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.
- An under-the-radar New Englander thinks a major regional promotion’s title will help catch the UFC’s eye.
- An undefeated rising star from Bosnia and Herzegovina plans to use an LFA headlining opportunity to show the UFC he’s ready.
- One of the most highly-touted prospects in all of MMA has proven she’s more than just a grappler – but continues to improve her punching prowess awaiting a UFC call.
- A crafty flyweight veteran who hasn’t lost since 2017 eagerly anticipates his 13th straight win, which he thinks will finally elevate him into the UFC.
- An Ecuador-born bantamweight based in taekwondo and cultivated by Ryan Hall jiu-jitsu plans to join countryman “Chito” in the UFC sooner or later.
Weight class: Featherweight
Birthplace: Southampton, Mass.
Next Fight: Sept. 9 vs. Dan Dubuque (14-7) at CES MMA 70 in Lincoln, R.I. (UFC Fight Pass)
Background: High school wrestling paved the path for Nate Ghareeb. So the obvious was next – a WWE wrestler. Ghareeb’s dream of professional wrestling was short-lived, however. He considered going to pro wrestling school, but his high school coach advised him against it and go with MMA instead. Ghareeb wasn’t really familiar, but the more he looked, the more he liked. After injuries in consecutive years during his collegiate wrestling stint at Springfield College (Mass.), he decided to pivot to a jiu-jitsu gym. The gym had a kickboxing class – and he fell in love with striking. After he transferred to West Virginia University, he dedicated himself to the art of muay thai. Combat sports became his life. At the crossroads of pursuing a potential career as a police officer or becoming a full-time fighter in 2016, Ghareeb chose the latter. After a 6-3 amateur career, Ghareeb turned pro in July 2019. Over the span of seven fights, his only loss was to top Bellator prospect Cody Law. Since then, he’s gone 4-0 en route to his upcoming CES MMA title opportunity.
The skinny: It hasn’t been a straight shot to the top for Ghareeb, but his path has been effective in the long term. As he’s progressed through his career, Ghareeb has slowly but surely figured out a stable and successful recipe to improve as a fighter. He’s got a good personality, finishing abilities, great cardio, and a dog in him – an attribute you really can’t teach. Right now, his training regiment revolves around him. He picks up knowledge from a number of different gyms and training partners in New England –although much of his training takes place at his actual house. Ghareeb isn’t ruling out more structure with a big gym, but also doesn’t want to foul up a strong foundation that is working despite its unorthodox nature. A CES MMA title will automatically put him on the UFC radar and if he figures everything else out, that’s a scary combination as he sets to onboard onto a major promotion.
In his own words: “I’ve always been somebody who’s always looking to get better. Every time I get in the cage, I’m not trying to be the same version of myself. I want to be better than the person I was yesterday. I think that carries over into my fighting. Even where I was in my last fight, I already feel like because of the people I surround myself with and the knowledge I’m trying to learn and studying what I’m doing, I don’t see myself as the same version of the guy I just was two months ago. It really comes down to the approach.
“… The CES will be great. Being a champion will be cool. But for me, my goal has always been to be in the UFC. I’ve always wanted to fight in the UFC. I don’t want to just get to the UFC, I want to be a high-level fighter in the UFC. For me, yes, I think this is one of those tipping points. This could be the fight to put me out there and say, ‘Hey, this guy has got something.’ It’s a very important fight in terms of my exposure I need to get myself to that level.”
“… I’m going there to destroy people. I want to put a beating on people to prove I’m one of the best. … I feel like I have the skills. I’m very diverse in what I can do. I can wrestle. I can cage-wrestle. I can clinch. I can strike. I can do everything. I do feel like I can belong there. I feel like if they called me tomorrow like, ‘Hey, we need a guy at 145.’ I’d be like, ‘OK, let’s do it.’ This is everything that I’ve worked for. I’m ready for the opportunity whenever it knocks.”
Weight class: Welterweight
Birthplace: Bosnia and Herzegovina
Next Fight: Sept. 9 vs. Chris Brown (8-4) at LFA 141 in Vail, Colo. (UFC Fight Pass)
Background: Haris Talundzic moved to Nebraska at a young age. So young, that he doesn’t remember much about his native country of Bosnia and Herzegovina. That doesn’t stop him from representing, however. Ever since he first laid eyes on the UFC in middle school, during an era where guys like Rashad Evans and Georges St-Pierre were ruling the MMA world, Talundzic has plotted to represent both of his native and adopted countries on the world’s stage. After his high school wrestling career fizzled out, his girlfriend encouraged him to give MMA a shot, as she knew how passionate he was about the sport. After some time at Tristar, Talundzic moved to “the biggest catapult” in his MMA career, Factory X. To date, he is 5-0 as a professional. He also went 8-1 as an amateur.
