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 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 close to making the jump in the coming weeks, but these five are particularly exemplary.
A welterweight finisher hopes his first CFFC title defense will be his only – and he’ll go to the UFC right after.
One of the most impressive unsigned performances on the inaugural season of Dana White’s Contender Series, comes back after a 3.5-year hiatus with his sights set on earning the contract that eluded him.
Two Oklahomans hope their LFA homecoming headliners will be eye-catching enough to elevate them to MMA’s big leagues.
With a title defense for Fury FC, a lightweight standout thinks a UFC phone call could come his way.
Record: 6-1-1 Age: 29 Weight class: Welterweight Height: 5'11" Birthplace: Pennsylvania Next Fight: April 1 vs. Evan Cutts (11-4) at CFFC 94 in Philadelphia (UFC Fight Pass) Background: [autotag]Bassil Hafez[/autotag]'s earliest roots in mixed martial arts began in the most raw form of combat there is: Street fighting. When his fighting hobby became too much outside of the gym, Hafez entered a cage in order to contain it. He hasn't looked back since. Now a member of Factory X, Hafez trains with some of the world's best fighters. He's compiled a 6-1-1 record, only having lost once in 2016 (and also dropping a controversial unsanctioned bout in 2018). The Skinny: Hafez checks a lot of boxes. Improving at a rapid rate? Check. Major regional promotion title? Check. Trains at a high-level gym? Check. Finishes fights? Check. With all those checks in mind, he's well on his way toward being the next CFFC fighter to make the jump to the UFC. Last time around, Hafez defeated Christien Savoie, a then-undefeated fighter who struggled to find matchups in Canada. If he defeats a seasoned regional veteran in Evan Cutts, he'll prove he is the perfect mix of talent and potential. In his own words: "I understand that it's a hard thing to get to the UFC and get to the big shows. I feel like my last win was a good win and I'm excited to go out and have another great performance and show that I deserve to be there. I want to leave them no chance to say no and no chance to not sign me. I feel like I definitely can compete with the guys at the top level. I know I have what it takes. I'm only improving especially being with Factory X now, improving my striking and improving my overall MMA game." "... I've trained with guys in the UFC and outside the UFC. I feel I'm a top-level fighter. I show that in training and I've been trying to show that in the cage. Whenever I get that call, I'll be ready. If I got the call tomorrow, sh*t, I'd be elated and ready to go." "... I have a whole backstory of things I've experienced, losses I've had. I feel like I'm a good testament to what it takes to be a fighter and what it takes to grind and make it to the UFC and stay there. I definitely feel like I'm an exciting fighter. I'm a black belt on the ground. ... I have great submissions and even better submission defense. Overall, I have even better fight IQ and I'm only improving."
Record: 7-0 Age: 29 Weight class: Flyweight Height: 5'6" Birthplace: Connecticut Next Fight: April 16 vs. Yuma Horiuchi at LFA 104 in Shawnee, Okla. (UFC Fight Pass) Background: Inspired by his brother's wrestling career, [autotag]Carlos Candelario[/autotag] wanted to get involved – so he did. Two years later, Candelario stepped away from wrestling. But as he progressed through his teenage years, Candelario searched for a challenge he could become passionate about. He joined a boxing gym. He transitioned from boxing to kickboxing, then MMA was suggested soon after. Reluctant to try, he was dragged to MMA gym by his friends. There, he met future UFC fighter Matt Bessette and a handful of his future training partners and coaches. In awe, Candelario quickly became passionate about MMA. He affiliated himself with Underdog Mixed Martial Arts and the passion progressed. Ten years later, he's undefeated. He had a big shot on Dana White's Contender Series, Season 1, which he won, but did not earn a contract on. He has not fought since. The Skinny: Despite having not fought since 2017, Candelario is still only 29. He looked phenomenal on DWCS and dominated a Jose Aldo training partner on the feet and on the ground. This all came despite him suffering a torn ACL in the fight. In the weeks following the win, Candelario was offered another UFC opportunity. However, he had to turn it down due to injury. Following his recovery, Candelario wasn't interested in taking fights. He continued to train but not compete. It took a while, but the fire was recently lit under him once again. His passion for MMA was rekindled and he's jumping right back into top regional waters at LFA. Should he win, a fight on DWCS seems inevitable when looking at the timing. However, UFC opportunities come often these days, so who knows? Maybe he'll go right to the big show. In his own words: "I started falling in love with the whole competing and trying to get better everyday thing again. A lot of things just happened in life. You can't get time back. I'm always training two to three times a day, at least five to six times a week. It was just like, 'What am I doing? I'm training and helping people fight and I'm not fighting?' I know I'm good." "... One of my grappling coaches told me, 'Oh, Carlos today would kill Carlos from three years ago.' I just felt like that really hit me. I feel like he's so right. ... I like being exciting. When something is not really exciting, I feel like the crowd. I want to boo myself. I just feel like I'm really learning every part of the game." "... I was angry at the time (of my injury), I felt like my foot was right at the door. I know the UFC wants you at the time that they call you. I was really frustrated. ... But now, I'm not really worried about that anymore. ... I know that a good performance that I'm capable of can definitely get me in there."
