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 featherweight division, a weight class that is loaded with good, young talent.
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: Doo Ho Choi, Joe Soto, Georgi Karakhanyan*, Lance Palmer, Henrique Bilcalho
2013: Doo Ho Choi, Andre Fili, Rick Glenn, Georgi Karakhanyan*, Deividas Taurosevicius
2018: Kevin Aguilar, Tyler Diamond, Mike Grundy, Salman Zhamaldaev*, Juan Archuleta
2019: Mike Grundy, Nate Landwehr, Timur Valiev*, Leonardo Limberger*, Alex Gilpin
2020: Pat Sabatini, Leonardo Limberger*, Yusuf Raisov*, Justin Gonzales, Jason Soares
2021: Pat Sabatini, Kyle Driscoll, Felipe Froes, Daniel Rutkowski, Bibert Tumenov
Note: Bold denotes fighter was signed by UFC; * denotes fighter ineligible due to two years on list.
Dennis Buzukja (6-2, USA)
Dennis Buzukja is still young in his career, but when it comes to excitement and potential, he is really a featherweight who deserves a look. The Longo-Weidman MMA rep may have fallen on the Contender Series in the past, but presently, he looks like a guy that may be ready for the next level.
Buzukja is a strong striker and tough as nails at that. His most famous fight came last year on the Contender Series where he was engaged in a barnburner with now-UFC roster member Melsik Baghdasaryan. It was a dazzling brawl where Buzukja showed a great chin and heart. He went back to the drawing board and went 2-0 in 2021, defeating Shaquan Moore and Michael Lawrence in the East Coast regionals.
At just 24 years old, Buzukja looks to have a long, successful career ahead of him, especially with guys like Ray Longo and Chris Weidman in his corner. He will continue to amass his skills, but the UFC should get ahold of him pronto, and allow him to build himself up over the years until he gets toward contender status.
Timur Khizriev (11-0, Russia)
Undefeated Dagestani Timur Khizriev has been emerging from that regional scene as a top prospect for the last couple of years, and in 2021, he proved that he is ready to step up. He’s one of the many fighters from Dagestan that is tough, skilled and equipped enough to compete at the top level.
Khizriev is just 26 years old and is already highly successful in a very competitive Russian regional scene. He does have a few too many decisions on his record for Dana White’s taste, but he’s been dominant. He also has a marquee win over Bibert Tumenov. He fought just once in 2021, scoring a first-round submission over Ruslan Ryskul under the Fight Nights Global promotion.
Khizriev is just one of a number of Dagestani beasts to keep your eye on. That said, he’s one of the best the region has to offer.
Islam Omarov (11-0, Russia)
Dzhikhan Yunusov is a top featherweight prospect in the world and was set to earn a spot on this list. However, December happened, and he was upended by undefeated upstart Islam Omarov, who has snagged his spot on the list here.
Omarov is well-rounded, although, his grappling is his strong suit. His last five fights have seen him win by decision, but, previous to that, he had won six fights in a row by finish. He has four massive wins over the likes of the aforementioned Yunusov, Bibert Tumenov, Zamir Aripshev and Abdul-Rakhman Temirov, all of whom are big names in the Russian featherweight scene. The wins over Yunusov and Tumenov came in 2021.
It’s amazing to think that Omarov is just 24 years old and already this good. His recent fights have shown that he’s not just ready to take on bigger fights, but to take those fights on a bigger stage. He’s already proven himself against very tough competition.
Daniel Rutkowski (13-2, Poland)
Like some of his other top countryman from Poland, Daniel Rutkowski continues to be a criminally underrated prospect who has the skill set to succeed at the top level. Rutkowski has emerged as a guy who should get serious consideration from the UFC.
Rutkowski has a strong wrestling background that he always has in his back pocket. He’s been working consciously on his striking though as of late, which was especially seen in 2021. Rutkowski spent most of 2021 taking pro boxing bouts to showcase his improvements and get more time in the ring. That said, he was more successful in the MMA cage with his striking, scoring a head kick knockout against UFC vet Filip Pejic in his only 2021 MMA bout.
Rutkowski’s wrestling background is very strong and he’s showing he can strike now too. That’s something to really consider – as that combo makes him ready to jump to the next level – once he’s able to get out of his KSW contract.
Gabriel Santos (8-0, Brazil)
Young, talented and loads of potential: all of these are great descriptions for Brazilian Gabriel Santos. The undefeated fighter has looked sharp in his career thus far, and, as he’s increased the difficulty in competition, he has shown more proof that he’s ready to hang at the next level.
Santos is just 25 years old and already successful against some solid competition, despite the fact Brazil is notorious for can crushers. In fact, his last three wins came over guys with combined records of 33-9. Also, consider the fact that he runs with Evolucao Thai. and he has more finishes by submission, and you find yourself a well-rounded prospect. His only fight in 2021 saw him take out Elvis Silva for Future MMA.
Santos may not be signed outright by the UFC given his age and time to develop, but he’s a guy I’d definitely like to see get a job interview in the form of the Contender Series. He has a very bright future.
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