UFC, Bellator and Beyond: 18 Fighters to Watch For in 2018

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ONE Championship star Angela Lee, who the UFC claims isn't ready
Angela Lee Credit: ONE Championship

Cageside’s Mike Straus examines the talent both in and outside of the UFC with 18 fighters to watch in 2018!

Last year I decided to write down 17 fighters to keep an eye on in 2017. This wasn’t an article I published on any site, this was more of an “experiment.” I’d say the experiment went well; by year’s end 13 of the 17 fighters I said to watch for in 2017 had cracked the top 15 in their respective weight classes.

So, this year I figured let’s do it right, and so I bring you 18 Fighters to Watch For in 2018.

One thing I wanted to really focus on this year was depth, meaning, I wanted to go beyond the usual promotions and truly offer genuine and relatively unknown fighters with enormous potential. I think I’ve done that with this year’s list. I’m sure you will see some names you recognize on the list as well.

On a side note, one thing you notice immediately when you engage in an activity like this is just how thriving the Russian MMA community is. I honestly could’ve complied a complete list of all Russian fighters, however, several still made the list.

Heavyweight: Vitaly Minakov

Many of you may remember Minakov, he was the last heavyweight champion for Bellator MMA and more recently he has been competing oversees at Fight Nights Global. Minakov turns 33 in February so a UFC run is still not out of the question for this unbeaten Russian monster, and with a record of 21-0 he could be exactly what the UFC’s heavyweight division needs. Lets all collectively cross our fingers and hope we get a Ngannou vs. Minakov title fight in 2018.

Heavyweight: Blagoi ‘Baga’ Ivanov

If you were a fan of World Series of Fighting or you follow the Professional Fighters League, then you are most likely familiar with this real life Zangief (that’s a Street Fighter reference for those of you who don’t game!). Technically Ivanov is Bulgarian, and although he stands at only 5’11 he packs all of his 262lbs into his stout frame rather easily. ‘Baga’ has only tasted defeat once in his career and he boasts an impressive 16-1 record. Ivanov would be a welcome addition to the UFC’s heavyweight landscape that is much in need of talent outside the top 10.

Heavyweight: Sergey Pavlovich

Yet another Russian heavyweight, but I can assure you, if you have ever seen Pavolich fight, then you know exactly why I have him on this list. Pavolich is undefeated with a record of 12-0 and he looks better with each performance. I hope this Russian fighter inks a deal with one of the bigger stateside MMA promotions so he can continue his quest for greatness on a broader scale.

Light Heavyweight: Magomed Ankalaev

I promise this list isn’t comprised entirely of Russian fighters, having said that, Ankalaev is the youngest of all the Russian fighters on this year’s list and perhaps has the most potential being he is only 25 years old. He is riding a 16-fight win streak, 10 of which have been professional fights, however his next fight will be his most important being that he will be making his UFC debut against Paul Craig at UFC Fight Night 127 in March. Ankalaev would love to go from relative unknown to title contender in one years’ time much like Volkan Oezdemir did in 2017.

Middleweight: Rafael Lovato Jr

Finally, a non-Russian fighter and a fighter who had a fantastic 2017 in his own right. Lovato is one of Bellator’s brightest stars and unfortunately not too many people know how good he really is, but I have a sneaking suspicion that is going to change in 2018. Lovato is 7-0 and he has arguably the best BJJ in all of mixed martial arts. Look for big things from this mid-western grappling ace in the new year.

Welterweight: Abubakar Nurmagomedov

Yes, this is the little brother of lightweight star Khabib Nurmagomedov and he fights with the same relentlessness that his big brother does. Abubakar was scheduled to make his octagon debut in February but was pulled from the card for undisclosed reasons; make no mistake about it, when this Dagestani makes his UFC debut the whole division will be put on notice. Abubakar is a veteran of 15 fights, he has lost only one of those fights and is currently on a six-fight winning streak.

Lightweight: Gregor ‘The Gift’ Gillespie

After Gillespie’s last performance he should be on everyone’s radar. Gillespie displayed a well rounded technical understanding of distance and striking in his last performance against Jason Gonzalez back in September, yet ironically, he would finish that fight with a choke. ‘The Gift’ is exactly the kind of fighter the UFC loves to promote, he has the look, he can talk, and oh yea, he is pretty good too. Gillespie is wasting no time in 2017, he steps back in the octagon at the end of the month against Jordan Rinaldi at UFC on FOX 27.

Lightweight: Mateusz ‘Gamer’ Gamrot

Eastern Europe’s number one pro lightweight and the pride of Poland, Gamrot may be the best fighter you’ve never heard of.  Gamrot has been sharpening his skills in the fine promotion KSW and he already holds victories over some UFC veterans. ‘Gamer’ holds an unblemished record of 13-0 and he is still only 27 years old. I’m not certain of Gamrot’s current contract situation, but I hope Scott Coker or Dana White finds a way to play this game.

