On The Doorstep: 5 fighters who could make UFC or Bellator with January wins

Nolan King
·14 min read

Every champion in MMA history started out somewhere.

For those who make it to the highest stage, the journey starts long before they strap on UFC or Bellator 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 return to the cage for what could be their stepping stone fight. There are dozens of fighters inches away from making the jump in the coming weeks, but these five are particularly exemplary.

This month:

  • A key member of Kings MMA looks to carve his own path to the UFC, where he has cornered many of his teammates.

  • A surging yet under-the-radar submission specialist hopes his boxing improvements will earn him an LFA title – and a phone call shortly after.

  • An MMA Lab fighter hopes to keep his undefeated record alive as he continues his push toward a major promotion deal.

  • After being passed over on Dana White’s Contender Series in 2019, a rising American Kickboxing Academy star is eager to get back in action and punch his ticket to the big show in the process.

  • A light heavyweight up-and-comer and member of Factory X looks to capitalize on his biggest opportunity to date: an LFA main event.

Arthur Estrazulas

Record: 12-4 Age: 31 Weight class: Lightweight Height: 5’11” Birthplace: Porto Alegre, Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil Next Fight: Jan. 15 vs. Nick Browne (10-1) at LFA 97 in Park City, Kan. (UFC Fight Pass) Background: [autotag]Arthur Estrazulas[/autotag] started training when he was 15, but his fighting instincts started long before that. Fighting too much at school, Estrazulas picked up martial arts to improve his skills. However, when he started training, his schoolyard fights ended and his passion to pursue a mixed martial arts career grew. Coming from humble beginnings in Brazil, Estrazulas never considered it possible for him to become a UFC fighter, though he was a fan. After taking his first muay Thai fight, Estrazulas was encouraged to give MMA a shot. A few fights later, Estrazulas jumped to the United States and became an integral member of Kings MMA thanks to former UFC heavyweight champ Fabricio Werdum. Estrazulas is the boyfriend of a current UFC fighter, Sabina Mazo. The Skinny: Estrazulas trains with some of the best strikers in the world under Rafael Cordeiro. It’s one thing to rely on others, but others rely on him. When Kelvin Gastelum fought Israel Adesanya, Estrazulas was in his corner. He’s also cornered Mazo, Giga Chikadze, Beneil Dariush, and others in the UFC. He’s a smart fighter who is always looking to take on challenges. He was offered UFC and Contender Series opportunities on short notice in the past, so an LFA title-clinching performance will likely solidify his spot on a major promotion’s roster. In his own words: “I’ve never fought in the UFC, but I’m fighting for the belt right now in LFA and feel like I have so much experience already. I’ve been on the biggest stage so many times.” “I fought in ACB, I fought in Bellator, I fought in PFL, so many great shows. No matter what the results were, they always ended up being great fights, but I never had the chance to fight again. I’m not complaining about this because I actually learned a lot. That happened because I wasn’t able to talk about myself. That’s something I’ve learned: how to promote myself. … If you see my face, I’m already too ugly to be a model. I’m a fighter. I’ve broken my nose more than five times. I just want to fight and put on great fights.” "I'm confident (a UFC opportunity awaits me if I win). I'm really focused on the LFA belt and this fight. It's five rounds – and going to be my first time doing five rounds. I think more importantly than just the victory, my skills need to show. With this being the first card of the year, so if I win the belt, I think I get the call."

Nick Browne

Record: 10-1 Age: 30 Weight class: Lightweight Height: 6'0" Birthplace: Uniontown, Penn. Next Fight: Jan. 15 vs. Arthur Estrazulas (12-4) at LFA 97 in Park City, Kan. (UFC Fight Pass) Background: [autotag]Nick Browne[/autotag] picked up wrestling in fourth grade and continued with it through his freshman year of college. Around the time his competitive wrestling career ended, Browne began boxing – and later became an All American. MMA started to creep into his psyche when he was in high school, so piecing all of the different disciplines together was all part of the bigger plan. Since 2011, Browne has competed in 22 fights between the amateur and professional levels. The Skinny: Browne has, for whatever reason, flown pretty under the radar thus far in his MMA career despite fighting a number of opponents with very good records. While he runs his own gym, Browne has made the smart decision to work out at various other gyms – including American Top Team – with high-level training partners to prepare properly. His ground game is slick, as exemplified by his five submission victories as a pro. With a title on the line at LFA 97, Browne is finally in the spotlight he deserves. A 6-foot lightweight, he will likely get the call from a major promotion should he win. In his own words: "The best background for MMA is a good wrestling background. Just in case the feet doesn't work out, you always have your 'Plan B', which is always (going to the) ground. It's led me a lot of the way up. (Also,) venturing out and not sticking to my own gym – going to other gyms, traveling, doing camps with big teams. I've gone down to American Top Team a lot, and they've helped me a bunch." "I do believe a (UFC or Bellator shot) is on the other side of this. Even if I win, and it doesn't happen right away, it'll be back to the grind. If I keep winning, it's going to be inevitable for me to be one of the best to fight the best. With this title, if it pushes me, it'll be a blessing. If not, I'll just keep pushing forward toward bigger fish." "I definitely see myself being with the top contenders. ... Every time I watch somebody, I'm like, 'Man, I'm right there with them.' I get calls and texts like, 'Man, this guy sucks. Why aren't you in the UFC destroying?' I'm like, 'Yeah, you guys are right.' So it's definitely great hearing that and thinking the same thing with everyone around you."

