Sports

MMA’s Top 25 Under 25 Who are the future stars of the sport?

There is a constant debate in MMA about when fighters may enter their prime. Some people believe it’s the late 20s. Others feel it’s early- to mid-30s. But none of that stops fans from looking for the best up-and-coming talent to follow, and, ultimately, see where they land. ESPN’s fourth annual ranking of the top 25 MMA fighters under the age of 25 consists of prospects who could one day be considered among the best in the sport.

Last year’s No. 1-ranked fighter, Song Yadong, is an example of that. Though he has yet to appear on ESPN’s divisional rankings, Yadong has built an impressive résumé in the Octagon. This led to him getting a fight against former bantamweight title challenger Cory Sandhagen in September. Yadong, who turned 25 last week, is no longer eligible for these rankings.

The most interesting name may be Raul Rosas Jr. He is the youngest fighter to ever appear on this list, and earlier this year, he became the youngest fighter to sign to the UFC roster. After making history on “Dana White’s Contender Series” by earning a contract on the show, the rising prospect will add another first to the list when he makes his Octagon debut at UFC 282 this weekend (Saturday, 10 p.m. ET on ESPN+ PPV).

ESPN’s nine-person panel — Phil Murphy, Carlos Contreras Legaspi, Andres Waters, Air Broom, Jeff Wagenheim, Eddie Maisonet, Andrew Davis, Brett Okamoto and Marc Raimondi — selected fighters based both on achievement and potential. Okamoto, Raimondi, Wagenheim and Megan Anderson provide breakdowns of the fighters.


1. Usman Nurmagomedov (16-0)

Bellator men’s lightweight champion

Age: 24 (turns 25 on April 17, 2023)

Ranked No. 5 on ESPN’s 25-under-25 list in 2021

Next fight: TBA

This will be Nurmagomedov’s final year on this list, but keep an eye out for him to appear on the pound-for-pound list in the future. The Dagestan native and cousin of all-time great Khabib Nurmagomedov won the Bellator lightweight title last month, dominating Patricky “Pitbull” Freire with his well-rounded MMA game. A ceiling for Nurmagomedov’s potential might not even exist. On a team and in a family with blue-chip fighters, Usman stands out and will more than do the Nurmagomedov name proud in the coming years. — Raimondi


2. Erin Blanchfield (10-1)

UFC women’s bantamweight

Age: 23 (turns 25 on May 4, 2024)

Ranked No. 20 on ESPN’s 25-under-25 list in 2021

Next fight: TBA

While she currently holds the No. 2 spot, don’t be surprised if we see Blanchfield at the top of this list next year. She is a fighter with an incredibly high ceiling. As a longtime jiu-jitsu practitioner, Blanchfield gained a lot of combat experience even before joining the UFC. Blanchfield is currently on a four-fight winning streak in UFC, including a dominant first-round submission win over Molly McCann in November. By stringing those wins together, she was able to put herself in a position to contend soon in a division that doesn’t have much star power. — Anderson


3. Muhammad Mokaev (9-0)

UFC men’s flyweight

Age: 22 (turns 25 on July 30, 2025)

Ranked No. 21 on ESPN’s 25-under-25 list in 2021

Next fight: TBA

After making his Octagon debut with a first-round submission win over Cody Durden in March, Mokaev earned two more wins to close out the year undefeated in the UFC. Now, he is already targeting Jon Jones‘ record as the youngest UFC champion of all time. While he’s not the first to do so, nor will he be the last, he might have the best shot at it. Mokaev is only 8-0, but that record is misleading, as he went 22-0 as an amateur. He has until March 2024 to break Jones’ mark; if he does, he’ll still only be 23 years old. Impressive. — Okamoto


4. Michael Morales

UFC men’s welterweight

Age: 23

Was not on this list in 2020

Next fight: Dec. 17 vs. Rinat Fakhretdinov

After earning a UFC contract on Dana White’s Contender Series in 2021, Morales made his Octagon debut in January and scored a first-round TKO. He followed with another knockout win in July and will face Fakhretdinov on Dec. 17. Both are surging prospects, but if the undefeated Morales closes out the year with another victory, he will be one of the hottest young fighters in the sport. — Wagenheim


5. Maycee Barber (11-2)

UFC women’s flyweight

Age: 24 (turns 25 on May 18, 2023)

