It’s that time again, time for an MMA Journalist special listing the top five fighters in each weight class. The criteria are thus: pro fighters only (duh) and no one will be considered who fights in the UFC, Strikeforce or on a Bellator main card or has fought in those promotions (plus the WEC) for the last two years (which means people like Matt Serra, Eddie Alvarez, Deividas Taurosevicius and even TUFers like Andy Main and Jeff Lentz are excluded). Also, although the entries are numbered, those numbers are by no means meant to imply there’s an order. These are the top five guys in each weight class, not the best guy and the next best guy and the next best guy… etc. Finally, some of the weight classes are sparse in terms of competitors, and as I refuse to rank someone who’s 0-1, I’ve instead married a couple of the divisions. Please throw rice and wish them well on their honeymoons.
Heavyweight & Light-heavyweight
1. Tom DeBlass – If anyone has blossomed into a violent and deadly flower this year (and I mean that in the most awe-inspiring way possible), it’s been jiu-jitsu ace Tom DeBlass. He has literally plowed through a variety opponents – both at heavyweight and now at light-heavyweight – and his sub skills plus dangerous boxing have enabled him to snag a ROC belt in the process. He is far and away the top dog in both weight classes.
2. Ed Gordon – A big up-and-comer and Serra/Longo exponent, “Truck” has proven to be tough enough to withstand some gnarly submission attempts and gutsy enough to grind out wins. He’s a heavyweight that’s been gradually trimming down, so he straddles two weight classes as well.
3. JA Dudley – Team Endgamer Dudley sports an XFE heavyweight belt, due in no small part to his durability and the presence of mind years in the fight game have given him.
4. Mike Stewart – A heavy-handed 205er, Stewart just lost handily to DeBlass, but before that he was sending Glen Sandull into slumber, so you know he’s got skills.
5. Ariel Sepulveda – Sepulveda can fight at light-heavyweight or middleweight, and he sports a karate and kickboxing background the he uses to knee the teeth right out of opponents. However, somehow he’s picked up an insane submission arsenal, and though he’s not always successful with them, you’ll likely see him going for Peruvian neckties and omoplatas when other striking-based fighters would be content with stalling.
1. Tim Williams – Right now Williams is the Cage Fury Fighting Championship’s top 185-pound prospect, and with concise striking, excellent wrestling and dangerous jiu-jitsu, it’s not hard to understand why he’s undefeated.
2. Uriah Hall – The two guys who beat Hall in the last year – Chris Weidman and Costa Philippou – are now in the UFC, which says a lot about how Joe Silva views Hall in terms of a fighter being ready for the “big show”. Hall is a deadly striker with a very under-rated ground game.
3. Aung La Nsang – Nsang dutifully treks up from Maryland to fight in ROC, and though his background is Muay Thai, he’s actually pretty damn good on the ground. The only knock against him is he dove into the absolute deep end of the pool in his first few New Jersey outings, taking on Philippou and Hall and paying the price.
4. Ariel Sepulveda – See above.
5. Joey Kirwan – Maryland must not have enough MMA outlets, because Kirwan drove on up here to defeat Drew Puzon in ROC this year – and he looked impressive doing it.
1. Tom Gallicchio – You know what’s a dick move? You win a promotion’s tournament in grueling fashion, and as a reward they fly you to Russia to fight one of their best guys – but THEY FLY YOU THERE THE DAY BEFORE YOUR FIGHT. Anyway, Gallicchio is no less a killer, which he proved by coming back home and choking some cat out in Pennsylvania. Respect.
2. Giedrius Karavackas – Yes, Karavackas fought on a Bellator main card, but it was by accident, as another main card bout got scratched and they needed an undercard duo to fill in. Anyhoo, this Lithuanian judoka takes a beating to warm up, then slays dudes. It’s fun to watch.
3. Joe Aviles – Supposedly, Aviles can do jiu-jitsu and judo pretty well. We don’t know for sure, though, because when he punches opponents with his lightning-like hands, they go to sleep.