The skinny: Talundzic has a lot going for him. He’s well-spoken with good leaders backing his career. Talundzic has a great head on his shoulders, whether it be of his own doing, or of the great leadership at Factory X. He’s a great fighter, with exciting finishes. And above all, he’s representing an underrepresented country as he marches toward the UFC. There have been other Bosnian fighters in the UFC, like Mirsad Bektic and Damir Hadzovic, who Talundzic admires. But he’d still be at the forefront of the evolution of the country’s budding mixed martial arts history. Through only five pro fights, he’s already proven himself. He’s not interested in record-padding. His last two opponents had a combined record of 10-1-1 at the time of their fights. History has shown only UFC-ready fighters beat his next opponent Chris Brown. If Talundzic joins the short-list, expect a UFC call up.
In his own words: “Since I started fighting, even as an amateur, I always put this pressure in my head and in my mind that Dana White is in the stands or he’s on TV watching me. I’m the future world champ. Even my first amateur fight, I remember just thinking this way and just putting all this pressure on my head, like, ‘You have got to perform tonight. You’ve got to not only win tonight but dominate this amateur fight.’ Every fight since, I’ve always had that mentality, ‘Everyone is watching you. This could be your make-it fight.’ I treated every fight like that to be 100 percent honest. This one is going to be no different. I have that same exact pressure.”
“… If I had to fight in the UFC tomorrow, I’d be willing to challenge anyone outside of the top 15. I only say outside of the top 15 just to stay humble because I’m not in there yet. You won’t know until you get in there what it’s actually like. Without a doubt, I feel like I’d compete and beat anybody outside of the top 15 tomorrow, next week, whatever.”
“… What separates me from the other welterweights is I’m riding a 14-fight winning streak since 2016. In those 14 fights, nine of those are amateur but I haven’t lost a single round – or a single minute – of any of those fights. I’m just relentless and I’m overly confident, but not arrogant. I know what I’m capable of because I’ve done it against the highest-level guys in this weight division in the gym. Knowing how good I am, makes me every single fight, every single round, chase greatness.”
Weight class: Strawweight
Birthplace: Manaus, Amazonas, Brazil
Next Fight: Sept. 16 vs. Ashley Nichols (4-3) at LFA 142 in Prior Lake, Minn. (UFC Fight Pass)
Background: Jaqueline Amorim made a name for herself in the world of grappling winning all sorts of world tournaments and titles. However, the roots of her martial arts journey actually begin with MMA. Her father was a massive fan of the UFC and Royce Gracie and shared that passion with Amorim from a young age. Amorim recalls watching the promotion at age 5. After that, MMA was always part of the plan. She won and placed at IBJJF internationals, pans, and worlds. When the pandemic outbreak caused grappling opportunities to be few and far between, Amorim decided it was time to make the jump. In February, she won the vacant LFA strawweight title with an 86-second kneebar submission of Loveth Young. There were discussions of a spot on Dana White’s Contender Series this summer, but the parties involved elected for one more LFA bout first.
The skinny: Already 5-0 in MMA, Amorim has spent a shockingly low 338 seconds inside the cage in pro competition. She’s torn through the competition. In addition to being bilingual, marketable, and skilled in the cage, Amorim has made the sacrifices necessary to put herself in the best position for a championship trajectory. She now resides in the United States and trains at American Top Team in Coconut Creek, Fla. among some of the best in the world. Her grappling skills are amazing, but she has some hands, too – as she displayed in her July 2021 victory, a 10-second knockout of Megan Owen. An LFA title was a big step up. She’s already ready for the UFC, but is making the mature decision to continue to round herself out so there is no doubt she’s ready for the big show when she debuts. Smart.
In her own words: “The reason we decided to do this title fight is that’ll help me a lot with my experience. I’m still new. I’ve only had five fights, so we decided to take a big step. We’ll defend the belt and it’ll help me with my experience and to feel more comfortable with everything I need to fight. … I want to be ready for the next step. I know I have a lot of potential, but I also I’m very humbled to know I still need more experience.”
“… The main focuses are still to work on my striking, of course. Right now, me and my coaches want to work on that so it helps with my grappling, too. Before I just had the grappling and would just shoot for takedowns. Now, I feel like I’m starting to put everything together. This was one of the reasons I moved my camp here because I knew I need to be more technical. This will be a better place to better my striking.”
“… We’ll see how this one goes. Maybe after this, we take the next step. I just need to put on a good performance and we’ll be good. … This fight camp, I notice I’m way better. I’m a different fighter than I was my first training camp at American Top Team. I feel like my confidence is way better. I feel like of course after this fight I’ll be ready for the next step.”
Weight class: Flyweight
Birthplace: Lilburn, Ga.
