MMA Prospect Roundtable 2023: Which Up-and-Comers Are UFC-Ready?

George Hardwick and Harry Hardwick, Cage Warriors top MMA prospects
Harry and George Hardwick, Cage Warriors 141 Credit: Cage Warriors

Back in 2019, we took a look at some of the top up-and-coming prospects in MMA, with a roundtable format featuring a number of guest authors giving their take on where the future of MMA might lie. Among the names singled out at the time were Ciryl Gane, Kayla Harrison, and Khamzat Chimaev, all before they achieved mainstream success.

We’re back at it again four years later, and once again, we’ve decided to bring in a few other opinions. This time out, we polled a few journalists and other respected minds in the MMA space for five prospects we believe are UFC-ready.

Up first is James Colwell, who is an excellent scout. I’ve been scouting and writing about prospects for years and James knows just as much as me if not more. His scouting ability is so good and I even think he does a better job than myself. Shoot him a follow on Twitter because he deserves way more respect.

Losene Keita, Oktagon MMA
Losene Keita Credit: Oktagon MMA

When choosing my top 5, I tried to limit it to active fighters that the UFC has a realistic chance of signing, so no one currently under contract with ONE/KSW/ACA, though guys like Anatoly Malykhin, Adrian Bartosiński, and Islam Omarov certainly deserve honorable mentions and would make a big impact in the UFC rankings. I also excluded anyone who’s fought for Bellator or PFL to keep the focus on less-known prospects.

Shamil Gaziev: 10-0, Heavyweight

As we frequently see on UFC cards, HW is a very shallow division globally and it only
takes a few signature wins to get an opportunity at the highest level. Gaziev has the massive power in his hands one would expect from the big boys, but his wrestling ability and successful amateur career (9-2 for IMMAF including the 2019 world title) are what really make him stand out. Gaziev is massively muscular and has had to cut to make 265 in his career, but his ARES FC debut showed his cardio is sufficient to grind out three rounds of grappling. He took on Kirill Kornilov, who is an elite kickboxer and entered the fight 13-0-1, and Gaziev smartly committed to his takedowns early and often. It wasn’t the most thrilling fight, as there was lots of smothering top control at the fence base and short GnP, but he showed good technique with wrist rides, trapped his opponent’s legs, and generally used his size and weight to his advantage.

His most recent win showed a very different side to his game, as he took on UFC vet Darko Stošić (17-5) in an absolute brawl that lasted less than three minutes but was packed with power shots on both sides. Gaziev proved his chin can stand up to big power and scored a highlight knockout that is exactly what the UFC matchmakers love. I think he’d be an immediate threat to the top 15 rankings, as there are few other humans on this planet who have his combination of raw size, grappling technique, and heavy hands.

Murad Magomedov: 13-0, Bantamweight

Murad has compiled a very impressive record despite still being in his 20s, and he hasn’t
just been crushing cans like we sometimes see with undefeated fighters. His opponents have a combined record of 97-39-1, including four straight decision wins in top Russian promotion ACA, with all of those fights at flyweight. Magomedov then took a couple of years off before making his debut for UAE Warriors at 135 pounds, and he impressed by knocking down Alimardan Abdykaarov (16-1-1) in the second round then battering him with GnP until he opened up a chance for an RNC submission. His most recent fight was even more impressive, as he immediately doubled Javlonbek Tokhtaboev (10-5) over with a hard kick to the body, launched into the air for a flying knee that didn’t land flush but still did some damage, then transitioned quickly to a guillotine that forced an immediate tap and earned him a submission in just 23 seconds.

These wins for UAE Warriors have shown off his finishing instincts with submissions
and that he has the striking necessary to hurt his opponents, and he’s already proven he has the cardio and durability necessary to go three hard rounds during his time with ACA. He’s a smart fighter who doesn’t make many mistakes and is quick to exploit openings his opponents give him, and there really aren’t many holes that I’ve found in his game. His UAE fights have been on UFC Fight Pass, so there’s no way the matchmakers aren’t aware of him, and he’d be a great addition to the stacked UFC bantamweight division or could even drop back down to flyweight if he wants a quicker path to contention.

Losene Keita: 11-0, Featherweight

Keita is an explosive and dynamic wrecking ball who burst onto the international scene
with his Oktagon debut in December 2021 and has been running through top European
competition since. He was born in Guinea but moved to Belgium and went 3-0 as an amateur then 6-0 as a pro fighting nobodies for small shows mostly in the Netherlands before making the move to Oktagon for a big step up in competition. He proved he was more than ready for the challenge with a first-round KO of a decent prospect in Karol Ryšavý (9-3) followed by a beatdown of Ronald Paradeiser (13-7) where he won by decision purely because his opponent refused to be finished. That set up a lightweight title shot against Ivan Buchinger (39-7), one of the more under-rated fighters in Europe and someone I consider a real top-level gatekeeper. Keita passed that test with flying colors, overwhelming his opponent with aggression and athleticism while throwing powerful hooks for a one-sided round one KO. That was when I first thought he was ready for the UFC, but instead, he dropped to 145 pounds, continued to dominate great opponents, and just became a double-champ for Oktagon. His first fight at featherweight was a great test of his versatility, as he had mostly been known for his striking but was matched against an elite Muay Thai practitioner in Samuel Bark (8-1). Keita intelligently got an early takedown, took away some of his opponent’s explosiveness with wrestling pressure and GnP, then started to go to work with his own striking in round two, which included a knockdown to end the round. He showed off his cardio and killer instinct by swarming immediately and finished the job with vicious hooks after just thirty seconds of round three.

