Doo Ho Choi, looking like a child villain from Despicable Me, but with the pugilistic power of anime hero, One Punch Man, planted a lightning right hand inside the guard of Thiago Tavares as one does on a Friday night. The veteran featherweight went down as if he had been poleaxed. The referee lunged between them to prevent further damage, and the Korean Superboy turned and walked calmly to the center of the cage. A satisfied smile spread across his face, as if to say, “as expected.” Then, filled with a burst of delight, he raced to his team and leaped to hug them over the fence. This was the Choi’s third straight first-round knockout win. His defensive wrestling might end up being a problem in the upper echelons of the division, but the fact that he needed all of ten seconds of striking to knock out his veteran opponent bodes very well for the 25-year-old.
Featherweight, the erstwhile weight class of a certain brash Irishman has been nearly cleaned out before Conor McGregor’s first title defense, if indeed he ever returns to the division. The combined reigning powers of Aldo and McGregor have taken out everyone in contention now. Max Holloway, the division’s top young talent, has made a nearly full-proof case for a title shot since his last loss to Conor McGregor, but he is the only outstanding contender now that Aldo has beaten Edgar twice. There is good news for the future, however. Featherweight, being close to the median weight of the worldwide male population, is naturally one of the deepest divisions in the sport, and there are several prospects rising through the ranks preparing to challenge the top dogs. Max Holloway, though young, is the top contender, and thus can no longer be considered a prospect. Leaving him out, where does Doo Ho Choi rank among this international pantheon of prospects at 145? Here are five of the top contenders still unbeaten in the UFC:
5. Makwan Amirkhani – “Mr. Finland” made his promotional debut in the most dramatic fashion possible, a flying knee KO in the opening seconds of the fight. He followed that up by displaying considerable charisma in his post-fight interview. In his follow-up fight, he earned a first-round finish via rear-naked choke, then a decision in his most recent bout. At 3-0 in the UFC, Amirkhani is now training full-time at the gym of featherweight champion Conor McGregor. He has all the potential and personality to be a huge regional star for the promotion. While not as young as some of the others on this list, he can still be considered a prospect.
Styles: Wrestle-grappling, dynamic athleticism, brash personality
Strengths: Despite his flying knee KO, Amirkhani isn’t a wizard on the feet. He makes his hay with an imposing wrestling game, an excellent single-leg takedown leading into a flow-chart of top-control options, where he puts constant pressure on his opponent, dropping punches and elbows while constantly looking to pass the guard and transition to a better position.
What’s next: Amirkhani needs to continue to be utilized as the regional star that he is. He should fight at UFC 204 in Manchester, preferably a fellow standout grappler such as Luke Sanders.
4. Brian Ortega – We may not be able to consider him a prospect at this point. He’s beaten Clay Guida, landing him past the gatekeeper just into the top ten. His last two fights have been come-from-behind wins, meaning there will be questions about his ability to remain consistent going forward. His style, though, is as entertaining as it gets, and he has been compared to the Diaz brothers for his come-forward aggression, volume, and submission wizardry.
Style: aggressive volume punching, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, carefree attitude
Strengths: “T-City”, one of the more questionable nicknames in MMA, stands for “Triangle City”, an homage to this kid’s best submission. He also owns a great pressure boxing game and an excellent chin. He has been controlled for stretches on the ground in past bouts, but the Clay Guida fight showed improvement in defensive wrestling and in diverse striking, finishing the veteran grinder Guida off with a knee in the third round.
What’s next: The only American on this list, Brian Ortega’s wide open style means he is poised for some fun fights at featherweight. The close nature of his past few fights means he is fighting at about the edge of his learning curve. I would like to see him against the winner of Dennis Bermudez-Rony Jason.
3. Yair Rodriguez – These featherweight prospects are possibly the most international prospect group in the Ultimate Fighting Championship. A proud Mexican, Yair is a product of one of the regional Ultimate Fighter shows that almost no one watches these days. He made the most of it, however. Now 4-0 in the UFC, he has taken home two post-fight bonuses already.
