Every champion in MMA history started out somewhere.
For those who make it to the highest stage, the journey begins long before they strap on UFC, Bellator, or PFL gloves. Modern-era fighters progress through the regional ranks with hopes of accomplishing the highest accolades. Many will try, few will succeed.
This month, five fighters on the verge of achieving major promotion notoriety – one for the second time – return to the cage for what could be their stepping-stone fight. There are dozens of fighters close to making the jump in the coming weeks, but these five are particularly exemplary.
A former football standout started his MMA career a little later, but is making up for lost time and could be one fight away from the UFC.
An LFA bantamweight who can walk the walk and talk the talk hopes to prove both worthy of UFC notoriety in his first LFA headliner.
A two-time IBJJF world champion has shown much brilliance in his MMA career and just needs a little consistency to push him to the ranks of the UFC.
Arguably the top regional prospect in the world seems to be the full package and a 16th win would just be a cherry on top of an already eye-catching resume.
An under-the-radar Brazilian featherweight hopes his first LFA headliner will be his ticket to the big show.
Weight class: Welterweight
Birthplace: Enid, Okla.
Next Fight: Jan. 7 def. Perry Stargel (6-4) via third-round submission at Peak Fighting 25 in Hinton, Okla. (Online PPV)
Background: A college football player at East Central University in Ada, Okla., [autotag]Kris Vereen[/autotag] tried out for the CFL and landed in the Arena Football League. After a few weeks, he was cut. In order to expand his alethic horizons, he walked into an MMA gym. His friend Kelvin Rayford challenged him to a judo class. Vereen admits he was cocky, but quickly ate humble pie while a teenage kid tossed him around. Competitions or fights weren’t on the agenda, but opportunities presented themselves and his life trajectory changed. Eventually, he met up with UFC alum Mark De La Rosa and the rest was history.
The skinny: Undefeated at 7-0, Vereen has had seven professional fights including two no contests. He’s 33, which on the older side for his experience level, but it’s important to remember he brought an unusual level of athleticism into MMA as a collegiate and professional football player. Thus far, he’s proven to be a finisher – with an 85 percent rate of ending fights inside the distance. If he goes out there and takes care of business at Peak Fighting, he seems like a perfect candidate for Dana White’s Contender Series. It’s time. If the UFC has doubt, what better gauge than to go against another top prospect with a potential contract on the line?
In his own words: “I feel like I’m getting better every day. Even in my bad areas I’m cleaning up the little things we need to clean up and making sure I’m ready for any opportunity. We’re striding along. So far, we haven’t taken any steps backward. So so far, it’s coming along.
“… I look to better myself every single fight. When you step in there, you always want to win. Nobody wants to be like, ‘Oh, I’m going to lose,’ or ‘I want to lose.’ You want to win. I think my thing is I want to be better than I was the last fight. Every fight I’ve stepped in there, I’ve gotten better and better and presented the best Kris Vereen people have seen.”
“… I get a little frustrated and impatient at times, but I’m a believer in God, so I believe it’s all a part of his plan and his blessing. So at the same time, whatever opportunity is sent my way, I just need to make sure I’m ready for it. Sometimes, we get ahead of ourselves as fighters and get put in positions we might not be ready for. We might rush ourselves and things don’t go our way. So yeah, I’ve been impatient but then I just pray on it and it’s all God’s timing. It’s not my timing. After this, we’ll see what happens.”
Image via Legacy Fighting Alliance (LFA)
Weight class: Bantamweight
Birthplace: Enid, Okla.
Next Fight: Friday vs. Ary Farias (12-3) at LFA 150 in Prior Lake, Minn. (UFC Fight Pass)
Background: As an overweight teenager, [autotag]John Sweeney[/autotag] didn’t take wrestling seriously. He wasn’t interested to begin with. It was actually his dad who talked him into the activity. With wrestling, however, came weight loss – and winning. Both things Sweeney liked. To compliment wrestling, Sweeney signed up for karate. It was his first official lesson in striking, though growing up with 10 blood-related aunts and uncles meant a lot of “crazy as hell” cousins, and a lot of toughness built on the playground. Over time, his combat sports experience grew, but revolved around wrestling, through his first (and only) year competing collegiately. Sweeney encountered some disciplinary issues, so his life pivoted away from wrestling. He dropped out of college and before long made his pro MMA debut. He hasn’t looked back.