Record: 9-2-1 Age: 32 Weight class: Lightweight Height: 5'11" Birthplace: Oklahoma City, Okla. Next Fight: April 16 vs. Brandon Phillips (8-3) at LFA 104 in Shawnee, Okla. (UFC Fight Pass) Background: Following a collegiate football career, [autotag]Aaron McKenzie[/autotag] partook in every sport he came across. His activities ranged from pickup volleyball and soccer to basketball and beyond. He played everything he could, but it wasn't enough. McKenzie needed something else, which he found at his local MMA gym in town. Three months later, McKenzie took his first amateur fight and won. He's been chasing the dream ever since. The Skinny: McKenzie has had his ups and downs, but regardless of the outcome, he's become stronger. He knows what it feels like to compete on a big stage. Even if it was just a one-off for Bellator, he's experienced the bright lights. His only career loss was in that fight; a split decision to Chris Gonzalez, who is one of Bellator's brightest lightweight prospects. Eight of McKenzie's nine wins have come inside the distance (four knockouts and four submissions). He's well-rounded and not afraid to take risks to reap bigger rewards. With an LFA headlining slot, McKenzie has the attention of all major promotion matchmakers. He just has to capitalize on the moment. In his own words: "It's something I've been dreaming of and hoping for, for a long time. It's always been the goal. From the moment I took the first fight, it was like, 'Alright, you want to get to the UFC.' Once you get that UFC attached to you, your name will just mean something a little bit more. I'd love to take this opportunity and be another one of those guys with the LFA strap. That's something the UFC is really hanging their hat on right now. I'd love to win one for them. "... There are a lot of guys (in the UFC) I've watched that I'd match up well with. My coaches agree. We've been trying to get in on some of the short-notice fights for a little while now. It just hasn't worked out quite yet for whatever reason. I feel great grappling. My striking is solid these days. It's come a long way from six or seven years ago when I started. I'm really comfortable wherever the fight goes. I pride myself on being well-rounded."
Image via Fury Fighting Championship
Record: 9-3 Age: 30 Weight class: Lightweight Height: 5'8" Birthplace: Texas Next Fight: April 18 vs. Le'Ville Simpson (9-5) at Fury FC 45 in Houston (UFC Fight Pass) Background: Where did it all begin with [autotag]Nico Echeverry[/autotag]? Power Rangers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, of course. Well, sort of. Although he tried to stay focused in martial arts classes as a little kid, it was impossible. At 19, Echeverry returned to take a more serious approach to martial arts after a friend convinced him to give it a try. It was love at first roll. The people, the discipline, the activity, the culture – Echeverry immersed himself in it all. It was a blast. Twelve professional fights later, Echeverry has won four of five fights and picked up the Fury FC lightweight title along the way. The Skinny: For better or worse, in 2021, fighters need personality and authenticity to stick out among the pack. Echeverry has the mic skills, presents himself well, and has the talent to back it up. With Fury FC on the rise, more and more legit talent will be produced by it. Echeverry among them. A new breed of fighter, Echeverry values excitement. Sure, he's suffered losses. But if the way DWCS contracts are handed out sheds any light on the situation, fight results don't mean everything. With a successful title defense in his next fight, Echeverry should elevate himself into the ranks of the UFC. In his own words: "You've seen construction workers, right? You've seen people hammer nails, right? Imagine that. That is basically me on a day-to-day basis with every single person I fight. I am the hammer. It doesn't matter. I don't care who the person is. I'm going to take full credit for this saying, 'Every nail was made for a hammer.' That's how it is for opponents. You could be 170, 185, (or) 155. It doesn't matter who you are. You're just another guy. I'm not saying I won't prepare for you. I'm not saying I won't treat the guy with the utmost respect, but at the end of the day, he's just another nail I'm going to hammer down." "... I truly do believe that (a UFC call is coming). I've put in the work. I've got the record to back it up. I have a lot of people I go out and train with, not just people at my gym, but I go out and train with a lot of pros in the UFC. I'm able to keep pace with them. I can outpace them in many aspects. With this win, not only will I be able to retain the Fury FC belt, but I know that it will punch my ticket to get me to the UFC. I know it's going to be that much closer to not only fighting for a title in the UFC but making a full-on living (by) training and fighting.
