Sirwan Kakai is an elite European bantamweight prospect. | Photo: Henrik Wall/MMAViking.com
Predicting the development and career arc of a young fighter is akin to forecasting Christmas weather in the middle of summer. There are so many variables and intangibles that make it virtually impossible: the training and management situation, the family environment and the level of focus on the martial arts chief among them.
With that in mind, Sherdog.com trains the spotlight on 10 up-and-coming European fighters, all under the age of 23, all with the potential to someday impact the MMA scene on a global stage. Fighters under contract with the UFC, Strikeforce, Bellator Fighting Championships or Dream were excluded by design.
Piotr Strus (6-0) -- Age: 22 | Country: Poland
Originally a kickboxer, 22-year-old Warsaw native Strus is currently learning the ground game from one of the most capable teachers in Poland -- 1996 Olympic judo gold medalist Pawel Nastula. With only a brief amateur career from which to draw in-ring experience, the computer science student has amassed a perfect professional record in the last 14 months. A regular sparring partner of Polish standout Jan Blachowicz, Strus’ strengths include a technically sound standup game, a level head and solid submission defense.
Benjamin Brinsa (10-0) -- Age: 22 | Country: Germany
Although he has yet to step up his game and prove his worth internationally, there is no denying the natural talent of young German Brinsa. The 21-year-old possesses traits you cannot learn: aggression, strength and physical and mental toughness. The centerpiece of East Germany’s flagship promotion, Free Fight Championship, he started out as a brawler but has begun to pick up the subtleties of the ground game under his coach, Marko Zschorner. If he keeps evolving, the future looks bright for the former soccer player.
Michael Kuiper (11-0) -- Age: 22 | Country: Netherlands
As far as pure grappling goes, “Judo Mike” is probably at the head of this class. A black belt in judo who has medaled on the junior level, Kuiper also trains and competes in Brazilian jiu-jitsu; he became the 2011 European heavyweight champion as a blue belt in the discipline. His coach, Koen Smets, a Flavio Behring black belt, promoted him to the rank of purple belt after the European championships. In MMA, he has compiled an unblemished record in 11 appearances, competing in his native Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Spain and Italy. He was due to make his promotional debut for the British Association of Mixed Martial Arts over the winter, but the event was cancelled by snowstorms.
Angelos Zampakikas (8-1) -- Age: 21 | Country: Greece
Zampakikas burst onto the scene at the tender age of 18, when he reached the final of the Free Fight Association German Championships 165-pound tournament. One year later, he took another step forward, as he won the same tournament inside the German-based promotion, defeating three opponents in a single night, including the respected Philipp Schranz. Ever since, his MMA career has stalled, as he was forced to put it on hold and provide for his family through his father’s trucking company. If Zampakikas can focus on the sport full-time, the Alan Omer training partner seems destined to become a force to be reckoned with.
Mansour Barnaoui (5-0) -- Age: 18 | Country: France
French phenom Barnaoui is another tournament veteran. The buoyant teenager is the current lightweight champion for French promotion 100% Fight. To win the title, the top student of boxing coach Aziz Mahi had to go through two tournaments. At 100% Fight “Contenders 10” in February, he choked out three opponents in a single night. Three months later, he added another two wins, including a technical knockout of pre-tournament favorite Julien Boussuge. Besides his stout hands, the young Frenchman is a physically and technically strong grappler with surprising serenity for his age.
Norman Parke (14-2) -- Age: 23 | Country: Northern Ireland
“Stormin’ Norman” is an extraordinary story on the MMA scene in the UK, for the simple reason that he was not spawned by a kickboxing or grappling background; Parke was an Irish freestyle wrestling champion before he started MMA. Besides naturally strong takedowns and hard ground-and-pound, the pride of 1,300-soul village Bushmills also possesses swift judo throws, which give him another option to take the fight to the mat.
The 23-year-old’s lone two defeats came to Bellator Fighting Championships veteran Greg Loughran in his professional debut and against fellow Irish top prospect Joseph Duffy on a week’s notice.
Khabib Nurmagomedov (14-0) -- Age: 22 | Country: Russia
Arguably the best-kept secret coming out of Russia is two-time combat sambo world champion Nurmagomedov. The 22-year-old Dagestani has fought his way through regional tournaments and onto the M-1 Global and ProFC circuits, the two biggest promotions in Russia. Khabib has displayed impressive close-quarters grappling and aggressive striking in his fights; his best asset, however, appears to be an explosive double-leg takedown he has used to throw around his opponents at will. Nurmagomedov trains out of sambo champion forge Combat Dobro in Kiev, Ukraine.
Sirwan Kakai (6-1) -- Age: 21 | Country: Sweden
Bantamweight wrestler Kakai is part of the infamous “hobbit camp,” which includes GBG MMA teammate Hamid Corassani and American Top Team buddy Brad Pickett. The 21-year-old made it through the first round of the casting for Season 14 of “The Ultimate Fighter” but did not make the final cut. Instead, he submitted top-ranked Scotsman James Doolan to move into second position in the European 135-pound rankings. When watching a Sirwan fight, watch for powerful slams, stifling top control and ever-improving boxing skills.
Svetoslav Savov (9-3) -- Age: 22 | Country: Bulgaria
Bulgarian Savov already has the look of a champion. Now, he has to add the consistency of a titleholder. A wrestler and a boxer with a powerful push kick, the 22-year-old CBS Respect representative has emerged as the Balkans’ most promising prospect. A minor celebrity in his hometown of Ruse, Savov has shown a tendency to underestimate lesser opponents. That resulted in two defeats against unrenowned Russians on his home turf. He cannot allow himself to fall into that trap when he takes on Bor Bratovz for the vacant World Free Fight Challenge middleweight title on Dec. 18.
Gor Harutunian (8-1-1) -- Age: 22 | Country: Armenia
Proud Armenian Harutunian already holds a notable title in a foreign promotion at a young age. In November, the seven-time French freestyle wrestling champion defeated 26-fight veteran Mikhail Malyutin for the ProFC lightweight crown. The James Schiavo protégé has worked diligently on his boxing and is starting to develop Dan Henderson-like power in his right hand. Once he brings his ground game up to the level of his wrestling and boxing, “Leonidas” will be hard to beat.
Follow Tim Leidecker on Twitter at @TimLeidecker or contact him at www.facebook.com/Rossonero1.