Every champion in MMA history started out somewhere.
For those who make it to the highest stage, the journey begins long before they strap on UFC, Bellator, or PFL gloves. Modern-era fighters progress through the regional ranks with hopes of accomplishing the highest accolades. Many will try, few will succeed.
This month, five fighters on the verge of achieving major promotion notoriety – one for the second time – return to the cage for what could be their stepping-stone fight. There are dozens of fighters close to making the jump in the coming weeks, but these five are particularly exemplary.
A Brazilian-Canadian heavyweight hopes another win will regain him the UFC look he had but lost due to circumstances outside of his control.
A former Olympic wrestler from Mexico looks to secure an LFA title – and a UFC phone call shortly thereafter.
One of the best women’s prospects in North America wants to prove a point after a year on the shelf.
A rising 21-year-old Argentinian superstar aims to bring his record to 11-0 before 2022 comes to an end.
A Malaysian flyweight who lives in Texas has already made an impact, but a Fury FC title could be his ticket to an even more life-changing upgrade.
Weight class: Heavyweight
Birthplace: Presidente Prudente, Sao Paulo, Brazil
Next Fight: Dec. 1 vs. Edison Lopes (11-7) at BFL 75 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada (UFC Fight Pass)
Background: [autotag]Caio Machado[/autotag] has been bigger than everyone else for as long as he could remember. He was never a malicious child growing up, but roughhousing with other children usually ended with unintended consequences – including the nickname “Bigfoot.” Eventually, his mother decided her son should try to use his size and strength to his advantage in the world of jiu-jitsu. It was initially a side gig to basketball, but eventually, Machado went full fledge. This was around the time Brazil has at its peak in MMA. Jose Aldo, Renan Barao, Anderson Silva, and the like sat atop their thrones. Inspired, Machado entered muay thai and won some national titles. He dropped out of school and moved to Canada, a country he had visited during his time as an exchange student. MMA got him in shape and gave him an avenue to compete. For Battlefield Fight League, Machado has gone 1-1-1. He was selected for Dana White’s Contender Series in 2022, but visa issues got in the way.
The skinny: It’s unfortunate Machado is essentially trapped in Canada for the time being until his visa situation is figured out, because he’s better than some UFC heavyweights already. But until that time, he’ll continue to improve – while also showing his foundation of movement, athleticism, quicknesses, and finishing prowess. It’s hard to come across big bodies with conditioning like Machado, so you can bet your top dollar the moment he gets approved to enter the United States, he’ll receive a phone call from Mick Maynard, Jane Estioko, or Ray Sefo.
In his own words: “Honestly, the whole Contender Series thing was really frustrating. I was in the best shape of my life. I was ready. I felt and I still feel I’m ready to fight in the UFC in the bigger fights. … I respect everyone who is in the UFC and the other bigger leagues, but a big thing that’s special in the heavyweight division is you see a lot of guys who are big but have no physical preparation. I’m an athlete. That’s my biggest thing. I can go five or 10 rounds and still be smiling. I see guys who gas out in the first round. That’s the biggest difference. I can move like a middleweight and I have cardio for days.”
“… I think it’s every fighter’s dream, right? It’s a big show. It’s a fight on the biggest stage in the world. It’s what we’re looking for: a life-changing opportunity. It’s an opportunity to show the world what we’re capable of. It’s everything we’ve wanted. It’s everything we work for.”
Weight class: Welterweight
Next Fight: Dec. 9 vs. Chris Brown (9-4) at LFA 149 in Commerce, Calif. (UFC Fight Pass)
Background: A lot of fighters get into MMA through wrestling, but few through the channels [autotag]Alfonso Leyva[/autotag] traveled. Not many represent their country in the Olympics. Leyva did twice. At the 2016 Summer Olympics, Leyva represented Mexico in the men’s Greco-Roman 85kg event where he was eliminated in the round of 32. Four years later. Leyva represented Mexico again, this time in the 2020 Summer Olympics. He was eliminated in the round of 16. Following his elimination, Leyva pivoted away from wrestling and toward MMA. He directly jumped into the professional ranks. Five times he competed for Mexican promotion UWC. Five times he finished an opponent via TKO. In July, in his sixth pro fight at LFA 135, Leyva and the trend continued. Leyva finished opponent Daniel Reis by TKO in Round 2 to earn his upcoming title shot.