Ranked No. 7 on ESPN’s 25-under-25 list in 2021

Next fight: TBA

The days of Barber being the hottest prospect in the UFC, and talk of her being the youngest champion in promotion history, are well in the rearview mirror. But anyone who dropped their stock on Barber after a pair of losses in 2020 and 2021 is missing out. Still just 24, the Colorado native has won three straight and is looking at contender bouts coming in 2023. It wouldn’t be a shock to see Barber compete for the UFC women’s flyweight title sometime in the next 18 months. And she’s still improving. — Raimondi


6. Christian Lee (17-4)

ONE Championship men’s lightweight and welterweight champion

Age: 24 (turns 25 on June 21, 2023)

Ranked No. 11 on ESPN’s 25-under-25 list in 2021

Next fight: TBA

After a hiccup last year, Lee avenged his loss to Ok Rae Yoon and won back the ONE lightweight title (170 pounds) from Yoon in August via a second-round TKO. The Canadian-born Hawaii resident of Chinese-Singaporean and Korean descent followed that up by becoming a ONE Championship double champ. Last month, he beat Kiamrian Abbasov via fourth-round TKO to win the welterweight (185 pounds) belt. Like his sister Angela, Lee is one of ONE’s top talents and one of the best young fighters in the world. Their sister Victoria, 18, is right behind them with a 3-0 ONE record. — Raimondi


7. Tatsuro Taira (12-0)

UFC men’s flyweight

Age: 22 (turns 25 on Jan. 27, 2025)

Was not on this list in 2021

Next fight: TBA

The UFC is high on Taira’s potential, as there were no “extra” circumstances around signing him this year. The company didn’t need a replacement on short notice. The matchmakers weren’t looking to fill a hole on “Contender Series” or “The Ultimate Fighter.” The UFC signed Taira because he’s an undeniable prospect. And he’s already off to a 2-0 start. — Okamoto


8. Khasan Magomedsharipov (7-0)

Bellator men’s featherweight

Age: 22 (turns 25 on Oct. 6, 2025)

Ranked No. 22 on ESPN’s 25-under-25 list in 2021

Next fight: TBA

The younger brother of retired UFC standout Zabit, Khasan wasn’t very active in 2022, but his skill set and potential are evident. He last fought in February, a unanimous decision over Jose Sanchez, but when Bellator books him against a ranked opponent, don’t be surprised if he’s favored to win. With finishes in all but two of seven his fights, he’s nearly been perfect thus far in his pro career. — Okamoto


9. Cory McKenna (7-2)

UFC women’s strawweight

Age: 23 (turns 25 on July 7, 2024)

Ranked No. 10 on ESPN’s 25-under-25 list in 2021

Next fight: Dec. 17 vs. Cheyanne Vlismas

McKenna missed all of 2021 due to injury and was defeated by Elise Reed by split decision in her first fight of 2022, ending a four-fight winning streak. But McKenna bounced back with a submission victory in August and will fight Vlismas on Dec. 17 to close out the year. Although she’s young, McKenna is experienced, after starting her amateur career at age 15 and making her UFC debut at 21. Is it her time? — Wagenheim


10. Yazmin Jauregui (9-0)

UFC women’s strawweight

Age: 23 (turns 25 on Feb. 28, 2024)

Was not on this list in 2021

Next fight: TBA

A future pillar of the UFC women’s strawweight division, the Mexican-born striker made a massive impression in her UFC debut with a hard-fought unanimous decision victory over Iasmin Lucindo in August and followed that up with a TKO of Istela Nunes earlier this month. Before that, the undefeated Jauregui built her name in Combate Global, winning the promotion’s women’s tournament in 2021, beating three women in a single night, the final two via finish. Jauregui, who fights out of Tijuana, is a longtime teammate of UFC interim flyweight champion Brandon Moreno. — Raimondi


11. Maheshate (9-1)

UFC men’s lightweight

Age: 23 (turns 25 on Dec. 1, 2024)

Was not on this list in 2021

Next fight: Dec. 17 vs. Rafa Garcia

The Chinese fighter has won seven fights in a row, most impressively a one-punch knockout of Steve Garcia in his UFC debut in June. The promotion would love to build another star as it expands into East Asia, so all eyes will be on Maheshate when he returns to the Octagon on the final fight card of the year on Dec. 17. — Wagenheim


12. Raul Rosas Jr. (6-0)

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Take an inside look at Raul Rosas Jr.’s path to the UFC as he prepares to face Jay Perrin at UFC 282.