4. Igor Gracie – Hey, guess who’s been quietly converting his mastery of jiu-jitsu into a very effective and well-rounded MMA game? That’s right. This guy. Everyone, please, a round of applause for Igor Gracie, who has actually become probably the best Gracie competing in MMA today.
5. Pete Sell – “Drago” returned to action at ROC and very nearly got clobbered. But, as everyone knows, you pretty much have to kill the guy to stop him, or else he will hunt you down in the cage and mess you up. Hooray for the old school warrior!
1. Al Iaquinta – Brazilian beast Gabe Miglioli very nearly beating him two ROCs ago, so this Serra/Longo superstar showed up at the last ROC prepared and razor-sharp. The result: Iaquinta murdered the only man who came close to usurping him as “baddest lightweight around”.
2. Mikhail Malyutin – From out of nowhere (actually, Russia) this guy comes, and in two fights he edges out Luiz Azeredo and Chris Liguori. Granted, Malyutin has had a very healthy career in M-1, and his counter-fighting game is very effective. Still, how frustrating is that?
3. Chris Liguori – In the span of a year, perennial Northeast stud has fought John Salgado twice and Malyutin once. That’s not a lot, and beating Salgado doesn’t make him a world-beater, but it’s not like Liguori has gone from “awesome” to “suck”. Homeboy’s still got skills, and based on his recent knockout win, those skills have improved.
4. George Sheppard – Virginia is for lovers, but it’s also for tough fighters, too. Sheppard lost to Aviles at ROC but went on to rack up a few wins after that, so don’t exclude him from any “top lightweight” lists.
5. Justin Haskins – You can count on two things from Haskins: dogged takedowns and punishing ground and pound. It’s a combo that works more often than not, and within the last twelve months two of those instances of it working happened in ROC, so here we are.
1. James Jenkins – Thus far we’ve seen just about everything from this Serra/Longo fighter – knockout striking, subs, wars. We’ve yet to see telekinesis and levitation, though, so, uh, get on it, Mr. Jenkins.
2. Eddie Fyvie – Like a fine wine aged to perfection, Fyvie returned to MMA competition refined and packing a wallop, taking out a tough Lester Caslow at a CFFC. Fyvie can do it all and is a threat everywhere, so I’m anxious to see how the next year plays out with him clashing with others in the ranks.
3. Jacob Kirwan – Another Marylander with a wandering heart, this Kirwan brother came up to ROC and tapped out Ryan Vaccaro for top featherweight honors.
4. Jimbo Hoffman – A nice, fruitful career as an amateur was parlayed into some dominant pro outings for Hoffman this year. If he keeps it up, he’s either go to earn himself a shot at a belt or kill someone. Maybe both.
5. Evan Chmielski – This guy went 2-2 this past year, but those losses were to two very tough guys so I don’t hold it against him too much. I see potential here, which could bloom into some stellar performances in the coming year against upper-echelon guys.
Bantamweight & Flyweight
1. Sean Santella – Far and away the best of the “little guys”, Santella moves so fast he makes Speedy Gonzales look like Regular Gonzales (credit goes to Fry of Futurama for that one). Yes, that’s fast. It also helps that Santella’s takedowns are so good he can take down oak trees.
2. Brian Kelleher – This Bombsquader has proven to be a feisty little finisher. Yipee! The world needs more finishers. Thanks, Mr. Kelleher.
3. Aljamain Sterling – If you nailed UFC champ Jon Jones with a shrink ray, you’d get something like Sterling. Well, that’s what they say, at least. I just think he’s a talented fighter with great wrestling and work rate in the cage. Anyway, he’s wrecked dudes all year and earned himself a shot at Santella at the next CFFC, which should be a fantastic fight.
4. Sedico Honorio – This Brazilian badass lost a questionable decision to Santella this year, but that should do little to tarnish his sheen as one of the area’s best guys under 135 pounds.
5. Claudio Ledesma – Other than a defeat at the hands of Sterling, the well-rounded Ledesma has been tearing it up as well. And why not? He hits hard and can jiu-jitsu guys all day. Booyah.