10 For ’10: Hot Prospects

Ben AskrenThe end of the year always brings about two types of articles – a look back at the year that was and a look ahead to the coming year.

With the 10 for ’10 series, I’ll look ahead to various Mixed Martial Arts sets of ten heading into 2010, including fearless predictions on storylines that might emerge and ten fights I would love to see take place in the new year. We’ve already talked about the must-book fights for the next 365, and here are the new fighters who are going to have make or break 2010s.

Honorable Mentions

5. Roger Gracie (2-0-0) – Strikeforce

While his surname alone is enough to catch my interest, the fact that Roger Gracie is one of the most decorated grapplers of this decade has me eagerly awaiting his Strikeforce debut. The multi-time Abu Dhabi champion has defeated a who’s who in the grappling world, and holds submission victories over Ron Waterman and Yuki Kondo in his MMA career.

The only thing keeping this grandson of Carlos Gracie from appearing any higher is the 18 month stretch between his two MMA bouts and the similar amount of time already elapsed since submitting Kondo.

Whenever he makes it to the cage, fans will flock to the next great Gracie. The only problem is that no one knows when that will be.

4. Goran Reljic (8-0-0) – UFC

His lone UFC fight to date earned him Fight of the Night honors and convinced those who witnessed his battle with Wilson Gouveia that the Croatian BJJ player was a serious contender. More than 20 months later, Goran Reljic is set to return at UFC 110 in Australia.

Since he last entered the Octagon, Reljic has dealt with numerous injuries and made the move to middleweight, where he is expected to meet former TUF contestant C.B. Dollaway in February.

After his win over Gouveia at UFC 84, Reljic status as a future star was on the rise. Now that he’s back, expect the buzz to pick up where it left off.

3. Ryan “Darth” Bader (10-0-0) – UFC

Honestly, Bader could certainly be higher on this list, as the Season 8 winner of The Ultimate Fighter has looked solid in his two post-Spike appearances inside the Octagon.

Unfortunately for the Arizona State product, his name value drags him down into the ranks of the Honorable Mention.

While still a nice place to reside, the fact is that more people know Bader than just about anyone else on this list and if he does in fact meet (and beat) Keith Jardine at UFC 110 in Australia this winter, there will be a lot of people talking using “Ryan Bader” and “future champion” in the same sentence.

2. Mamed Khalidov (20-3-1) – World Victory Road

Much like Bader, Khalidov comes in on the HM list because his name value is already starting to grow, thanks to a first round stoppage of Sengoku Middleweight champion Jorge Santiago this past November.

It’s hard not to like the prospects of a fighter like Khalidov; unbeaten in his last 18 fights (17 wins, 1 draw), earning wins in every fashion, Khalidov has also defeated Cro Cop training partner Igor Pokrajac and Clay Guida’s older brother Jason.

Look for the Polish fighter to be one of the top international stars over the next 12 months.

1. Marius Zaromskis (13-3-0) – DREAM / Strikeforce

“The Whitemare” made a splash in 2009, earning the DREAM Welterweight Grand Prix title in impressive fashion, channelling “Cro Cop” by ending his last three bouts via head kick.

His North American debut is set for the end of January, as Zaromskis will face Nick Diaz for the vacant Strikeforce Welterweight title at the company’s next show in Miami.

Though very different from fellow DREAM Grand Prix winner and Strikeforce fighter Gegard Mousasi, Zaromskis has the ability to ride this recent wave of success to bigger and better things in 2010, just as Mousasi has done since winning the Middleweight Grand Prix in 2008.

With the Honorable Mentions taken care of, it’s time to break into the Top 10 Prospects for 2010.

10. Bibiano Fernandes (7-2-0) – DREAM

Joe Warren got all the hype leading into the final night of the DREAM Featherweight Grand Prix, but it was Fernandes who emerged as the champion.

After first dispatching of Warren in the semifinals, the Revolution Fight Team member defeated Hiroyuki Takaya by Split Decision to claim the Grand Prix title, and 2010 could prove even more fruitful.

A gifted grappler and BJJ black belt, Fernandes has earned six straight wins since losing his second and third career bouts to Urijah Faber and Norifumi “Kid” Yamamoto respectively. With the financial opportunities for Featherweights far greater in the Far East, expect Fernandes to have a healthy list of challengers in DREAM this year.

9. Josh Grispi (13-1-0) – WEC

With three straight first round finishes since joining the WEC – including his last two ending inside of one minute – Josh Grispi might have to change his nickname.

“The Fluke” has defeated Mark Hominick, Micah Miller and Jens Pulver in quick succession, but is often overlooked when talk turns to title contenders in the 145-pound division. While former champions Urijah Faber and Mike Brown are often mentioned as challengers to new champion Jose Aldo, Grispi is not far off.

After surgery in September, Grispi will resume training in early-2010 and look to continue his winning ways.

8. Ronnys Torres (14-1-0) – UFC

Injuries have twice pushed back Ronnys Torres’ highly-anticipated UFC debut. If all goes well, the Nova Uniao jiu jitsu star will finally face Melvin Guillard at UFC 109.

Early prediction: Torres by Submission of the Night.

Not because Guillard’s submission defence is suspect at best – okay, that’s part of it too – but because Torres has earned wins in 14 of 15 fights, with half coming by way of submission. Included in that list of victims are veteran Luiz “The Joker” Azeredo and Strikeforce light heavyweight contender Rafael “Feijao” Cavalcante.