The skinny: The wrestler has hands. In every single one of his professional outings, Leyva showed off his evolution and well-roundedness. Through five fights, he has yet to see the third round. As his experience increased, his weight class decreased. His MMA career started near light heavyweight. For his next fight, he’ll be at welterweight. What does that tell us? He’s able to thrive against bigger, stronger opponents. At a more natural weight, I expect to see him at his peak performance potential. Wrestling is arguably the strongest base for MMA and Leyva obviously has that. With his background and credentials, I expect a major promotion to drool over him if he picks up an LFA title.
In his own words: “I continue to constantly evolve since I only made my professional debut two years ago. I always have my feet on the ground and am realistic with myself and never fool myself when I train my jiu jitsu at Atos, hand in hand with André Galvao. There are very high-level athletes there and training with them will make me improve a lot in that area. My hands are on time with coach Joe Vargas at The Arena. We are doing a more aggressive style. Obviously, it doesn’t evolve overnight, it takes constant work, but I’m doing it and I trust the work that is being done.”
“… It would be a challenge and an enormous motivation (to sign with the UFC). In just two years after I debuted, I would step foot in the UFC cage and face very tough guys. That’s exciting. At the same time, I’ve trained with many fighters from the UFC and I have put them in trouble, so I have no doubt that I could do it in the UFC. But time will tell if they want me for their company. I would be very happy if they turned to me. I will continue training hard in case that moment comes. I have faith that sooner or later I will step in that cage.
“… I don’t know if up to now it can be called successful since I’ve only won six fights, I don’t have any belt from any company, so I’m very demanding with myself and know it’s not enough for me to say I’m successful in MMA. I have many life goals ahead to fulfill and that excites me to improve. I always have good and bad days like everything but I always seek to learn from everything good and bad and I’m still looking to know what I’m capable of doing.
“Of course my base is wrestling, but if you’ve seen my fights, I don’t use my wrestling as much since I love to fight on my feet. The mental and physical strength that wrestling has given me and the competitive experience help me to face my fights correctly. Of course, since I was on the national wrestling team, I finished my training and quickly went to boxing at the national Olympic center. I was wrestling, then boxing and there they always told me you’re crazy, you’re going to overtrain and thousands of negative things. But I had a dream and I knew where I was going to fight in the future and I think that was essential so that today I can fight on my feet with anyone and not just depend on my wrestling.”
This interview was conducted using a translator and was edited for spelling and grammar.
Weight class: Flyweight
Birthplace: Squamish, British Columbia, Canada
Next Fight: Dec. 9 vs. TBA at LFA 148 in Commerce, Calif. (UFC Fight Pass)
Background: Growing up in Squamish, British Columbia [autotag]Jamey-Lyn Horth[/autotag] played any and all sports she could get her hands on. Through a friend and future UFC fighter Cole Smith, Horth found MMA as a way of cross-training for her collegiate softball career. Smith and his brother, Kasey, told Horth once she entered the gym, she’d have a difficult time getting herself to leave. They were right.
The Skinny: It’s four fights into her professional career and Horth has already established herself as one of the top women in Canadian mixed martial arts today. However, she’s been unable to prove how she stacks up against international talent as of late. The Battlefield Fight League champion was supposed to compete against Chelsea Hackett on Dana White’s Contender Series in November 2020. However, COVID-19-induced travel issues threw a wrench in the plans. She returned in December to defeat Mayra Cantuaria and win the LFA title. After a year of injury healing, she’s back. Horth is already clearly on the UFC radar and defending her LFA title could push her over the top and into the promotion’s roster pool – where she belongs.
In her own words: “There are talks of the UFC coming back to Canada and that would be a really good opportunity for me to get a contract or a position or a roster spot whatever it be. When my management Iridium Sports Agency said we should probably stay active, I said yes. We never say no. Every day is just one more opportunity to get closer to my end goal.