Next Fight: Sept. 17 vs. Iago Ribeiro (10-3) at UAE Warriors 33 on Yas Island, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (UFC Fight Pass)
Background: It hasn’t been a perfect ride to the top of the regional mountain, but Juan Puerta is better off because of his struggles. “Leadfeather” started off his career with an 11-6 record. Since 2017, Puerta has defeated every opponent put in front of him – that’s 12 straight. His flying-knee knockout of hyped prospect Gustavo Balart put Puerta on the map in February 2018. The American Top Team product’s gutsy D’Arce choke submission of Kazbek Ashimov in December 2018 proved he can take it as well as he can dish it. After signing with Combate Americas in 2019, Puerta’s promotional debut never came to fruition because of the pandemic. In September 2021, he finally got his big break on Dana White’s Contender Series. Although he won via split, he was not offered a contract. One hand surgery later, Puerta is back and looking for win No. 13 in a row.
The skinny: Puerta is good enough to be in the UFC. That’s been the case for a long time. He’s dedicated himself for years and has always taken on tough comers on the regional scene. There’s always a little bit of luck that goes into getting a UFC deal. The right place. The right time. The right performance. Puerta just hasn’t had any, and that’s outside of his control. His fight on DWCS maybe wasn’t his most thrilling performance ever, but it wasn’t absolutely representative of his game either. Now healthy and with one UFC tryout opportunity under his belt, Puerta will travel across seas to show off a newfound, aggressive mentality in order to finally punch his ticket to the UFC.
In his own words: “We’re still learning, even going onto my 30th pro fight. Dana White’s Contender Series is something I’ll take with me for sure. … It was a little discouraging I didn’t get the contract because I knew I had beaten one of the best kids that had been on the Contender Series. … You know, I needed a little more. I don’t blame them for not giving me a contract. It’s a show where I had to perform. I didn’t in that third round. It was discouraging but I came off with a win. I was able to learn that I need to be a little bit more aggressive and look for the finish and give them what they want to see. I think I’m on the radar still. All I can do is try to get a little bit better, get through the issues, and I’m grateful to come off a win (but) honestly it felt like a loss to me.”
“… I’ve just got to give them what they want to see. I’m going to keep going. This is my dream. This is what I’ve wanted to accomplish my whole life. I’m still in my prime right now and I think 13 will be my lucky number. I’ve got to go out there and do something big and finish this guy.”
“… My teammates know how good I am. I’m in there competing with ’35ers and ’25ers that are top (UFC) contenders every single day and winning some rounds, respectfully. They’ll win some rounds against me, but I’ll win some rounds against them. That’s how we get each other better. I know I can compete with the top 10 in the UFC. In my head, I know I can do it. Seeing all these guys get their contracts, I’m happy for them, but I do feel like I should be there competing with these guys. The flyweight division is starting to open up. I want to be there to open the way with them and write my story.”
Weight class: Bantamweight
Birthplace: Manta, Manabi, Ecuador
Next Fight: Sept. 23 vs. Isaiah Gutierrez (8-1) at Fury FC 69 in Dallas. (UFC Fight Pass)
Background: Born in Ecuador two towns over from a more famous MMA fighter named “Vera”, Carlos Vera began taekwondo at 4. That’s when he moved to the United States and was immediately put into martial arts. His father wanted Vera to assimilate into American culture and that came with “holding your own.” Since then, he grew up on martial arts at Moon College Taekwondo alongside former ONE Championship champion Thanh Le – as he competed at the state, national, and international levels. Initially, martial arts was his passion but not his career. Vera pursued a career in business and finance but ultimately realized it wasn’t for him. He took his first amateur fight and won by roundhouse head kick. He was hooked and committed himself even further. More knockouts came, but he needed to add better grappling skills. That’s why he joined Mid City MMA. After a 9-4 amateur career, Vera turned professional. Eventually, he joined 50/Fifty Martial Arts Academy, where he is a purple belt under UFC fighter and submission wizard Ryan Hall. In recent fights, Vera has really emerged as a top prospect under the Fury FC banner.
The skinny: Taekwondo is arguably one of, if not the, most exciting base a fighter can have for MMA. Flashy kicks and highlight reel knockouts put butts in the seats, after all. Sprinkle in some unworldly level grappling techniques from a practitioner like Hall and you have quite the winning recipe. Vera is undoubtedly good enough to be on the UFC roster, it’s just about building up the resume. Consistent results are the only things preventing Vera from getting there, but he’s only lost to the best regional fighters out there. He lost his debut fight to a 14-7 fighter (talk about an experience mismatch), and his other two defeats have come against notables Levi Mowles and future teammate Greg Fischer. According to sources, Vera has already been in consideration for short-notice UFC opportunities – so a fourth win in a row should make him a lock. At 34, it’s potentially now or never, so a lot is riding on Sept. 23.
