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 middleweight division, a weight class that has been filling up with talent. It’s been a roller-coaster ride in terms of title changes and growth in this weight class.
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: Uriah Hall, Tom Watson, Elvis Mutapcic, Jake Rosholt, Chaun Sims
2013: Sean Strickland, Marcos Rogerio, Elvis Mutapcic, Michal Materla, Wes Swofford
2014: Ramazan Emeev, Scott Askham, Vyacheslav Vasilevsky*, Ben Reiter, Max Nunes
2015: Jack Hermansson, Alberto Uda, Vyacheslav Vasilevsky*, Anatoly Tokov*, Igor Svirid
2016: Ramazan Emeev, Khalil Rountree, Alberto Uda, Phil Hawes, Aleksei Butorin*
2017: Trevin Giles, Oskar Piechota, Rob Wilkinson, Rafael Lovato Jr., Mattia Schiavolin
2018: Albert Duraev, Vladimir Mineev*, Mike Shipman, Artem Frolov, Damian Janikowski
2019: Roman Kopylov, Shamil Gamzatov, Puna Soriano, Bruno Silva, Albert Duraev
Note: Bold denotes fighter was signed by UFC; * denotes fighter ineligible due to two years on list.
Azamat Bekoev (17-3, Russia)
Leading off the middleweight crew is Azamat Bekoev, the LFA middleweight champion who captured that title at the end of 2023. The American Top Team rep has surged in recent times, especially with the help of his camp, to become a top middleweight prospect atop most scout’s radar.
Bekoev has had a low-key strong career thus far, and the reason I say that is he, somehow, has flown under the radar while taking on tough competition. He is a strong wrestler with a formidable ground game. Two of his three career losses come by split decision to top Russian prospects, which were fights that could have gone his way. He had a strong 2023 campaign. He opened the year headlining an LFA, besting Renato Valente. He then defeated now-UFC roster member Dylan Budka in his sophomore outing. He ended the year headlining another LFA card, where he bested Contender Series vet and fellow top middleweight prospect Lucas Fernando for the LFA middleweight title.
Bekoev possesses a top UFC feeder organization’s belt and is 27 years old, so one has to think we are just counting down the minutes until Bekoev scores a UFC contract. It’s well-deserved given his track record and his constant improvements under the ATT tent.
Abdul Rakhman Dzhanaev (18-3, Russia)
A pattern you will notice here is a lot of Russians and a lot of ACA fighters, as it has proven itself a groundswell of top regional talent. We continue here with Abdul-Rakhman Dzhanaev, a man who has graced this list before.
Dzhanaev is another strong wrestler who is dominant when he gets the fight to the mat. He’s also improved his striking, as was shown in his lone 2023 win over Bellator veteran Chris Honeycutt. He dropped Honeycutt with some punches on the feet and finished him with ground-and-pound.
The time to get Dzhanaev is right now, as he’s already 33 years old, almost 34. He’s at the top of his game, but he’s up there in age, especially in MMA years. He would be a force in UFC fighter kits if brought in.
Dauren Ermekov (19-5, Kazakhstan)
Kazakhstan is a very underrated spot for MMA talent, as they have been providing strong MMA prospects under the radar for the last few years. One of their best prospects in any weight class is Dauren Ermekov, who has bounced around a bunch of Russian and Central Asian regional promotions showing off his talents.
Ermekov is a submission wrestler who mixes top grappling with ground-and-pound and a strong arsenal of submission techniques. Most of his wins come by way of finish, showing he doesn’t like to involve the judges. Since his last loss in 2020, he has won four straight, including two wins in 2023 over Gamzat Khiramagomedov (arm-triangle choke) and Ruslan Shamilov (unanimous decision).
It seems the UFC has taken interest in talent from Kazakhstan, so Ermekov seems like a guy that should make his way over. He’s proven himself against some of the top talent that region has to offer, which is great experience before heading to the big leagues.
Ibragim Magomedov (12-2, Russia)
ACA middleweight champion Ibragim Magomedov is somehow under the radar, despite the fact he is a champion in a major regional MMA promotion. That’s a shame, as he’s had an impressive run thus far and has had a tough strength of schedule.
Magomedov is your typical Dagestani wrestler with excellent takedowns and control on the mat. However, he also has solid striking, which makes him even more dangerous. His last loss was in 2021, though it was by disqualification in a fight he was winning. He’s won five straight, including three fights in 2023 with knockouts with knees over Cleber Sousa and Husein Kushagov, and a decision over Mikhail Dolgov.
Magomedov is 28 years old, meaning he’s approaching his prime and he’s already this good. The UFC middleweight division is a shark tank, and there aren’t many like Magomedov who could step into a tough fight and be ready.
Marco Tulio (10-1, Brazil)
These days, it’s rare that somebody who wins their Contender Series fight doesn’t get signed to the UFC right after the episode. Marco Tulio was an exception to that in 2023, as the Brazilian was able to notch his win, but Dana White declined to sign him. That should change in 2024.
Tulio is well-rounded, but he showed off some good striking skills this year. That’s especially impressive when you consider that he bested Yousri Belgaroui on the Contender Series, who is a GLORY Kickboxing veteran who was thought to be the better striker. Tulio also knocked out Well Oliveira in 2023, who is a 50-plus-fight veteran of the sport.
Tulio is obviously on the UFC’s radar following the Contender Series and his participation on LFA shows. He should be a guy we see in a UFC Fight Kit this year, especially given his resume and skill set.
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