UFC men’s bantamweight

Age: 18 (turns 25 on Oct. 8, 2029)

Was not on this list in 2021

Next Fight: Dec. 10 vs. Jay Perrin

“El Niño Problema” will make UFC history this weekend when he faces Perrin at UFC 282 in Las Vegas. Rosas will supplant Dan Lauzon as the youngest fighter in UFC history once the opening bell rings. There will be a considerable amount of eyes on Rosas, for such an early point in his career (and life), but that pressure seemed to elevate him in a unanimous decision win over Mando Gutierrez on Dana White’s Contender Series in 2022. The win earned Rosas a UFC contract. — Okamoto


13. Chase Hooper (11-3-1)

UFC men’s featherweight

Age: 23 (turns 25 on Sept. 13, 2024)

Ranked No. 17 on ESPN’s 25-under-25 list in 2021

Next fight: TBA

Hooper is a talented Brazilian jiu-jitsu fighter, who has finished his opponents in his three wins in the UFC. However, Hooper’s run with the promotion, to this point, has been inconsistent. He is 3-3 since making his debut in 2019. Hooper can put opponents away when he gets the fight to the mat. If he can continue to develop his standup striking, he has a chance to make a good run in the UFC. — Anderson


14. Nick Maximov (8-2)

UFC men’s middleweight

Age: 24 (turns 25 on Dec. 23, 2022)

Ranked No. 13 on ESPN’s 25-under-25 list in 2021

Next fight: TBA

Maximov trains with the Diaz brothers, which means he is a skilled jiu-jitsu fighter. He was undefeated through his first eight pro MMA fights, but Maximov has since lost two fights in a row. As a young fighter with great wrestling and grappling, he has a chance to do well in the middleweight division. If he can keep adding tools to his skillset, he has the potential to go far. — Anderson


15. Rong Zhu (19-5)

UAE Warriors men’s lightweight

Age: 22 (turns 25 on March 7, 2025)

Ranked No. 18 on ESPN’s 25-under-25 list in 2021

Next fight: TBA

Zhu arrived in the UFC last year riding an 11-fight win streak, with all but one of the victories coming by finish. But he lost in his Octagon debut, then split his next two fights and was cut by the UFC in May. The Tibet-born Chinese fighter has since bounced back, signing with the UAE Warriors promotion and scoring a TKO win in his first appearance. Can he climb back to the top level of the sport? — Wagenheim


16. Lucas Brennan (7-0)

Bellator men’s bantamweight

Age: 22 (turns 25 on June 3, 2025)

Was not on this list in 2021

Next fight: Dec. 9 vs. Dre Miley

All the names on this list will likely get tested sooner rather than later. Early success leads to more pressure and greater challenges. Brennan might be the best example though, because after a hot start to his pro career with all but one of his wins coming via finish, he’s about to take a step up in competition very soon. Thus far, he has yet to face an opponent with more than 10 fights of experience, but he is now the No. 10-ranked featherweight in Bellator and takes on Miley (10-6) this weekend. The near future should be interesting for Brennan. — Okamoto


17. Kay Hansen (7-6)

Invicta FC women’s strawweight

Age: 23 (turns 25 on Aug. 14, 2024)

Ranked No. 14 on ESPN’s 25-under-25 list in 2021

Next fight: TBA

Hansen joined the UFC after a successful stint with Invicta FC to begin her pro career. After making her debut with the promotion in 2020, she spent nearly two years away from the sport. Hansen made her return to the Octagon earlier this year in January, but back-to-back losses resulted in her being cut from the UFC roster. Hansen has now found a home with Invicta FC and while she’s still developing, she’s already a well-rounded fighter with plenty of potential. Can she work her way back to the top level in MMA? — Anderson


18. Christian Rodriguez (8-1)

UFC men’s bantamweight

Age: 24 (turns 25 on Dec. 17, 2022)

Was not on this list in 2021

Next fight: TBA

Rodriguez has been on the radar for years, as he’s enjoyed success at the amateur and professional levels. Lately he’s been able to showcase his skills on larger platforms, having competed on Dana White’s Contender Series in 2021 and now twice in the UFC in 2022. The Roufusport product has some quick finishes on his record, including a first-round submission of Joshua Weems in October — his first UFC victory. — Okamoto


