Sports

MMA 25 under 25: Blanchfield, Mokaev, Morales eye No. 1

There are champions in MMA and there are contenders closing in on claiming belts. There are marginal contenders, gatekeepers and former greats hanging on in hope of one last moment of glory. And then there are prospects, the young fighters who serve a vital function: They make up the future of the sport.

For the past five years, ESPN has put a spotlight on the top 25 MMA fighters under the age of 25. Some have gone on to fulfill their promise, most notably “Suga” Sean O’Malley, who was No. 2 in our very first rankings back in 2019 and now owns the UFC men’s bantamweight championship. And the fighter who squeezed into that inaugural ranking at No. 25, Arman Tsarukyan, is now a top-10 lightweight who’ll headline this weekend’s UFC Fight Night against Beneil Dariush (Saturday, 4 p.m. ET on ESPN and ESPN+).

Several others from our rankings over the years have been making their mark in the top 10s of their weight classes, including the top fighter on this year’s list.

Our panel — Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi, Carlos Contreras Legaspi, Ian Parker, Andres Waters, Jeff Wagenheim and Eddie Maisonet — selected fighters based both on achievement and potential. Okamoto, Raimondi, Waters and Wagenheim provide breakdowns of the fighters.


1. Erin Blanchfield (12-1)

UFC women’s bantamweight

Age: 24 (turns 25 on May 4, 2024)

Ranked No. 2 on ESPN’s 25-under-25 list in 2022

Next fight: TBA

Despite her young age, she’s very likely next in line for the UFC women’s flyweight title fight once the trilogy between champion Alexa Grasso and former champ Valentina Shevchenko gets sorted. Blanchfield is 6-0 in the UFC with three submission finishes, including a stoppage over former strawweight champion Jessica Andrade. She has won nine in a row dating back to 2019 and she’s already ranked No. 5 in ESPN’s pound-for-pound women’s MMA list.

Her poise for her experience level — she’s only been a pro for five years — is perhaps her most impressive attribute. But her jiu-jitsu is very strong and Blanchfield can hold her own striking and grappling, as well. It’s difficult to imagine the New Jersey native not winning a UFC title at some point down the line. — Raimondi


2. Muhammad Mokaev (11-0)

UFC men’s flyweight

Age: 23 (turns 25 on July 30, 2025)

Ranked No. 3 on ESPN’s 25-under-25 list in 2022

Next fight: TBA

Mokaev is one of the most proven, most polished names on this list, which is impressive considering he’s only 23. What makes him impressive is his experience level, and that comes courtesy of a 22-fight amateur career and five appearances already in the UFC. That kind of experience lends itself to confidence, which Mokaev has plenty of. Simply put, this guy is just not your average 23-year-old. He is light years ahead in terms of experience and mentality. He has a terrific base attack, which stems off his control-based wrestling. As he continues to grow, both physically and technically, Mokaev’s ceiling is nothing short of UFC champion. — Okamoto


3. Michael Morales (16-0)

UFC men’s welterweight

Age: 24 (turns 25 on June 24, 2024)

Ranked No. 4 on ESPN’s 25-under-25 list in 2022

Next fight: TBA

Morales made his UFC debut last year and entered the top five of these rankings as an undefeated prospect. He has not slowed his roll in 2023, winning twice more despite taking a couple of steps up in level of competition. The Ecuador-born fighter, who now lives and trains in Mexico, has fortified his position as one of the top young fighters in the sport. — Wagenheim


4. Tatsuro Taira (14-0)

UFC men’s flyweight

Age: 23 (turns 25 on Jan. 27, 2025)

Ranked No. 7 on ESPN’s 25-under-25 list in 2022

Next fight: TBA

Last year worked out so well for Taira that he decided to follow the exact blueprint again in 2023. After kicking off his run in the Octagon with back-to-back wins (one submission, one unanimous decision), the rising Japanese prospect extended his win streak to four in a row this year by earning two more wins in the same fashion. At just 23 years old, the sky is the limit on his potential. Don’t be shocked if we see Taira in much bigger fights in 2024. — Waters


5. Khasan Magomedsharipov (9-0)

Bellator men’s featherweight

Age: 23 (turns 25 on Oct. 6, 2025)

Ranked No. 8 on ESPN’s 25-under-25 list in 2022

Next fight: TBA

The younger brother of former UFC featherweight standout Zabit, Magomedsharipov has trained with the likes of Frankie Edgar in Toms River, New Jersey and has been a standout in Bellator since signing with the promotion in 2021. There’s been a lot of hype around Magomedsharipov even before he signed with a major promotion. He has a well-rounded, highly dangerous skill set that has seen him finish seven of his nine pro bouts (three knockouts, four submissions). In terms of what’s on tap for Magomedsharipov, the PFL/Bellator merger could be interesting. Perhaps he continues to fight in Bellator, however he would be a prime candidate to join the PFL season format. — Okamoto


