5 fighters who could make UFC with May wins
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.
The Invicta FC strawweight champion already kicked her way into internet virality. Now she looks to secure her spot on a major promotional roster with a title defense.
Defying life’s hardships since a young age, a Brazilian is eager to capitalize on his first major opportunity for LFA – and utilize his platform to spread awareness of a rare skin condition.
The CFFC bantamweight champion had ups and downs en route to the belt but aims to show the UFC brass the final product is worth the wait.
A former Arena Football League player started MMA a bit later than most but is on an accelerated pace with a perfect finishing rate – something he hopes the UFC will recognize.
If you’re looking for a scrap, look no further than the Georgia-born-and-raised fighter angling for a UFC deal against a former WSOF champ at Unified MMA 45.
Weight class: Strawweight
Birthplace: San Jose, Calif.
Next Fight: Wednesday vs. Alesha Zappitella (9-3) at Invicta 47 in Kansas City, Kan. (YouTube)
Background: An Oklahoma City University wrestler, [autotag]Emily Ducote[/autotag] turned her attention to mixed martial arts following the conclusion of her collegiate career. Throughout her amateur career and into her professional career, Ducote found success at 115 pounds. However, when Bellator, a promotion that does not have a strawweight division, came knocking, Ducote thought the opportunity was too good to pass up – even if she had to compete up a weight class. Over the span of her eight-fight Bellator tenure, Ducote went 4-4. At Bellator 186 in November 2017, Ducote challenged then-champion Ilima-Lei Macfarlane for the title. She lost by second-round submission. Since her Bellator tenure came to an end in 2018, Ducote has dropped back down to strawweight where she has gone 4-1, including three wins in Invicta – including a Knockout of the Year candidate in her most recent fight, a violent headkick finish of former UFC fighter Danielle Taylor.
The Skinny: Sure, Ducote’s record doesn’t stand out on paper, but look at who she has fought. She has about as good of a resume name-wise as any up-and-comer in women’s MMA and has only lost to notable names. She’s young, exciting, and experienced. She’s been in big fights for big promotions, so her mentality is stronger than most. Her recent success has caught the attention of the UFC, who contacted Ducote for a short-notice opportunity. However, the logistics didn’t work out. That’s a good sign. Then you slap a ridiculous, viral knockout on top of that? It’s honestly bananas the UFC hasn’t come calling. I’m not sure what they’re exactly waiting on, but another win will likely push her over the top and onto the roster – or that’s what would happen in a just world, at least.
In her own words: “I definitely consider myself a high-level athlete. I deserve to be competing with high-level athletes. Wherever you are, you can be fighting really amazing, high-level people outside of the UFC. I feel like I always have these hard fights and I improve every time. I’m not worried about that. I don’t ask for fights. I get offered them. I got offered hard fights, hard opponents. A lot of them are in the UFC now.
“I feel like the cards haven’t lined up for me, not because of a lack of skill. It’s because the door hasn’t opened yet. But as far as skill-wise, yes, I do think I’m a high-level athlete and I can definitely compete with a lot of those girls.”
Image via Melquizael Costa
Weight class: Lightweight
Birthplace: Porto de Moz, Para, Brazil
Next Fight: Friday vs. Italo Gomes (10-2) at LFA 132 in Rio de Janeiro (UFC Fight Pass)
Background: [autotag]Melquizael Costa[/autotag] grew up in Brazil. What started out as a typical childhood took a pivot when Costa began to show signs of vitiligo, a rare skin discoloration. The condition wasn’t understood at the time, so discrimination came. Parents did’t want their children playing with him, as they thought he had leprosy. In the MMA gym, however, Costa felt equal. What started as a hobby to build self-defense quickly became an idealistic career. He fell in love and the journey began.
The Skinny: A member of Chute Boxe, under coach Joāo Emilio, Costa has fought well and fought often. Over the past eight years, he’s competed 21 times as a professional. He currently rides a five-fight winning streak into his first LFA main event. We all know the stage and spotlight that comes with LFA, the premiere feeder league to the UFC and Bellator. Should he knock off (or knock out) fellow top prospect Italo Gomes, he’s someone the big promotions should want. He’s got a fun personality and fighting style. Perhaps he looks a little different, because of his vitiligo – but he’ll be the first to tell you, he’s able to stand out in people’s minds because of it. If everyone was the same in the MMA world, things would be boring. He has the opportunity to platform vitiligo for acceptance purposes while also living out a dream.
In his own words: “I’ve always had to overcome a lot to get where I am. The city that I lived in, it was three days of boat (travel) away from the capitol of my state. Ever since then, I’ve been persevering and taking this energy with my brother and trying to get myself to a high level. Today, I feel pretty confident in my abilities. I look at every single UFC show. I don’t miss one. I look at all the guys from my division, both lightweight and featherweight.”