In his own words: “If I just continue to fight more people and good people and I continue to prove myself and continue to solve this puzzle in front of me, I’m going to be on the big show. It’s just a matter of time. The work that I’ve put in (speaks for itself). Everyone says the same thing, ‘I work hard. I train hard. Blah, blah, blah.’ It’s true. Everyone at this level is going to work hard and train hard. I respect my opponents for that reason because I know everyone is putting their time in. But I really think we have something special going on here. I’m becoming not just ‘that tough guy,’ but a ‘real cerebral fighter.’ I’m learning the art of war in the purest form. … Whether they call me this time or five fights from now, I’m going to be ready.”
“… I’ve trained with plenty of UFC guys. My striking is getting better. My wrestling is getting better. Honestly, I think I would probably already qualify within the top 15 or top 20 if I were to fight those guys. Within my mind, I 100 percent believe that. I’m going to keep proving it to myself. That’s why I train so hard. That’s why I work so hard, because I know they train hard and work hard. I’m not going to f*cking stroke my own ego and say that I’m the best. No, man. Everyone is good. I’m just putting in different work besides the work everybody else is doing. I belong with the top guys. I’m no chump and people are going to find out quickly.”
“… I like to represent the Hispanic community, the Latino community. It’s always cool to fight in Texas because they are in there. As long as I keep being proud of my heritage and where I come from… I’m just trying to be the best martial artist possible.”
Fighters worth watching who didn’t crack the list, yet are on the verge of something big:
- Guido Santos (13-3) – Friday vs. Paulo Henrique (12-4) at SFT 37 in Sao Paulo (YouTube)
- Paulo Henrique (12-4) – Saturday vs. Guido Santos (13-3) at SFT 37 in Sao Paulo, Brazil (YouTube)
- Mauricio Almeida (9-5) – Sept. 8 vs. Matheus Ortiz (13-6) at Mr. Cage 44 in Manaus, Amazonas, Brazil
- Ali Zebian (8-2) – Sept. 9 vs. Sam Watford (2-3) at CES MMA 70 in Springfield, Mass. (UFC Fight Pass)
- Mitch Raposo (6-1) – Sept. 9 vs. Israel Galvan (5-2) at CES MMA 70 in Springfield, Mass. (UFC Fight Pass)
- Chris Brown (8-4) – Sept. 9 vs. Haris Talundzic (5-0) at LFA 141 Vail, Colo. (UFC Fight Pass)
- Luthando Biko (10-3) – Sept. 16 vs. Muhidin Abubakar (3-0) at UAE Warriors 32 on Yas Island, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (UFC Fight Pass)
- Shido Boris Soto Esperanca (6-0) – Sept. 16 vs. Badreddine Diani (4-2) at UAE Warriors 32 on Yas Island, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (UFC Fight Pass)
- Kevin Oumar (8-3) – Sept. 16 vs. Emilio Quissua (3-0) at UAE Warriors 32 on Yas Island, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (UFC Fight Pass)
- Kaan Olfi (9-2-1) – Sept. 17 vs. Justin Van Heerden (10-5) at Eternal MMA 70 in Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia (UFC Fight Pass)
- Justin Van Heerden (10-5) – Sept. 17 vs. Kaan Olfi (9-2-1) at Eternal MMA 70 in Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia (UFC Fight Pass)
- Tahir Abdullaev (13-1) – Sept. 18 vs. Josh Togo (11-4) at UAE Warriors 33 on Yas Island, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (UFC Fight Pass)
- Isaiah Gutierrez (8-1) – Sept. 23 vs. Carlos Vera (11-3) at Fury FC 69 in Dallas (UFC Fight Pass)
- Evan Cutts (14-5) – Sept. 23 vs. Austin Jones (12-7) at Fury FC 69 in Dallas (UFC Fight Pass)
- Austin Jones (12-7) – Sept. 23 vs. Evan Cutts (14-5) at Fury FC 69 in Dallas (UFC Fight Pass)
- Chris Larsen (7-2) – Sept. 23 vs. Jamelle Jones (12-8) at Unified MMA 46 in Enoch, Alberta, Canada (UFC Fight Pass)
- Montserrat Rendon (4-0) – Sept. 28 vs. Brittney Clody (4-4) at Invicta FC 49 in Hinton, Okla. (YouTube)
- Ketlen Souza (11-3) – Sept. 28 vs. Kristina Williams (6-3) at Invicta FC 49 in Hinton, Okla. (YouTube)
- Kristina Williams (6-3) vs. Ketlen Souza (11-3) at Invicta FC 49 in Hinton, Okla. (YouTube)
- Jessica Delboni (12-3) – Sept. 28 vs. Jillian DeCoursey (5-3) at Invicta FC 49 in Hinton, Okla. (YouTube)