“… I just show up and I’m a worker. I do what I’m told. But after watching a lot of the fights recently in the flyweight division and knowing where I’m at currently, I think I could be in the top 10 within the first year. I think I fit right in there. I think I belong. I just have a different work ethic. I have a gas tank. I have strength. I have technique. I’m an athlete all around. Outside of the gym, no matter what day it is, I’m doing something to better myself in that sense. I know my will to win is so f*cking strong. I’ll make it work. So I’m very hopeful that within the first year, I’ll be in the top 10.”
Image via Lucas Lutkus (All In Sports Management)
Weight class: Lightweight
Birthplace: San Lorenzo, Santa Fe, Argentina
Next Fight: Dec. 16 vs. Jose Barrios Vargas (13-3) at Samurai Fight House 8 in Mar del Plata, Argentina
Background: [autotag]Francisco Prado[/autotag] can’t even remember when he started his fighter’s path. That’s how high the percentage of his life has been training martial arts. He remembers growing up wanting to be a black belt, not just in one discipline – but them all. Karate was first, with hopes of finding an outlet for his bad behavior at home and school. MMA began at 14 – when he had his first amateur fight. After five first-round wins and no losses against grown men, Prado turned professional at 16. Since his pro debut in 2019, Prado has racked up victories against increasingly difficult and experienced competition. He has a 100 percent finishing rate with six submissions and four knockouts/TKOs.
The skinny: Prado is 20 and shouldn’t be rushed. At the same time, the UFC has seemingly figured out a way to slowly craft younger talent into elite prospects without rushing them. That wasn’t always the case. Prado has the ability in December to add another credible win to his resume and finish out 2022 with a record of at least 11-0. At that point, I expect the UFC to glance at him, in fear of another promotion snatching him up. There’s too much upside, especially considering his age. Prado would make for an extremely high-reward, low-risk signing.
In his own words: “I think this is the most important fight in my career up to this point. This is the fight that I prove that I am UFC ready. My opponent is 13-3 and is one of the best fighters in the country. I believe after I win, there is no one left in South America for me to fight. After this win, I will sign with the UFC. … When I win, I believe I would have earned the right to be called up. In 2023, I will be ready to represent the people of Argentina in the best organization in the world.”
“… I know when I get my opportunity, fans are going to like it and they are going to want to keep calling me. … Age is just a number. I think that most people who sign to the UFC start martial arts when they are 18-22. I started martial arts when I was 6 years old so I have just as much (if not more) experience than the rest who make it. … If you like to watch history being made, I invite you to pay attention to my career because I am going to be the youngest UFC champion ever. And I think by that point, no one will think I am ‘too young.'”
This interview was conducted using a translator and was edited for spelling and grammar.
Weight class: Flyweight
Next Fight: Dec. 18 vs. Cleveland McLean (17-9) at Fury FC 72 in Houston (UFC Fight Pass)
Background: Simply put: [autotag]Joshua Van[/autotag] got in too much trouble. Fighting was a method to compartmentalize violence and channel it toward something positive. Born in Myanmar, Van moved to Malaysia at 10 years old. At age 12, he moved to the United States where he’s resided since. It wasn’t easy as a non-English-speaking child growing up in the U.S. For Van, Middle school was cruel, and what he lacked verbally, he made up for physically. That’s where MMA stemmed from. Before long, his pro fighter dream was born. Van remembers Mayweather vs. McGregor as the moment that inspired him most to pursue MMA as a career. In 2018, he went all-in. Two years later in 2020, he had his first amateur fight. His amateur career lasted six months and he went 4-0. The quick pacing has continued as a professional, as his next fight will be his eighth in 13 months. In his most recent outing, Van knocked out highly-touted Paris Moran, regarded by some as one of the best flyweight prospects in the United States.
