Part of what makes the UFC the premier mixed martial arts organization on Earth is the fact that it requires a fighter to be the very best of the best on the regional scene before they get their shot in the Octagon (save for the CM Punk debacle, among other rare instances). For a fighter under the age of 25 to actually make it to the big show requires a special level of skill and talent very atypical of a fighter of that age. With the Contender Series returning for a third season earlier this week, we thought it’d be a great time to analyze who, in our (my, come on, it’s my opinion) opinion who the best fighters under 25 are in the UFC. This list was surprisingly more difficult to draft than you may think.
1. Nathaniel Wood
A post shared by Nathaniel wood (@theprospectmma) on May 17, 2019 at 2:53pm PDT
We start this list with, fittingly, a 25-year-old. Regardless, for my money, Nathaniel Wood has, in my humble opinion, the highest championship level pedigree on this list. Through three UFC appearances, Wood has three finishes, two submissions, and one knockout, with all coming in an impressive and dynamic fashion. He’s currently unbooked but it seems very feasible that Wood has earned a top 15 opponent for his next outing. It’s also not an inconceivable belief to think that he could be challenging for a title within the next 2 years. His all-around skill set is just that good. Wood has the potential to be the second major English superstar. Bisping was the first, and we all thought Till would be the second. That didn’t pan out the way we thought. The same could be said for Wood, but from what I’ve seen so far, anything less than top-flight contenders for years to come would be nothing short of a shock.
2. Aspen Ladd
Action shot from last night doing what I love to do… coach @muaythaigold_jake and I have been putting in alot of work and I was able to show a little of it…so yay!🙂 so much more to improve on but grateful for every experience #elbows #muaythai #prepareforthepictureoverload #mmagold #ufc #newyork
A post shared by Aspen Ladd (@aspenladd) on May 19, 2019 at 2:52am PDT
Just like Wood, Ladd has only had three UFC appearances so far. Unlike Wood, however, she fights in one of the shallowest divisions the UFC houses and is therefore already in a position for immediate title contention. Ladd has three UFC victories over Lina Lansberg, Tonya Evinger, and Sijara Eubanks, with the latter of those three advancing her to an upcoming main event battle with former UFC featherweight champion Germaine de Randamie in July. A win for Ladd would guarantee her a title shot next, and with her dominant grappling attack and above average pressure style, she’s a guaranteed tough out for anyone in the division. A bout between her and Amanda Nunes would present one of the most fascinating stylistic matchups in recent UFC history.
3. Michal Oleksiejczuk
Do walki na @ufc w Pradze pozostało pięć dni.Z tej okazji wraz z @kruksdifferent udostępniamy Wam zdjęcia z ostatniej sesji. Współpraca z taką firmą to coś wspaniałego, cieszę się że mogę być w teamie Kruks 🙂 Do zobaczenia w sobotę 💪
A post shared by Michał Oleksiejczuk (@lordoleksiejczukufc) on Feb 19, 2019 at 10:57am PST
Possibly the most underrated light heavyweight on the roster right now. With a new crop of killers rising at 205, with guys Johnny Walker and Aleksandar Rakić at the forefront of that conversation, Michal Oleksiejczuk typically gets unfairly shafted in that conversation. At UFC 219, in December 2017, his UFC debut, Oleksiejczuk beat Khalil Roundtree, and he didn’t just eat Khalil, he dominated him. Rountree is an Ultimate Fighter finalist and a guy who has a very impressive resume at 205, and Oleksiejczuk completely neutralized him. Now, I must note that that fight was overturned to a No Contest after Oleksiejczuk tested for a banned substance through tainted supplements, but the performance still can’t be overlooked. Two more wins over the always durable Gian Villante and Russian mangler Gadzhimurad Antigulov now have “Lord” on the verge of contenders at light heavyweight. Walker and Rakić are the two super prospects at 205, but with Oleksiejczuk’s raw athleticism and power, a quick rise up the rankings could soon be in the cards.
4. Manny Bermudez
A post shared by Manny Bermudez (@mannybermudez) on Apr 23, 2019 at 5:37am PDT
Add “The Bermudez Triangle” to the always growing list of prospects tearing up the bantamweight prospect pool, and Bermudez, similar to Wood, has been blasting his way through, or perhaps given his style and moniker, strangling his way through. Bermudez is a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu combatant with one of the slickest guard attacks in the entire division, rivaling that of Rani Yahya and the now returning Urijah Faber. Bermudez reminds me somewhat of a bantamweight Tony Ferguson, given his very unique attack and vicious guard game. Bermudez is someone who could obviously break into the rankings later this year but also rise up these ranks if he can string together some top 15 wins and firmly establish contenders at 135.
5. Arnold Allen
A post shared by Arnold Allen (@arnoldbfa) on Jun 6, 2019 at 3:48am PDT
Allen is one of those guys who has done enough to earn top 15 recognition, but hasn’t seemed to garner the attention from the promotion. Allen is one of the most durable featherweights on the roster, which showed when he defeated Mass Burnell via late 3rd round submission after being controlled for the entirety of the fight prior to that point. Allen has yet to face a single top 15 opponent while at this point, he has at least deserved a shot against a lower ranked opponent at 145. Allen is currently scheduled for a slate against former Strikeforce lightweight champion Gilbert Melendez in the featured prelim of UFC 239. A win should guarantee Allen a top 15 opponent, no doubt about it.
