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 ONE Championship 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, Victor Henry, Umar Nurmagomedov, Khusein Askhabov, Askar Askar
2021: Zviad Lazishvili, Jack Cartwright*, Denis Lavrentyev*, Levi Mowles*, Herbeth Sousa
2022: Khusein Askhabov, Luan Lacerda, Jack Cartwright*, Denis Lavrentyev*, Levi Mowles*
2023: Muin Gafurov, Jean Matsumoto, Austin Bashi, Dwight Joseph, Luis Rodriguez
Note: Bold denotes fighter was signed by UFC; * denotes fighter ineligible due to two years on list.
Austin Bashi (11-0, USA)
Making his second appearance in a row on this list, American Austin Bashi is possibly one of the best American prospects in any weight division outside the UFC right now. The young, yet, battle-tested Michigander has dominated the competition thus far in bouts that cannot even be considered close.
Bashi has a wrestling background, which makes sense, as he uses his athleticism and explosiveness to blast through his opponent’s takedown defense. Once on the mat, he gets to work quickly in looking to finish the fight. While the beginning of his fight career saw him to go decision frequently, he has finished five of his last seven fights, showing improvements as a finisher. Bashi dominated in 2023. He started the year off with a rear-naked-choke win over Pipe Vargas. He followed that up with another rear-naked choke over journeyman Erik Vo, before finishing the year choking out former top prospect Askar Askar.
It’s amazing to think that Bashi is only 22 years old and already this dominant. He’s a born fighter that combines his martial arts skills with his natural gifts. This kid could be a title challenger in the UFC at some point.
Evgeniy Ignatov (21-2-2, Russia)
It’s tough to think that a guy with 25 professional fights is seen as a “prospect”, but Russia’s Evgeniy Ignatiev is definitely a top prospect coming out of his home country. The fighter has been immensely busy since his 2014 debut when he was 19 years old and has consistently taken on some very tough opposition.
Ignatiev has a very strong kickboxing game, as well as some strong submission wrestling. That well-roundedness makes him tough to prepare for. His last loss was in 2017, and, since then, he has won 14 straight bouts. He has since beaten UFC veteran Anderson dos Santos, among others. In 2023, he went 2-0 in MMA, choking out Brazilian vet Elismar Lima before he scored a massive win over fellow top Russian prospect Rakhim Midaev. He also took a kickboxing match in 2023, though he lost.
Given his experience at 28 years of age and his approaching prime, Ignatiev is a guy that could compete with the top half of the UFC bantamweight division right now. I was especially impressed with his win over Midaev, which proved he’s definitely ready for the big show.
Felipe Lima (12-1, Brazil)
Felipe Lima was a guy that was supposed to compete on a Road to UFC card in late 2022, but he unfortunately did not get that chance. It’s a shame, as the Sweden-based Brazilian is extremely talented and ready to show his skills in the big leagues.
Lima is a prototypical Brazilian fighter with exciting, wild kickboxing abilities and a solid submission game to boot. Half of his wins come by way of finish, with most of those coming by way of knockout. He hasn’t lost since his debut in Aug. 2015. He fought once in 2023, which was his first since Nov. 2021. There, he beat fellow prospect Jonas Magard in an OKTAGON main event in enemy territory.
Lima is already on the UFC’s radar, obviously, given he was supposed to compete on the Road to UFC card. Lima is 25 years old and ready to showcase his abilities, to prove he can be a guy that contends in the UFC at some point.
Luis Rodriguez (16-2, Mexico)
Back in 2020, a young Mexican prospect by the name of Luis Rodriguez competed on the Dana White’s Contender Series at the age of 21. While he lost that fight, he gained a massive amount of attention and respect for his performance. Fast forward a few years and injuries later, and Rodriguez is still a top prospect coming out of that country that the UFC should invest in.
Rodriguez is a strong boxer and kicker that does actually have a good amount of submission wins as well. He’s tough as nails, aggressive and always looking for a finish, which is why he has 11 finishes by knockout/submission to date. He fought just once in 2023, earning a TKO stoppage over Angel Rodriguez.
The UFC is constantly looking for talent from Mexico, as it’s a huge combat sports market. Given the success of the Mexican Independence Day card and their forays into the country, Rodriguez is a talented man that could help continue to develop that market further.
John Sweeney(13-3, USA)
I have long been high on John Sweeney as a fighter, but I was just waiting for him to get some momentum going. It seems he has caught that wind in his sails, as he’s on a big winning streak and possesses the LFA bantamweight championship.
Sweeney runs with Ray and Stephen Thompson’s crew, so you know that Sweeney has good, tight kickboxing skills. During his seven-fight winning streak, he has defeated UFC vets Leonardo Morales and Cole Smith, showing he’s ready to step up. In 2023, he went 2-0, both of which were in LFA main events. He decisioned Ary Farias in a top-contender bout, which was a big win. He then defeated Contender Series veteran Allan Begosso to capture the vacant LFA title.
As stated, Sweeney is finally hitting his stride, so now would be the time to strike while the iron is hot with this fighter. He’s 28 years old and approaching his athletic prime, so he should be suited to make a nice run in the UFC.
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