UNSUPPORTED BROWSER
More Sports

Twenty-three prospects to watch

When Jon Jones steps into the Octagon on Sunday night against Vladimir Matyushenko, the 23-year-old light heavyweight will have already been tabbed by many as mixed martial arts' can't-miss prospect.

Nothing is guaranteed in life or sport, particularly when it comes to the fight game, but Jones appears to possess traits generally associated with stud fighters throughout time. As MMA's expansion continues and a new generation takes its place in a sport featuring many more avenues for young athletes than only five years ago, it stands to reason Jones won't be the only one. In fact, even at MMA's highest levels, fighters age 23 and younger are already making their mark.

Unlike boxing, whose prospects are groomed and built through at least 20 bouts until anyone cares, all it takes is one victory in MMA to get noticed. Sure, records are important, but they're hardly the only thing that matters. And since losing isn't a death sentence to a fighter's long-term prospects, setbacks are an expected and accepted part of the sport.

Compiled here, after consultation from nearly two dozen of MMA's top matchmakers, managers and trainers, are 23 fighters worth remembering -- a tribute to Jones' youth, really.

Some you probably know. Some you probably don't. Of course, it stands to reason names weren't included that deserved to be, if only because they haven't had the opportunity to be showcased yet.

Unless circumstances dictate otherwise, these five fighters will be around the sport for many years to come. Each possesses talents that make them stand out from other fighters in their age range, which is underscored by results well beyond the regional level.

Jon Jones -- 23 years old, 11-1 record, 205 pounds, U.S.What more can be said about the lanky light heavyweight? He's gifted. Against Matyushenko, 39, we should see the upstate New Yorker's improvisational skills and physical attributes -- speed and range -- come into play. Why wouldn't he make it? Concerns range from success going to his head to a lack of interest in shoring up gaps in his weaknesses, like fighting from his back.

Joe Soto -- 23, 9-0, 145, U.S.If he wasn't such a quality prospect in the featherweight division, Soto might be best known for being the person who kindled Jones' interest in MMA while they roomed and wrestled together at Iowa Central Community College. The Bellator champion faces the toughest test of his young career on Sept. 2 against former Greco-Roman world champion Joe Warren (5-1). He's a powerful wrestler who exhibits great top-control, ground-and-pound and a varied submission game.

John Hathaway -- 22, 14-0, 170, EnglandThe best prospect out of the U.K., which is in the midst of its first MMA boom since Zuffa began promoting UFC events there in earnest in 2007. Hathaway is big for the division, and one day may be forced to move to middleweight, but for now he's shown an ability to stop takedowns -- not common for British fighters -- while maintaining an aggressive fighting style. He validated his status in the UFC with a one-sided decision over Diego Sanchez in May.

Josh Grispi -- 21, 14-1, 145, U.S.When he's healthy, the tall -- and by tall I mean five inches higher than your average featherweight -- kid from Plympton, Mass., appears to be as dangerous as they get. (His past seven fights haven't made it out of the first round.) At some point soon he'll run into the best featherweight in MMA, 23-year-old Brazilian Jose Aldo. (The accuracy of the WEC champion's age has been disputed in some circles, which is partly the reason Aldo isn't listed. He also happens to be considered top-three pound-for-pound, so the sport already recognizes Aldo's status.)

Rory MacDonald -- 21, 10-1, 170, CanadaSupremely talented, MacDonald suffered his first career setback, against the much more experienced Carlos Condit (25-5), in June. But even in defeat, MacDonald showed a ton of grit, a sign that he will bounce back and be someone to reckon with for many years to come. Each of his 10 wins came by way of stoppage or submission.

Whether they haven't had a chance yet, or had their ascension slowed by a loss, these fighters are poised in the not-too-distant future to get a shot in a major organization. Barboza, for instance, is said to be a win away from a contract with the UFC. If you haven't been made to feel old yet, realize Michael McDonald (headed to the WEC) and Yuri Villefort, training out of American Top Team in Florida, were born in 1991.

Edson Barboza -- 23, 6-0, 155, Brazil Magomed Shikshabekov -- 23, 7-0, 170, Russia Eduardo Dantas -- 21, 9-2, 135, Brazil Michael McDonald -- 19, 10-1, 135, U.S. Yuri Villefort -- 19, 6-0, 170, U.S.

Something stands out among this group of fighters that places them a step above just a name to watch out for. Chan Sung Jung, otherwise and lovingly referred to as the "Korean Zombie," is a warrior, which may not mean much for his long-term career aspirations but for now it makes him a must-watch fighter when matched well. Also, notice the international flavor here.

Chan Sung Jung -- 23, 10-2, 145, South Korea Guram Gugenishvili -- 23, 5-0, Heavyweight, Ukraine Pat Curran -- 22, 12-3, 155, U.S. Gunnar Nelson -- 21, 6-0-1, 170, Iceland Lukasz Sajewski -- 19, 8-0, 155, Poland

Simply that. Whether or not these guys pan out, they're all serious prospects being groomed for something much bigger than a run-of-the-mill career.

Pascal Krauss -- 23, 9-0, 170, German Bruno Santos -- 23, 6-0, 185, Brazil Nick Pace -- 23, 5-0, 135, U.S.Kevin Belingon -- 22, 7-0, 135, Philippines AJ Matthews -- 22, 3-0, 170, U.S. Michael Kuiper -- 21, 9-0, 185, Holland Josh Shockley -- 20 6-0-1, 170, U.S. Tomasz Narkun -- 20, 4-0, 205, Poland

SI.com

Drag this icon to your bookmark bar.
Then delete your old SI.com bookmark.

SI.com

Click the share icon to bookmark us.