, Alberto Uda, Phil Hawes, Aleksei Butorin*
2017: Trevin Giles, Oskar Piechota, Rob Wilkinson, Rafael Lovato Jr., Mattia Schiavolin
Note: Bold denotes fighter was signed by UFC; * denotes fighter ineligible due to two years on list.
If you have a nickname like “Machete,” you better be an intimidating fighter or a guy that destroys the competition. Luckily for Duraev, who bears this nickname, he is both. He’s also one of the best middleweights outside the UFC.
Duraev is a former welterweight, but he has looked better since moving up to the middleweight division. He is a well-rounded guy. Now that he doesn’t cut as much weight, he is more energetic and just as powerful. He can knock out or submit opponents.
2017 marked Duraev’s official move to the middleweight division. Through two bouts in the weight class, he has scored two impressive finishes. He first choked out UFC veteran Clifford Starks. He followed that up with a first-round knockout of two-time prospect-list veteran Vyacheslav Vasilevsky, which was seen by many as an upset victory for Duraev.
Duraev has a good deal with the Absolute Championship Berkut organization, but there’s no way he could not get a better deal from the UFC.
It’s obvious from this series that Russia has an abundance of prospects and skilled fighters. Another one of those men is Frolov, the recently crowned M-1 Challenge middleweight champion who is undefeated so far in his career.
He is a combat-sambo stylist, combining big, powerful strikes with hard-nosed takedowns and disciplined grappling. When on the mat, he has strong ground-and-pound and the ability to tap out opponents. He’s just 26 years of age at this point, too. To be 10-0 at the level he fights at is impressive, especially since he’s only getting better.
He opened his 2017 with a quick knockout of unknown Talekh Nadzhafadze, which opened eyes at M-1 to earn him a spot in the championship fight. In the title bout, he outpointed UFC veteran and Brazilian grinder Caio Magalhaes for the better of 25 minutes. That win has definitely put Frolov on the map.
Given his style and resume, Frolov seems to be a good fit in the UFC. His style gives him stylistic advantages over many of the men he would face. He could be a staple of the UFC middleweight division.
It’s not often that a fighter with under three fights of pro experience makes this list, but when it comes to Poland’s Janikowski, we’ll make an exception. The two-fight veteran has the background to fight at the next level and has already proven to be a great mixed martial artist with promise.
Janikowski has a strong wrestling pedigree. He competed with the Polish national team. His wrestling base has served him well as he transitions to MMA. Furthermore, he’s a physical specimen with uncanny strength and explosiveness, which allows him to score powerful takedowns and hurt opponents with ground-and-pound.
He made his pro MMA debut back in May 2017 when he took on 14-fight veteran Julio Gallegos of the United States. Janikowski mauled Gallegos to a sub-90-second stoppage from strikes. He followed the performance up in December by destroying near-40-fight veteran Antoni Chmielewski with strikes as well.
Janikowski is under KSW contract, so he may not be available immediately. However, given his pedigree and the fact he’s already besting experienced mixed martial artists, there’s no way this guy isn’t going to be something big in MMA. The UFC would be wise to keep an eye on him and attract him away from KSW.
If you want to fight for a good promotion that will gain you eyes from the UFC and give you tough competition, Fight Nights Global is where you want to be. That’s where Mineev does his work, and it’s paid off, making him one of the most coveted middleweight prospects in the world.
A striker by trade, Mineev is known to have very crisp, powerful kickboxing that can finish any opponent. His fights almost never go to the judges, as he’s usually able to knock out his opponents at some point in their encounter. He does have submission wins, but those are usually set up by his work on the feet.
After ending 2016 with a close majority-decision loss to Maiquel Falcão, Mineev earned redemption to open 2017 when he knocked out the UFC veteran in their rematch. He then headlined another Fight Nights show opposite Greek fighter Andreas Michailidis. Mineev knocked out Michailidis in the third round. Both wins brought back the hype that was previously robbed from him in the first Falcão fight.
As a member of the Fight Nights promotion, the exciting and violent Mineev has to be on the UFC’s radar. If the UFC was to snag Mineev for its middleweight division, it would bring a great piece to the puzzle. Mineev could quickly become a contender in the UFC.
The first of a number of fighters representing England in this series, Shipman has quietly established himself as a top prospect outside of the UFC and one of the best middleweights in Europe right now.
Shipman is the BAMMA middleweight champion, an accolade that carries much weight and will give him considerable attention from larger MMA promotions. He is a rep of the respectable London Shootfighters gym and fights with the gym’s trademark style — well rounded, aggressive and violent. He can submit or knock out opponents, making him a dangerous adversary.
Shipman has not lost since his pro debut in 2013. Since then, he has finished every one of his opponents. Most of these victories have come in the first round. He violently opened up his 2017 campaign by fighting on the Bellator undercard, where he used to knees to drive Marcin Prostko into oblivion. That was followed up by his BAMMA title victory, where he knocked out Yannick Bahati in the third round of their encounter.
The UFC always makes trips to England, and if the company wants local talent that will have lasting power in the UFC, it will give Shipman a call. He’s not only skilled, but entertaining, which is something that will go a long way for him in his career.