Talent acquisition and development is a huge part of professional sports. That may seem like a bit of a ‘well, duh’ statement, but it bears repeating, as many people don’t realize how much money and time is invested into these activities. Professional sports organizations invest massive amounts of money in their scouting networks and youth talent development, as they should. It’s simply good business. Just because you have the championship team coming into the new season doesn’t guarantee a repeat performance. Athletic competition is a tricky, unpredictable affair. There’s simply too many variables to cover to get it down to an exact science, which is why funneling money into talent development is a worthwhile endeavor. If you don’t have good prospects coming down the pipeline – or older breakout stars from lower leagues that would be willing to sign with you – you have no viable competitive longevity.
In MMA, things work a bit differently. There aren’t any teams (one could argue that training camps are teams, but they’re generally not organized as a corporation), and there isn’t really a youth development framework. The sport is still far too young. The UFC is undoubtedly the biggest MMA promoter in the world, but can it really claim to have all of the top talent? Certainly not. They have the majority of the elite fighters, but they’ve certainly let some slip through their fingers over the years, like Fedor Emelianenko. Since there’s no youth system in MMA, the younger guys (and gals) have to fight in other promotions to get noticed. For the most part, Bellator MMA – backed by the almighty dollar of Viacom – and World Series of Fighting (WSOF for short) have managed to capture the best of the fighters not signed to the UFC. These are 10 men who make their living fighting for promotions outside the UFC.
10. Patrício Freire – Bellator MMA
The 26-year-old fighter from Natal, Brazil, currently competes in Bellator MMA – arguably the 2nd biggest MMA promotion in the world after the UFC. He has a total professional record of 21-2, and since making his debut in Bellator in 2010 he’s gone 9-2. His only losses come at the hands of Joe Warren (by split decision) and Bellator featherweight champion Pat Curran – another split decision loss with Curran’s featherweight championship on the line. He has yet to be finished in his mixed martial arts career, and appears to be next in line for another opportunity at Curran’s featherweight championship.
9. Douglas Lima – Bellator MMA
Lima, another Brazilian Bellator fighters, comes in at #9 on the list. The 26-year-old made his debut at Bellator 49 in the season 5 welterweight tournament, which he went on to win. Wining the tournament gave him a shot at the reigning Bellator welterweight champion – the elusive Ben Askren. Lima failed to capitalize, and Askren gave him his only Bellator defeat by unanimous decision. Since then, Lima has won 4 in a row, bringing his total Bellator record to 7-1 (with a professional record of 25-5). With Askren’s departure from Bellator, Lima has set himself up for another title shot. He’ll be facing Rick Hawn at Bellator 117 on April 18th, with the vacant Bellator welterweight championship on the line.
8. Rousimar Palhares – WSOF
Palhares is an extremely polarizing figure in the MMA community. In 2010, the Brazilian submission specialist was accused of holding on to a heel hook – a dangerous leg submission that targets the ankle and the knee – after the referee stepped in to stop the fight. In 2013 he was accused of doing it yet again and was subsequently released from the UFC. Palhares’ indisputable talent meant that fans felt he was more than capable of competing with the best of the best, but consistent displays of malicious and unsportsmanlike behavior have tarnished his reputation. Recently, in his WSOF debut, he defeated Steve Carl by submission to win the WSOF welterweight championship. The move that won him the championship? An inverted heel hook.
7. Marlon Moraes – WSOF
This exciting, 25-year-old Brazilian can be found in the WSOF, where he just recently became the inaugural WSOF bantamweight champion at WSOF 9, by defeating Josh Rettinghouse by unanimous decision. He made his debut at the very first WSOF show, WSOF 1, and since then has gone 5-0 in the promotion. He has a professional record of 13-1-4, and is considered by many to be one of the top 10 bantamweight fighters in the world.
6. Ben Askren – ONE FC
Ben Askren is another polarizing figure in the MMA community, albeit for very different reasons than Rousimar Palhares. Askren, a former Olympic wrestler, is a specialist. He’s an MMA fighter that wins using his dominating wrestling skills, albeit in a somewhat mundane manner. Askren won the Bellator welterweight championship in 2010, and defended it 4 times until leaving Bellator in November, 2013. Askren, now 12-0, was briefly linked to the UFC but instead signed with Singapore-based ONE FC. Askren’s ‘boring’ style has made him unpopular with certain segments of the fan base but is undeniably effective. He certainly has the abilities to succeed in the UFC, which has led to fans accusing the UFC of excluding him because of his style.
5. Daniel Straus – Bellator MMA
The former one-time Bellator Featherweight Champion just recently lost his championship to the man who he beat to win it, Pat Curran. Up until this loss he was riding a 6-fight win streak in which he won the Bellator season 6 featherweight tournament and cashed in his championship opportunity successfully against Curran. He has a total professional record of 22-5, with his latest loss coming from his rematch against Curran just weeks ago. Straus now has to get back on the horse and clock in some wins if he wants another shot at the featherweight championship.
4. Pat Curran – Bellator MMA
Curran competes in the featherweight division in Bellator, where he is the reigning Bellator Featherweight Champion. As previously mentioned, he just recently won his title back from Daniel Straus. Prior to his original loss to Straus in November, he had been champion for a year and a half and defended his belt twice. He has a total professional record of 20-5 and will now be looking past Straus at either Patrício Freire or Magomedrasul Khasbulaev for his next championship fight.
3. Yushin Okami – WSOF
The former UFC middleweight championship contender now finds himself outside of the organization that made him a name in the United States for the first time in nearly 8 years. He made his UFC debut in 2006, and was a regular top 10 contender in the middleweight division – even coming up short in a championship fight against Anderson Silva. In a bizarre move, the UFC released him after a single loss against Ronaldo ‘Jacare’ Souza, despite the fact that he was 3-1 in his last 4 fights. Okami signed for WSOF and made his debut with his new promotion at WSOF 9 against Svetlovar Savov, which he won by submission in the 2nd round.
2. Michael Chandler – Bellator MMA
The former Bellator Lightweight champion is one half of one of the fiercest rivalries in MMA at the moment. He made his MMA debut in late 2009, and his Bellator debut one year later. He had a perfect record in his first 12 matches, going undefeated and beating Eddie Alvarez for the lightweight championship in what was Bellator’s 2011 Fight of the Year. He defended it 3 times before losing it right back to Eddie Alvarez in late 2013, 2 years after beating him for the same championship. He now has a professional record of 12-1, and is scheduled to be one half of the main event in Bellator’s first ever pay-per-view this May, Bellator 120.
1. Eddie Alvarez – Bellator MMA
While Chandler and Alvarez are both top 10 lightweights, Alvarez edges out Chandler simply because right now he’s the man who wears the belt. With a total professional record of 25-3, Alvarez will be feeling the pressure as he walks into Bellator’s first pay-per-view as the defending champion, staring down his biggest rival to fight for a 3rd and final time to determine who deserves to be king of the lightweight division. The Alvarez/Chandler rivalry is considered by many to be among the finest in MMA today, if not history, thanks to the highly competitive and entertaining first two matches they shared. If the 3rd is anything like the first 2, then we’ll have a perfect trilogy on our hands.