The skinny: Flyweights are always fun, but sometimes struggle with their finishing rate. That’s not the case here. Van’s got hands. He has five knockouts in six victories. His other method of victory? A calf-slicer. Van brings an elevated level of danger to every opponent he faces. If someone slips up, he’ll make them pay for it by snatching their consciousnesses. He’s already passed his first high-level test with flying colors. Now he’ll build on that fighting a 26-fight veteran. One more win in 2022 and the UFC should consider adding the 21-year-old to its roster.
In his own words: “My promoter Eric (Garcia) told me I needed one more fight to fight for the title. When my last opponent pulled out, I was like, ‘I got to get a title. I got to get a title.’ So I talked to (my managers) Jason House and Lance Spaude like, ‘Hey, you got to get me a title,’ so they got me a title. Thank God. This is my first five-round fight, but I won’t need (the championship rounds.” … Even when I’m in the gym sparring, as the rounds go by, I’m getting better each round. I feel like it’s going to favor me either way but it’s not going to get past three.”
“I feel like this upcoming fight is the perfect matchup for me to get to the UFC. Cleveland McLean is very good and his record is good and he’s got experience. He’s got like 26 fights. I need a guy like him to see where I’m at. When I beat this guy, there’s no doubt I’m ready for the UFC. … He’s no joke. He’s got every experience and he can probably beat UFC guys, too. For me to beat a guy like him, that should give me a call.”
Fighters worth watching who didn’t crack the list, yet are on the verge of something big:
[autotag]Justin Van Heerden[/autotag] (10-5) – Friday vs. Diego Pereira (8-6) at Eternal MMA 72 in Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia (UFC Fight Pass)
[autotag]Denis Palancica[/autotag] (9-0) – Friday vs. Joe Penafiel (9-4) at iKON FC at Silver Spurs Arena in Kissimmee, Fla. (UFC Fight Pass)
[autotag]Gauge Young[/autotag] (5-0) – Dec. 9 vs. Bobby Lee (12-7) at FAC 17 in Independence, Mo. (UFC Fight Pass)
[autotag]Danny Silva[/autotag] (6-0) – Dec. 9 vs. Canaan Kawaihae (6-2) at LFA 148 in Commerce, Calif. (UFC Fight Pass)
[autotag]Jess Martinez[/autotag] (6-0) – Dec. 9 vs. Chase Gibson (11-6) at LFA 148 in Commerce, Calif. (UFC Fight Pass)
[autotag]Chris Brown[/autotag] (9-4) – Dec. 9 vs. Alfonso Leyva (6-0) at LFA 148 in Commerce, Calif. (UFC Fight Pass)
[autotag]Luis Rodriguez[/autotag] (14-2) – Dec. 9 vs. Jaime Londono (6-1) at Lux Fight League 29 in Mexico City, Mexico (UFC Fight Pass)
[autotag]Chauncey Foxworth[/autotag] (16-9) – Dec. 10 vs. Tim Hiley (8-4) at RDC 3 in Hot Springs, Ark.
[autotag]Teshay Gouthro[/autotag] (6-1) – Dec. 17 vs. Morgan Rhynes (5-5) at Unified MMA in Toronto, Ontario, Canada (UFC Fight Pass)
[autotag]Shane Campbell[/autotag] (22-12) – Dec. 16 vs. Darren Smith Jr. (14-6) at Unified MMA 48 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada (UFC Fight Pass)
[autotag]Fernando Laurenco[/autotag] (15-3) – Dec. 17 vs. Luan Matheus (14-7-1) at SFT 38 in Sao Paulo, Brazil
[autotag]Angel Pacheco[/autotag] (7-1) – Dec. 17 vs. Gary Konkol (5-2) at Holiday Inn Austin Conference Center in Austin, Minn.
[autotag]Cleveland McLean[/autotag] (17-9) – Dec. 18 vs. Joshua Van (6-1) at Fury FC 72 in Houston (UFC Fight Pass)
[autotag]Sam Creasey[/autotag] (16-4) – Dec. 31 vs. Shajidul Haque (14-5) at Cage Warriors 148 in London (UFC Fight Pass)
[autotag]Shajidul Haque[/autotag] (14-5) – Dec. 31 vs. Sam Creasey (16-4) at Cage Warriors 148 in London (UFC Fight Pass)