Torres is certainly one to watch in the UFC lightweight division.

7. Roger Bowling (6-0-0) – Strikeforce

When you rattle off six straight wins in less than eight minutes inside the cage, people are going to take notice. It also gives credence to a nickname like “Relentless.”

Such is the case with Bowling, a freestyle fighter from Cincinnati, scooped up by Strikeforce earlier this year. Though injuries have kept him on the sidelines since July, the 27-year-old is expected to return in February or March against a yet-unnamed opponent.

While I promise not to write any cheesy headlines spun off Bowling’s last name, someone surely will, and I apologize in advance.

6. Lyle “Fancy Pants” Beerbohm (13-0-0) – Strikeforce

With a nickname like “Fancy Pants” and an undefeated record, you would expect a guy like Beerbohm to get more attention than he does. What makes his somewhat under-the-radar flight to prospect status through 2009 all the more impressive is that he’s a great redemption story as well, having been incarcerated before beginning his MMA career.

In addition to beating his issues with drugs, Beerbohm also got around to beating three more opponents this past year, including former-and-current UFC employee Duane “Bang” Ludwig to run his record to 13-0.

With the Strikeforce Lightweight division growing, chances are we’ll be seeing the guy in the bright, fluorescent fight shorts his mother made for him playing a starring role with the San Jose-based company in 2010.

5. Tyron Woodley (6-0-0) – Strikeforce

The third straight Strikeforce fighter to make this list, Woodley is as impressive a prospect as the fighters remaining on this list, and has the ability to put together an impressive career. Unfortunately, when Stephen Quadros is touting you for a fight with welterweight gold standard Georges St-Pierre a year down the road, it’s hard to say you haven’t quite arrived.

That said, getting that kind of praise from a guy like “The Fight Professor” speaks volumes about Woodley’s talent. The former two-time All-American has been dominant through his first six fights, submitting each of his opponents and only seeing the second round once.

Working with Ricardo Liborio and the collection of stars assembled at American Top Team will only further his development. With a relatively thin welterweight division and oozing potential, it wouldn’t be hard to see Tyron Woodley at the top of the heap by the close of 2010.

4. Rory MacDonald (9-0-0) – UFC

Things I had done before my 21st birthday: began university, drank, partied, studied a little, got kicked out of university, worked a couple crappy jobs and realized I needed to go back to university.

Things Rory MacDonald has done before his 21st birthday: win nine professional MMA bouts, knocked out H.I.T. Squad product Clay French, signed a four-fight deal with the biggest promotion in the sport.

He’ll also have made his UFC debut before turning 21, as MacDonald is set to take on fellow UFC newcomer Mike “The Joker” Guymon at the January 11 Ultimate Fight Night card in Virginia.

3. Jacob McClintock (6-0-0) – Bellator Fighting Championships

Storming out to a 6-0 start to your career without ever seeing the second round is going to get you noticed.

Training with one of the best up-and-coming teams in the sport at Arizona Combat Sports will help build the buzz.

Having everyone in the camp including WEC Lightweight Champ Jamie Varner and emerging UFC star Ryan Bader, as well as Aaron Simpson, C.B. Dollaway and The Steinbeiss Brothers promoting you as the best all-around talent in Tempe will propel you to the Top 3 of the 10 for ’10 Prospects list.

McClintock will have a chance to show just how talent he truly is when he competes in this year’s Bellator Welterweight tournament along with Steve Carl (10-1), “Judo” Jim Wallhead (18-5), Dan Hornbuckle (19-2) and a guy we’ll talk about more in just a couple paragraphs.

2. Phil Davis (4-0-0) – UFC

We’ve witnessed countless former All-American wrestlers come into Mixed Martial Arts with mixed results over the last few years. Some have used their formidable wrestling base to quickly climb the ranks, while others have proven to be nothing more than great wrestlers.

Phil Davis is going to be part of that first group and he’s going to get there quickly. The 2008 National Champion at 197 pounds, David was a four-time All-American and two-time Big Ten champion at Penn State before turning to MMA.

Since then, he’s earned three stoppages in four bouts, and a place on just about everyone’s Top Prospects list. Combining his already explosive wrestling with training time at both the Alliance Training Center in San Diego and the American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose, Davis is getting a diverse diet of instruction to help improve his MMA acumen.

We won’t have to wait long to find out if 2010 is going to be the star of something special for Davis, as “Mr. Wonderful” will make his UFC debut against former WEC Light Heavyweight champ Brian Stann at UFC 109 in February.

1. Ben Askren (4-0-0) – Bellator Fighting Championships

The guy Dana White recently referred to as “some dude with a big f*@$ing afro” is Ben Askren and he’s arguably the best prospect in the sport today.

Yes, his gigantic mess of curly hair may make him look a little off, but his credentials are outstanding: two-time National Wrestling Champion in the 174-pound weight class, four-time All-American and 153-8 record wrestling at Missouri. He also competed in the 2008 Olympics, losing the quarterfinals.

Since then, Askren has made MMA his focus, earning his first three professional wins by stoppage in a combined 4:07. As if that wasn’t reason enough to be hyped up about the kid with the crazy hair his friends call “Funky,” some of those friends include the aforementioned members of the Arizona Combat Sports gym, American Top Team and AKA, all places Askren has trained during his brief-but-promising career.

Next up for Askren is a potential date with fellow prospect Jacob McClintock and the rest of the impressive cast of Bellator’s Season Two Welterweight tournament.

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