“You just saw my teammate Joanderson Tubarāo (Brito). That punch he knocked out Andre Fili with, I take that every single day – and I’ve survived. So I know I can get in there and I can compete with the guys. I look at myself right now and I see myself as a top-five of the featherweight and lightweight divisions. I know I have to take things one step at a time and that’s what I have right now. I have this fight with LFA. I already feel that I can be there and I hope one day I get to be there.”
“… I like to say that I’m unpredictable. I think I excel everywhere. You’ll see on my record, I have five wins by KO, six wins by submission, six wins by decision. I can do everything. I pull things out of nowhere. You’ll see me suddenly pull a spinning back kick or something that no one has ever seen, or some crazy submission. I have everything in my arsenal and I think that’s what sets me apart from other fighters.”
Weight class: Bantamweight
Next Fight: May 14 vs. Josh Smith (11-7) at CFFC 108 in Bensalem, Penn. (UFC Fight Pass)
Background: Sure, his father was a professional boxer. But for [autotag]Da’Mon Blackshear[/autotag], his neighborhood as he grew up was what swayed him toward fighting. Blackshear had success on the streets and figured it’d translate into the cage. Since age 11, it’s been his dream to reach the highest heights of the MMA world. Street fistfights were his earliest experiences, but jiu-jitsu was his first organized class. High school wrestling followed shortly thereafter, followed by participation in national non-profit program “Beat the Streets.” He rooted himself in the world of grappling, something that he’s kept with him as he approaches his 16th professional fight.
The Skinny: From the earliest days of his professional career, Blackshear has been the guy willing to come in and fight anyone. Even times when he was at an experience disadvantage, he’d enter enemy territory to try to dethrone the local favorite. This meant things weren’t totally smooth sailing. He lost at times. But he faced some helpful challenges along the way, including losses to Pat Sabatini and Kris Moutinho, as well as a win over current UFC lightweight Nikolas Motta. A semi-recent move to Jackson Wink in Albuquerque, N.M. sparked consistency out of Blackshear, who won five of six, including a CFFC title fight in his most recent outing in November. If he’s not already on the UFC radar, one more “W” should do the trick.
In his own words: “(My recent improvement) is because of the gym switch and just growing up. I’m getting more mature. I think those are the biggest changes.
“… The fight is for the CFFC. One of the previous owners of the belt, Aljamain Sterling, is the champ in the UFC. Dana White has put out posters the last time I fought, saying the champions of the CFFC, they do well. I have no doubt that I should have eyes looking at me. … Absolutely, absolutely, I feel like I’m one of the best fighters in the world right now, before I even have the money and the amenities and all the other things that come with actually being in the UFC – before I get to level up. I feel like where I am right now, I can compete with the best.
Weight class: Welterweight
Birthplace: Enid, Okla.
Next Fight: May 21 vs. TBA at B2 Fighting Series in Oklahoma City, Okla.
Background: A collegiate football player at East Central University in Ada, Okla., [autotag]Kris Vereen[/autotag] tried out for the CFL and landed in the Arena Football League. After a few weeks, he was cut. In order to expand his alethic horizons, he walked into an MMA gym. His friend Kelvin Rayford challenged him to a judo class. Vereen admits he was cocky, but quickly ate humble pie while a teenage kid tossed him around. Competitions or fights weren’t on the agenda, but opportunities presented themselves and his life trajectory changed. Eventually, he met up with UFC alum Mark De La Rosa and the rest was history.
The Skinny: Undefeated at 5-0, Vereen has had seven professional fights including two no contests. He’s 32, which on the older side for his experience level, but it’s important to remember he brought an unusual level of athleticism into MMA as a collegiate and professional football player. Thus far, he’s proven to be a finisher – with a 100 percent rate of ending fights inside the distance. If he goes out there and takes care of business at B2 Fighting Series, he seems like a perfect candidate for Dana White’s Contender Series. Could it be too soon? Maybe. Could he be ahead of where the critics think he is? Absolutely. What better gauge than to go against another top prospect with a UFC deal on the line?
In his own words: “Absolutely, I think I’ll be somebody on their radar (with another win). I’m ready for that. Seven months out, a lot of fighters are upset. They haven’t had a fight. They’re on the couch, eating potato chips. Not me, man. I was in the gym with my teammates getting them ready for fights, just getting better. If I get that opportunity, I get that finish, and I’m blessed, then yes sir, I think I’m on that radar.”
“… I feel like I need some work, but I’m not content. Any fight that I win, I feel like I want to get better. I’m the kind of guy who will find out when I get there. It’s either make or break. Either you’re going to step up or you’re not. It’s one of those things right there. I’ll find out when I get to that point in time in my life. I’ll find out if I’m ready for it. I think I will be. I have the coaches. I have the support system behind me. But only one way to find out: step into that octagon.”
“… I’m humble and realistic. What that means is I’m not the guy to talk trash on social media. I’m not the guy who’s going to get in the other guy’s face at weigh-ins. I show every opponent respect. After we weigh in, I bring my opponent Pedialytes and snacks. I’m a nice guy. I really am. I don’t believe in none of that stuff. I believe we shake hands. We’re going to fight the next fight. May the best fighter win. When I make a fight post, I always say, ‘Win, lose or draw, regardless you’re going to see a new me.’”