The skinny: While he’s suffered some bumps in the road, the long game has proven to be a worth-it one. Defeats have made him better. A lot of them haven’t looked that bad as time has moved on. One was against Cody Durden, a current UFC fighter. Another was against Phil Caracappa, a fighter who got his shot on Dana White’s Contender Series not long ago. He holds wins over notable fighters Cole Smith and Keith Lee. A fun personality, Sweeney said he’s focused mostly on the fights right now. But once the bigger paychecks come in, he can make fighting more of a focus – and that includes social media management and more self-promotion. Whenever the UFC signs Sweeney, one thing will be certain: they’ll get an athlete people will grow to love watching.
In his own words: “This is exactly the type of fight I need that’s going to get me into the UFC. I feel like whoever wins this fight, especially if I dominate and go out and do what I know I can do, I think it’ll be the one to get me in. I’m exciting. I have an exciting style. My personality is perfect for the UFC. This is the type of fight that I needed to really turn some heads and let everyone know I’m for real. This will be No. 6 in a row for me on the win streak. I think I go out there, I take care of business, and there should be no doubt I should get the shot.”
“… Every fight I go out to finish, knock out, and submit. I’m there to finish. That’s what I do. Even with a dominant win, I think my resume speaks for itself. I’ve done enough to where even if I don’t get a real super exciting victory and I just dominate this guy for three rounds or whatever, I’ve still done enough to get that shot. I’ve fought a UFC vet and a fighter on ‘The Ultimate Fighter.’ I’ve beaten a lot of good guys. If they want to even throw me to the wolves, throw me to the wolves.”
Weight class: Bantamweight
Birthplace: Manaus, Amazonas, Brazil
Next Fight: Friday vs. John Sweeney (11-3) at LFA 150 in Prior Lake, Minn. (UFC Fight Pass)
Background: From humble beginnings, [autotag]Ary Farias[/autotag] fell in love with jiu-jitsu as a social hobby. Through the years, he had many great mentors like Sensei Henrique Machado, who inspired his full-on dive into competition. Once a street fighter, Farias learned how to channel his violent talents – and it served as a good future for a kid who “wasn’t good at school.” After multiple world championships including IBJJF titles, Farias wasn’t financially stable enough to head to the U.S. His teacher and former UFC fighter Andre Galvao helped him stay afloat and make this dream come true. A contested decision soured Farias from grappling competition, so he decided to try to write a new chapter in his book: MMA.
The skinny: Due to his BJJ prowess, Farias almost jumped instantly to the deep end of the pool. Because of that, he suffered losses early on. ACB is no joke, but Farias went 3-0 for them. Outside of a defeat to Marcos Breno (a powerful dark horse in the Bellator bantamweight division), Farias hasn’t lost since 2017. These are all good signs. His consistency is there. He’s been tested against very legitimate competition and is still only 33. His jiujitsu has always carried him, and likely always will, but the rest of his game is coming together and continues to improve. He’s already beyond the UFC threshold. It’s just a matter of the right opportunity coming along.
In his own words: “I’m hungry for victory and I run after it every day. I want to be able to provide a golden life for my family, friends and everyone who needs special care. It’s the will to win that makes me wake up early every day, train more and more and do what many people aren’t willing to do.”
“… No doubt, I’m ready to compete with anyone on this planet. I am blessed
by Jesus and am able to do things that many think are impossible. That’s
what I work for every day.”
“… Today I am an employee of the big LFA event and I think about one step at a time. My focus now is on having the best fight of my life so far. On Friday I’ll be fighting and showing everyone that I’m getting closer and closer to being in the biggest MMA company fighting the best and toughest in the world. This is not speculation, but the reality of my future! I have a whole team that takes care of my career.”
This interview was conducted through a Portuguese translator and was edited for grammar.