Richard Palencia

Image via LFA

Record: 7-0 Age: 30 Weight class: Bantamweight Height: 5'7" Birthplace: Phoenix Next Fight: Jan. 29 vs. Jeimeson Saudino (9-6) at LFA 98 in Park City, Kan. (UFC Fight Pass) Background: [autotag]Richard Palencia[/autotag]'s path toward MMA greatness began in middle school when he picked up wrestling, a competitive hobby which he continued through high school and college. In college, Palencia was summoned by former UFC flyweight title challenger John Moraga to help prepare for an upcoming fight. MMA was always one of Palencia's intentions, so drilling with Moraga expedited the process. Palencia's internal competitor latched onto MMA and its necessary skills. One month later, Palencia took his first amateur fight. The Skinny: Palencia went undefeated as an amateur (10-0) and has yet to suffer his first loss as a professional – so he's clearly doing something right. Training at the MMA Lab amongst the likes of Casey Kenney, John Moraga, and other elite fighters of his size has worked wonders. It's been a slow burn for the 30-year-old, who, because of his record, likely hasn't had the easiest time finding opponents with shiny records. However, if he puts on an impressive showing at LFA 98, the now-bantamweight might be next in line for a UFC or Bellator opportunity. In his own words: "I'm just a dog. I've got that fight in me. I think, to me, I bring out those bonus fights. I bring out those 'Fight of the Night' fights. I'm that type of fighter. I go out there and give it my all no matter what. I'm pretty sure the guy standing beside me is going to do the same. I see myself fighting just like (Justin Gaethje), just giving it my all and having these 'Fight of the Night' fights all the time. ... I'm ready for sure now. I train with a couple of flyweights and bantamweights that have already been doing it in the UFC." "I think the UFC wants to see a good fight. I think they want to see a finish. They want to see a knockout. If I get that (at LFA 98), I think for sure the UFC is going to be calling."

JJ Okanovich

Record: 7-1 Age: 30 Weight class: Lightweight Height: 5'11" Birthplace: San Jose, Calif. Next Fight: Jan. 29 vs. Lucas Clay (6-1) at LFA 98 in Park City, Kan. (UFC Fight Pass) Background: [autotag]JJ Okanovich[/autotag] can't remember exactly when he decided he wanted to be a fighter. It "started with 'the boom,'" – when the UFC started getting popular. Fresh out of graduating high school, the kid who loved street fights found a passion for violence inside the gym. After a few one-off fights for Bellator, Okanovich got his big shot – a fight on Dana White's Contender Series in 2019. Though he walked away victorious with a unanimous decision win over Christian Lohsen, Okanovich was not offered a UFC contract. Since then, due to the pandemic and other factors, Okanovich has struggled to find fights. The Skinny: Okanovich is clearly on the UFC's radar. The promotion loves signing guys who won on DWCS, even if they weren't offered a contract that night. Okanovich falls under the category. Training out of AKA, he gets daily work with some of the best fighters in the world. The gym has a long and storied history of MMA champions that includes Khabib Nurmagomedov, Daniel Cormier, Cain Velasquez, and Luke Rockhold. History has a way of repeating itself and if Okanovich wins his first fight in over a year at LFA 98, he could take one step closer to title gold. In his own words: "I know I know how to fight. I've just got to go out there and not put the pressure on myself – just go out there and have fun. ... I can compete with these guys. I've just got to go out there and show these guys I can do it. I've got to find the finishes like I normally do. My last fight for the Contender Series, (my opponent) was tough. I hit him with a lot of shots." "I used to watch a lot of fights, but now I'm kind of hating on all these guys because I know I can beat them. It's turned my attention away from them because it just pisses me off when I watch them. ... I just want to get back in there and showcase my skill and show the UFC I can compete with their guys. Not just compete, but show them I can take them out one by one. This is my opportunity." "I really don't care (what's on the line). The UFC is the goal sure, but the goal is really to keep getting these dubs. Staying busy is the goal. I'm sick of these year layoffs. I'm sick of not being able to find all these fights. If I don't get the contract after this fight, I really don't care, but I'm going to go out there and give it my all. Hopefully, I'll put an end to this dude.

