Maximo Blanco file photo: Dave Mandel | Sherdog.com
With major league promotions like the UFC, World Extreme Cagefighting, Strikeforce and Dream all running a seemingly endless number of events, it can be easy to forget that every single one of their stars started in some no-name promotion fighting for a few bucks, if that.
Keeping in mind the rich diversity of MMA talent that spans the globe, it would be downright foolhardy to try and come up with a list of the four best prospects in the sport today. That’s exactly what I’m doing, however, mainly because I don’t know what “foolhardy” means. So gather around fight fans and violence fiends for a glimpse into the future of the world’s greatest sport.
Francisco “Massaranduba” Drinaldo
Team: Constrictor Team
Brazil has been a breeding ground for elite MMA talent since the sport’s earliest days, thanks to a rich combat sports tradition that extends not only into Brazilian jiu-jitsu but boxing, muay Thai and judo. Put a gun to my head, and I’d say Drinaldo will be the next big thing out of MMA’s fertile crescent.
It’s hard to deny him that title since he already holds wins over Flavio Alvaro and Luiz “Buscape” Firmino -- battle-tested veterans with serious experience against world-class competition. That feat is impressive enough on its own, but it bears noting that Drinaldo tapped out Firmino with ease and showed some real manliness in the face of adversity against Alvaro.
Currently under contract with Wallid Ismail’s Jungle Fight organization -- easily the best promotion in all of Brazil or South America, for that matter -- the hope is that Ismail’s connections to Zuffa will land Drinaldo a ticket to the major leagues sooner rather than later. Considering the man lives what could charitably be called a Spartan lifestyle, the reality that the financial cost of fighting might keep him from pursuing the sport any further remains a real concern.
Drinaldo’s is a common quandary for up-and-coming fighters who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, the best example being former top-ranked bantamweight Akitoshi Hokazono, who retired from MMA to run his own business. Given Ismail’s excitement over Drinaldo’s potential however, it seems safe to assume Brazil will soon have another homegrown hero to add to the ranks.
Maximo “Maxi” Blanco
Team: Yoshida Dojo
Calling a professional fighter a savage may seem a somewhat unsavory thing to do. With that said, no fighter has fought with Blanco’s reckless savagery since Wanderlei Silva’s heyday. A whirling dervish of double leg slams and thudding strikes, to watch the Venezuelan powerhouse fight is to understand what happens when freakish athleticism meets unrestrained rage.
Just a few years ago, “Maxi” was a world-class freestyle wrestler, an incredible accomplishment considering the mind, body and soul commitment it takes to reach that level. Now he trains at the Yoshida Dojo with Kazuhiro Nakamura and the world-ranked Michihiro Omigawa and has picked up the game with the same speed he runs through his opponents.
The obvious flaw in Blanco’s style is his temerarious approach, which has landed him in many dicey positions on the mat. However, the scrambling skills essential to freestyle wrestling have allowed him to consistently escape the pits he routinely digs for himself. His other saving grace is the kill-shot knockout power he puts into every strike he throws.
It only takes one clean blow for Blanco to end a fight, and his voluminous striking style tilts probability in his favor to an unfair degree. The continuous improvement he has shown throughout his still nascent career makes Blanco a special prospect. Should the day come when Blanco’s trainers marry his unchained aggression with some actual strategy, the lightweight division will become a very dangerous place.
Team: Legion Fight Team
The M-1 Selection series has long been the butt of many jokes, and, to be honest, the overall level of fighting to be found there leaves much to be desired. However, putting a gaggle of international fighters into huge tournaments is bound to produce a diamond, and Shikshabekov is proof of that.
Already the subject of comparisons to countryman Fedor Emelianenko, it’s hard not to see a bit of “The Last Emperor” in Shikshabekov’s style. Originally a Sambo competitor, Shikshabekov has morphed into a supremely well-rounded mixed martial artist despite having less than two professional years under his belt.
A smooth striker with knockout power that belies his slight frame, Shikshabekov is actually at his best on the mat. Lack of Brazilian jiu-jitsu skills remain a common concern surrounding any eastern European or Russian prospect since that region lags behind the rest of the world in quality instructors. No such worries exist for Shikshabekov, however, as he has shown silky submission skills off his back, as well as strong guard passing from top control.
The only legitimate concern about his long-term ceiling is the fact that he fights in the welterweight division despite a frame that’s better suited for 155 pounds. Let us hope someone gets in his ear about fighting at lightweight and scores him some better opposition, because the level of fight IQ “The Quantum Russian” routinely displays is something MMA fans the world over need to see.
Team: Team Serra-Longo
Of all the prospects to make my cut, the 25 year-old Weidman definitely looks like the long play of the bunch. A student of former UFC welterweight champion Matt Serra and much-lauded striking coach Ray Longo, Weidman burst onto the scene at the 2009 Abu Dhabi Combat Club Submission Wrestling World Championships, where he took on Brazilian jiu-jitsu demigod Andre Galvao in an instant classic.
No purple belt should be able to give Galvao a serious roll on the mats, but Weidman took him to the limit and, despite losing the spirited affair 4-0, was hailed as one of the tournament’s breakout stars. However, unlike so many grappling converts, MMA has always been the primary focus of his Brazilian jiu-jitsu training, and the same prodigious talent he shows on the mats has translated beautifully to the cage.
Weidman’s combat sports roots actually go all the way back to his collegiate wrestling days, as he was a two-time All-American at both the junior college and Div. I level; he also briefly trained for the United States Greco-Roman squad. His combination of gravity-defying throws, an ironclad base and scarily preternatural grappling skills has already made him one of North America’s premier prospects.
A real challenge awaits him when he meets heavy-hitting Team Tiger Schulmann product Uriah Hall for the Ring of Combat middleweight title at Ring of Combat 31 on Sept. 24. If Weidman can overcome the first serious challenge of his MMA career, it may be just a matter of time before his trainers’ connections to the UFC land him in the Octagon.
Follow Tomas Rios on Twitter as he attempts to discover the meaning of “foolhardy” at www.twitter.com/Tomas_Rios.