His willingness to keep risking his perfect record against top competition is admirable, as he was scheduled to challenge Mate Sanikidze (9-2) for the 145-pound title but happily accepted an interim title shot against Jakub Tichota (5-1) when his original opponent was forced out with an injury. Keita once again outclassed a good fighter pretty much everywhere and broke Tichota down before finishing him in round four with his patented power combos. There have been rumors that he was previously offered a short-notice UFC fight but nobody wanted to fight him, and with the ability he’s shown it’s hard to blame them. I expect him to feature on the next UFC card in mainland Europe, or even sooner if he can get a visa for the USA.

Eldar Eldarov: 14-1, Welterweight

Eldarov is the first guy on this list with a loss, but its aged about as well as humanly
possible as it came in his second pro fight, all the way back in 2009, against someone you may have heard of named Khabib Nurmagomedov. Eldarov then crushed a bunch of cans to build up a win streak before signing with Brave for their first-ever event in 2016. He’s 6-0 there with three finishes and three decision wins against much stronger opposition with an impressive combined record of 64-18, including future UFC fighter Mounir Lazzez, which has extended his win streak to thirteen straight. Sambo is his base and he’s clearly most comfortable when wrestling, but his BJJ has continuously improved, his GnP is naturally powerful, and his striking on the feet is good enough to present a threat.

Despite a nearly 15-year career, Eldarov is still just 31 and he stays in incredible shape, which translates into the cardio necessary to push a high pace for 25 minutes as he proved in his decision win over Lazzez for the 165lb super-lightweight title. The main things holding Eldarov back from UFC success are outside the cage, as I think he’d immediately be ready to challenge the top 15 if he were signed. He’s only fought once per year with Brave and didn’t fight at all during 2020 when the promotion stopped having events due to the pandemic. He’s able to fight so infrequently because he is the head coach for KHK MMA, a team sponsored directly by the rulers of Bahrain who also own Brave and have deeply entwined the promotion, country, and fight camp. I doubt they would want to see Eldarov go off to fight in the UFC, especially with the risk that he might lose and reduce some of his prestige as a coach, but if the UFC matchmakers can somehow make it happen it would be an incredible addition to an already deep 170lb division.

Makoto Takahashi: 16-1-1, Flyweight

I’ve got to give some credit to the UFC, as up until a few months ago this spot would
have been filled by one of the elite Kazakh flyweights Asu Almabaev or Azat Maksum, both of whom have been added to the roster recently. Takahashi is another elite prospect at 125lbs, and he’s the youngest of them at just 22 years old. He’s spent the majority of his career with long-running Japanese promotion DEEP after making his professional debut at just 15 years old. He quickly amassed a 6-0-1 record, with all of those fights going to a decision, before getting a title shot at just 17 years old against future ONE strawweight Tatsumitsu Wada. This turned out to be Takahashi’s only loss, again by decision, as he just wasn’t prepared to take on a 29-year-old in his physical prime who also had 4 times as many fights as him. He’s since put together a stellar 10-fight win streak including a title for DEEP in a second opportunity, a later defense of that title, a decision win for Bellator that was also one of the only times in his career that he’s missed weight, three wins for Rizin including one to start April 2023, and a dominant performance in November 2022 to claim the CFFC title and introduce himself to the USA audience. He’s fought some journeymen but most of his opponents during this run have been talented.

After getting a reputation for dull fights when his first twelve went to decisions, Takahashi has won four of his last 6 by submission as he’s grown into his adult strength and continued to improve his already excellent cardio. He’s shown creative and versatile BJJ with a particular knack for finishes from the front headlock by securing a guillotine, a ninja choke, a modified high-elbow guillotine set up by repeated horizontal rolls, and an arm triangle. He is a flexible and dynamic grappler who pushes a fast pace and can escape, sweep, and/or threaten submissions from anywhere on the mat. His striking is markedly improved every time he fights and he showcased some nasty GnP in his most recent fight, battering his opponent with grounded knees and slicing him with elbows to set up the round-one submission win. He’s always adding new elements to his game and at such a young age, the sky is the limit for Takahashi. I’ve heard rumors that he’s looking to set up big-name match-ups in Japan, but if he decides the UFC is where he wants to be, they’d be crazy not to give him a call. They might send him through DWCS because of his age, but I think Takahashi easily has the ability to be signed directly and join Tatsuro Taira in the new wave of exciting Japanese flyweight prospects.


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