6. Felipe dos Santos (7-1)

UFC men’s flyweight

Age: 23 (turns 25 on Sep. 11, 2025)

Was not on this list in 2022

Next fight: TBA

This is a pretty high ranking for a fighter who is 0-1 in the UFC. But it wasn’t the result that mattered in that one loss, it was how he performed. Dos Santos took Manel Kape, one of the top flyweights in the world, to the very brink. The Brazilian fighter could have easily gotten the nod from the judges in that back-and-forth scrap. He did not and at his age he is only going to get better. Perhaps there’s a rematch with Kape down the road. In any case, there are big things ahead for dos Santos, who trains at Chute Boxe in Brazil under Charles Oliveira’s coach Diego Lima. — Raimondi


7. Raul Rosas Jr. (8-1)

UFC men’s bantamweight

Age: 19 (turns 25 on Oct. 8, 2029)

Ranked No. 12 on ESPN’s 25-under-25 list in 2022

Next Fight: TBA

Here is someone who might set a record for time on this list. Rosas will be on it for the next half decade or so. The teenage sensation is 2-1 in the UFC with two finishes. In 2022, Rosas became the youngest fighter to ever sign with the UFC at age 17. The sky is the limit for him as he continues to mature physically and mentally. Rosas, a Mexican-American who speaks fluent Spanish, is also the heir apparent to the likes of Brandon Moreno and Alexa Grasso as the future face of Mexican MMA. That’s a lot to put on a kid who hasn’t even reached the legal age to drink in the United States yet, but Rosas has shown thus far he can handle all the pressure. — Raimondi


8. Yazmin Jauregui (10-1)

UFC strawweight

Age: 24 (turns 25 on Feb. 28, 2024)

Ranked No. 10 on ESPN’s 25-under-25 list in 2022

Next fight: TBA

Jauregui was more or less strapped to a rocket ship in 2023, before she suffered a shocking 20-second knockout loss to Denise Gomes at UFC 290 in July. It was the first loss of the 24-year-old’s career, but it’s definitely one that could be a blessing in disguise in the long run. Jauregui has a special second gear on the feet, especially for 115 pounds. She has nasty finishing ability with her strikes, and has shown a knack for getting opponents out of the cage in the opening round. She needs to refine a few things, but it will be interesting to see how she bounces back from her first loss. There’s a lot to like here, and the UFC is interested in promoting young Mexican talent. Jauregui qualifies. — Okamoto


9. Nurullo Aliev (9-0)

UFC lightweight

Age: 22 (turns 25 on Dec. 8, 2025)

Was not on this list in 2022

Next fight: TBA

The undefeated Aliev won his UFC debut in February, then took several months off, posting on social media that his absence was due to “some life circumstances.” He was scheduled to return to the Octagon last month, but that high-profile opportunity at Madison Square Garden didn’t materialize after he injured his left knee. Even though he’s been out of the Octagon for a while, don’t lose sight of this prospect from Tajikistan. — Wagenheim


10. Maheshate (9-3)

UFC men’s lightweight

Age: 24 (turns 25 on Dec. 1, 2024)

Ranked No. 11 on ESPN’s 25-under-25 list in 2022

Next fight: TBA

The Chinese fighter has had a tough stretch, ending 2022 with a December loss and getting knocked out in May in his only 2023 appearance. This skid followed a run of six wins in a row, including his UFC debut. Losses aside, he’s clearly capable of competing inside the Octagon, and could still prove to be among those who help boost the UFC’s expansion into Asia. — Wagenheim


11. Simeon Powell (9-0)

PFL men’s light heavyweight

Age: 24 (turns 25 on Feb. 6, 2024)

Ranked No. 21 on ESPN’s 25-under-25 list in 2022

Next fight: TBA

A light heavyweight finalist in the 2023 PFL Europe Championships, Powell could be on the cusp of a breakout season in 2024. By some standards, he already did break out in 2023. Powell is one of the most intriguing European talents the PFL has scooped up in recent years. He’s an athletic light heavyweight, so obvious comparisons have been made to all-time great Jon Jones, but Powell is his own talent with his own skill set. He can be a technical striker when needed, and already has the experience of fighting on a PFL season card last year in London. — Okamoto


12. Brady Hiestand (8-2)

UFC men’s bantamweight

Age: 24 (turns 25 on Apr. 30, 2024)

