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, Daniel Rutkowski*, Kyle Driscoll, Felipe Froes, Bibert Tumenov
2022: Daniel Rutkowski*, Dennis Buzukja, Timur Khizriev, Islam Omarov, Gabriel Santos
Note: Bold denotes fighter was signed by UFC; * denotes fighter ineligible due to two years on list.
Dennis Buzukja (9-2, USA)
For the second year in a row, Dennis Buzukja continues to be a top prospect outside of the UFC that should be on the roster. The two-time Contender Series veteran continues to impress and be an exciting fighter that could do some good things in the cage.
Buzukja is a good striker with good counter-wrestling and above average toughness. He’s a good natural athlete as well, which helps him in the cage. Buzukja went 3-0 in 2022, scoring unanimous decisions over the likes of Josh Rohler, Kaleio Romero and Boimah Karmo. The win over Romero was on the Contender Series, but unfortunately he was not signed to the UFC afterward.
Buzukja is still a young guy at 25 years old, so his best years are still ahead of him. He’s already proven on his time on the Contender Series that he can hang at the next level and has plenty of winnable fights on the UFC roster. He just needs to start getting more finishes.
Elijah Johns (9-2, USA)
The brother of current UFC fighter Miles Johns, Elijah Johns is similarly a top prospect in MMA that has built his name up in recent times. The LFA fighter has looked to be a guy that is ready for the UFC in recent years and join his brother on the roster.
Johns trains with the highly regarded Fortis MMA, who has been churning out killers left and right. Johns has a similar style to his brother, which is aggressive grinding and strong ground work. After ending 2021 losing a close split to current UFC roster member Bruno Souza, Johns came back to win two fights in 2022, scoring decisions over the likes of Brandon Phillips and Masuto Kawana in the LFA organization.
Johns has to be on the doorstep of the UFC given his name value, skill and status in LFA. His only two losses are by split decision, so they could have been fights that went his way. He may need one more win, but either way, he’s ready to try and prove himself on the UFC roster.
Islam Omarov (12-0, Russia)
Dagestan seems to be an endless fountain of talent for the sport of MMA, especially for how small of an area in the world it is. Islam Omarov is another one of these Dagestani fighters that is high level and will be a problem in the UFC.
A suffocating submission wrestler, Omarov is very strong and explosive in everything he does. His chokes are nasty and he’s positionally sound on the mat, which is a deadly combo. He also has solid striking as well, as he owns a head kick knockout. His resume is insane at this point, scoring numerous wins for the ACA promotion over top prospects such as Dzhikhad Yunusov, Bibert Tumenov, Zamir Aripshev and Abdul-Rakhman Temirov. That’s very impressive.
At just 25 years old and this good already, the UFC needs to move on Omarov immediately. This guy could be a world title challenger within a few years and is going to give many fighters on the UFC roster a problem.
Gabriel Santos (9-0, Brazil)
In recent years, I have become a huge fan of Evolucao Thai MMA, which has continually produced nasty, violent fighters. One of those fighters is Gabriel Santos, who has quickly become a featherweight to watch.
Santos has a good, rounded skill set which includes slick jiu-jitsu and some solid striking. Over half of his wins come by finish, most of which are by submission. He fought just once in 2022, but it was an LFA headlining bout where he scored a highlight-reel knockout over fellow top Brazilian prospect Marcio Barbosa. That fight was won with a beautiful head kick and some ground-and-pound.
The 25-year-old Brazilian has his best days ahead of him, which is crazy given his skill level right now. He’s a guy I could easily see on the Contender Series this upcoming year or directly on the roster given how good he already is right now.
Bibert Tumenov (12-2, Russia)
Making his second appearance on this list (not in a row), Bibert Tumenov continues to not only be an exciting featherweight, but one of the most skilled prospects in the division outside the UFC. The brother of UFC veteran Albert has challenged himself with top Russian regional opponents with success.
Tumenov, like his brother, is an outstanding striker with excellent, crisp hands and effective, sharp kicks. He has some wrestling ability as well, but he prefers to bang on the feet (as he should). After falling at the end of 2021 to the top prospect Islam Omarov, Tumenov stormed back in 2022 to knock out UFC vet Diego Brandao and defeat another top prospect in Andrey Goncharov.
Tumenov is the definition of a blue-chip prospect, especially seeing as he’s 25 years old and already has a wealth of top-level experience. He’s clearly UFC ready and can compete with some tough tests right off the bat.
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