2021 was such an amazing year for regional MMA.
COVID couldn’t stop promoters from putting on multiple shows a month, and we’ve seen many UFC Fight Pass promotions put on shows in new countries. Over the last two years, the fighters named on our list have gone on to do big things. Out of the 105 fighters we’ve highlighted on this column, we’ve had a total of 38 get signed to the UFC, 4 to Bellator, 2 went to fight for the PFL, and 21 got their chance on Contender Series.
With fighters getting more fight experience at a younger age, many college wrestlers making their transition to MMA, and regional promotions thriving on and off the UFC Fight Pass platform, 2022 is poised to be one of the best years ever. We know the talent pool is deep and though we have a few returners, The Scrap staff decided to put together their annual list of regional prospects to watch from all over the world.
Below is a list of fighters from the Western & Southern United States you should keep an eye on this year.
Fighters in the Southern United States
Evan Elder (7-0, Lightweight)
Florida – The Sanford MMA prospect makes his the list for a second time, this time going 3-0 last year. Evan Elder was able to fight for Shamrock FC and FAC, making statements under both promotions. He stays active, fight-ready, and surrounds himself around some of the best in the world. Elder has a fight booked for May that if he wins, it’s a no-brainer for a Contender Series opportunity. Currently 7-0 and on an 11-fight win streak, 2022 should be a good year for “The Phenom”.
Paris Moran (6-1, Flyweight)
Texas – Paris Moran makes his first appearance on our list, and it’s about damn time. The Gracie Barra Katy product has been putting on solid performances under the Fury FC banner. Even getting a viral KO last year… Though we don’t understand why he hasn’t earned his title shot, we’d love to see him fighting under brighter lights in the very near future. He’s young, has the look, and the well-rounded skillset to be the next big prospect out of Texas.
Elvin Espinoza (6-0, Lightweight)
Florida – Our lone Nicaraguan prospect fights out of Florida and he was able to go 2-0 last year for iKON MMA and the PFL. Elvin Espinoza is riding a 9-fight win steak currently, with a 100% finish rate. Make sure to keep an eye on this lightweight killer this year with the division being as deep as it is. We fully expect to see Elvin at least on the Contender Series in 2022.
Landry Ward (5-0, Lightweight)
Texas – “The Lone Star Kid” is one of my favorite prospects fighting under the Combate Global promotion. Currently 5-0, Landry Ward has proven that not only can he go the distance, he can end the fight early as well. He’s long, is very well rounded in the cage, and C’mon… he rocks a cowboy hat so you gotta love it. Now training at Sanford MMA, his stock is only going to rise as he inches closer towards the big leagues. Ward fights this weekend on 4/15, and he’ll look to further his 7-fight win streak. At just 25-years-old, he’s certainly one to watch on the regional circuit this year.
Aaron McKenzie (11-2-1, Lightweight)
Oklahoma – Aaron McKenzie finally makes his debut on our list, after going 1-0 in 2021. Playing the waiting game worked out in his favor which we always love to see. McKenzie went 3-0 under the LFA banner, and he recently claimed the LFA lightweight title in a 5-round war to kick off the year. Currently on a 4-fight win streak, there seems there is only one logical next step… the big leagues. Whether that’s Contender Series, UFC, or Bellator, it has to happen this year.
Levi Mowles (16-4, Bantamweight)
Texas – Levi Mowles returns to the list going 2-0 last year, still not getting picked up by the big leagues. The young prospect is now riding a 6-fight win steak and is STILL the #1 bantamweight in Texas, the U.S Southwest, and the United States. We hope to see Mowles get the shot he deserves this year on Contender Series at the very least. If not, it’s time to consider alternative solutions with so many prominent MMA promotions paying well… I mean what more does he need to do? He’s fought for CFFC, LFA, and Fury FC.
Ryan Kuse (6-0, Featherweight)
Florida – Perhaps thee fighter making the most noise on the Florida MMA scene is none other than Ryan Kuse. One of Goat Shed’s finest prospects, the “Third Street Savage” has looked unstoppable under the Titan FC banner… In 2021, he fought 3 times, finishing his opposition twice. He also kicked off 2022 with a KO win, hopefully putting a stamp on a Contender Series opportunity this upcoming season. It should be another great year for Kuse, who we expect big things out of.
Marciano Hernandez (2-0 BKFC, Flyweight)
Kansas – Though Marciano Hernandez just got his second win under Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship in 2022, he’s certainly a prospect to keep an eye on. There aren’t many young prospects trying to start their fight career in BKFC. Marciano is one of them, and he has all the makings to become a star. At just 22-years-old, he could be the youngest prospect signed to the promotion currently. He’s also our second BKFC prospect to make the list this year, so we expect big things…
Dustin Lampros (7-0, Bantamweight)
Florida – “Scrappy” was able to get a win last year, after suffering his first defeat in The Ultimate Fighter house. Thankfully, exhibition bouts don’t count towards your record… But it seems it was the necessary eye opener for the bantamweight prospect. Now back in the win column, Dustin Lampros followed up that win in 2021 with a unanimous decision to kick off the new year. Training with some of UFC and Bellator’s best, it’s only a matter of time Dustin gets his shot again with the UFC.
Adrian Garcia (7-1, Flyweight)
Florida – Another Goat Shed Academy prospect makes the list for the first time. Adrian Garcia is an exciting flyweight prospect who has fought under the Titan FC and Combate Global promotions in 2021. Going 4-0 last year and kicking off 2022 with another win, we expect this year to be the one he gets called up to the big leagues. He’s only 24-years-old, but if he continues to stay active, only the sky is the limit. All we know is you should start paying attention now.
