The welterweight division may be dominated by UFC champion Georges St-Pierre, but talented young fighters like Tyron Woodley, John Hathway, Dong Hyun Kim, and Anthony Johnson plan to make sure that the pound-for-pound great has tough competition for years to come. Outside of the major promotions, there is an influx of young talent—many with international credentials in MMA and other sports—looking to break onto the big stage. Welterweight has always been one of the deepest divisions, and the following ten fighters are here to prove that.
1. Gunnar Nelson (6-0-1; 3 T/KO, 3 submissions)
A 21-year-old student of Brazilian jiu-jitsu legend Renzo Gracie, the "Pride of Iceland" is already a highly decorated grappler and is becoming one of the top prospects in MMA. After breaking onto the MMA scene with a stunning submission wrestling victory over grappling legend Jeff Monson (a heavyweight who weighs close to 100 pounds more than Nelson), Gunnar took fourth place in the absolute division at the "2009 ADCC Submission Wrestling World Championships." The young fighter took all of 2009 off from MMA to concentrate on grappling, and it paid off with a silver medal in the brown belt category at the Mundials, gold at the Pan-Am Games (Gi), and gold and silver—in the absolute division—at the Pan-Am Games (No-Gi).
Refocusing on his MMA career at the start of 2010, Nelson made his debut in the British BAMMA promotion with a notable first round submission over Sam Elsdon. With incredible grappling skills and a connection to Renzo Gracie, expect to see this wonder kid on the big stage in the very near future.
2. David Mitchell (11-0; 9 submissions)
Mitchell, the current welterweight champion of the California-based Tachi Palace Fights organization, has become one of the fastest rising prospects in all of MMA since upsetting TUF veteran War Machine at the initial Tachi Palace event. Since then, Mitchell has earned consecutive first-round submission victories over King of the Cage champion Bobby Green, UFC and WEC veteran Tim McKenzie, and most recently a triangle choke over highly respected MMA veteran Poppies Martinez in just over 90 seconds.
A 30-year-old former soccer star that grew up in a California hippie commune, Mitchell is a highly marketable fighter who should not stay in the minor leagues too much longer.
3. Magomed Shikshabekov (6-0; 2 T/KO, 4 submissions)
The 2009 M-1 Challenge champion, “The Eagle” is 6-0 with all fights ending via stoppage in the first round. Originally scheduled to make his U.S. debut on the undercard at the Strikeforce and M-1 Global co-promoted “Fedor vs. Werdum” event before being forced off due to visa issues, Shikshabekov has been impressive since making his MMA debut in 2008 (in fact, M-1 Global claims a record of 11-0 for Shikshabekov with some of his fights not being recognized by fight databases as of yet).
With impressive submissions and a background in sambo, expect this near-replica of former Strikeforce light heavyweight champion Gegard Mousasi to start making waves in the U.S. and on the international scene before long.
4. Yuri Villefort (6-0; 2 T/KO, 3 submissions)
The 19-year-old younger brother of IFL, WEC, and UFC veteran Danillo Villefort, Yuri is part of the next generation of MMA fighters that grew up learning jiu-jitsu and Muay Thai instead of playing soccer or basketball. Having competed in regional shows in Florida and once in the Bitetti Combat promotion in Brazil, the American Top Team product is far from a finished product.
Highly regarded because of his ATT affiliation and bloodlines, Villefort has already been touted as a possible future UFC champion and the next big thing in the sport. “Yuri has all the tools—he’s got charisma, he’s got the age, he’s got maturity, he’s got the support,” said ATT head coach Ricardo Liborio. “There’s two things that can stop Yuri: God, and Yuri himself.”
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