Punch-Face.com takes a look at future of the sport by examining the best fighters 26 and under in each weight class. This “new breed” is the first generation of fighters to solely train as mixed martial artist. These incredible athletes benefited from the hands on experimenting done by the pioneers of mma to find out what works in a “real fight”. Gi or no gi, gloves or no gloves (or in one unfortunate event, one glove). We now have answers and even though most of theses fighters can not rent a car, they are ringing in the next evolution of the sport.
Flyweight: Matheus Nicolau – Age: 23 Record: 12-1-1
23 year old Brazilian Matheus Nicolau trained multiple martial arts as a child in his native Belo Horizonte. As a teenager he moved to the slums of Rio de Janeiro to dedicate his life to becoming a professional mixed martial artist.
Nicolau turned pro at 17 and went 10-1-1 cutting his teeth in the toughest promotions in Brazil before being chosen for the fourth season of TUF: Brazil.
The youngster impressed on the show garnering the top pick of coach Shogun and winning two fights before losing to eventual runner up Dileno Lopes. The reality show performance was extra impressive considering he did it at bantamweight which is a division up from his natural flyweight
Following TUF he was victorious in his first two octagon bouts including a win over former title challenger John Moraga this past July.
Nicolau now trains stateside at the vaunted Jackson/Wink gym and was scheduled to take on Ulka Sasaki at UFC Fight Night: 100 but was removed from the card when he was flagged by USADA for testing positive for a banned substance. Nicolau is appealing the ruling, claiming he ingested tainted supplements.
Whether or not he is suspended for the full year, when he does return Matheus Nicolau is going to be factor in the flyweight contenders picture.
Bantamweight: Cody Garbrandt – Age 25 Record: 11-0
This one is kind of obvious, the newly crowned champ is not only the future of the sport, he just beat the greatest bantamweight of all time to take his place as a present day great.
Garbrandt exemplifies everything that is right about the next generation of the sport. He began boxing as an amateur at 14 and started wrestling his Freshmen year of high school.
He won a state championship his first year and was runner up his second year, but quit wrestling to focus on mma and boxing. At 19 Garbrandt began fighting on the blue collar Ohio circuit winning the majority of his fights.
He went 4-0 as a pro before he decided to make the move to California to permanently train with Urijah Faber’s Team Alpha Male. Once training with TAM Garbrandt signed with the UFC and six fights later we have ourselves a new bantamweight champion.
Featherweight: Mirsad Bektic – Age: 25 Record: 11-0
Bosnian native Bektic made his way to the States at age 10, he initially trained in karate before switching to MMA in 2008. Cutting his teeth in mid west promotions, Bektic caught the eye of many MMA fans and was widely recognized as the #1 prospect not signed to the UFC.
Drawing comparisons to a young GSP, Bektic has displayed an extremely well rounded fighting style with little to no flaws. Training with elite partners at the Coconut Creek Florida super-gym American Top Team, the 24 year old Bektic matches up well with anyone in the UFC’s Featherweight division.
Even though he currently sits at 4-0 in the UFC, Bektic has yet to achieve the success many anticipated. He has yet to face a marquee opponent and has been plagued with injuries to him and his opponents, having four fights scraped in the past two years.
If Bektic is able to stay healthy there is no doubt in my mind he can win UFC gold.
Lightweight: Marc Diakiese – Age: 23 Record: 11-0
Born in The Democratic Republic of Congo and raised in Manchester England, Marc Diakiese walked into an MMA gym at seven-teen with zero combat experience and has not looked back since.
Diakiese turned pro in 2013 and was dominate straight out of the gate, still a relatively green fighter he was knocking opponents out with lighting hand speed and climbing his way up the British fight circuit.
By 2015 Diakiese had captured the BAMMA Lightweight belt by defeating fellow undefeated Wolfslair prospect Jack McGann. After two successful defenses he caught the eye of Sean Shelby and signed to fight with the largest promotion in the world.
Now 2-0 in the UFC with wins over Lukasz Sajewski and Frankie Perez, Diakiese is proving he can hang with sports elite and has now made the decision to move to the sates to train at American Top Team where he hopes to elevate his game to the next level.
Welterweight: Michael Graves – Age: 25 Record: 6-0-1
Another up and coming Ohioan on this list is Toledo native Michael Graves. Graves knew from the age of fourteen that he was going to compete in the UFC someday. After his wrestling career ended in high school he made a b-line for an MMA gym to chase down his dreams.
Graves went pro after only one victorious amature bout and by the time he was 3-0 the American Top Team knew they had a special talent on their hands. ATT chose him as one of eight fighters to compete on the ATT vs. Blackzilians season of TUF. Graves lost his first fight on the the show, but would come back to win a crucial fight to keep ATT alive in the competition.
Following the reality series stint Graves has started his UFC career strong with wins over fellow highly touted prospects Vincente Luque and Randy Brown, but came out on the wrong end of a highly controversial Draw to Bojan Velickovica that most had for scored for Graves.
Graves has dealt with some legal issues recently that forced him out of his last fight. Hopefully the outside of the octagon issues resolve themselves as this young fighter matures, because inside the octagon he has a bright future.
Middleweight:Robert Whittaker – Age:25 Record:17-4
Power punching Kiwi Robert “The Reaper” Whittaker stared training traditional martial arts Karate and Hopkido as a boy in his native Australia, but made the transtion to MMA at thirteen when his Hopkido gym became to an MMA gym.
Whittaker fell in love with MMA and began taking pro fights by the time he turned eighteen. He tore through the Aussie fight circuit compiling a 9-1 record in his first ten fights and earning him a spot on TUF: The Smashes, Australia vs. England.
The emerging knockout artist breezed through the TUF season easily winning all three of his fights to become a TUF champion at only twenty one years old.
