Predictions are made in every sport… especially in MMA. Who’s going to win? How will they win? How far can a fighter go?
Thinking ahead and discussing future possibilities is practically the driving force for why interest gets created. Time is always moving forward after all.
When it comes to MMA, there is a litany of different possibilities. But today we’re going to focus specifically on titleholders and who may be tomorrow’s champions. In doing so, we’ll take a look at all 13 divisions in MMA.
The criteria are simple. The fighters that have never been champions before in major MMA promotions are the candidates. In terms of major promotions, this includes the UFC, Bellator, ONE Championship, RIZIN, PFL/WSOF, and Invicta FC.
Initially, the Invicta title was not going to be included due to the fact that it has somewhat just acted as a UFC contract these days. But if it wasn’t counted, that would extremely limit the candidates at atomweight… and it did limit things at women’s featherweight.
Also, it should be noted that interim titles will count for this list and tournament titles will not. Along with that, fighters in ONE Championship will qualify for the division that they are labeled in. So for example, Shinya Aoki is a lightweight despite fighting at the non-traditional lightweight limit of 165-pounds in that organization. The traditional lightweight limit being 155-pounds. The reason that ONE does this is to prevent extreme weight cutting.
RIZIN’s 108-pound super atomweight division will qualify as the traditional 105-pound atomweight class. As that’s where they generally fight outside of RIZIN.
So with all that said, let’s take a look at some of the potential future champions in the world of MMA!
Atomweight, 105-pounds: Kanna Asakura (15-4)
At just 21-years old, Japan’s Kanna Asakura has already proven herself as one of the atomweight division’s elite. So let’s get the obvious ones out of the way, huh?
Beginning her career at the young age of 16, Asakura got off to a solid start by going 5-1 before getting to make her RIZIN debut in 2016. Having fought exclusively in DEEP JEWELS and RIZIN since then. She has picked up numerous position establishing victories along the way.
Asakura’s first of two wins over another highly touted Japanese atomweight, Rena Kubota, saw her crowned as the RIZIN super atomweight Grand Prix champion.
Poised for greatness and launched into the spotlight, the Kashiwa, Chiba native has already reached star status in her country.
Following her second win over Kubota, she would vie for the inaugural RIZIN title by looking to hand Ayaka Hamasaki her first career loss in the division. Unfortunately for Asakura, the now consensus G.O.A.T. of the division in Hamasaki would delay the dreams of the 21-year old with relative ease.
2-1 since the title fight loss and Asakura is still clearly developing as a fighter. Which is amazing to witness as she’s already talented beyond her years.
Strawweight, 115-pounds: Yan “Nine” Xiaonan (11-1, 1 NC)
The Chinese takeover is well underway, ladies and gentlemen. And it really started to pick up thanks to Yan Xiaonan.
Signed to the UFC in 2017, Xiaonan was the first female fighter from China to join the organization’s roster and she has been nothing but impressive since.
Upon making her UFC debut, Xiaonan’s lone loss came in her third career fight in September 2010. Four fights later and that still remains a fact.
Deserving of a top 15 opponent for her next time out and on the cusp of being ranked herself, Xiaonan has proven to be a handful for all who stand across from her. Proudly representing her country of China, the Sanda practitioner hopes to one day become the nation’s second-ever UFC champion.
To do so, she’ll have to make it through Ashley Yoder in her next at UFC Singapore on October 26.
Women’s Flyweight, 125-pounds: Agnieszka “Kuma” Niedzwiedz (10-1)
Among these names, Agnieszka Niedzwiedz will likely be the one that is the least known. However, that doesn’t change the fact that she’s a top-five talent – or at least was before her current hiatus.
And because of that hiatus, her entry in this list is assuming that she does indeed return at all.
Currently 24-years old, the Katowice, Poland native last fought in December 2017 when she challenged for the Invicta FC title. Handing Niedzwiedz her only career defeat would be the then reigning champion and consensus No. 1 flyweight worldwide, Jennifer Maia.
Prior to that bout, Niedzwiedz upset the current champion in Vanessa Porto thus showing the world that was indeed a top talent in the division.
Unfortunately, she hasn’t been seen since the competitive title loss to Maia. But if she does come back, the well-rounded Polish striker has all the potential to one day end up getting her hands on that gold that eluded her the last time out.
Men’s Flyweight, 125-pounds: Joseph Benavidez (28-5)
It’s probably safe to assume that most would agree that Joseph Benavidez is one of, if not the most underrated MMA fighter of all-time.
The former Team Alpha Male staple has only suffered defeat to three men. Two of those being two of the greatest to ever do it in Demetrious Johnson, and Dominick Cruz.
For Benavidez, he’s essentially been a Jon Fitch-type in his division at flyweight. The second best guy bar none. He’s beaten everyone except for the guy who’s holding the title. But actually… he does hold a win over the now champion, Henry Cejudo.