Featherweight: Movlid ‘Killer’ Khaibulaev

No frills, I love it when a fighter doesn’t need any gimmicks or trash talk to get him going. This is the case for Khaibulaev, I mean his nickname is ‘Killer’ for god’s sake. Seriously, though, Khaibulaev is all business inside the cage and through 13 fights nobody has figured out this Russian pugilist. I think Khaibulaev has the ability to step into Bellator or the UFC and be a top 10 guy right away, hopefully 2018 is the year we get to see a ‘Killer’ running loose in the UFC.

Featherweight: ‘Hurricane’ Shane Burgos

Burgos is a veteran of three UFC fights already and is booked for his fourth bout on January 20 against Calvin Kattar. Burgos’s pressure and willingness to take the fight anywhere are some of his best attributes but what separates ‘Hurricane’ from the long list of prospects in the featherweight division is his astute understanding of the sport of MMA. Look for big things from this Tiger Schulmann’s student in 2018.

Featherweight: Andre ‘The Bull’ Harrison

Perhaps the biggest head scratcher on this list, and its not because Harrison isn’t a great fighter, quite the opposite. Harrison is one of the very best fighters in the world he just happens to compete in the Professional Fighters league, so his accomplishments usually fall on deaf ears. But this 29-year-old undefeated champion may be looking to make more of a house hold name for himself in 2018, lets hope he has the chance to do so on a grander scale.

Featherweight: Jeremy ‘JBC’ Kennedy

Some people are calling this 25-year-old Canadian phenom the next George St Pierre. I won’t go so far as to say that, but, the man known as ‘JBC’ has all the skills to be a real player in the 145lb division. Kennedy may have the best Muay Thai of all the featherweights in the UFC, and he looks to continue his winning ways against Alexander Volkanovski in February. Kennedy hopes 2018 will be the year he can go from unranked to contender.

Bantamweight: Cody ‘Spartan’ Stamann

Michigan Top Team’s Stamann is one of the best wrestlers in the 135lb division and in his last outing the ‘Spartan’ displayed a well-rounded skill set en route to beating highly touted Tom Duquesnoy. Stamann just turned 28 years old so he still has plenty of time to make a run, but this mid-western fighter is looking for a top 15 opponent in his next fight so he can continue his ascent to the top of the division. Look for Stamann to make some noise this year.

Bantamweight: Ricardo ‘Carcacinha’ Ramos

Getting to the UFC is half the battle, but don’t tell that to this 22-year-old Brazilian fighter. Ramos has made the walk to the octagon twice in his brief career and already he has shown that there is much more to his game than his BJJ. ‘Carcacinha’ is a bit of a Darkhorse in the bantamweight division, but I think with careful match making Ramos could be a contender for breakout fighter of the year in 2018.

Bantamweight/Flyweight: Jose ‘Shorty’ Torres

Of all the amazing stars on this list, I think Torres’s star shines the brightest. If you are unfamiliar with ‘Shorty’s’ resume let me fill you in: He has a professional record of 6-0, he is on a 19-fight winning streak, he is Titan FC’s bantamweight & flyweight champion, and I think he is the best fighter in the world currently not signed to the UFC. Since Titan FC is basically a feeder organization for the UFC I do think we will see Torres inside the octagon, lets just hope it’s sooner rather than later.

Flyweight: Deiveson ‘Daico’ Figueiredo

Figueiredo finishes fights. Simply put, this man has finished 11 of his 13 opponents, and the other two men he beat via decision. ‘Daico’ is all action and an extremely exciting fighter to watch. He steps back into the octagon in February against Joseph Morales and if things go his way in that one, you can bet Figueiredo will be getting a top 15 guy next time out, and most likely a coveted FS1 slot.

Women’s Bantamweight: Taila Santos

Why isn’t she in the UFC yet? All jokes aside, Santos should’ve been in the UFC like yesterday. She has every characteristic the new owners of the UFC love to promote: She is attractive, she can really fight, she is a legit 135er, and with her 14-0 record she is marketable. All the women’s divisions are a bit in flux due to the addition of the flyweights, that’s all the more reason to sign this Brazilian knock out. Given the opportunity, I believe Santos could be challenging for UFC gold within a calendar year.

Women’s Strawweight: ‘Unstoppable’ Angela Lee

The woman with the moniker ‘Unstoppable’ has essentially carried an entire division on her shoulders at the young age of 21. ONE championship has been the stomping ground for this Asian American fighter for the last three years; I think 2018 is the year Lee brings her talents to the UFC. She would be a welcome addition to the UFC’s strawweight division and someone who could challenge a top 5 fighter right away.

2 COMMENTS

  1. To be honest, given that Taila Santos has only fought once since 2015, I’d be much more interested in seeing the UFC bring in SW Weili Zhang who fought 7 times in 2017 alone. She is on a 16 fight win streak, all finishes with the exception of one decision.

    I doubt if the UFC would be willing to pay what One Championship is paying Angela Lee. Over there she is the queen of a small pond. In the UFC she would be mere chick bait. I would love to see her against Michelle Waterson. I think it would be a competitive fight, but I would give the edge to Michelle.

  2. I meant to add to my last sentence in my comment above: “and Michelle is not even ranked in the top 15 by the Unified Women’s Mixed Martial Arts Rankings, which I hope is just an oversight.”

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