Josh Fremd

Image via Legacy Fighting Alliance (LFA)

Record: 6-1 Age: 26 Weight class: Middleweight Height: 6'4" Birthplace: Connellsville, Penn. Next Fight: Jan. 29 vs. Bruno Oliveira (8-2) at LFA 98 in Park City, Kan. (UFC Fight Pass) Background: Originally from the Pittsburgh area, [autotag]Josh Fremd[/autotag] grew up wrestling and playing football and baseball. Though he liked all the sports he partook in, Fremd took a liking to the individuality that came with wrestling. If anything went wrong, it was on him. The pressure? It was all on him, too. As a senior in high school, Fremd became interested in MMA with the help of a friend, and future Bellator heavyweight, Steve Mowry, who took him under his wing. From there, Fremd took a deep dive into the sport and eventually found his way to Factory X in Englewood, Colo. The Skinny: Well spoken? Check. Exciting? Check. Young? Check. Light heavyweight? Check. Trains with a good team? Check. Fremd checks a lot of boxes. He's explosive – an attribute that's always existed but has become more obvious with his recent destructive first-round knockouts of Lamar Gosey and Antonio Jones. Being put in an LFA headliner is a big slot. Fighting a Contender Series veteran should be a good gauge. While there's no LFA title on the line, Fremd seems like a layup signing should he win this month. In his own words: "I immerse myself into the lifestyle of this. I love fighting. I love competing. I love everything that comes with it (even) the hard, grinding days. ... We, as fighters, we get paid to fight, yeah. But most of our time is on the mats training. Not everyone sees that. That's the part of it I really love the most. I love training. I really want this. I surrounded myself with like-minded people out here at Factory X." "(Entering this fight,) I'm not putting any more pressure on me than there needs to be. It's just a fight. ... I've been robbed. I've lost my job multiple times out here because of COVID-19. I know what it's like to not fight. People forget about you and you're not on their radar. I came back from this with a vengeance. If you're going to watch the fight, cool. If not, awesome. I'm going to go out there and do what I train to do."

Fighters worth watching who didn’t crack the list, yet are on the verge of something big:

  • [autotag]Kamuela Kirk[/autotag] (9-4) – Jan. 15 vs. Guilherme Santos (8-3) at LFA 97 in Park City, Kan. (UFC Fight Pass)

  • [autotag]Jose Martinez[/autotag] (11-4) – Jan. 15 vs. Jacob Rosales (12-6) at LFA 97 in Park City, Kan. (UFC Fight Pass)

  • [autotag]Rinat Fakhretdinov[/autotag] (19-2) – Jan. 16 vs. Eric Spicely (12-5) at UAE Warriors 15 in Abu Dhabi (UAE Warriors YouTube)

  • [autotag]Sultan Zholdoshbekov[/autotag] (14-1) – Jan. 16 vs. Vinicius de Oliveira (14-2) at UAE Warriors 15 in Abu Dhabi (UAE Warriors YouTube)

  • [autotag]Vinicius de Oliveira[/autotag] (14-2) – Jan. 16 vs. Sultan Zholdoshbekov (14-1) at UAE Warriors 15 in Abu Dhabi (UAE Warriors YouTube)

  • [autotag]Saygid Izagakhmaev[/autotag] (17-1) – Jan. 16 vs. Carlston Harris (14-4) at UAE Warriors 15 in Abu Dhabi (UAE Warriors YouTube)

  • [autotag]Jesse Arnett[/autotag] (17-6) – Jan. 16 vs. Elias Boudegzdame (16-6) at UAE Warriors 15 in Abu Dhabi (UAE Warriors YouTube)

  • [autotag]Gerald Scott[/autotag] (4-0) – Jan. 29 vs. TBA at LFA 98 in Park City, Kan. (UFC Fight Pass)

  • [autotag]Kyle Frost[/autotag] (4-0) – Jan. 29 vs. Austin Clem (4-1) at LFA 98 in Park City, Kan. (UFC Fight Pass)

  • [autotag]Lucas Clay[/autotag] (6-1) – Jan. 29 vs. JJ Okanovich (7-1) at LFA 98 in Park City, Kan. (UFC Fight Pass)