Record: 12-3 Age: 27 Weight class: Featherweight Height: 5'6" Birthplace: Tulsa, Okla. Next Fight: April 30 vs. Terrance McKinney (8-3) at LFA 106 in Shawnee, Okla. (UFC Fight Pass) Background: As [autotag]Kyle Driscoll[/autotag] grew up, wrestling was his life. His older cousin trained in mixed martial arts, so he followed in his footsteps and picked it up as well. Doors opened after Driscoll passed his driver's license test. He'd double-session by driving his car to the gym after wrestling practice to train with a professional. The butt-kickings were harsh lessons, but invaluable, too. At 17, Driscoll attended an MMA show. That night, a local ticket seller's opponent dropped off. The promoter needed a replacement, so he asked Driscoll if he wanted it. Driscoll lied and said he was 18 (the minimum age to take a legal fight in Oklahoma). Thirty minutes later, he went in and tapped out the fan-favorite in his first MMA fight. He eventually turned professional. After his most recent loss, he joined AKA where he still trains amongst some of the world's best – and hasn't lost since. The Skinny: As a professional Driscoll has lost three times, but not since 2017. He entered an opportunity on Dana White's Contender Series in September on a six-fight winning streak. That run was dominantly and decisively increased to seven when he defeated longtime CES MMA standout, Dinis Paiva, via unanimous decision. Even though he didn't get a contract, Driscoll has been on the tip of the UFC's tongue since that event. His issue has been not being able to take short-notice fights because of his weight cut. To fix this, Driscoll moved up to lightweight. Additionally, he's focused heavily on his finishing abilities, a knock that potentially prevented him from earning that contract this past summer. With those two tweaks, Driscoll is more than ready for the big show. In his own words: "(Being on DWCS) was incredibly beneficial. Any time in that cage is a tool in your toolbox. It's experienced gained. It wasn't the most ideal circumstances, but I showed myself a lot about myself. ... I have no doubt I'll make it to the UFC. Having to take an extra step is another opportunity to showcase the entire MMA skillset that I have." "... When I decided to go to 145, I was 22 years old. The weight cuts were very manageable. It started with the Combate Americas fight. It was a horrible weight cut but I did everything right. I leave no stone unturned. I preach that and I live by that. The weight cut was just different. Contender Series it was just horrible. ... I took the time and put the size on. I'm a new race car now. I feel incredible. I cannot wait to take a drive in this new race car for this next fight." "... Just like with anything, you've got your tiers in the UFC. All these entry-level UFC guys, yeah, I think I'm ready for that. That could be this fight. As far as the Khabib (Nurmagomedovs) and Islam (Makhachevs), I know where I'm at. When it comes time to cross that bridge, I will be of that caliber. But all of these outside-the-top-15 guys, I'm not worried about them at all right now."
Fighters worth watching who didn’t crack the list, yet are on the verge of something big:
[autotag]Reggie Adams[/autotag] (6-2) – April 2 vs. Jesse Stirn (10-4) at CFFC 95 in Philadelphia (UFC Fight Pass)
[autotag]Jesse Smith[/autotag] (4-0) – April 2 vs. [autotag]Zulkarnaiyn Kamchybekov[/autotag] (4-1) at CFFC 95 in Philadelphia (UFC Fight Pass)
[autotag]Zulkarnaiyn Kamchybekov[/autotag] (4-1) – April 2 vs. Jesse Smith (4-0) at CFFC 95 in Philadelphia (UFC Fight Pass)
[autotag]Brandon Phillips[/autotag] (8-3) – April 16 vs. Aaron McKenzie (9-2-1) at LFA 104 in Shawnee, Okla. (UFC Fight Pass)
[autotag]Marcelo Golm[/autotag] – April 30 vs. Rashuan Jackson (5-3) at CES MMA 62 at Caribe Royal in Orlando (UFC Fight Pass)