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future UFC champion
(Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

Which fighters have the best shot at being a future UFC champion?

future UFC champion
(Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

Which fighters have the best shot at being a future UFC champion?

The fighters atop the UFC rankings are well-known names that have earned their way to the top, but there are plenty of fighters that could be a future UFC champion that are less talked about. Outside of the top 10 in each of the UFC’s eight men’s divisions are a handful of fighters that have the potential to fight for UFC gold down the road. The top few fighters, that could be a future UFC champion, have the chance to shake up the layout of the quick-moving UFC and will be worth keeping an eye on over the next year or two. 

Flyweight

The flyweight division has been dominated by current champion Deiveson Figueiredo and current #1 ranked Brandon Moreno. The pair have fought three straight times with a fourth possibly coming this summer. However, there are two fighters ranked outside the top 10 that have a very good chance to be the champion in the near future. 

Tagir Ulanbekov may have lost just over a month ago in his last fight at UFC 272, but that was only his second career loss and first in the UFC. The loss came to #11 ranked Tim Elliott by decision, which ended a five-fight win streak for the Russian. Before moving to the UFC Ulanbekov was the flyweight champion in Fight Nights Global and Gorilla Fighting Championships, which is now Eagle Fighting Championship run by Khabib Nurmagomedov, and made two defenses of his GFC belt.

The youngest UFC champion was Jon Jones when he won the light heavyweight belt at only 23 years old. There is a 21-year-old fighter in Muhammad Mokaev that wants to break that record. Mokaev needed less than a minute to win his UFC debut. Only 58 seconds into his fight he submitted Cody Durden to move to 7-0 in MMA. The English and Russian fighter already called out Elliott to help propel him up the division and a win there could see him jump into the top 10 after only two fights in the UFC. Mokaev seems like he will be a future UFC champion because his mind seems set on that and he has shown that he can win on the ground and standing up. While he may be unranked Mokaev has the potential to be a future UFC champion even more so than Ulanbekov.

Bantamweight

Arguably the UFC’s most exciting and deep division is the bantamweight division. A title unification bout is set for Saturday at UFC 273 between the champ Aljamain Sterling and the interim champ Petr Yan. In Yan’s corner will be a fighter that has shown he could be a UFC champion in the next year. “Sugar” Sean O’Malley is currently ranked #13 but would have been higher had it not been for a loss to Marlon Vera that came after Vera kicked a nerve that affected O’Malley’s foot. Since then though the colorful fighter has won three straight all by knockout. O’Malley is now 15-1 and 7-1 in the UFC but needs a win over a top 10 ranked fighter to really start moving to the top.

Ricky Simon is ranked one spot above O’Malley and Simon had a great 2021 when he went 3-0 to extend his win streak to four. Simon over that period rose from unranked and losing two straight to #12 in the world. In his recent fights, Simon has won in all three ways, knockout, submission, and decision showing that he is a well-rounded fighter that can win from anywhere. Following his last win Simon called out O’Malley and that fight could keep the winner on the right track to continue making a run up the division.

One non-ranked fighter that has the potential to be a future UFC champion is Wales’s Jack Shore. Shore is an undefeated 16-0 and at 27 years of age is just getting into the prime of his career. Prior to joining the UFC Shore fought in Cage Warriors the same promotion that Connor McGregor and Michael Bisping came from and was the champion when he left for the UFC. His last two fights though did come against opponents that filled in for Shore’s originally scheduled opponent, so it will be interesting to see how he fights against fighters that he trained specifically for. A few more wins could see Shore move into the rankings and depending on the opponent into the top 10.

Featherweight

A month ago Bryce Mitchell would have been at the top of the list of potential future featherweight champions outside the top 10, but he won convincingly and moved to #9. Outside of the top 10 are three fighters who all have a zero in the loss column and do not look like they’ll be adding a number there anytime soon.

Russia’s Movsar Evolev is 15-0 with all four of his UFC wins coming by decision. Each fight though looked more and more dominant from Evolev and a UFC finish will come for the 28-year-old. His last fight came against then ranked #15 Hakeem Dawodu who he took down nine times and outstruck 193 to 60. Following that win, Evolev moved up one spot to #13 in the rankings, and a win next time out could see him move into the top 10.

Fellow Russian Umar Nurmagomedov has a UFC legend backing him in his cousin Khabib Nurmagomedov. Umar has only fought once in the UFC after struggling with his health. In his UFC debut, which came 14 months after his last fight, he submitted Sergey Morozov in the second round. He is definitely quite a way from fighting any top-ranked featherweights, but give it a few years, and now unranked Umar will be following in his cousin’s footsteps to UFC gold.

The most exciting and promising fighter is Ilia Topuria. His first three UFC fights were at featherweight before moving up to lightweight to take on Jai Herbert. Against Herbert, he was outstruck but still managed to get the knockout win. The power shown at lightweight will transition nicely to featherweight. At only 25 years old Topuria has a long career ahead of him and a UFC title is well within reach. His last featherweight fight came against a very tough opponent in Ryan Hall, but the Georgian Topuria was able to knock him out. Between his young age and vast experience, he will be a tough matchup for anyone in the bottom half of the division’s rankings.

Lightweight

The top half of the lightweight division is stacked with former UFC champions and breaking into that realm will be very difficult. However, there are a lot of fighters at the backend of their careers and that could open up a place for #11 Arman Tsarukyan to move toward the top. Armenia’s top UFC fighter has bounced back incredibly from his debut loss to Islam Makhachev by winning five straight. The loss to Makhachev was not a bad one though as the Russian is touted to be the next great champion at lightweight. Two consecutive TKO wins for Tsarukyan has him sitting in a great spot with a top 10 opponent up next. This will be his chance to show that he deserves to be considered a future UFC champion.