Ranked No. 19 on ESPN’s 25-under-25 list in 2022

Next fight: TBA

Hiestand had only one fight in the Octagon since making his debut in 2022, but the performance in his second fight showed that he is taking the right steps to continue rounding out his game. As a fighter with a wrestling background, Hiestand is working to develop his skills on the feet. If he can find ways to have more success as a striker to blend with his grappling skills, this “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 29 alum could see a step up in the level of competition he’s facing soon. — Waters


13. Cory McKenna (8-2)

UFC strawweight

Age: 24 (turns 25 on July 7, 2024)

Ranked No. 9 on ESPN’s 25-under-25 list in 2022

Next fight: TBA

McKenna is fighter on this list who has benefitted from a legitimate amateur career. She went 6-0 as an amateur between 2014 and 2017, and signed straight away to the U.K. promotion Cage Warriors for her pro debut. She doesn’t have a highlight reel of firepower, but she’s a highly respected grappler and her striking is improving from fight to fight. Most recently, she out-pointed Cheyanne Vlismis, another young strawweight with some early UFC experience. McKenna has shown a high Fight IQ for her age, and her grappling alone gives her staying power in the UFC. Her development over the next two years will show us more of her true ceiling. — Okamoto


14. Iasmin Lucindo (15-5)

UFC strawweight

Age: 21 (turns 25 on Jan. 8, 2027)

Ranked No. 22 on ESPN 25-under-25 list in 2022

Next fight: TBA

The first thing that stands out about Lucindo is her age. Even on a list of under-25-year-old talents, Lucindo stands out as a UFC strawweight who only turned 21 in August. Lucindo turned pro at age 15. Growing pains are to be expected when you turn pro that young, and she’s had her share, but going into 2024, she is 2-1 in the UFC with a second-round finish of Polyana Viana. Her only loss in the UFC came against another name on this list, in Jauregui. Lucindo trains with ranked UFC flyweight Virna Jandiroba, another Brazilian talent who has climbed the 115-pound ladder with wins over Angela Hill and Marina Rodriguez. –Okamoto


15. Lucas Brennan (9-0)

Bellator men’s bantamweight

Age: 23 (turns 25 on June 3, 2025)

Ranked No. 16 on ESPN’s 25-under-25 list in 2022

Next fight: TBA

Brennan has been on a roll since making his Bellator debut in 2019. He is undefeated as a pro, with all but one of his victories coming via finish (six submissions, two knockouts). Brennan is a star in the making, however he still needs to live up to that potential against stiffer competition. Maybe his big test will come in 2024. — Waters


16. Denise Gomes (8-3)

UFC strawweight

Age: 23 (turns 25 on Dec. 30, 2024)

Was not on this list in 2022

Next Fight: TBA

Gomes knocked out Jauregui in just 20 seconds at UFC 290 in July, demonstrating rare power for a strawweight. In fact, there is a case to be made she should be higher on this list. She is only 2-2 in the UFC and is coming off a loss to veteran Angela Hill, but the Brazilian knockout artist is still green and getting better. With the dynamite she has in her hands, Gomes can change any fight with a single punch. If she shores up the other parts of her game, look out. — Raimondi


17. Cameron Saaiman

UFC men’s bantamweight

Age: 22 (turns 25 on Dec. 20, 2025)

Was not on this list in 2022

Next Fight: TBA

Since earning a UFC contract on Season 6 of “Dana White’s Contender Series” with a knockout win last August, Saaiman has been impressive inside the Octagon. The South African went on to win three fights in a row, with two of them coming via knockout before suffering the first loss of his pro career — a unaimous decision against Christian Rodriguez. Though his last fight didn’t go his way, Saaiman is a skilled striker and wrestler with who appears to have a very bright future. Training with fellow South African Dricus du Plessis, who is set to challenge Sean Strickland for the UFC middleweight title at UFC 297 in January, is likely only going to make him even better. — Waters


18. Joshua Van (9-1)

UFC men’s flyweight

Age: 22 (turns 25 on Oct. 10, 2026)

Was not on this list in 2022

Next fight: TBA

After making his UFC debut with a split decision win over Zhalgas Zhumagulov in June, Van earned an impressive performance in a unanimous decision vs. Kevin Borjas last month. Van showed his competitive spirit, rallying after being knocked down in the first round, and he put his high-level striking on display as he continually wore Borjas down with forward pressure and vicious body shots. With his striking prowess and his ability to put on entertaining fights, Van’s future could be one to keep an eye on. — Waters


19. Daniel Zellhuber (14-1)

UFC lightweight

Age: 24 (turns 25 on July 7, 2024)

