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 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
2018: Albert Duraev*, Mike Shipman, Artem Frolov, Vladimir Mineev, Damian Janikowski
2019: Roman Kopylov, Shamil Gamzatov, Puna Soriano, Bruno Silva, Albert Duraev*
Note: Bold denotes fighter was signed by UFC; * denotes fighter ineligible due to two years on list.
Salamu Abdurakhmanov (12-1, Russia)
Champion in any regional organization have achieved a great
accolade, but a champion in a very competitive promotion can garner immediate attention from the top MMA companies in the world. This should definitely be the case for Salamu Abdurakhmanov, who has become a top overall prospect out of a talent-rich Russia.
Abdurakhmanov, like many of the fighters coming out of his
homeland, possesses dominant wrestling and brutal submissions. He uses his striking game to set up his ground game. He has not lost since 2015. In 2019, he solidified his top-prospect status with choke submissions of Bellator veteran Brett Cooper and fellow top Russian prospect
If inked by the UFC, Abdurakhamanov would be an intriguing fighter right off the bat. He has a style that matches up well with many of the UFC’s fighters. He might not be a title contender immediately, but he could find himself in title contention in the future. Not many people would be ready to combat his dominant submission wrestling.
KB Bhullar (8-0, Canada)
There aren’t as many
Canadians on these lists as there were in previous years. KB
Bhullar is one exception, though. The 28-year-old Edmonton product has proven himself as a
standout among a strong class of middleweight prospects.
Bhullar is a well-rounded individual, possessing power on
the feet with good all-around technique, as well as a polished ground game and
a strong submission arsenal. Under the guidance of coaches like The Ultimate Fighter vet Luke Harris, Bhullar has gone from unknown Canadian regional fighter to undefeated
top prospect. In 2019, the Hayabusa Training Centre product finished 25-fight veteran Derek
Boyle with a beautiful D’Arce choke, blasted through 30-fight vet Cody
Krahn in three minutes, and scored a convincing unanimous decision over UFC
vet Matt Dwyer.
It was a huge year for Bhullar, and 2020 should be even bigger. With the UFC traveling to Canada multiple times a year and putting local talent on its cards, Bhullar should be a no-brainer signing. He’s an exciting fighter who seems to have a pretty high ceiling.
Kyle Daukaus (8-0, United States)
It was an absolute shock that Kyle Daukaus was not signed in
2019, especially given his great performance on Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender
Series. However, he remains a free agent. He’s definitely a middleweight that
would add extra depth to an already talented middleweight roster.
Daukaus is physically gifted. He’s 6-foot-1 and has long
limbs. His reach is long, which helps him keep distance on
opponents. The best part of his skill set comes via his ground game, where he has excellent
submissions and positional grappling. His best techniques are the D’Arce and rear-naked chokes. He’s also a solid striker. In 2019, he was highly impressive. The Martinez BJJ disciple started out the year by choking out UFC vet Jonavin Webb. He then dominated Michael Lombardo on the Contender Series and retained the Cage Fury middleweight championship in a defense against Contender Series vet Stephen Regman.
Daukaus is just 26 years old, so his best days are still ahead of him. He has a very high ceiling, especially given how quickly he’s improved from his amateur days. He’s clearly committed, and he’s gotten to a point that he’s outgrown the regional scene. It would be beyond shocking if he’s not added to the UFC roster in the first half of 2020.
Vladimir Mineev (13-1-1, Russia)
When most MMA fans think of Russian fighters, they
immediately think of sambo specialists and top-level wrestlers. There aren’t as
many world-class strikers coming out of Russia as there are grapplers, but
Vladimir Mineev represents one instance of a Russian fighter with superior kickboxing to most of the men he faces in the cage or ring.
Mineev has long been a respected staple of the Russian
regional scene, namely the Fight Nights Global promotion. He has taken on
respected opponents who have high-level experience, including Maiquel Falcão, Xavier Foupa-Pokam and Yasubey Enomoto. Unsurprisingly, most of Mineev’s wins have come via knockout, though he does own a couple of submission victories. In 2019, Mineev scored victories over Diego Dias and Milos Kostic.
The UFC has made more forays into Russia recently and has signed more Russian talent. If this continues to be a priority, Mineev needs to be toward the top of the list of targeted prospects. He’s exciting and tough, which could lead to great success with the UFC.
Dustin Stoltzfus (11-1, United States)
If you follow American MMA and still don’t know Dustin Stoltzfus,
you’re probably not alone. He is American, but he competes mostly in Germany, where
he has amassed an impressive resume. The 28-year old Pennsylvanian should be a
guy to watch, though, especially given his outstanding 2019 campaign.
The Frankers Fight Team product is a very good submission grappler who is known
for stalking his opponents from a distance and eventually shooting takedowns on
them. He’s a great offensive grappler with a knack for finding the
submission. He does have a few knockout
finishes, too. In 2019, he scored a TKO stoppage of Bellator veteran and top
European middleweight Jonas Billstein. His crowning moment of the year, though, was
a rarely seen twister submission finish of Nihad Nasufovic that would have been in
contention for “Submission of the Year” had it taken place in a major organization.
Whether the UFC needs a middleweight for an American event or
a European card, Stoltzfus fits the bill. He has a high
finish rate, which the UFC loves, and he’s only getting better. That twister submission also assures us that there’s no way he hasn’t caught the eye of the UFC matchmakers.
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