19. Brady Hiestand (7-2)

UFC men’s bantamweight

Age: 23 (turns 25 on April 30, 2024)

Ranked No. 25 on ESPN’s 25-under-25 list in 2021

Next fight: TBA

Fans were introduced to Hiestand during his run to the finals in Season 29 of The Ultimate Fighter. During the show, Hiestand established himself as a strong wrestler with capable standup. When you watch him fight, it’s clear that he has a wrestling background. Generally, wrestlers transition into MMA very well, but Hiestand will have to keep working on his striking to get it to the level of his grappling. To this point, he has had success against opponents when getting them to the mat, but as he faces more skilled competition, he will have to show a more diverse skill set. — Anderson


20. Aviv Gozali (6-1)

Bellator men’s lightweight

Age: 22 (turns 25 on Nov. 29, 2025)

Was not on this list in 2021

Next fight: TBA

Gozali won the first five fights of his pro career, getting first-round submissions in each of them, before taking a beating from Bobby King in February. He suffered leg injuries in that bout and has not fought since. When Gozali does get back in the Bellator cage, it will be interesting to gauge how well he bounces back and whether his standup skills will catch up to his grappling. — Wagenheim


21. Simeon Powell (7-0)

PFL men’s light heavyweight

Age: 23 (turns 25 on Feb. 6, 2024)

Was not on this list in 2021

Next fight: TBA

The PFL was aggressive in scouting and signing young talent from the United Kingdom this year, and that group included Powell. Powell comes from a Muay Thai background, and his athleticism and stature make him a physical standout at light heavyweight. The England native has power, and he’s putting away opponents with style. He needs more experience, of course, but he could make a name for himself in 2023. — Okamoto


22. Iasmin Lucindo

UFC women’s strawweight

Age: 20 (turns 25 on Jan. 8, 2027)

Was not on this list in 2021

Next fight: TBA

Expect Lucindo to be a fixture on this list for a long time. Just 20 years old, the Brazilian striker made her UFC debut in August against fellow prospect Jauregui. Lucindo didn’t get the win, but she was impressive in a close unanimous decision loss. She showcased a slick standup game, some power in her hands and seasoning well beyond her years. Some of that is due to the fact that she already had 18 pro MMA fights and has been a pro since she was 17. No, that is not a typo. — Raimondi


23. Norbert Novenyi Jr. (5-0)

Bellator men’s middleweight

Age: 23 (turns 25 on Oct. 6, 2024)

Was not on this list in 2021

Next fight: Feb. 25 vs. Andy Manzolo

Novenyi didn’t fight at all in 2022 after suffering a torn ACL in late 2021. The Hungarian-English middleweight hasn’t seen action since October 2020, when he beat Laid Zerhouni by first-round submission, but there’s still intrigue in Novenyi’s potential. He needs to fight more frequently, or at a high enough level, to truly gauge his skill set, but finishes in seven of his eight career fights (amateur and pro) speaks to his high ceiling. — Okamoto


24. Darragh Kelly (2-0)

Bellator men’s lightweight

Age: 24 (turns 25 on April 6, 2023)

Was not on this list in 2021

Next fight: Feb. 25 vs. Dorval Jordan

A top prospect out of SBG Ireland? Yeah, we’ve heard that one before. Kelly might not be the kind of hyped future star that Conor McGregor was once upon a time, but “The Moville Mauler” will win plenty of MMA fights before he’s done. Training under John Kavanagh and Dave Roche, Kelly is undefeated across 11 fights, pro and amateur, with a nice mix of knockout and submission finishes. He’s a three-time Irish amateur champion and Bellator was wise to lock him up this early. — Raimondi


25. David Martinez (9-1)

Combate Global men’s bantamweight champion

Age: 24 (turns 25 on Aug. 3, 2023)

Was not on this list in 2021

Next fight: TBA

Following in the footsteps of his sister Melissa, who is now in the UFC, Martinez is one of Combate Global’s best fighters and biggest stars. After suffering the first loss of his career in April 2021, the Mexican-born striker has won five straight, including four via flashy knockout and two in a one-night tournament last year. “Black Spartan” became the Combate Global bantamweight champion in October, stopping Axel Osuna via fourth-round TKO and the Bonebreakers MMA product only has more big fights ahead. — Raimondi

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