The UFC has an endless pool of talent, from elite champions and contenders to rising prospects. With esteemed veterans mixed in, the promotion’s roster is strong.
Dana White knows the importance of recruitment. Whether through the creation of the “Contender Series” or “Lookin’ for a Fight”, the UFC President has found entertaining ways to sign the best prospects.
The UFC reaps the rewards of a constantly refreshed roster - top prospects and future stars. Perhaps benefitting the most has been the middleweight division. The rapid rise of Israel Adesanya from debutant to prospect to contender to champion has been a sight to behold.
Below him in the top five is Marvin Vettori. At just 27-years-old, the Italian became a title contender with a win over Jack Hermansson. Until recently, “The Italian Dream” would have made this list. It’s clear he’s graduated from the pool of future stars already.
With that being said, let’s take a look at some names that could become contenders soon. Here are the top five future stars in the UFC middleweight division.
#5 Dricus du Plessis
I’m not sure if it comes from cricket’s Faf du Plessis or rugby’s Bismarck du Plessis, but something about "du Plessis" just makes me assume the person is good at their sport. “Stillknocks” is MMA’s "du Plessis" success story. And he’s only just getting started.
Dricus du Plessis is one of South Africa’s top MMA stars. Before making his UFC debut on “Fight Island” last October, he had excelled elsewhere. He’s a former EFC double champion at middleweight and welterweight. He’s a former KSW welterweight champion. He’s a K-1 kickboxing champion. He’s a scary middleweight, and he’s arrived in the UFC.
Du Plessis, 27, stepped into the Octagon for the first-time last October. Against Markus Perez, the South African secured a first-round knockout. With nine of his 15 wins coming by submission, the Pretoria native boasts strong wrestling skills alongside his ever-improving striking.
Visa issues prevented him from facing Trevin Giles at UFC Vegas 22. With those problems resolved, “Stillknocks” is on call for a short notice fight over the coming weeks.
#4 Punahele Soriano
It’s the kind of name Bruce Buffer must love to see on a UFC card he’s announcing. Punahele Soriano is one of the most exciting prospects in the promotion.
“Story Time” is unbeaten in eight fights. After punching his ticket to the UFC on Dana White’s Contender Series, Soriano grabbed the opportunity by the horns. First-round knockouts in both his Octagon appearances so far have shown the Hawaiian’s potential.
With five of his eight wins coming from either KO or TKO, Soriano’s skills on the feet are unquestionable. In January, Soriano faced the highly touted Dusko Todorovic. On his first main-card assignment, he handed the Serb his first loss. For Soriano, the win showed he’s not just a prospect. He’s a future star.
With time to smooth out the rough edges of his MMA game, some more experience in the cage could see Soriano become a top middleweight. “Story Time” is due to face Anthony Hernandez [8-2] on June 26.
#3 Brendan Allen
Since debuting in 2019, Brendan Allen has been nothing short of impressive. A Dana White’s Contender Series contract winner, “All In” is already close to attaining a place in the rankings.
Allen [15-4] suffered his first loss in the Octagon last November. A meeting with Sean Strickland halted his UFC winning streak at three. His hat-trick of wins prior had already established his name in the 185 lb division.
After a first-round rear-naked choke earned the 25-year-old an opportunity in the UFC, Allen defeated one half of UFC Vegas 22's main event, Kevin Holland, in his debut. Not a bad way to make an impression.
Dominant performances against Tom Breese and Kyle Daukaus made it three wins in just nine months. It doesn’t need to be said how promising wins over those names are for a prospect.
Allen found a finish in 13 of his 15 wins. He’ll look to add to that when he next enters the Octagon.
The South Carolina-born fighter took to Instagram to confirm a bout with Karl Roberson had been agreed for UFC 261.
#2 Edmen Shahbazyan
Nine knockouts in 12 fights, check. Four wins in his first four UFC fights, check. Main event a UFC card, check. All completed by the age of just 23.
Edmen Shahbazyan is about as exciting a prospect as the UFC has ever had. He’s managed by Ronda Rousey’s One Fight Management. Clearly highly regarded by the UFC, Shahbazyan headlined UFC Vegas 5 last August.
In what was a step-up in competition, the part-Armenian fighter was finished by Derek Brunson in the third round. He was marked for greatness before the loss. He remains marked for greatness after the loss.
Shahbazyan is the real deal. His striking is slick and powerful and the highlight knockouts come naturally to him. From his elbows to Charles Byrd as he gripped for a single-leg, to his clean left-kick to neutralize Brad Tavares, the American is already one of the top strikers in the entire division.
Improvements to his groundwork and conditioning are needed moving forward, but there’s no doubt he is a future star.
This year, “The Golden Boy” will look to rebound from his first loss. If rumors are to be believed, Shahbazyan has the chance to re-adjust his slightly derailed hype train at UFC 262. In another epic matchup, he looks set to face former-top five middleweight, Jack “The Joker” Hermansson on May 15.
#1 Khamzat Chimaev
“Smesh,” “smesh” and “smesh” some more. If Khamzat Chimaev can fully recover from Covid-19, he looks set to "smesh" his way to the top of the middleweight or welterweight division.
Has anyone broken onto the UFC scene in a more impactful way than Chimaev? If that even requires an answer, it's no. Almost fed to the Russian-born Swede as sacrificial lambs, John Phillips and Rhys McKee were both demolished by Chimaev in the space of 10 days.
Combining the striking numbers from his first two Octagon appearances leaves a frighteningly dominant result. 192 strikes landed, just two were suffered in return.
The 26-year-old’s quick turnaround set a new record for the shortest time between consecutive wins in modern UFC history; “modern” being an important addition to that record. Let’s not forget (as many like to do) that Royce Gracie won four fights in one night at UFC 2.
You couldn’t write Chimaev’s 17-second KO that followed. Sending Gerald Meerschaert to sleep and Dana White to his feet, he showed he had KO power.
A gutting Covid-19 diagnosis has led to the postponement of a bout with top five welterweight, Leon Edwards, on more than one occasion. More importantly, it has threatened his permanent health and caused him to flirt with retirement.
On behalf of MMA fans around the world, we hope to see him return to his rapid rise to the top soon.