6. Jimmy Crute
A post shared by Jim Crute (@jimmycruteufc) on Jun 15, 2019 at 6:05pm PDT
Another light heavyweight prospect with legitimate championship-level potential, Crute is still somewhat unproven given he has only had two UFC bouts up to this point. Those two bouts, however, did show the world just what the young Australian Contender Series alumnus is capable of. A submission win over Paul Craig last December followed by a knockout over crafty veteran Sam Alvey in February has now led Crute to an opportunity against a top 15 opponent, Misha Cirkunov, in August. A win against Cirkunov would put the well-rounded prospect into the top 15 and in a position to contend as a top 10 light heavyweight in early 2020.
7. Grant Dawson
Taking in every moment‼️‼️‼️ #kgd #kinggrantdawson #gloryunited #weareglory #mma #ufc #boxing #bjj #muaythai #jiujitsu #wrestling #kickboxing #fitness #martialarts #fight #training #grappling #fitfam #motivation #mmafighter #brazilianjiujitsu #bjjlifestyle #fighter
A post shared by Grant Micheal Dawson (@grantdawsonkgd) on Mar 6, 2019 at 9:48am PST
Dawson reminds me a bit of Arnold Allen, he doesn’t really have that one standout aspect of his game, rather he’s just incredibly durable and tough all around. The biggest difference between him and Allen, I would argue, is that Dawson is more well rounded, punctuated with an above average wrestling attack. Dawson has had only two UFC bouts so far and has looked incredibly sharp in both, with his most recent bout against Mike Trizano ending in spectacular fashion. It’ll be interesting to see how the UFC matchmakes him going forward, it seems he may need a few more fights before securing a top 15 opponent. From what I’ve seen so far, though, it seems Dawson has the tools to be a presence at 145 for the foreseeable future.
8. Sean O’Malley
A post shared by Sugar Sean O'Malley (@sugaseanmma) on Jun 9, 2019 at 8:43pm PDT
I’m sure many people will be up in arms over this one. I say, cue the pitchforks and torches. The Suga Show has been exciting to watch and there is no denying his skill set. That being said, it’s hard to envision him staying at or near the top at 135. Through two UFC bouts, O’Malley has faced Terrion Ware, who’s no longer in the promotion, and Andre Soukhamthath, whom he should have lost to had it not been for Soukhamthath’s absence of fight IQ. He also didn’t finish either fight. I can definitely see O’Malley as a top 15, maybe even top 10 fighter, but I’m drafting this list based off of real title potential, and I think the crop at 135 may be too much. As opposed to being the next Conor McGregor, I see him a lot more as the next Donald Cerrone, a great fighter who can headline fight nights to give them a bit more luster.
9. Devonte Smith
How does it feel . . .📸 @franklinfilms_ . . . #allhailkingkage #iamking #aussieaussieaussie #cleveland #ohio #denver #colorado #ko #ufc #ufc234 #espn #iwon #unclejackwatches #unclejack #mma #positiveflow #photography #coloradophotography #tko #espnplus #manifestation #timepiece #watches #watchesofinstagram watch #binkbink #winner #embrace
A post shared by Devonte Smith (@koe_kingkageufc) on Apr 10, 2019 at 11:34am PDT
Similar to O’Malley, I don’t necessarily see Smith as a title contender, but I could absolutely see him being a problem in the lightweight division in the very near future. Smith is a natural wrestler with knockout power, as are countless others, and has a vicious killer instinct whenever he senses his opponent may be stunned, as evidenced in the Dong Hyun Ma fight in February. Smith is similar to so many others on this list in that he needs a few more Octagon appearances to really start gaining some real momentum, especially in a division like Lightweight. But if Smith can get two more impressive knockout wins, the rankings should be very much within reach. And who knows, could he emulate this particular style at lightweight the same way Yoel Romero has at middleweight? Possibly. Smith is raw but definitely extremely talented.
10. Ismail Naurdiev
We working hard every day 💦 can't wait to bomb again in octagon 💣👊🏽 》sometimes when life gets hard and you are about to give up, remember why you started. Мы усердно работаем каждый день 💦 не могу дождаться, чтобы снова бомбить в октагоне 💣👊🏽》 иногда, когда жизнь становится тяжелой, и ты собираешься сдаться, вспомни, почему ты начал. #teamnaurdiev #theaustrianwonderboy #mma #ufc #ufc239 #vegas #money #dreams #goals #goodlife #hardwork #justdoit
A post shared by Ismail Naurdiev (@theaustrianwonderboy) on May 16, 2019 at 11:16pm PDT
I considered putting quite a few fighters here at 10. Maycee Barber was one, but in all honesty, I’m not too high on her. Alexa Grasso is another, but I think we’ve gotten a large enough sample size to realize that she’s at the very best a mid-ranked fighter. One more I thought about was Roosevelt Roberts, and he could absolutely make this list, but he’s only had one UFC win thus far and it was very underwhelming. So, with that, here’s a wild card. The Austrian Wonderboy, as they call him. He, like Roberts, has only had one UFC about thus far, but boy was it an exclamation point of a performance. Naurdiev controlled and dominated a very tough out in Michel Prazeres, who prior to that fight hadn’t lost since 2015, which was to Kevin Lee. Naurdiev entered the bout as a +470 underdog and, needless to say, of course, shocked everyone with his performance. It has now set up his next fight against Chance Rencountre at UFC 239, at International Fight Week. While that bout will likely be a digital bout, typically when the UFC puts a fighter on a major card like this, it’s because they see you as a legitimate prospect who they want to give a little exposure to. Smart move, and on July 6, everyone will see just how good Naurdiev is.
Follow Johann on Twitter: @thejohanncastro