Written by Jack Zampillo (@Jack_Zampillo15) —April 23rd, 2020
Every UFC champion was once a prospect. Climbing the ladder towards gold is a tedious task that requires hard work, dedication, and the ability to learn from mistakes. Some people can’t handle the limelight. But, considering how good the UFC is at finding diamonds in the rough, don’t be surprised if we see every division clustered with contenders in the next couple of years.
There is a new wave of prospects trucking through the UFC’s rankings, and I believe the level of talent within the promotion is only growing. Card after card, we see new faces bringing unique, unorthodox techniques into the octagon. I can’t speak for others, but I am truly excited about the fresh, hungry crop looking to make a name for themselves.
With no shortage of fighters for Dana to market, the questions arise: Who has what it takes? Who will be able to separate themselves from the rest of the pack and reign supreme atop their respective divisions? Let’s get to it.
Men’s Flyweight: #7 Kai Kara France (4–1 UFC)
With the top of the Flyweight division up for grabs, the time has never been better for young, exciting guys to make a name for themselves. Enter Kai Kara France. With wins in four of his last five, the City Kickboxing product is riding a lot of momentum and could find himself in the title picture very soon. The New Zealander boasts a record of 21–8 with 9 wins by (T)KO and 3 by submission. At just 27 years of age, France is still learning and has a lot of room for improvement.
France’s style of fighting is very similar to that of his teammates, Israel Adesanya and Dan Hooker. The kind of gameplan head coach Eugene Bareman implements into his fighters is very clear. Kai combines outstanding movement with distance control and an eye-opening defensive game. He effectively uses his jab to get into range, and is great at giving opponents multiple looks to worry about. The way France incorporates leg kicks gives him the ability to set up long, versatile combinations. The emerging 27-year-old’s ability to thrive wherever a fight is taken makes him a dangerous commodity, and if all else fails, he packs a lot of power in that right hand. If I were a betting man, I’d wager it won’t be long before we see Kai Kara France at the top.
Men’s Bantamweight: Sean O’ Malley (4–0 UFC)
When I say that I have never been more excited about a prospect’s potential, trust me at my word: Sean O’ Malley possesses all the tools needed to become the UFC’s next big thing.
But first we have to acknowledge the failed drug test and resulting suspension that led to a 2 year layoff for O’Malley. Here’s a guy with championship aspirations, yet his youth had gotten the best of him. And so we wondered, how would he look after such a long layoff? Would he use this as motivation, or would O’Malley be known as the guy whose fire burnt out too early?
Just because we didn’t see “Suga” compete for 2 years doesn’t mean he wasn’t improving. After months of uncertainty, the long awaited return was finally upon us. At UFC 248, the young gun made the walk once again. Every single question critics had was answered that night. He was perfect. Flawless movement combined with a variety of strikes led to the dismantling of his opponent, who failed to land a single blow. The Montana product impressed a lot of people and proved that he is even better than the guy we saw 2 years prior.
The 135 pound division is as deep as it’s ever been, and don’t be surprised if O’Malley is shaking things up in the top-5 rather soon. Fighting out of MMA Lab in Arizona, O’Malley holds an undefeated professional record of 11–0 with 6 first-round knockouts. Standing at 5’11, O’Malley has a big frame for the division and a reach advantage that fits perfectly into his style of fighting. He uses an array of kicks, both to the head and body. The way he controls distance to master his timing bodes very well for a guy who thrives fighting at range. Lighting-quick hands combined with the ability to strike from all angles leads me to truly believe that he is a problem for the entire division. And if you think getting him to the ground is the answer, think again. In an interview with bjpenn.com, O’Malley talks about his jiu-jitsu game. “I train jiu-jitsu more than I do anything. Jiu-Jitsu is pretty much my life,” O’Malley states. Sean O’Malley has a purple belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and his lengthy frame allows him to squirm out of uncomfortable situations. The scariest part? He’s only 25. With so much time to perfect his craft, I can hardly wait to see what’s next.
Men’s Featherweight: #12 Arnold Allen (7–0 UFC)
Quite possibly the most underrated, underlooked fighter on the UFC roster is England’s Arnold Allen. The 26 year old southpaw owns a 16–1 professional record with 5 wins by (T)KO and 4 via submission. With the Featherweight division drowning in talent, Allen’s undefeated UFC record flies under the radar. This has come as a huge shock to me. Considering how versatile and well-equipped Allen is, I feel the need to shed some light on one of the division’s most prominent rising stars.
An ability that many young fighters lack is patience. A lot of competitors look for the quick knockout to get the MMA community talking. Allen doesn’t care about fame, he simply wants to be the best. In his latest contest, a unanimous decision victory over veteran wrestler Nik Lentz, Lentz came at Allen with heavy shots looking to overwhelm him. Instead of losing composure, Allen stuck to his gameplan, broke Lentz over the course of 3 rounds, and prevailed under pressure. This, I believe, gave us only a glimpse of the potential that lies within him.
Arnold Allen brings a wide variety of skills both offensively and defensively. One of the main things that boded well for Allen in his win over Lentz was the way he was able to stay on the end of Lentz’ strikes with his movement. He is very light on his feet, sliding out of danger quickly, making quick reads to find his opponents’ vulnerabilities. Furthermore, Allen possesses a strong jab, often followed by a fearsome straight left. His precision and ability to snipe counters has the potential to give anybody at the 145-pound-division hell. Arnold Allen is a problem and as he continues to polish his skills, his stock will only increase.
Men’s Lightweight: #8 Charles Oliveira (17–8 UFC)
The term “prospect” can be used very loosely here. How can a guy who has been in the UFC for 10 years with nearly 40 fights under his belt, be a prospect? Just look at a guy like Jorge Masvidal.
Fighters peak at different times. Some find their way early on, some take experience and years of development to reach their full potential. Charles Oliveira is the latter.
Oliveira holds a record of 29–8 with 8 wins by (T)KO, and 19 wins by submission — the most in UFC history. Looking at his resume, the Brazilian product has endured a somewhat up-and-down run in the UFC. That is, until June of 2018 when Oliveira submitted Clay Guida at UFC 225.
“do Bronx” hasn’t looked back since. Winning his last 7 fights, all by stoppage, the submission artist is closer to gold than ever before. Something that I must acknowledge is the improvements he has made in his striking. Known mainly for his ground work, the way Oliveira has incorporated kickboxing into his game plan has worked wonders, to the point where the most dangerous thing about the 30-year-old Brazilain is his versatility.
Oliveira fights with a lot of forward pressure and likes to use a piercing front kick to keep opponents at bay; luxuries of having the ability to submit anybody in the world. His opponents are so worried about the takedown, they become more susceptible to getting hurt on the feet. Oliveira’s walk-you-down style of fighting caused problems for the guys he fought in the past. Add the newfound confidence, versatility, and high-level cardio, and you’ve got yourself a contender. After submitting Kevin Lee at UFC Brasilia in March, Oliveira has a lot of momentum on his side, and I can hardly wait to see how well he matches up against the top of the division.
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