Style: Seemingly limitless taekwondo kicking, newly developed wrestling, creative grappling
Strengths: his athleticism is clearly off the charts, as Yair is able to pull off jump-switch-round kicks, front-flip axe kicks, and all types of spinning attacks. His grappling is equally creative, with a variety of spectacular throws, and ultra-flexible submission attacks from the guard. His boxing is much more basic, but his unpredictability and a recently added reactive double-leg, keep that from being exposed. He has heart, too, managing to gut out a tough win completely gassed at altitude in Mexico City before throwing up afterward. Yair has the benefit of a wildly entertaining style, as well as being the most promising prospect in the Mexican market, meaning he should continue to get favorable matchups as the company builds his brand with care.
What’s next: “El Pantera” is scheduled for the main event of the UFC’s debut in Utah against Alex Caceres. While Caceres’ own time as a prospect may be up, he is an interesting fight for the Mexican, bringing his own arsenal of creative striking and unusual grappling to the table. If Rodriguez wins, he should get a top-ten opponent next, preferably the winner of Pettis-Oliveira.
2. Doo Ho Choi – His power is unreal, and there is an air of calm about the youngster that shows he is aware of this. He doesn’t waste movement, and his lack of telegraph means he plants his fists with eerie accuracy on his opponents chins. He stays at a closer range than most, which means he is there to be hit, but is also able to consistently apply his clean left-hook, right-hand combinations, and it’s not an equation he has lost out on yet. Choi has good reactive head movement and excels at countering with power shots, especially over the top of his opponent’s jab. It’s a simple game, but one that is fine-tuned for his strengths.
When it comes to grappling, the Korean Superboy has decent defensive wrestling and excellent scrambles. Doo Ho Choi has a smooth top game, floating over his opponents to land calculated ground and pound. Thiago Tavares was able to hold him down for half a round before he scrambled back to his feet, which indicates there is some work needed there. Choi stayed calm, didn’t take damage and never conceded position. The problem many strikers have when facing wrestlers is that they stand too far away, hesitant to close the gap, and lose their stylistic edge. Choi’s power and command of a tighter distance means he needs literally seconds to make his advantage count, and that is why he is number two on this list.
Style: power striking
Strengths: huge power, command of distance
What’s next: I would love to see Doo Ho Choi keep a more active schedule and face Jeremy Stephens at UFC: Vancouver. A significant step up in competition, it would be fireworks, with Stephens having legitimate knockout power of his own, a durable chin, and a brawler’s mindset that would put Choi’s mettle to the fire. After that, the UFC needs to use him when they return to Korea, perhaps co-headlining a card alongside the returning Korean Zombie, fellow iron-chinned brawler Chan Sung Jung. They also need to pay him more; as a regional star and an electrifying knockout machine, he is worth far more than the paltry 12K+12K he is currently getting. Perhaps that’s why he is so intent on that $50,000 Performance of the Night bonus, of which he has won two so far.
1. Mirsad Bektic – Undefeated, also 3-0 in the UFC, Bektic has been the premier featherweight prospect in the world for a long time now, having been on the radar of media pundits such as Patrick Wyman and T.P. Grant for years. Hailing from Bosnia-Herzegovina, he trains at American Top Team now alongside such stars as Robbie Lawler and Dustin Poirier.
Style: Wrestling, striking. Often called a featherweight GSP
Strengths: Insane athleticism and overwhelming wrestling chops make Bektic the most likely future champion on this list. His style is most in line with a modern MMA metagame and is also the hardest to deal with. His striking is continually improving, and he layers his jab-cross combination together with his takedowns and stifling top control, including excellent control and damage from the wrestler’s ride. Of all these prospects, Bektic is the most likely future champion and the likely winner in any head-to-head matchups among this group.
What’s next: Bektic has been sidelined by a number of injuries. Once he returns, he deserves the kind of gatekeeper matchup that will serve as his entrance into the top ten. Already ranked at #15 in the division, a fight with Hacran Dias or Darren Elkins, grinding wrestlers, would test him in his area of strength.