Cejudo, of course, also holding the bantamweight title and is seemingly focusing on that division over flyweight. With his shoulder injury in mind, it leaves the opportunity open for Benavidez to either get a crack at the title if vacated or a potential interim.
One way or another, Benavidez, 35, hasn’t slowed down much at all throughout his career. And if he continues to stick around for the next so many years, it wouldn’t surprising to see him cap off a very underappreciated career with that ever-elusive UFC gold.
Women’s Bantamweight, 135-pounds: Julia “Raging Panda” Avila (7-1)
Anyone who followed Julia Avila’s career prior to her UFC debut knew that it was just a matter of time before she got the call up to the big stage.
Virtually flawless inside the cage, Avila’s one loss came in a 49-second affair with Marciea Allen. Avila put her hands up to block a head kick. As the kick connected with her hands, her left ring finger wouldn’t quite find itself in the most comfortable of positions.
The “Raging Panda” would suffer the loss via TKO after the doctor’s stopped the fight when seeing her bone was sticking out. A fair but unfortunate call.
In her still short eight-fight career, Avila, 31, has already picked up high profile victories over the likes of perennial top 10 contender, Marion Reneau, as well as the inaugural UFC flyweight champion, Nicco Montano.
The Geological Technician won her promotional debut against the always-game, Pannie Kianzad, via unanimous decision. It was another highly technical yet gritty display that we’re used to seeing from the relentless Avila.
Being in a division that lacks depth and viable contenders, don’t be surprised if you see the Notre Dame alum soon testing her might against some more top competition.
Men’s Bantamweight, 135-pounds: Kai Asakura (13-1)
It seems that all anyone by the name of “Asakura” does is win.
In relation to RIZIN lightweight, Mikuru – but not the aforementioned Kanna – Kai Asakura is a bad, bad man at bantamweight.
Known for his finishing abilities with only three of his 10 wins coming by way of decision, Asakura is always looking for the knockout or TKO. And in his last fight… he got the biggest knockout that he possibly could have.
As a big underdog, the 25-year old Toyohashi, Aichi native fearlessly entered the RIZIN ring on August 19. When he did, he shocked the world by putting an end to Kyoji Horiguchi’s seemingly unstoppable run in only 68 seconds.
A rematch is now in the works for Asakura and the RIZIN as well as Bellator bantamweight champion, but this time the RIZIN title will be on the line.
Obviously, this will give the still incredibly talented Horiguchi the chance to show that the loss was a fluke. Even if he can succeed in doing that, the first win still shows Asakura’s incredible talent by being able to do something like that against a man that 30 others couldn’t. And those 30 include the likes of Demetrious Johnson and kickboxing superstar, Tenshin Nasukawa.
And as long as Kai and his equally talented brother, Mikuru, are training alongside each other, they should be dangerous forces for many years to come.
Women’s Featherweight, 145-pounds: Janay “Hollowpoint” Harding (5-3)
Admittedly, the women’s featherweight division doesn’t have a lot of options to choose from. And that’s for two reasons. One, the weight class on a worldwide scale isn’t all that deep at the moment. Two, because of that, there aren’t many in major promotions.
However, there is one rising young potential star from Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia that happens to be under the richest banner for 145ers in MMA right now. That woman happens to be Miss Janay Harding.
Known for her striking, Harding displayed in her last fight the improvements that she’s made in the grappling department by handing Marina Mokhnatina her first career loss. The unanimous decision win would put the Aussie on a two-fight winning streak that began with a win over Sinead Kavanagh.
What’s next for Harding remains to be seen but since last stepping foot inside the cage, she took her talents to the boxing ring. Unfortunately, she would find herself on the wrong end of a unanimous decision with Kylie Hutt.
Regardless, the 25-year old has youth on her side which is important in her division. Thus leaving her with plenty of time to continue growing into what could be a future champion.
Men’s Featherweight, 145-pounds: AJ McKee (14-0)
Out of everyone on this list, AJ McKee might be the most fitting selection. The guy has “future champion” written all over him.
Unbeaten in his 14 fight career to this point, the son of Antonio has shown that he can win fights in any fashion necessary (five KO/TKOs, four submissions).
In the 24-year old’s last time out at Bellator 221 in May, he dispatched of the former champion in Pat Curran. Now, McKee’s title aspirations – as well as a million dollars – are closer than ever before as he finds himself competing in the featherweight title Grand Prix.
For someone so young, McKee has quickly gained experience. Therefore making him an incredibly dangerous opponent for anyone.
Lightweight, 155-pounds: Timofey Nastyukhin (13-4)
If you didn’t know who Timofey Nastyukhin was at the beginning of 2019, that probably changed on March 31.
