Heavyweight is unquestionably the thinnest division in mixed martial arts. A lack of athletic, large bodies makes it naturally more shallow than many other weight classes, despite the UFC generally claiming their heavyweight champ to be the “Baddest Man on the Planet” (to be fair, heavyweight boxing has been doing that for years).
Still, fans love to see the heavyweights swang and bang, and there’s always a need for fresh blood. With that in mind, we take a look at the state of the division’s prospects.
Sitting at the top of the division I believe only one fighter stands out when it comes to prospects. Russia’s Shamil Gaziev (10-0) sits on top as the best prospect in the heavyweight division. Prior to an unbeaten pro record he went 9-2 as an amateur. That included winning IMMAF gold in 2019. He’s coming off a win over former UFC fighter Darko Stosic. He’s fought for AMC in Russia, Ares FC, Brave CF, and the Contender Series this coming season.
There is a pretty big gap from Gaziev to the others but there is a handful I view as underrated talents in the division.
Mario Pinto (6-0) didn’t pop on anyone’s radar until this year. In March, Levels Fight League held an eight-man one-night heavyweight Grand Prix to crown a champion. Pinto fought and won three times in one night taking home the title. MMA in Portugal is still growing. Pinto isn’t only the best heavyweight from his country but the best prospect from the area in general.
Greg Velasco (6-0) doesn’t get a lot of credit because of his physical appearance but he’s not a typical heavyweight. Velasco has a few things most heavyweights don’t have and that’s wrestling and cardio. Velasco has a lot of fights where he fought deep in the second round or fought a four-round fight. He’s the current Cage Fury FC heavyweight champion with one title defense. He’s going to be fighting Shamil Gaziev this coming season on the Dana White’s Contender Series.
One thing is for sure and that’s MMA is an ever-growing sport. This group of fighters may not blow the doors off right away but in the next few years they could be at the very top
We’ve seen wrestling standout Bo Nickal make it to the UFC early in MMA so Anthony Cassar (1-0) could be next. He is an NCAA Division I champion and a Big Ten Conference champion out of Penn State University. He’s 1-0 in MMA beating someone with twenty-two pro fights. He could be fast-tracked to the UFC considering his background and mainly fighting in a shallow division.
A much anticipated pro debut coming up soon is Bahrain’s Rasul Magomedov (0-0). Magomedov was 13-0 as an amateur and is a two-time IMMAF world champion. Magomedov is also known for holding a win over wrestling superstar Kyle Snyder in a freestyle bout. A good chance he’s at the top of the division in the coming years.
I think very highly of Zumso Zuraev (5-0). So good I think he’s already one of the best heavyweight prospects there is. He’s also one of the best under-the-radar prospects in MMA, period. He’s been a staple for ACA’s feeder promotion ACA Young Eagles. He’s a powerhouse in a division where he can muscle around guys much bigger than him.
Looking to gain traction
These fighters suffered recent losses in the last year or so. They are looking to build back some of the hype and momentum they had in the past.
Eduardo Neves (7-1-1) fought last season on the Contender Series and had a disappointing loss to Michael Parkin. He was winning that fight until he wasn’t and it’s a fight he wins 90% of the time. Neves has beaten four undefeated fighters and has experience in LFA. In fact, last March he won the vacant LFA title. He has another chance at a UFC contract this season on the Contender Series.
Azamat Nuftillaev (14-1-1) quietly had a 12-0-1 record when he came up short to Bellator’s Slim Trabelsi. That loss came last year and since he’s won his next/last two. In the past, he was a champion for Alash Pride FC, a promotion out of Kazakhstan. He’s looked promising since his loss to Trabelsi. The fighter from Nuftillaev has good experience even though it’s against lesser competition.
Hugo Cunha (7-1) was a top heavyweight prospect at one point. He was supposed to fight on the Contender Series in 2021 but it didn’t happen and that seemed to be a regular issue with Cunha keeping fights together. He was signed to ONE Championship and after a bad loss last year, he wasn’t invited back. He did rebound in his LFA debut last month where he looked good. He can regain that traction he once had if he remains active.
Thomas Petersen (7-1) was riding high in 2021 as he was undefeated and ended up winning the vacant LFA strap. He had a big setback to open 2022 losing his title to now-current UFC fighter Waldo Cortes-Acosta. Since that he’s won two in a row and is going to be fighting on the Contender Series this season. Peterson came into his MMA career with a background as a wrestler. He was a Minnesota State champion in high school and an NJCAA National champion at Iowa Central.