Aaron Phillips (6-2, Middleweight)
Texas – Though from the village of Kotzebue, Alaska, Aaron Phillips has really come into his own since he moved to Texas. Following the advice of TUF bantamweight winner, Ricky Turcios, Phillips moved his life to train under the Gracie Barra gyms. And it has done him good, as he won his return fight in a headliner for FirePower Promotions against a BJJ brown belt who missed weight terribly. Now known as “The Alaskan Bull Worm”, Phillips hopes to continue the momentum and capture the inaugural middleweight title for Urijah Faber’s new promotion, A1 Combat in May. We love to see people really hustle at all cost towards their dreams. 2022 should be a very good one for the Alaska native…
Roybert Echeverria (7-0, Flyweight)
Florida – This man fought 5 times in 2022. Unreal… If you aren’t on the Roybert Echeverria hype train, then you better hop on soon. This year should be huge for him after 4 first-round finishes last year and going the distance once. “The Unbroken One” is a newcomer to this list, but not only is he exciting to watch, whatever “IT” is, he surely has it. Only 26 years old, the future is bright for the Venezuelan prospect who fights out of the Goat Shed Academy. If a Contender Series call isn’t around the corner, a call-up surely is — so, don’t blink!
Taylor Starling (3-0 BKFC, Flyweight)
South Carolina – “Killa Bee” has been unstoppable under the BKFC promotion. Now 3-0, she finally gets her well deserved title shot against Christine Ferea next. Those who watch BKFC know that the women are the main attraction. So it’s nice to see the promotion invest in the division wit a title belt for them to chase. Taylor Starling is an absolute badass and a homegrown prospect that has all the tools to be the promotion’s next big thing. Her stand up is crisp, and she’s durable as hell. We can’t wait to see what 2022 brings for the flyweight star.
John Sweeney (10-3, Bantamweight)
South Carolina – After back to back losses in 2019 & 2020, “Hollywood” has really turned things around in his career last year. Going 3-0 in 2021, John Sweeney has shown that not only is he ready for his big league call-up, he’s ready to take out whoever is in his way of that. To kick off 2022, John took out former UFC fighter Cole Smith in an absolute war. Now he’s on a 4-fight win streak, and with DWCS around the corner, he should be a shoe-in…
Fighters in the Western United States
Ryder Newman (5-1, Middleweight)
Nevada – TUF 29’s Ryder Newman has been a beast since leaving the show. Though “Rhino” lost his exhibition bout while in the house, he bounced back with a 22-second KO. He even kicked off 2022 with a bang, winning a split decision under Eagle FC. Newman proved he can get in there with those who are up and coming, and the veterans as well. It’s only a matter of time until he makes it back to the UFC. 2022 can be the year…
Archie Colgan (4-0, Lightweight)
Colorado – Archie Colgan has been one to watch in the Colorado regional scene for a couple years now. But he’s been branching out little by little, building himself up quite nicely. The former D-1 wrestler went 3-0 in 2021, and even kicked off the year with a dominant win under the Eagle FC promotion. Though this is his first showing on our list, we expect him to return and get the call up much quicker than most in his weight class. Cause when you’re that good, all eyes are on you… always.
Clayton Carpenter (5-0, Flyweight)
Arizona – Going 2-0 this 2021, Clayton Carpenter makes our list for the second time while getting his shot on DWCS this upcoming season. The exciting Arizona product has been making noise under the LFA banner, including a highlight reel finish at LFA 119. 2022 should be a big year for Clayton, so make sure you keep an eye on this young MMA Lab prospect.
Michael Stack (7-1, Featherweight)
Colorado – Michael Stack had an impressive 2021, going 2-0 in the LFA. He’s heading into 2022 with a win under his belt already, extending his streak to 3-straight wins. The 27-year-old prospect will likely continue making noise on the regional scene fighting for LFA, and we hope to finally see him on the Contender Series this year. Representing Trials MMA, we expect big things from Michael Stack who has been consistently growing over the past few years against tough competition.
Sidney Trillo (2-0, Strawweight)
California – Sidney Trillo is one bad b*tch, for lack of better words. She’s been such a beast in the cage, putting on a show every time under the LFA banner. After a year layoff, Trillo went 2-0 and will now be making her Invicta FC debut this year. Though she’s early in her career, we expect big things from this fighting momma who is always exciting to watch.
Kai Stewart (1-0 BKFC, Featherweight)
Montana – Kai Stewart fought SEVEN times in 2021. Yes… SEVEN TIMES! That’s absolutely insane to think, considering most fighters barely fight 3x a year. In those seven fights, he won five of them, including his BKFC debut. Like a few others on the list this year, Kai is making his first appearance while deciding to take an untraditional route to his pro career. “Hefty Bag” has decided to sign to BKFC full-time and put MMA on the back burner for now. Make sure you keep an eye on the featherweight prospect as he already has a fight booked this year. We believe 2022 will be another busy and successful year for him.
Claire Guthrie (3-1, Flyweight)
Colorado – Claire Guthrie is one of those women who signs the dotted line against any and every opponent. You gotta respect it… That’s very rare to find in today’s regional MMA scene. Though she’s only 3-1, “Grizzly” decided to join the TUF 30 cast. And to be honest… we think she will be in the finale. Claire is not only super well-rounded, she’s part of one of the best gyms in the world, Elevation Fight Team. 2022 should be a great year for her, so keep an eye once the new season of The Ultimate Fighter airs on May 8th.
Ozzy Diaz (7-1, Middleweight)
California – Ozzy Diaz is a problem at middleweight, simply put. He may have only fought once last year, but this year he’s already off to a bang. Diaz made a huge statement taking out a veteran in Bruno Assis with ease at LFA 127. It only took one round for Diaz to punch his ticket to the big leagues, in my opinion. If he doesn’t get signed this year, I would be surprised…