Image via MMA Factory
Weight class: Welterweight/Middleweight
Birthplace: Dagestan, Russia
Next Fight: Jan. 20 vs. Rafal Haratyk (16-4-2) at ARES FC 11 in Paris, France (UFC Fight Pass)
Background: Born in Dagestan, [autotag]Abdoul Abdouraguimov[/autotag] moved to Europe at age seven. First, he lived in Germany. Then, he ultimately landed in France, where he has proudly remained since. In a day and age of “the new breed” of mixed martial artists, people who train MMA their whole lives, Abdouraguimov swims against the tide. He didn’t start training wrestling until age 16. Five years later, he took his first fight at age 21. He racked up wins left and right, and somewhere along the way teamed up with MMA Factory head coach Fernand Lopez for management. From his professional debut to present day, Abdouraguimov competed against top-tier competition including a six-fight tenure for Brave CF where he briefly held their welterweight title. In February, he captured his second major promotional title when he submitted UFC alum Godofredo Pepey with a ridiculous inverted armbar triangle. He defended it in June when he brutalized Karl Amoussou en route to a doctor stoppage. Now, he looks to move up to middleweight and capture a second divisional title for ARES.
The skinny: Every month, I sit here and write about five fighters who should make the UFC. That’s the damn theme, right? I say this with no hyperbole: there is no more deserving fighter on the regional level than Abdouraguimov. The guy is the full package. He’s exciting. He’s funky. He has a variety of weapons and creates highlights every time he fights. His personality is phenomenal and despite English not being his first… or second language, he’s fluent – and the man knows how to cut an awesome promo. If he gets to 16-1 with two ARES FC titles and the UFC doesn’t throw a contract his way, there is no justice in the world of MMA signings. Period.
In his own words: “It’s obvious I’ll bring the lazy show to the American people. I’m the ‘Lazy King’ and I’m making the lazy show. There are not many fighters who can make a fight and who can make a show. I can make both. I can talk in English. Show me a lot of fighters who came from Dagestan, Russia who can talk English and who are not shy to talk. I’m not shy to talk. I’m not shy to make a show, a performance. I’m not shy to fight, also.
“Even in my fights, I don’t know how it’s going to be finished. I, myself, in one of my last fights, was surprised I hit an inverted triangle choke. I had never done it in my life. I’m very creative and you can expect the unexpected. I’ll put on a ‘Lazy King.’”
“… American people, here I am, ‘The Lazy King,’ like you can see. I am a very rare specimen kind of people from Dagestan, but I’m a world citizen so let’s go, ladies and gentlemen. Lazy people, make some noise for the ‘Lazy King.’ Maybe we’ll see you soon in America.”
Weight class: Featherweight
Birthplace: Recife, Pernambuco, Brazil
Next Fight: Jan. 28 vs. Gabriel Santos (9-0) at LFA 151 in Cajamar, Sao Paulo, Brazil (UFC Fight Pass)
Background: In 2012, [autotag]Jose Delano[/autotag] was deemed pre-obese by medical professionals, so he started muay thai at the age of 16 to help him get in shape. After a year of training, his coach Master Marcel Ferreira gave him his first kimono and taught him “the gentle art” of jiujitsu. A few months after, Delano’s family relocated to the Northeastern part of the country due to financial problems. In Recife, Pernambuco, Brazil, Delano met Mestre Antonio Javali, who encouraged him to enter competition. Once Delano got a taste of combat sambo, he never looked back. Since a 1-2 start to his pro MMA career, Delano has gone unbeaten with notable wins in Shooto Brasil and LFA.
The skinny: When you look at Delano’s resume, two things stick out above all: level of competition and consistency. The emergence of LFA events in Brazil has served a previously mysterious national MMA scene well. It’s separated the real ones from the fakers, and Delano is the former. A well-rounded fighter, Delano has played spoiler to multiple UFC-bound prospects including Michael Stack and Jonas Bilharinho. While his results have been consistent, another finish won’t hurt him.
In his own words: “I believe I have my own style. I’m versatile. I fight with strategy and coolness, without showing too much emotion. I try to enter neutral, neither happy nor sad – just reason, at that moment.”
“… I believe I still have a lot to learn to compete in the top 10 of the UFC, but overall, I believe I have the willingness and ability to enter the event and fight equally against anyone in my division”
“… I always think a lot about the present. At the moment, I’m concentrated and focused only on what I need to do now. But I believe that by winning this fight, many doors will open for me.”
