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 again this year at Combat Press.
Let’s look at the light heavyweight division. The weight class has added new talent at the UFC level, but it could always use even more new blood.
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: Jimi Manuwa, Jan Blachowicz, Wagner Prado, Tom DeBlass, Roy Boughton
2013: Jan Blachowicz, Linton Vassell, Angel DeAnda, Moise Rimbon, Carlos Eduardo
2014: Maxim Grishin*, Viktor Nemkov, Philipe Lins, Brandon Ropati, Marcus Vanttinen
2015: Josh Stansbury, Maxim Grishin*, Aleksei Butorin*, Stephan Puetz, Ken Hasegawa
2016: Ion Cutelaba, Paul Craig, Joachim Christensen, Mikhail Mokhnatkin*, Jiří Procházka*
2017: Jordan Johnson, Magomed Ankalaev, Mikhail Mokhnatkin*, Jiří Procházka*, Tomasz Narkun*
2018: Ivan Shtyrkov*, Batraz Agnaev, Karl Moore, Kyle Noblitt, Rashid Yusupov
2019: Klidson Farias, Roman Dolidze, Tomasz Narkun*, Dovletdzhan Yagshimuradov, Karl Albrektsson
Note: Bold denotes fighter was signed by UFC; * denotes fighter ineligible due to two years on list.
Modestas Bukauskas has absolutely exploded onto the scene in 2019, moving from unknown light heavyweight to top 205-pound prospect in a short amount of time. The 25-year-old Lithuanian is now also the Cage Warriors light-heavyweight champion, which makes him almost a shoo-in to gain a foothold into the UFC.
The 6-foot-3 Bukauskas is a big, long fighter. He has long limbs, making his distance striking far more effective. All three of his 2019 wins came by way of knockout — he put away Riccardo Nosiglia, Marthin Nielsen and Marcin Wojcik in violent fashion. He also has a good pace and cardio, while still possessing knockout power late into the fight. The Nielsen knockout, for example, came in the fourth frame.
Bukauskas has shaken off some of the doubt that surrounded him following a 2016 campaign in which he lost fights to two non-UFC guys. However, the Blood Sweat and Tears export is still young and has shown great improvements since those two losses. Now that he’s a top regional champion, it would be a surprise to see the UFC pass on him.
Jamal Pogues has been on the radar for a couple of years now, but 2019 was certainly his year. The light-heavyweight division is always in need of talent and young stars to build up, and Pogues fits that bill perfectly.
The 23-year-old has already competed nine times as a pro. He has proven himself worthy in two major circumstances. In 2018, he handed prospect Kyle Noblitt his first career loss. The Joe Stevenson’s Cobra Kai pupil accomplished his other biggest feat in 2019 when he was given a chance on Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series and absolutely routed Marcos Brigagao. Pogues did not earn the contract, but he impressed UFC President Dana White. In the Brigagao fight, we saw that Pogues was a much-improved fighter with a refined top game on the mat and solid striking.
White implied that Pogues would be on the roster at some point, and 2020 is as good a year as any for that to happen. He has a very high ceiling, and he’s in good hands under the watch of his aforementioned coach, Joe Stevenson.
Only five fights into his pro MMA career, Alex Polizzi has already proven to be a top prospect in the light-heavyweight division. The Wisconsin native has been dominant as both an amateur and a pro, making himself a name in a division that is not always the deepest in terms of talent.
Polizzi wrestled collegiately at Northwestern University, which is part of the Big 10. That top-level competition gave him a great base coming into MMA. It’s seen heavily in his fighting style. He likes to close the distance, wrestle his opponents down, and manhandle them on the mat. The Chosen Few Gym member has heavy ground-and-pound, which he uses to finish fights. He also has submission skills. In 2019, he ran up a perfect 3-0 record, with knockouts of Cedric Savage, Pierre Walters and UFC veteran Daniel Jolly. He was supposed to fight Contender Series vet Teddy Ash for the Unified MMA title, but Ash pulled out with an injury.
Polizzi’s early dominance has been impressive, and he’s only getting better from fight to fight. He could get an opportunity on the Contender Series, and it would be likely that he departs the show with a fresh contract in hand. Expect big things from Polizzi in 2020, including an eventual UFC debut.
It seems like it was just yesterday that Emiliano Sordi was featured on the Contender Series, where he took a loss to current UFC roster member Ryan Spann. Yes, that was only in 2018, but it was also eight fights ago for Sordi. The 28-year-old Argentine has gone on to break out as a top light-heavyweight prospect.
The 2019 season winner in his weight class in the Professional Fighters League, Sordi cruised through the year like a man on a mission. The United MMA Fight Center disciple went 5-0 en route to the championship, besting UFC vets Vinny Magalhães and Jordan Johnson along the way. Sordi is a big, rugged striker with power in his hands that can knock out anybody if he touches their chin.
Sordi has come into his own, and he’s rarely in a boring fight. Now that he’s a million-dollar man, he is likely to be a highly sought-after addition by a number of major organizations. Sordi is likely to stick around for the next season with the PFL, but the UFC might throw money his way to lure him to the Octagon.
This is Dovletdzhan Yagshimuradov’s second consecutive appearance in this prospect series. He continues to be a top 205er outside the UFC. A top regional champion, he is a force to be reckoned with right now and could contend in the UFC in no time.
The Branibor Gym fighter is a vicious striker known for his technique and knockout power. He can finish any man with one shot, a testament to his skill. He’s not a bad grappler either, but his kickboxing is his greatest asset. In 2019, he scored two big wins. He started the year off by knocking out Karol Celinski in the fourth round. Then, he bested fellow top prospect Alexey Butorin.
Yagshimuradov would be the first Turkmeni fighter to grace the Octagon, which would be a milestone for a country not known for supplying a ton of MMA talent. He’s clearly a great fighter and deserves to be at the top of the MMA world. The UFC needs this man in 2020.