Weight class: Welterweight
Birthplace: Columbus, Ga.
Next Fight: May 27 vs. Ryan Ford (23-5) at Unified MMA 45 in Enoch, Alberta, Canada (UFC Fight Pass)
Background: [autotag]Robert Hale[/autotag] pursued a college football career, but things didn’t pan out. He pivoted into normal student life thereafter, which is when he came across Strikeforce, then “The Ultimate Fighter,” Season 17 with coaches Jon Jones and Chael Sonnen. There he saw a fighter from his neck of the woods, Clint Hester, who went on to have a handful of UFC fights. At the suggestion of his father, Hale decided to give MMA a shot himself. And what better way to do that than meet up with Hester himself at X3 Sports? So that’s what Hale did.
The Skinny: From his amateur career, through his professional debut in June 2017, to present day, Hale has won and has lost. Through it all, however, Hale has over the long-term marched onward and upward. Losses were learning experiences. Even when defeated, he usually walked away from a fight having put on a fun show for the fans. Now, settled in at welterweight, Hale admits he’s still piecing all the facets together – but consistency has finally found him. That’s huge. If he goes and knocks off a former WSOF champion with 23 pro wins, Ryan Ford, at Unified MMA 45, Hale should surely, at minimum, get a call for Dana White’s Contender Series this summer
In his own words: “I’m trying to be the greatest showman this sport has ever seen. I can talk good. I walk good. I dress good. I look good. I perform good. I try to keep it all at a steady pace and try to make sure everything is coping and steady and aligned the appropriate way.
“… I’ve been ready to kick to door in for a minute. I feel like this is the right step. This is where I’m going. It’s the right direction. I can’t wait. As soon as I get my foot in the door, I’m not going to just kick the door open. I’m going to make sure the door stays open, for not just me, but my teammates, as well. … (The call) will come, especially when I beat Ryan Ford the way that I’m going to beat him. … First-round KO. I feel like a head kick or straight punch is going to land.”
Fighters worth watching who didn’t crack the list, yet are on the verge of something big:
[autotag]Garrett Armfield[/autotag] (7-2) – May 6 def. Steven Graham (10-6) via TKO at FAC 13 in Independence, Mo. (UFC Fight Pass)
[autotag]Don Shainis[/autotag] (12-3) – May 6 def. Cody Pfister (16-9-1) via TKO at FAC 13 in Independence, Mo. (UFC Fight Pass)
[autotag]Daniel Argueta[/autotag] (8-0) – May 6 def. Diego Silva (14-7) via split decision at LFA 131 in Oshkosh, Wis. (UFC Fight Pass)
[autotag]Anthony Canzano[/autotag] (7-1) – May 9 def. Nate Smith (6-4) at Fury FC 61 in Edinburg, Texas (UFC Fight Pass)
[autotag]Yasmin Castanho[/autotag] (5-0) – May 13 vs. Bruna Brasil (6-2-1) at LFA 132 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (UFC Fight Pass)
[autotag]Luan Luiz Lacerda[/autotag] (11-1) – May 13 vs. Marciley Alves (9-2) at LFA 132 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (UFC Fight Pass)
[autotag]Italo Gomes[/autotag] (10-2) – May 13 vs. Melky Costa (17-4) at LFA 132 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (UFC Fight Pass)
[autotag]Terrance Jean-Jacques[/autotag] (7-3) – May 14 vs. Yimaz Wildman (4-1) at RUF 47 in Phoenix
[autotag]Dariya Zheleznyakova[/autotag] (6-0) – May 20 vs. Liana Jojua (8-5) at ARES 6 in Paris (UFC Fight Pass)
[autotag]Aleksandr Maslov[/autotag] (9-1) – May 20 vs. Szymon Bajor (23-9) at ARES 6 in Paris (UFC Fight Pass)
[autotag]Muslim Tulshaev[/autotag] (10-2) – May 20 vs. Leonardo Damiani (10-4-1) at ARES 6 in Paris (UFC Fight Pass)
[autotag]Francis Marshall[/autotag] (5-0) – May 20 vs. Solo Hatley Jr. (9-5) at Ring of Combat 76 in Atlantic City, N.J.
[autotag]Manuel Sousa[/autotag] (8-0) – May 27 vs. Felipe Maia (11-5) at CFFC 109 in Philadelphia (UFC Fight Pass)
[autotag]Hugo Paiva[/autotag] (5-0) – May 27 vs. Santo Curatolo (6-2) at CFFC 109 in Philadelphia (UFC Fight Pass)
[autotag]Chris Larsen[/autotag] (6-2) – May 27 vs. Rashad Coulter (9-5) at Unified MMA 45 in Enoch, Alberta, Canada (UFC Fight Pass)
Jobber Wiki author Frank Long added to this report.