HeavyMMA’s top-five UFC prospects
By James Walker
One of the best things the UFC has going for it is the amount of young talent coming up the ranks.
Fighters are getting stronger, faster and younger each day as the sport of mixed martial arts continues to grow. As a result, the youth movement in the UFC has never been stronger.
Who are the top prospects and what are their qualifications? It’s simple: Prospects must be 28 years old or younger and never held a world title.
Here are HeavyMMA’s top-five prospects:
No. 5: Joseph Benavidez, 28, Flyweight
Analysis: Is Joseph Benavidez still considered a prospect? He just barely fits the qualifications.
Benavidez is 28 years old and right on the cusp of winning his first world championship. After a six-month layoff, he will face Demetrious Johnson in the final of the UFC's flyweight tournament. Benavidez says he wants to become the George Washington of the new flyweight division, and he will be labeled the favorite.
This isn’t the first title push for Benavidez. He’s had two title shots before – against Dominick Cruz – and came up short both times. Perhaps a third title fight is a charm for Benavidez, who has been one of the top young and exciting fighters for a while.
No. 4: Erick Silva, 28, welterweight
Analysis: There is a lot to like about Erick Silva. He has a rare combination of size, length, skills and athleticism for a welterweight. He also goes for the finish. Eleven of his 15 victories are by knockout or submission.
We may never see another Anderson Silva, but Erick Silva is probably the closest thing. Erick Silva has a slick style, is dangerous everywhere and trains with Team Nogueira. It is hard for Erick Silva to avoid “The Spider” comparisons.
Silva gets a big test October 13 against longtime contender Jon Fitch (23-4-1) in Brazil. This fight could push Silva close to title contention in the welterweight division.
No. 3: Alexander Gustafsson, 25, light heavyweight
Analysis: “The Mauler” has won five in a row -- and four of those came via submission or knockout. Few fighters have been as impressive in the past year as Gustafsson, who is viewed as the future at light heavyweight.
Gustafsson, with a little more seasoning, could eventually be a threat to 205-pound kingpin Jon Jones. Gustafsson has the length, aggressiveness and finishing ability to push Jones. But Gustafsson needs to face higher-level competition. He will get that on Dec. 8 against former light heavyweight champion Mauricio “Shogun” Rua. This will be a great test to determine where Gustafsson currently stands in the title picture.
No. 2: Rory MacDonald, 23, welterweight
Analysis: There are lofty expectations when you’re called the “Next GSP.” But so far, Rory MacDonald has lived up to the hype and is even more advanced in some areas than mentor George St. Pierre when he was MacDonald’s age.
MacDonald is one of the first pure mixed martial artists. MacDonald came into the sport training everything and does not have a specialty or discipline. Therefore, he’s not a “wrestler” or “striker” or “ju-jitsu” fighter. MacDonald is the first wave of hybrids that should mark a future trend in MMA.
MacDonald’s only loss was to interim welterweight champion Carlos Condit. MacDonald will face another stiff test in future Hall of Famer B.J. Penn, who is coming out of retirement on Dec. 8.
No. 1: Chris Weidman, 28, middleweight
Analysis: After Anderson Silva beat Chael Sonnen for a second time in July, there was little buzz of a legitimate challenger for Silva at middleweight. Then, Chris Weidman steamrolled Mark Munoz and stepped forward as the No. 1 contender.
Weidman is improving by leaps and bounds with every fight and has quickly jumped into title contention. Despite little experience, Weidman has already beaten solid fighters such as Munoz, Damian Maia and Alessio Sakara.
Is Weidman ready for Silva? Who knows? But Silva has cleaned out the middleweight division to the point where Weidman’s immense potential at least makes for an intriguing fight.
Honorable mentions for top prospects: Johny Hendricks, 13-1, welterweight; Erik Koch, 13-1, featherweight; Chad Mendes, 12-1, featherweight; Phil Davis, 9-1, light heavyweight.