This interview was conducted through a Portuguese translator and was edited for grammar.
Fighters worth watching who didn’t crack the list, yet are on the verge of something big:
Scott Writz (6-2) – Friday vs. Jalin Fuller (6-2) at LFA 150 in Prior Lake, Minn. (UFC Fight Pass)
[autotag]Thomas Peterson[/autotag] (6-1) – Friday vs. Richard Foster (6-4) at LFA 150 in Prior Lake, Minn. (UFC Fight Pass)
[autotag]Justice Torres[/autotag] (5-0) – Sunday vs. Jason Mullen (5-3) at Fury Challenger Series 2 in Houston (UFC Fight Pass)
[autotag]Kristina Williams[/autotag] (6-3) – Jan. 18 vs. Ketlen Souza (12-3) at Invicta FC 51 in Denver
[autotag]Talita Bernardo[/autotag] (9-4) – Jan. 18 vs. Taneisha Tennant (5-1) at Invicta FC 51 in Denver
[autotag]Taneisha Tennant[/autotag] (5-1) – Jan. 18 vs. Talita Bernardo (9-4) at Invicta FC 51 in Denver
[autotag]Baissangour Chamsoudinov[/autotag] (5-0) – Jan. 20 vs. Alexander Mikael (9-0) at ARES FC 11 in Paris, France (UFC Fight Pass)
[autotag]Daguir Imavov[/autotag] (14-3-1) – Jan. 20 vs. Felipe Colares (10-4) at ARES FC 11 in Paris, France (UFC Fight Pass)
[autotag]Carson Hardman[/autotag] (11-3) – Jan. 20 vs. Bhabajeet Choudhury (8-4) at Fierce FC 23 in West Valley City, Utah
[autotag]Azat Maksum[/autotag] (15-0) – Jan. 21 vs. Fabricio Nunes (8-0) at Octagon 16 in Almaty, Kazakhstan
[autotag]Joel Bauman[/autotag] (6-2) – Jan. 21 vs. Collin Huckbody (11-4) at Captain’s Fight Club 2 in West Fargo, N.D.
[autotag]Melissa Croden[/autotag] (4-1) – Jan. 21 vs. Brittney Cloudy (4-5) at Fight Night 17 in Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada
[autotag]Milson Castro[/autotag] (14-3) – Jan. 28 vs. Row Roberts (12-3) at LFA 151 in Cajamar, Sao Paulo, Brazil (UFC Fight Pass)
[autotag]Row Roberts[/autotag] – Jan. 28 vs. Milson Castro (14-3) at LFA 151 in Cajamar, Sao Paulo, Brazil (UFC Fight Pass)
[autotag]Brenda Gottig[/autotag] (6-0) – Jan. 28 vs. Julia Polastri (10-3) at LFA 151 in Cajamar, Sao Paulo, Brazil (UFC Fight Pass)
[autotag]Julia Polastri[/autotag] (6-0) vs. Brenda Gottig (6-0) at LFA 151 in Cajamar, Sao Paulo, Brazil (UFC Fight Pass)
[autotag]Gabriel Santos[/autotag] (9-0) – Jan. 28 vs. Jose Delano (12-2) at LFA 151 in Cajamar, Sao Paulo, Brazil (UFC Fight Pass)
[autotag]Rickson Zenidim[/autotag] (13-0) – Jan. 28 vs. Rodrigo Vera (14-1-1) at FFC 57 in Punta Hermosa, Lima, Peru
[autotag]Rodrigo Vera[/autotag] (14-1-1) – Jan. 28 vs. Rickson Zenidim (13-0) at FFC 57 in Punta Hermosa, Lima, Peru
[autotag]Gianni Vazquez[/autotag] (8-4) – Jan. 29 vs. Eric Shelton (15-8) at Fury FC 73 in San Antonio (UFC Fight Pass)
[autotag]Dimitre Ivy[/autotag] (11-6) – Jan. 29 vs. Andres Quintana (19-5) at Fury FC 73 in San Antonio (UFC Fight Pass)