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 rising Coloradan will compete for LFA for the sixth time, but the stakes have never been higher.
A DWCS winner didn’t earn a contract, but he finally has a willing opponent to face as he awaits a second glance from the UFC.
A Dagestan-born resident of France with one of the best nicknames in MMA, a slick ground game and the “it” factor hopes a win over a seasoned veteran earns him a slot on the UFC’s debut card in his home country this September.
Injuries and opponent withdrawals have delayed his return, but this Pacific Northwesterner is ready to show UFC matchmakers he’s worth the wait.
A Nevada native and former military member moved across the country to train under Joe Lauzon – with UFC aspirations on his mind.
Weight class: Featherweight
Next Fight: Friday vs. Jose Delano (10-2) at LFA 133 in Denver (UFC Fight Pass)
Background: The athletic career of [autotag]Michael Stack[/autotag] began with the influence of his father. A former boxer, Stack’s dad encouraged his son to enter competitive sports. Football, wrestling, and swimming ruled Stack’s youth. Athletics were the center of Stack’s life. Somewhere along the way, Stack attended Buffalo Wild Wings to watch a UFC. Through that experience, passions stemmed for both the chicken wings chain restaurant and the world’s leading MMA promotion. He attended Colorado State University where he met his future MMA coach Ryan Schultz. Life gave Stack MMA. He’s taken it and ran with it. His experience street-fighting became a hobby and then a career path.
The skinny: Slowly but surely, Stack has shown more and more of the correct things. It’s been a fun progression to watch, largely under the LFA banner, and one that has resulted in a title fight. Riding a three-fight winning streak ahead of his first LFA title fight, Stack has the ability to really solidify his spot as a worthwhile prospect for a major promotion. Delano will be a good test, having just handily defeated Jonas Bilharinho, a fighter UFC fans screamed from the rooftops deserved a contract on last season’s Dana White’s Contender Series. According to the transitive property, Stack should, at minimum, get a DWCS opportunity with a win Friday.
In his own words: “Growing up and with my life circumstances, a lot of the things I’ve had to deal with growing up, I’m not going to say I had a hard childhood, but there are things people go through in life that build them and strengthen them. That made me mentally strong along with my belief in Jesus Christ and the way I was raised.
“… There were little things and pivotal points in my life where I learned a lesson and it made me a stronger person. That’s why I’ve gotten so far in this career. There are a lot of guys that are really good at what they do, but when it comes down to performing, they are mental midgets. I think mentally I’m strong. I don’t quit. I’m not a quitter. If you’re going to beat me, you’re going to have to beat me. I’m not going to lay down in there for you or give up. I’ll go out on my shield.
“… I absolutely believe that I can make waves. I can beat a lot of the guys in the UFC. I thin when I win this title, that will validate that. I think that winning this title proves that I’m ready for that next level. I have competed against some of the best outside of the UFC. I think I’ve beat some guys that could beat dudes already in the UFC. Obviously, I’m never going to stop trying to improve and never stop being the best that I can be. The goal is to be a world champion at the highest level, which in my opinion is the UFC. That’s my goal and this fight when I win this will validate that.”
LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – OCTOBER 26: Olivier Murad prepares to fight Xie Bin in a featherweight fight during Dana White’s Contender Series season 5, week 9 at UFC APEX on October 26, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)
Weight class: Featherweight
Birthplace: Queens, New York
Next Fight: June 10 vs. Milko Tucto (5-3) at LFA 134 in Belton, Texas (UFC Fight Pass)
Background: The journey began for [autotag]Olivier Murad[/autotag] in high school when he watched Georges St-Pierre vs. Matt Serra 2 and a fire was lit. Anderson Silva vs. Rich Franklin added more gasoline to the flame. These were the types of moments Murad dreamed of as he climbed through the amateur ranks. Things clicked. Murad won and won, again and again. He joined Freedom Fighters, the same team that helped bring up the likes of Yoel Romero and Alex Caceres. Inspired by those who made the walks before him, Murad has compiled a perfect record through a half-dozen fights and even won a Titan FC title. He won on Dana White’s Contender Series, but wasn’t signed. The UFC president said he needs to build experience and win a few more – and that’s what Murad plans to do.
The skinny: Murad has the fundamentals and the advanced skills. He has the coaching staff and the mentors. He’s a good interview. The only thing he’s missing is experience – and it’s not his fault. Left and right, Murad has agreed to fights. And left and right, opponents have turned him down, gotten injured, or withdrew. It’s a gift and a curse being good early on in your career, as Murad has found out over the past year. However, more wins means more un-deniability. If he wins his upcoming fight for LFA, it seems like a call back to DWCS is in order, if not a short-notice opportunity straight into the UFC.
