If I were to sit down and compile a list of my top prospects in the UFC right now – the younger, emerging talents that are climbing the ranks that I believe have the best chance to one day fight for and potentially capture championship gold – the three competitors profiled below would land near the very top of that collection.
I know that sounds hyperbolic or perhaps even straight fabricated to some but trust me when I tell you that these three athletes have been on my radar for quite some time, and with each passing appearance, my opinion of them becomes even greater.
They're each at different points in their careers and stationed at different positions within their respective divisions but watching them competing inside the octagon – and outside the UFC before landing on the biggest stage in the sport – it's evident that there is something special about each of them.
With the right combination of continued development, good health, strong coaching, and focus, each has the chance to become an elite competitor and impact name in their individual weight classes.
These three fighters are special and the kind of up-and-coming talents you need to pay close attention to going forward.
This is the UFC Fight Night 207 edition of Fighters on the Rise.
You don't start your career with 15 consecutive victories, including five straight wins inside the octagon, if you're not highly skilled and clearly talented, especially not when you're working your way up the ranks in a talent-rich division like featherweight.
Since debuting in the UFC three years ago, Movsar Evloev (15-0 MMA, 5-0 UFC) has continued to make steady progress up the ladder in the 145-pound weight class, culminating with a unanimous decision win over Hakeem Dawodu last June at UFC 263 that finally earned him a place in the top 15. Currently stationed at No. 13, the 28-year-old Russian standout finally makes his 2022 debut on Saturday, squaring off with Dan Ige in a critical main card clash.
Evloev is part of that generation of fighters that arrived in the sport well-versed in every discipline, with wrestling and boxing standing out as his greatest strengths, and his ability to shift between the two effortlessly depending on the situation evident throughout his ascent. Against Dawodu, he secured nine takedowns, recognizing his clear path to victory on the ground against the Canadian kickboxer, while in his two previous outings, he worked to out-strike grapplers Nik Lentz and Mike Grundy.
Saturday's matchup with Ige is a perfect chance to further assess where Evloev stands both in terms of his development and his place within the division. The Hawaiian veteran is dangerous on the feet, difficult to hold down, near impossible to put away, and he's been in there with a collection of the division's best over the years, establishing his bona fides as a top-10 fighter in the 145-pound weight class.
Evloev is very much part of the crop of young, emerging talents looking to continue claiming space in the upper regions of the featherweight rankings along with Arnold Allen, Bryce Mitchell and Ilia Topuria, and a victory over Ige would certainly help move him forward in that quest. This is without question his toughest test to date, and there will be plenty of people watching to see how he handles this assignment on Saturday night.
A graduate of the Dana White's Contender Series (Class of '20) and Glory MMA & Fitness representative, Jeff Molina's upside was apparent in his hard-fought win over Jacob Silva on Season 4 of the annual talent search series.
Paired off against the standout from Texas, who entered on a six-fight winning streak, Molina (10-2 MMA, 2-0 UFC) showed quick hands, a steely resolve, and the kind of grit and heart you both can't teach and don't often see from a 24-year-old fighter with limited professional experience. Molina won the fight and earned a UFC contract and has subsequently continued to impress over the course of his first two trips into the octagon.
He exhibited that aforementioned tenacity and resolve in his debut win over Aoriqileng, rallying from a slow start to draw level in the second round and turn the fight into a runaway victory in the third before securing a second-round stoppage win over Daniel da Silva in his sophomore showing. Given his age, Molina has time on his side and the opportunity to continue making incremental progress up the ladder while spending plenty of time in the gym honing his skills.
This weekend, "El Jefe" makes his third start opposite Kazakhstani veteran Zhalgas Zhumagulov, as he looks to extend his overall winning streak to nine and take another step forward in the flyweight division. Saturday's fight with Zhumagulov represents an opportunity to see what improvements and advancements he's made since his October clash with Lacerda and make a further assessment of where he stands in the divisional hierarchy.
Confident and skilled, Molina has done everything you could ask of a prospect through his first two UFC assignments, and another strong outing this weekend should only increase the number of people projecting him to be an impact player in the flyweight division in the future.
Erin Blanchfield (8-1 MMA, 2-0 UFC) is one of the very best prospects in the entire sport – a 23-year-old standout with excellent grappling, a full understanding of who she is as a fighter and how to best deploy her skills inside the cage, and a nine-fight resume filled with noteworthy efforts against established names.
After securing a unanimous decision win over Sarah Alpar in her promotional debut last September, Blanchfield returned to action in December and delivered the kind of performance that forced many that were previously unfamiliar with her to sit up and take notice. At UFC 269, the Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt out-muscled and out-grappled Miranda Maverick, dominating her fellow highly regarded prospect at every turn on her way to a unanimous decision victory and her fifth consecutive victory overall.
In addition to her exploits inside the octagon during her 2021 rookie season, it's the efforts and results Blanchfield turned in while competing under the Invicta FC banner that make her stand out even further.
She out-worked Kay Hansen in her third professional appearance, and then dropped a debated split decision to Tracy Cortez three months later; Cortez has since gone on to earn five more victories, four of them inside the octagon, including a unanimous decision triumph over Melissa Gatto at UFC 274 that carried her into the top 15. Blanchfield bounced back with victories over DWCS alum Victoria Leonardo and current TUF contestant Brogan Walker before pushing her record to 8-1 with her twin UFC triumphs last year.
Saturday night, the rising star lands opposite skilled veteran JJ Aldrich in a classic "grappler vs. striker" pairing that should further highlight where Blanchfield falls within the 125-pound weight class and the collection of elite young talents on the UFC roster. Aldrich enters on a three-fight winning streak and brandishing an 11-4 record overall, making her the most complete and experienced fighter the New Jersey fighter has faced to date.
If Blanchfield can go out and collect a third straight victory by turning back an established talent like Aldrich, who is 7-3 in 10 UFC appearances, spots on the "Cold Blooded" bandwagon will fill up quickly and calls for a bout with a ranked opponent will soon follow.
This story first published at UFC.com.