Once in the UFC Whittaker did not have the immediate successes that many had expected. He went 2-2 in his first four fights prompting a move up to middleweight that would prove to be extremely beneficial
Whittaker has shined at 185 winning his last six fights including his first headliner a first round knockout of Derek Brunson. Now ranked sixth in the division, Whittaker has put himself smack dab in the middle of the title picture and could earn a shot at the belt as early as this year
Light Heavyweight: Tyson Pedro – Age: 25 Record: 5-0
For 25 year old Samoan-Aussie Tyson Pedro MMA is in his blood, his dad was John Pedro one of the first practitioners of Vale Tudo (MMA) in Australia. The elder Pedro trained UFC vets like James Te Huna and Brad Morris while a juvenile Tyson observed a dreamed of a day when it would be his time.
Pedro’s time eventually came and when it did he was well prepared, by the time he went pro the twenty two year old had well over a decade of training experience. His preparation was evident, Pedro won all four of his initial pro fights in the first round and following his fourth win he had a message for Dana White, Pedro said “They’ve got a show in November and if someone pulls out at light heavyweight, I’m there.” The call out paid off and the young Aussie received his wish when Luke Rockhold was force to pull out of his fight.
Pedro pulled off the upset in his debut, taking out lethal striker Khalil Rountree on only three weeks notice. The future is bright for this MMA legacy and his next test against Scotsman Paul “Bear Jew” Craig will be a telling fight of his potential.
Heavyweight: Curtis Blaydes – Age: 25 Record 6-1
In a heavyweight division consisting of speedy 245 pound guys and powerful lumbering 265 pound guys, Curtis “Razor” Blaydes is a scary hybrid of both. At 6’4″ 265 Blaydes has the strength and mass to deal with the behemoths of the division, but also has the quickness and cardio to deal with the smaller guys.
Chicago native Blaydes is relatively new to the sport, beginning his pro MMA career in 2014 after numerous demands from friends and family. He was a state champion wrestler and 44-0 as a high school senior and would go on to win a NCJAA title as well as All American honors at Harper College.
Following his successful wrestling career Blaydes began training at Dutch Style MMA and started taking fights immediately. He quickly racked up a 5-0 record stopping all of his opponents on his way to the UFC. Unfortunately he ran into the buzzsaw that is Francis Nganou in his UFC debut and lost due to a doctors stoppage in the second round.
The Nganou loss prompted a camp change to the rising super camp Team Elevation in Colorado. The camp switch paid immediate dividends, when Blaydes returned to the octagon and brutalized Cody East. We are just scratching the surface with the potential of Blaydes, a few more camps with Team Elevation and we are going to have a bonifide contender at heavyweight.
Starwweight: Alexa Grasso – Age:23 Record: 9-0
Emerging Mexican superstar Alexa Grasso is another next generation fighter that hails from a combat lineage, her father and uncle owned a boxing gym and both competed professionally. When she was too young to compete young Alexa would work the front desk, clean up or do what ever it took to be in the gym.
In her teens Grasso took up Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and had immediate success, she won multiple tournaments along side current UFC fighter and longtime friend and training partner Irena Aldana.
Grasso’s family boxing lessons and BJJ tourney wins had eighteen year old Alexa more than ready for her MMA career. She tore through regional Mexican competition going 4-0 to earn a contract with Invicta FC. After another four victories in Invicta including big wins over Mizuki Inoue and Jodi Esquibel, Grasso got the call up to the big show.
She battered a very tough Heather Jo Clark in UFC debut and next will fight Felice Herring in a match up that will have a lot of eyes on it for numerous reasons.
Bantamweight: Ketlan Vieira – Age: 25 Record: 7-0
Manaus, Amazonas native Ketlan Vieira started her martial arts career as a twelve year old girl when she convinced her mother to sign her up for Jiu Jitsu classes. She fell in love with the “gentile art” which led her to earn her black belt in the less gentile Judo.
Vieira began law school in her early twenties, but once she saw Ronda Rousey’s success in the UFC, Twenty two year old Vieira dropped out to learn to strike and pursue a career as a mixed martial artist.
She traveled to Rio to train with legendary Nova Unaio trainer Andre Pederneiras and with in months was taking regional fights. She won her first five fights in dominant fashion and signed with the UFC only two years after taking up MMA.
Vieira won her debut over Kelly Faszholz with elite grappling and punishing ground and pound. After the victory she called out veteran “Lucky” Lauren Murphy, which would be a huge jump in competition.
Vieira can climb the rankings in a hurry due in part to her talent as well as the women’s bantamweight division being painfully thin.
Featherweight: Megan Anderson – Age: 26 Record: 7-2
Six foot tall Aussie knockout artist Megan Anderson is shooting up the featherweight rankings at breakneck speed. She started her MMA career in her native Queensland as mainly a striker and that striking was effective enough to lead her to a 4-1 record in her first five bouts on the regional circuit.
Anderson caught the eye of the Invicta FC match makers and was signed to fight for the groundbreaking all womens promotion. Once she arrived to Kansas City Missouri the home of Invicta FC, she began training with the local fight team which was Glory MMA run by UFC vet James Krause.
After only one session of being taking down and submitted multiple times, Anderson realized she had outgrown her hometown gym and she would need to remain in the U.S if she was going to compete at the highest level of the sport.
Anderson was submitted by Cindy Dandois in her Invicta debut, but would go to win her next three fights under the Invicta banner in devasting fashion, noticbly improving with each performance.
This Saturday Anderson will be challenged with her toughest test to date when she faces Charmaine Tweet in a headlining bout for the interim Invicta featherweight title. Whether she wins or loses, you can expect to see Megan Anderson fighting in the UFC’s newly formed 145 pound division in 2017.