Kicking off the main card of ONE Championship’s biggest card to date as part of their lightweight Grand Prix, Nastyukhin welcomed a big free agent signing to the cage. That signing, of course, being none other than former Bellator and UFC champion, Eddie Alvarez.
In a relatively easy fashion, the Russian power puncher folded his opposition with strikes around the four-minute mark of round one.
However, to those who were already aware of “Tim Nasty” and his abilities, this wasn’t the biggest surprise.
Unfortunately for the 29-year old, an injury would force him out of the next round of the tournament. Thus leading to Alvarez taking out an ex-champion in Eduard Folayang to get back in the mix.
Nastyukhin has already fought with and defeated some of the best that ONE has to offer. And to look at things from a stat-based standpoint, excluding Nastyukhin, four out of Alvarez’ six career losses have came against future champions.
It’s quite possible he could be No. 5.
Welterweight, 170-pounds: Leon “Rocky” Edwards (18-3)
For the majority of his current run, Leon Edwards has been the clear dark horse of the welterweight division. But at this point, he has aggressively stripped that label off and is a firm placed top contender.
Having lost his UFC debut in November 2014 to the equally underrated Claudio Silva, Edwards has gone 10-1 since. The one loss? Well, that came against the now champion, Kamaru Usman.
Eight wins later and the Erdington, Birmingham, England native could soon be getting himself a rematch with Usman.
Despite not being much of a finisher, Edwards’ performances are incredibly technical whether the fight majorly takes place on the ground or the striking department. He’s overcome all types of styles with his great overall skillset as seen in his wins over opponents like Vicente Luque, Gunnar Nelson, Donald Cerrone, and former UFC lightweight champion, Rafael Dos Anjos.
Seemingly the forgotten man atop the rankings at No. 4, the clock is just counting down until Edwards gets his hand on the UFC title belt.
Middleweight, 185-pounds: Paulo “The Eraser” Costa (13-0)
Coming in as only the second of the two undefeated fighters on this list is the man formerly known as “Borrachinha,” Paulo Costa.
When it comes to excitement and brutality, Costa is about as much of that as one can handle at 185-pounds.
Out of his 13 career wins, only two have not ended via knockout or TKO (one submission, one decision). Because of this, many had been skeptical of his gas tank as all of his fights ended in either the first or second rounds. That was until his most recent outing.
In a big leap up in competition, Costa proved to the world that he is a legit title threat by dispatching of former multi-time title challenger, Yoel Romero, in a wild battle. Fighting strong for three hard rounds, Costa picked up his first career decision win (unanimous).
Now solidified as a current top contender, the 28-year old Brazilian may very well be the next in line for a crack at the title.
Light Heavyweight, 205-pounds: Thiago “Maretta” Santos (21-7)
For many, Thiago Santos should be the current champion of the 205-pound division.
In September of last year, “Maretta” ventured up to a new weight class after a career at middleweight that saw him go 18-6. As much of a killer as he was in his old division, that remained true with 20 additional pounds.
From his five minutes and 41 seconds of madness with Jimi Manuwa to his patient execution of Jan Blachowicz, Santos had proven to only be better.
Finally halted by the reigning divisional king in Jon Jones, the Rio de Janeiro native still was capable of taking the champ to a split decision. And he did so with essentially no properly functioning legs which made his efforts all the more admirable.
Of course, it brings up the speculation as to what would have happened had he not had the injuries… but perhaps we will get to find out one day.
Despite being 35 years of age, Santos will still be treated as a top guy upon his recovery and return next year. And rightfully so after all we’ve seen from him since competing at light heavyweight.
Heavyweight, 207-265-pounds: Curtis “Razor” Blaydes (12-2)
When he gets his opportunity to do work the one way that he knows how, Curtis Blaydes is violence personified.
The young man of the “old” division, Blaydes also feels like one of the more obvious choices on this list.
12-2 with his lone losses both coming to a fellow perennial top contender, Francis Ngannou, Blaydes has been perfect against all other adversaries.
A dominant and imposing wrestler, once “Razor” gets his opponent down, it’s time to cut and smash with fists and elbows. Along with that signature gameplan that we’ve seen more often than not, Blaydes’ striking continues to improve with each and every fight. Which is a scary thought for the future of the division.
He’s not much of a talker and that’s okay. His actions inside the Octagon speak loud and clear. And if he keeps it up, the sky is the limit for one of Elevation Fight Team’s finest.
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The Scrap’s Drake Riggs is an MMA writer and YouTuber based out of Brush Prairie, Washington who specializes in feature pieces, the women’s fight scene, lists, news coverage, and rankings. Riggs has been a passionate MMA fan since 2009 and has written for various news sources. You can follow him on Twitter (@Dre_Kriggs).