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 another year here at Combat Press.
Let’s examine the bantamweight division, a weight class that is loaded with good, young talent. It is rapidly becoming one of the most entertaining divisions in the UFC.
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 in the coming year.
2012: Jimmie Rivera, Josh Hill, Yusup Saadulaev, Nick Mamalis, Matt Smith
2013: Josh Hill, Kyoji Horiguchi, Gustavo Falciroli, Jonathan Mackles, Rodolfo Marques
2014: Thomas Almeida, Anthony Birchak, Leandro Higo, Zeilton Rodrigues, James Brum
2015: Brett Johns, Luke Sanders, Julio Arce, Jonas Bilharinho*, Toni Tauru
2016: Brett Johns, Ricardo Ramos, Boston Salmon, Jonas Bilharinho*, Luis Rafael
2017: Tom Duquesnoy, Said Nurmagomedov, Magomed Magomedov*, Raufeon Stots, Dominic Mazzotta
2018: Petr Yan, Jose Torres, Bekbulat Magomedov*, Rustam Kerimov*, Jesse Arnett
2019: Jack Shore, Nathan Maness, Rustam Kerimov*, Magomed Magomedov*, Patrick Mix
2020: Timur Valiev*, Askar Askar, Khusein Askhabov, Victor Henry, Umar Nurmagomedov
Note: Bold denotes fighter was signed by UFC; * denotes fighter ineligible due to two years on list.
Jack Cartwright (9-0, England)
Britain’s Cage Warriors organization has long provided the UFC with talent. The league’s current bantamweight champ, Jack Cartwright, is a top European prospect in the sport. Given his status with Cage Warriors, he should be an easy call for the UFC..
Cartwright is well rounded and tough as nails. The SBG Manchester rep is a finisher with good boxing and solid submission wrestling. He scored a couple of impressive wins this year. First, he notched a decision over Manuel Bilic. Next, he finished Gerardo Fanny with an arm-triangle choke. Eight of his nine wins have been stoppages, which is a quality that the UFC wants in its fighters.
The championship belt on his shoulder certainly has put Cartwright in the position to get on the UFC’s roster. He is exciting and durable, too, which certainly helps his chances.
Denis Lavrentyev (9-2, Russia)
A win over a fighter who made this list last year is sure to land the victor on the list themselves. Such is the case for Lavrentyev, who also beat that same fighter in convincing fashion in a rematch.
A top-level judo black belt, Lavrentyev has been successful in this sport despite a heavy strength of schedule. In addition to his 2020 win over Victor Henry, Lavrentyev owns impressive victories over UFC vets Reginaldo Vieira and Taylor Lapilus, as well as veteran Anthony Leone. He has excellent takedowns and submissions, as well as underrated hands and knockout power.
The 32-year-old Russian is clearly UFC ready. His wins over a talent the caliber of Henry proves as much. He’s a finisher and a well-rounded fighter, which makes him a tough out for anybody. It’s time for the UFC to pull the trigger on Lavrentyev.
Zviad Lazishvili (13-0, Georgia)
The second Georgian to grace the list this year, the undefeated Lazishvili entered 2020 as an unknown and finished the year as a Legacy Fighting Alliance titleholder. His move to the United States has proven to be an important one that could ultimately set the table for a UFC contract.
A dominating wrestler with excellent submission chops, Lazishvili brought his top-notch game to America in recent years to train in Washington state. He only fought one time in 2020, but it was an LFA bantamweight title bout against The Ultimate Fighter alum Ricky Steele. In just under four minutes, Lazishvili choked out Steele to claim the gold.
The LFA is the top feeder to the UFC, so it’s a shock that Lazishvili hasn’t already been brought over to the big show. It won’t stay that way much longer, though, especially with the need for late-replacement fighters and guys to fill cards. Lazishvili has a bright future in the big leagues.
Levi Mowles (14-4, USA)
The 25-year-old Texan has been a promising up-and-comer for a couple of years now, but it was in 2020 that the kid truly broke out. The LFA and Cage Fury FC veteran is experienced for his young age and has already fought under the bright lights of top regional promotions to great success.
Mowles is a very talented grappler who wins most of his fights via submission. He even scored a twister victory in 2015. In 2020, he went 2-0 while besting Carlos Vera and netting the Cage Fury strap with a dominant decision victory over James Gonzalez. He’s only accepted tough fights in his career, with his only losses coming to Bellator’s Raufeon Stots and UFC roster members Miles Johns, Damon Jackson and Tony Kelley.
It will be interesting to see where Mowles is at in a couple of years. Clearly, this guy is ready to step up to the big leagues and show he belongs there. Once he hits his prime, he is going to be a guy that not too many fighters want to meet inside the cage.
Herbeth Sousa (15-1, Brazil)
It’s impressive enough to have 16 fights under one’s belt by the age of 26, but to have 16 fights with just one loss is even more of an accomplishment. This is a big reason why Brazil’s Sousa, who graced this list last year as well, has become a top prospect.
Sousa is an excellent Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioner who has tapped out 10 of his opponents to date. Once he’s able to work the fight to the ground, he is a technician who can advance to the best possible position and then attack with a submission. In his only action of 2020, the Constrictor Team rep handed fellow top prospect Alexander Keshtov his first career loss. It came by way of a unanimous decision at CFFC 81, where Sousa announced himself to American fight fans.
Sousa is approaching his prime and continuing to improve. Since his lone loss in 2016, the Brazilian has cranked off five straight wins and has looked like a completely different fighter. The UFC has to take a serious look at him in the coming year.
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