In his own words: “Dana White’s Contender Series was great (for me). I went into that fight off. That wasn’t me in there. In order to pull off a victory against a high-caliber fighter like Xie Bin, who’s been wrestling since he was four or five… I take it as a good sign. I still got the victory. I didn’t really receive much damage. No one can ever fight at their best, but now I know I’m able to persevere at my worst. That’s something special. I’m ready to prove what I’m capable of. Dana White said I need another fight or two, so I’m going to prove during this next fight or two I know exactly what I’m capable of. Look at my resume, I get nothing but Fight of the Night bonuses and quick finishes.”
“… I didn’t expect so many people would be afraid to fight me. This guy is my 24th (offered) matchup already. Out of 24 fighters, he’s the only one who accepted. He actually signed the contract, so he ain’t going anywhere. … In my prime, I can shatter the willpower of any top fighter. I can hang with the best. I can take out the best. Now, it’s just time for me to just full display my skillset and what I’m capable of.”
“… I’ve been to different gyms. I’ve fought some the most elite. I won’t say who, in training. But I was able to hang with them, with ease, if not surpass them. … Ideally, I want to fight for the UFC. I want to fight in general. I’m a fighter who just loves to fight. I can support Bellator, One Championship, PFL, and UFC. I was always inspired by the UFC. At the end of the day, I just want to be a successful MMA fighter, living off my passion. Hopefully after this fight, after I beat this guy’s ass, that should be the ticket. If Dana needs another fight, let me know.”
Image via ARES FC
Weight class: Welterweight
Birthplace: Dagestan, Russia
Next Fight: June 25 vs. Karl Amoussou (27-9-2) at ARES FC 7 in Paris (UFC Fight Pass)
Background: Born in Dagestan, [autotag]Abdoul Abdouraguimov[/autotag] moved to Europe at age 7. First, he lived in Germany. Then, he ultimately landed in France, where he has proudly remained since. In a day-and-age of “the new breed” of mixed martial artists, people who train MMA their whole lives, Abdouraguimov swims against the tide. He didn’t start training wrestling until age 16. Five years later, he took his first fight at age 21. He racked up wins left and right, and somewhere along the way teamed up with MMA Factory head coach Fernand Lopez for management. From his professional debut to present day, Abdouraguimov competed against top-tier competition including a six-fight tenure for Brave CF where he briefly held their welterweight title. In February, he captured his second major promotional title when he submitted UFC alum Godofredo Pepey with a ridiculous inverted armbar triangle.
The skinny: Every month, MMA Junkie produces this “On The Doorstep” list, promoting future talent. It feels a bit weird mentioning Abdouraguimov on here, just because he is already a star in every sense of the word. Dubbed “The Lazy King”, Abdouraguimov has everything you’d want for an absolute no-brainer UFC signing. It’s honestly crazy he hasn’t been snatched yet. From the branding, to his unique post-fight celebrations, to his 14 wins against good competition, to his semi-recent Submission of the Year candidate, Abdouraguimov is poised to make an immediate impact whenever he joins the UFC, Bellator, or PFL. With the promotion’s France debut looming, it seems like a no-brainer his upcoming fight should be a tryout of sorts. There’s no need for Dana White’s Contender Series. A win over Karl Amoussou should mean an instant UFC deal.
In his own words: “I know my own skills, what I can do, and what I can’t do. When I see many fights in the UFC, there are many fights I could win easily. Of course, there are some tough guys. But I put myself in the top 10 (right now). It’s not because I think I’m overestimating myself. It’s how I feel and what I think and how I see the level of the UFC. I’d put myself in the top 10.”
“… I don’t really plan specific techniques or strategies for fights. My strategy is always simple. It’s, ‘Go and try to get the finish.’ If I can knock him out, I’m going to knock him out. If he gives me a submission opportunity, of course I’m going to take it. If I can control him and smash him, I’m going to smash him. I’ll give punishment. I’m ready for anything. … I think the American people will like me. I’m ‘The Lazy King’ and I can put on a lazy show for lazy people. Lazy people are smart people.”
Chris San Jose
Weight class: Bantamweight
Birthplace: Kailua-Kona, Hawaii
Next Fight: June 25 vs. Austin Bashi (6-0) at Lights Out Championship 8 in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Background: A lifelong fight fan, [autotag]Chris San Jose[/autotag] decided to give what he saw on TV and pay-per-view a hands-on try. It was love at first strike. After high school, his training took off. After working part-time jobs alongside his amateur MMA career, San Jose changed his hobby to a profession. Part-time training became full-time training in short order. Everything is focused around his UFC dreams. After a 5-0 start to his pro career, San Jose lost to future UFC fighter Journey Newson. He got right back on the horse and won his next three. He tore his MCL in his most recent fight, which took place over two years ago in March 2020. An alternate for ‘The Ultimate Fighter 29,’ San Jose’s return was delayed a little longer – but now he’s ready to prove himself against a highly-touted, young, undefeated fighter.
