In 2017, we saw several fighters unknown to many MMA fans rise up the ranks of the elite. Fighters such as Volkan Oezdemir, Nicco Montaño, Aga Niedźwiedź and others quickly made an impact on the sport.
Now, we look ahead to the next crop of fighters who could find similar results in 2018. Here are five fighters who top the list as prospects that deserve a chance in the UFC.
5. Askar Askarov (9-0), Flyweight
While UFC flyweight champion Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson is considered to be one of the top fighters in the history of the sport, the 125-pound division is included among the weakest of the men’s weight classes in terms of depth. Absolute Championship Berkut titleholder Askarov is one addition that would add depth to the UFC’s flyweight roster. Opening his career with a perfect 9-0 professional record, the Russian has yet to see the judges. He has not only stopped all nine of his foes thus far, but the Dagestan native has done so against increasingly stiffer competition. He looks to make the second defense of his flyweight crown at ACB 79 on Jan. 27 when he squares off with Rasul Albaskhanov. One more impressive victory could earn Askarov a contract with a major organization.
4. Ariane Lipski (10-3), Women’s Flyweight
Unless you are a hardcore fan of the sport, Lipski’s name is probably foreign to you. This could change in 2018. Lipski, the current KSW flyweight queen, opened her career with an unimpressive 1-3 mark, but the Brazilian prospect has gone on a tear since. She currently enjoys an eight-fight unbeaten streak that includes TKO victories over Katarzyna Lubońska, Juliana Werner and Sheila Gaff. The 23-year-old continues her growth as a fighter. She collected her first two submissions as a professional in her two most recent appearances, where she stopped Diana Belbiţă to capture the KSW title and then submitted Mariana Morais in her first defense of the belt. With the addition of the women’s flyweight division in both Bellator MMA and the UFC, “The Violence Queen” could find herself on U.S. soil sooner rather than later. Lipski is expected to make the second defense of her KSW crown at KSW 42 in March, but an opponent has not yet been announced.
3. Jose “Shorty” Torres (6-0), Flyweight
Back to the flyweight division again, but this time we have our sights set on the Titan FC champion. Torres may be the most accomplished 6-0 fighter you will find on the regional circuit. Before turning pro, he sharpened his tools on the amateur scene. The 25-year-old went an insane 25-1 as an amateur. His lone misstep was a split-decision loss in his first MMA competition. Torres picked up two IMMAF gold medals at 135 pounds before making his professional debut under the Titan FC banner. After picking up his first two victories as a pro, Torres was deemed ready by the organization for a title shot. He captured the 125-pound belt with a first-round knockout of Abdiel Velazquez and took another first-round knockout in his next outing. If that wasn’t enough, Torres moved back up to 135 pounds and challenged for the promotion’s bantamweight crown, outpointing Farkhad Sharipov to become Titan’s first-ever two-division champion. He returned six months later to successfully defend his bantamweight crown at Titan FC 46. After the rear-naked choke finish of Gleidson DeJesus, he called out to the UFC. He later revealed that he was contacted by the organization, but had to decline due to injury. Torres is slated to defend his Titan flyweight crown against Alberto Orellano in February, but don’t be surprised if he lands in the UFC’s Octagon sometime this year.
2. Vitaly Minakov (21-0), Heavyweight
No surprise here, but the former Bellator champion Minakov ranks high on this list, for obvious reasons. Minakov has defeated a who’s who of the heavyweight division not currently signed to a UFC contract. At 21-0, the four-time sambo world and national champion has only gone the distance twice in his eight-year career. Minakov’s most notable triumphs include victories over the serging Alexander Volkov, Cheick Kongo, former UFC contender Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva and, most recently, Bellator veteran Tony Johnson. With a strong grappling base that includes the disciplines of judo, sambo and wrestling combined with heavy hands and an ever-improving striking game, Minakov is a tough match-up for anyone at heavyweight.
1. Weili Zhang (16-1), Women’s Strawweight
One of the most promising, exciting and active fighters on the women’s scene, Zhang has for the most part gone unnoticed. Since dropping her professional debut, China’s Zhang has been on a warpath. In the last 12 months, she has competed a whopping eight times. She has quietly moved up the ranks at strawweight on the back of a 16-fight winning streak that includes nine (T)KOs and six submissions. Among her victims are Emi Fujino, Simone Duarte and Marilia Santos. Zhang is one of the only competitors that should legitimately be ranked in the top-15 of two divisions after capturing the Kunlun Fight flyweight title with a first-round knockout of the aforementioned Duarte. It has to be only a matter of time before Zhang is picked up by a major North American promotion.
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