A fighter that is relatively new to the UFC, but making a huge impression is England’s Paddy Pimblett. The extremely entertaining Pimblett is 2-0 in the UFC with two first-round stoppages of Luigi Vendramini and Rodrigo Vargas. Pimblett reminds many people of a young up-and-coming Conor McGregor with how he carries himself as a larger-than-life character. The only thing that may hold Pimblett back is that in both his UFC fights he looked in trouble and was even knocked down by Vendramini before recovering for the win. His last two losses both went to a decision which could mean that he may not have the gas tank to go a full five rounds in a title fight. He still has a long way to go, but Pimblett is likely to be sticking around the lightweight division after talk of a new six-figure contract surfaced.

Welterweight

Probably the most likely future UFC champion across all divisions is Khamzat Chimaev. The newest threat at welterweight will have his biggest test on Saturday at UFC 273 as he faces #2 ranked Gilbert Burns. While Chimaev is ranked #11 he could very well be a top 10 fighter already. In the UFC Chimaev has had his way with every opponent he faced and sits 4-0 with only his first UFC fight going to a second round. A win over Burns this weekend could see him become next in line to challenge for the belt in a division that has been dominated by Kamaru Usman. The strength and aggression that he has shown has me thinking about the possibility of Chimaev being the next two-division champ if he were to make the move up to middleweight.

Ranked a few places below is #15 Shavkat Rakhmonov. Coming from Uzbekistan, Rakhmonov has had great success in MMA as he was the M-1 welterweight champion. He sits with a record of 15-0 and has been just as dominant in the UFC. All three UFC fights of his have ended with a stoppage, two submissions and one knockout. His lone fight of 2022 was a first-round knockout win over Carlston Harris. The scariest thing about Rakhmonov is that he is a true finisher that has yet to go to a decision and has only gone to a third-round once.

The most promising fighter outside of the rankings is Ian Garry. He has touted himself as part of the second Irish takeover following in the footsteps of McGregor. Garry is 8-0 after winning his UFC debut last time out with a knockout at the 4:59 mark of round one. Garry is a rather tall welterweight at 6’3” which is three inches taller than Usman. He is riding the momentum into his next fight at UFC 273 where he will look to continue his rise up the 170lbs division.

Middleweight

The middleweight division, similarly to the welterweight division, has been dominated by one fighter, Israel Adesanya. Adesanya has yet to lose at middleweight and has held the belt since October 2019. The only fighter to have ever knocked out Adesanya in any sort of fighting was Alex Pereira in a kickboxing fight. Pereira has now made the switch to MMA and has his eyes set on a third fight with Adesanya. While unranked Pereira has won both his UFC fights to move to 5-1 overall in MMA. The 34-year-old is on the backend of his career, but that could result in him trying to move up the rankings as quickly as possible.

Another unranked fighter that could be a future UFC champion is South Africa’s Dricus du Plessis. Du Plessis is 16-2 and 2-0 in the UFC with both wins coming by knockout. The knockouts were his sixth and seventh of his career to go with nine wins by submission. In his second fight, he took on a veteran fighter in Trevin Giles and ended the American’s three-fight winning streak.

Nassourdine Imavov was unranked before he took on then ranked #11 Edmen Shahbazyan. After getting the TKO victory Imavov moved up to #11 himself and was scheduled to fight #10 Kelvin Gastelum at UFC 273 but pulled out due to visa issues. Gastelum would have been a great test to see how Imavov compares to one of the best at middleweight. Gastelum gave the champion arguably his toughest fight, but the judges scored in favor of Adesanya. Hopefully, it is not too long until Imavov steps back into the octagon as he has shown signs of being a future UFC champion.

Light Heavyweight

The light heavyweight division is an intriguing one as there really are not a ton of young up-and-coming fighters. Of the fighters outside of the top 10 two seem to stand out as longshot potential champions, #12 ranked Johnny Walker and #14 Jimmy Crute.

Walker had once upon a time been considered the guy to dethrone Jon Jones, but he never got that chance and has now lost four of his last five. It is not an impossible idea to believe that the 30-year-old Walker cannot turn his luck around but it will not be an easy road for him. There seems to be a decent size gap in the talent level of the top eight or nine fighters and the rest of the division.

As far as Crute is concerned there is still a long way for him to break into the top 10 after losing two straight against ranked opponents including current #5 Anthony Smith. Before the cold streak, Crute had won four of his five UFC fights all by a finish.

Heavyweight

An extremely competitive division that has the next generation of fighters already looking to move to the top with Tai Tuivasa, 29, and Tom Aspinall, 28, sitting in the top six of the UFC’s heaviest division. There is a fighter that is unranked but could be fighting for the belt as soon as he makes his heavyweight debut. That fighter is Jon Jones. Jones is considered by many the GOAT of MMA after spending nearly a decade as the light heavyweight champion. He is now moving divisions and if his skills transition over could result in a big problem for the top three heavyweight fighters, Francis Ngannou, Ciryl Gane, and Stipe Miocic. 

The other name that stands out as a future UFC champion is Sergei Pavlovich. Currently ranked #11 Pavlovich has only one loss on his UFC record and that came to former title challenger Alistair Overeem. Since losing his UFC debut he has won three straight including a win over #12 ranked Shamil Abdurakhimov in his most recent fight a few weeks ago. He will now be looking to move up the rankings and face a top 10 opponent.

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