The skinny: San Jose has struggled to remain active in recent years, which is probably the only thing preventing him from being signed to the UFC. However, the fact that about nine months of this delay was because of a potential “TUF” opportunity is reassuring. He has eyeballs on him. He’s 33, so the time is now. If he beats 20-year-old phenom Austin Bashi, and does so impressively, I think that’ll be the cherry on top of a UFC-ready resume. In a just world, the promotion will agree.
In his own words: “Whether it’s striking, ground game, jiu-jitsu, I’m a very non-prideful person when it comes to how I want to win. I’m super competitive. You see that in my fights. I’m always looking to get the upper hand on my opponent, to get the finish, to just dominate, or outclass them. I get this a lot from people who are there watching. It’s always a really entertaining fight to watch, regardless of whether it’s a lot of jiu-jitsu or if it’s a standup war. It’s always entertaining for people to watch, because they see that competitiveness in every area.
“… I’m at the point where experience is all lined up. My athletic ability is all lined up. Everything kind of aligns. When you first get in there, you have a lot to learn. Maybe, you’re working your strength and conditioning. Everybody is kind of putting the puzzle pieces together. The hope is that when you step onto that big stage, all the puzzle pieces will line up so you can make a big impact. That’s what I’ve always wanted to do. I want to step onto the stage of the UFC and be like, ‘Hey, I’m here and I’m going to make a big splash and a big impact.’ That’s where I feel like I’m at now. This is the right time.”
Weight class: Flyweight
Birthplace: Las Vegas
Next Fight: June 26 vs. Nate Smith (6-3) at Fury FC 65 in New Orleans (UFC Fight Pass)
Background: Born in the fight capital of the world, [autotag]Carlos Lozoya[/autotag] began his combat sports journey in the world of jiu-jitsu. From a young age he trained under Sergio Pena. Submission grappling was his first competition. To compliment his jiu-jitsu, he joined the wrestling team in high school. He earned a wrestling scholarship to the University of North Idaho where he became nationally-ranked. After his first year, Lozoya pulled an audible. He wasn’t a fan of the academic work, so he pivoted and fought an amateur MMA bout – against a fellow unknown at the time named Sean O’Malley. From 2016-2019, Lozoya was active duty military – so MMA and jiu-jitsu was put on hold for the ranger battalion. There he met Connor Matthews. When his wife got accepted to Harvard, Lozoya moved to Massachusetts and joined Matthews at Lauzon MMA.
The skinny: Lozoya is a combat sports lifer who has surrounded himself with fantastic, knowledgable role models throughout his MMA career. His stint as a ranger went hand in glove with the mental strengthening needed for the next level. The physical is there, too, though – and so are the results. In July, Lozoya picked up perhaps his most marquee win to date when he submitted TUF and DWCS standout Ricky Steele with a mounted triangle. The win extended his streak to five, including three finishes. The UFC keeps track of their DWCS alums, so if Lozoya defeats another one – it’s undeniable he’ll be on the radar.
In his own words: “I’ve definitely been around a whole lot of mentally tough people going through the special operations pipeline and being in ranger battalion. It was definitely something unique. It helped me out with MMA, too. I remember before I was ranger battalion, I used to idolize these guys. I’d like, ‘I want to do that.’ Once I got into battalion and I saw the people who are in it. I realized most of these people aren’t anything super special. They’re just people who never quit. I kind of related that a lot to MMA. A lot of these guys at the higher level, they’re not anything special. They’re just people that kept at it.”
“… I’ve grappled and sparred with a lot of higher-level guys. Higher-level in jiu-jitsu. Higher-level in the UFC. It brings me back to that point where I used to idolize people who were at these levels, but when I go against them, they’re just people, too. I know where my level is at. I know where I belong. I know my level is already at the UFC. It’s just a matter of time at this point.”
“… My goal is to finish every opponent. It’s really what the UFC is looking for. I feel like if I finish Nate (Smith), that’ll be four finishes in my last five against good opponents. I think it would be hard to deny me at this point.”
