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 flyweight division, a weight class that has come close to eradication from the UFC. Despite signs of what appeared to be its imminent demise, it’s still hanging on for now.
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.
2021: Jake Hadley, Juan Puerta, Azamat Kerefov*, Murad Magomedov*, Nate Smith
2022: Charles Johnson, Juan Puerta, Azamat Kerefov*, Charles Henrique, Phumi Nkuta
2023: Asu Almabaev, Lucas Rocha, Victor Dias, Kurban Gadzhiev, Murad Magomedov*
Note: Bold denotes fighter was signed by UFC; * denotes fighter ineligible due to two years on list.
Aren Akopyan (15-3-1, Russia)
Kicking off the flyweight list is Aren Akopyan, a longtime ACA veteran who has consistently fought at a high level. He’s a guy that would do very well in the UFC flyweight division and could be a contender in the near future.
Akopyan is a heavy wrestling-first fighter. He is very aggressive when it comes to searching for takedowns. He has a solid submission ability to go along with good ground striking. Akopyan fought twice in 2023, scoring unanimous decisions over Ryskulbek Ibraimov and Anatoly Kondratiev.
Akopyan is in his prime at 30 years old, which is where you want to be when you get to the UFC. There are a number of matchups that Akopyan could win in the UFC right now in attempt to move up the ladder and get toward title contention.
Velimurad Alkhasov (9-1, Russia)
BRAVE CF has been a great regional show that has elevated many fighters to the UFC with good success. Another of those guys who deserves that look is Velimurad Alkhasov, a flyweight contender in BRAVE.
Alkhasov is a strong wrestler with good physical strength to bully his opponents. He has a lot of power and is a good pressure fighter who grinds out his wins. He scored his biggest win to date in 2021 when he beat UFC and Bellator veteran Zach Makovsky. He then took 2022 of from fighting, but returned in 2023 with a win over Nicholas Hwende. I would like to see him more active going forward.
Alkhasov is 32 years old, so the time is ticking faster for him than other prospects on this list. Because of his age, I think the UFC should jump on him ASAP to give him a chance to work his way up the ladder and possible title contention.
Kurban Gadzhiev (19-3, Russia)
Another prospect, another Russian. ACA veteran Kurban Gadzhiev continues to be one of the best flyweights outside the UFC and has proven so taking big fights in Russia.
Your typical meat-and-potatoes wrestler from Russia, Gadzhiev is explosive in grabbing takedowns. He has submission ability, though his ground-and-pound is more of his go-to weapon. Gadzhiev fought just once in 2023, where he bested fellow prospect Imran Bukuev in a close, competitive fight. It continued his trend of beating top prospects in the Russian regional scene.
Gadzhiev’s dominance definitely warrants a look from the UFC, especially with how thin the flyweight division is. I could see him quickly establishing himself in the division and being in the top 15 quickly.
Phumi Nkuta (7-0, USA)
Not long ago, it appeared that Phumi Nkuta was done with MMA forever. He stated that he was retiring from the sport to pursue other endeavors. However, Nkuta returned in 2023 to the surprise of many. With those performances, he returned to the top of many scout’s prospect lists.
Nkuta is a good, well-rounded fighter who is a top-notch natural athlete. His striking is very fun to watch, but seeing as he runs with Matt Serra and Chris Weidman, he also has strong grappling abilities. He fought twice in 2023. In his return fight, he won convincingly over Cleveland McLean via rear-naked choke. He followed that up with a late-notice decision win over Hunter Starner.
Nkuta is undefeated and still just 28, so he is approaching his prime. I know he took a couple years off there, so he will probably need a win or two more to get into the UFC. However, I think he will achieve that and then get into the UFC. He presents a tough matchup to many of the tenured fighters on the UFC roster.
Marciano Ferreira (13-2, Brazil)
I don’t think there were many, if any, flyweights that had a stronger 2023 than Brazil’s Marciano Ferreira. The Lucas Mineiro brethren established himself as a top 125-pound prospect in a year that was very busy and successful.
Ferreira is an exciting striker with good power, aggression and volume. His submission defense has shown holes in the past, but when Ferreira is able to control the pace and get in a groove, he’s hard to contain. He went 4-0 in 2023. Under the LFA banner, he scored unanimous decision wins over Mateus Brauns and Wellington Mourao. Between those LFA bouts, he fought for SFT where he knocked out Lucas Kenner. To top off the year, Ferreira competed for Brave CF, where he destroyed respected journeyman Edilceu Alves in the first round with strikes.
Ferreira is 30 years old and hitting his prime, as showcased by his recent successes. Give his style and exciting nature, I think the UFC should ink him this year and for good reason. He will constantly be hunting for Fight of the Night bonuses.
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