Was not on this list in 2022

Next Fight: TBA

“Golden Boy” is looking more and more like the real deal, especially since commencing his training at Xtreme Couture. He went 2-0 in 2023, including a nasty anaconda choke win over Christos Giagos at Noche UFC in September. Zellhuber lost his UFC debut last year to Trey Ogden, someone 10 years his senior, but the Mexican-born standout is the equivalent of a five-tool player in MMA and is only getting better. Zellhuber has knockout power, athletic standup and even owns a victory in his pro career via calf slicer submission. He is certainly one to watch in the UFC’s stacked lightweight division. — Raimondi


20. Francisco Prado (12-1)

UFC lightweight

Age: 21 (turns June 16, 2027)

Was not on this list in 2022

Next Fight: TBA

A rare UFC-caliber talent from Argentina, Prado put himself on the map in July with a first-round knockout of the dangerous Ottman Azaitar. Prado fought primarily in Argentina until earlier this year, when the UFC picked him up in a jam when it needed a short notice opponent for Jamie Mullarkey. Prado lost that bout via unanimous decision, in his first professional defeat. Prado is extremely young in his career and, thus, his development. He’s considered a raw talent, even though he’s already in the UFC. Offensively, he’s a spark plug, which is probably why the UFC was interested in him to begin with. He’s finished every one of his professional wins. That natural offense will spearhead his UFC success, as the rest of his game catches up. — Okamoto


21. Rongzhu (24-5)

Free agent

Age: 23 (turns 25 on March 7, 2025)

Ranked No. 15 on ESPN’s 25-under-25 list in 2022

Next fight: Dec. 9 vs. Shin Haraguchi

Rongzhu was cut by the UFC last year after just three fights (1-2) with the promotion. Following his release, the Tibet-born Chinese fighter signed with the UAE Warriors promotion and earned a second-round knockout win to get back on the UFC’s radar. Now, Rongzhu is just one win away from the chance to re-sign with the UFC after making it to the lightweight finals on Season 2 of “Road to UFC”, a competition show based in Asia that is similar to “The Ultimate Fighter”. — Waters


22. Chihiro Suzuki (11-3)

Rizin featherweight

Age: 24 (turns 25 on May 14, 2024)

Was not on this list in 2022

Next Fight: TBA Granted it was on extremely short notice, but if you knock out Patricio “Pitbull” Freire and you’re in your early 20s, you have to be on this list somewhere. “Pitbull” has been one of the best fighters outside the UFC for about a decade and doesn’t lose often. But Suzuki, a long, lanky and decorated kickboxer, knocked out the Bellator featherweight champion via a big right hand at Super Rizin 2 in July. Suzuki followed that win with a first-round knockout over Vugar Karamov last month — and he did it with an upkick. The Japanese action fighter is a must-watch for Rizin. — Raimondi


23. Chase Hooper (13-3-1)

UFC featherweight

Age: 24 (turns 25 on Sept. 13, 2024)

Ranked No. 13 on ESPN’s 25-under-25 list in 2022

Next Fight: TBA

There once was a lot of hype surrounding the (pretend) son of Ben Askren, and while he had an up-and-down couple of years heading into 2023, Hooper recorded two victories this year, most recently a first-round submission win over Jordan Leavitt last month. That was an impressive finish, and it suggests there could be a promising 2024 ahead. — Wagenheim


24. Norbert Novenyi Jr. (7-0)

Bellator men’s middleweight

Age: 24 (turns 25 on Oct. 6, 2024)

Ranked No. 23 on ESPN’s 25-under-25 list in 2022

Next fight: TBA

Novenyi was out of action due to an ACL injury for nearly two and a half years before making his return in February. Despite the long layoff, the Hungarian-English fighter picked up right where he left off, getting back-to-back first-round knockouts. He has only seven professional fights under his belt (six with Bellator), but Novenyi has shown a lot of promise. — Waters


25. Makoto Takahashi (16-1-1)

Bellator men’s flyweight

Age: 23 (turns 25 on July 5, 2025)

Was not on this list in 2022

Next Fight: TBA

Don’t look now, but Japan is starting to produce a very talented crop of young fighters, including Taira, Suzuki and Shinryu. You can throw 28-year-old Rinya Nakamura onto that list, too, though he’s too old to be listed here. Shinryu fought Kyoji Horiguchi for the inaugural Bellator flyweight title at Bellator MMA vs. Rizin 2 in July, but the fight ended in a no contest due to an unfortunate eye poke. Shinryu, though, has won 10 straight and owns flyweight championships in both New Jersey’s CFFC and Japan’s DEEP. He’s a submission artist and is a name you’ll be hearing more about in the coming years, without a doubt. — Raimondi

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