Fighters worth watching who didn’t crack the list, yet are on the verge of something big:
[autotag]Adam Laguna[/autotag] (6-1) – Friday vs. Piotr Wawrzyniak (9-5) at Babilon MMA 28 in Nowy Targ, Poland
[autotag]Bahatebole Batebolati[/autotag] (6-0-1) – Friday vs. Haris Talundziv (4-0) at LFA 133 in Denver (UFC Fight Pass)
[autotag]Jose Delano[/autotag] (10-2) – Friday vs. Michael Stack (6-1) at LFA 133 in Denver (UFC Fight Pass)
[autotag]Don Shainis[/autotag] (12-3) – Saturday vs. Brice Picaud (9-6) at Cage Titans 53 in Plymouth, Mass.
[autotag]Adam Assenza[/autotag] (15-6) – Saturday vs. Dominic Clark (15-11) at BTC 15 in Burlington, Ontario, Canada
[autotag]Nate Jennerman[/autotag] (15-5) – Saturday vs. Chance Beck (7-4) at NAFC: Summer Slam in Waukesha, Wisc.
[autotag]Marcos Rodrigues[/autotag] (18-5) – Saturday vs. Thiago Silva (21-11) at SFT 35 in Sao Paulo, Brazil
[autotag]Alton Cunningham[/autotag] (9-2) – Saturday vs. Jesse Murray (8-4) at NAFC: Summer Slam in Waukesha, Wisc.
[autotag]Paris Moran[/autotag] (6-1) – Sunday vs. Anthony Do (8-4) at Fury FC 64 in Houston (UFC Fight Pass)
[autotag]Max Rohskopf[/autotag] (7-1) – June 10 vs. Erick Sanchez (10-6) at Cage Warriors 137 in San Diego (UFC Fight Pass)
[autotag]Herbeth Sousa[/autotag] (15-1) – June 10 vs. Muin Gafurov (17-4) at LFA 134 in Belton, Texas (UFC Fight Pass)
[autotag]Kenneth Bergh[/autotag] (9-0) – June 11 vs. Ederson Cristian Macedo (10-6) at Superior Challenge 24 in Stockholm, Sweden (FITE)
[autotag]Ryse Brink[/autotag] (8-2) – June 11 vs. Carson Frei (9-5) at WXC 87 in Flint, Mich.
[autotag]Eddy George[/autotag] (5-0) – June 17 vs. Jacob Bohn (10-9) at CES MMA 69 in Lincoln, R.I. (UFC Fight Pass)
[autotag]Mitch Raposo[/autotag] (6-1) – June 17 vs. Heinrich Wassmer (7-5) at CES MMA 69 in Lincoln, R.I. (UFC Fight Pass)
[autotag]Ashiek Ajim[/autotag] (6-1) – June 17 vs. Azjavkhlan Baatar (8-6) at CES MMA 69 in Lincoln, R.I. (UFC Fight Pass)
[autotag]Kamil Kraska[/autotag] (8-1) – June 18 vs. Cezary Oleksiejczuk (8-2) at FEN 40 in Ostroda, Poland
[autotag]Francisco Prado[/autotag] (8-0) – June 19 vs. Mauricio Ariel Pare (18-14) at Samurai Fight House 5 in Bueno Aires, Argentina
[autotag]Heber Federico Pereyra[/autotag] (10-1) – June 19 vs. Joan Sanchez (4-3) at Samurai Fight House 5 in Bueno Aires, Argentina
[autotag]Anastasia Feofanova[/autotag] (8-1) – June 25 vs. Ewelina Wozniak (6-1) at ARES FC 7 in Paris (UFC Fight Pass)
[autotag]William Gomis[/autotag] (9-2) – June 25 vs. Renan Barao (34-9) at ARES FC 7 in Paris (UFC Fight Pass)
[autotag]Frederico Pasquali[/autotag] (7-0) – June 25 vs. Harry Hardwick (8-3) at Cage Warriors 140 in Belfast, Northern Ireland (UFC Fight Pass)
[autotag]Rhys McKee[/autotag] (11-4-1) – June 25 vs. Justin Burlinson (7-1) at Cage Warriors 140 in Belfast, Northern Ireland (UFC Fight Pass)
[autotag]Mando Gutierrez[/autotag] (7-1) – June 25 vs. Sean McPadden (5-1) at Lights Out Championship 8 in Grand Rapids, Mich.
[autotag]Austin Bashi[/autotag] (6-0) – June 25 vs. Chris San Jose (8-1) at Lights Out Championship 8 in Grand Rapids, Mich.
[autotag]Eric Shelton[/autotag] (15-7) – June 26 vs. Cleveland McLean (16-9) at Fury FC 65 in New Orleans (UFC Fight Pass)
[autotag]Joshua Weems[/autotag] (9-2) – June 26 vs. Mo Miller (7-1) at Fury FC 65 in New Orleans (UFC Fight Pass)