Every champion in MMA history started out somewhere.
For those who make it to the highest stage, the journey begins long before they strap on UFC, Bellator, or PFL gloves. Modern-era fighters progress through the regional ranks with hopes of accomplishing the highest accolades. Many will try, few will succeed.
This month, five fighters on the verge of achieving major promotion notoriety - one for the second time - return to the cage for what could be their stepping-stone fight. There are dozens of fighters close to making the jump in the coming weeks, but these five are particularly exemplary.
An exciting Australian flyweight was hindered by visa issues when the UFC first showed interest, but when the promotional brass attend his fight Saturday he aims to make his signing undeniable.
A featherweight from a small Louisiana town plans to welcome striking and make his opponent pay on the ground en route to a UFC contract through Fury FC.
Day-by-day, week-by-week, year-by-year, a seasoned Texas-based welterweight has put in the works - and he thinks he's on the verge of finally cashing in his street credit for a UFC contract.
A Dana White's Contender Series alumnus from Spain continues his mission to prove his loss on the show was not a representation of his actual abilities.
A proud Kazakh looks to continue his country's momentum with a big win in the Middle East.
Weight class: Flyweight
Next Fight: Saturday vs. Soichiro Hirai (4-1) at Eternal MMA 73 in Perth, Australia (UFC Fight Pass)
Background: A competitor for as long as he can he remember, [autotag]Stephen Erceg[/autotag] found combat sports through WWE by way of superstar Brock Lesnar. When Lesnar jumped from professional wrestling to mixed martial arts, Erceg was sucked in - particularly by the idea Frank Mir could submit the behemoth in Round 1. Erceg started training and in 2014 had his first amateur bout. He bounced between the amateur and professional ranks until 2020, when he went professional full-force. After seven straight pro wins, Erceg was offered a spot on Dana White's Contender Series. However, unforeseen visa issues nixed the golden opportunity. After 18 months away from competition, Erceg finally returns Friday - and apparently, the UFC brass will be in attendance on the eve of UFC 284.
The skinny: Erceg is a fairly lengthy flyweight with a high finishing rate relative to his division. While not all win streaks are created equal in the Australia and New Zealand regions, Erceg has competed against solid competition on his rise, including current UFC fighter Shannon Ross, who he submitted in 4:28. Erceg has a high level of experience for a 27-year-old. Looking up and down Saturday's event in Perth, Erceg looks on paper one of two fighters (alongside 6-1 Abdullah Biayda) the UFC will likely snatch up should they perform impressively. Erceg said the UFC has indicated to him the promotion can resolve his visa issues should he onboard onto the roster.
In his own words: "I'm always looking to finish. A lot of other people say they are, but when they have a chance to get on top and coast the last round, they do. I feel like I'm always putting pressure on. If I get on top, I'm looking to pass. I'm looking for half guard. I'm looking for a submission. I want to be as convincing as possible at all times."
"… Winning a fight on decision doesn't feel the same as winning a fight by submission or by knockout. Obviously, I do look at the UFC and see they want finishes. So that does play in mind a little bit. But just as a natural competitor, I don't want to go in there and have some guy go, 'Oh yeah, but you lost three rounds.' I want to finish him. I want to make it convincing and hopefully they decide they don't want to ever fight me again because it was embarrassing. That's the goal."
"… I was very close to having my shot on Contender Series last year. It does feel a little bit like I could lose my opportunity with a loss here. I'm making sure that I go out and I perform really well. There's pressure there. Obviously, there's a little extra pressure there because the UFC matchmakers are going to be there, from the sounds of it. There's pressure there. … I'm going to try to go out there and put on the best performance that I can."
Weight class: Featherweight
Birthplace: West Monroe, La.
Next Fight: Feb. 17 vs. Luis Luna (17-9) at Fury FC 75 in Dallas (UFC Fight Pass)
Background: From a small town in Louisiana, [autotag]Jesse Butler[/autotag] transitioned to MMA after a high school baseball career wrapped without a collegiate plan. On Day 1, Butler sparred - and got his butt kicked. Each day he came back, the butt kickings lessoned. Eventually, he was no longer the kick-ee, but rather the kicker. He considered MMA his job long before he ever cashed a paycheck from it. In 2012, Butler fought for the first time as an amateur. Over the next three years, he went 13-3 including a 10-fight winning streak before he turned professional in 2015. As a professional, there have been more ups than downs. Butler hit his stride in recent fights and now rides a four-fight winning streak, the longest of his pro career.
The skinny: Butler has a grappling foundation but knows how to play the bigger game, which is trying to carve out the most successful path to the big leagues. He goes into each fight with the mentality that his striking comes first. If an opponent wants to drag him down, Butler will open the door and kindly welcome them into his home. A menace in the jiu-jitsu department, Butler has eight submissions in 11 victories. But his priority is excitement - something that the UFC seeks in many athletes in the year 2023. Already on the tip of the UFC's tongue, Butler should finally get the call-up if he wins another bout for highly respected promotion Fury FC.
In his own words: "We got the call a couple times and I accepted a couple of UFC fights, but it just didn't pan out. Maybe they didn't chose me or something just didn't work out, but that's what we were holding out for, for someone to back out. It just didn't work out this time. … It definitely feels like I'm close. There's no more pressure that can put on me, other than the pressure I put on myself. I can't wait to get in the Fury cage and just put on another masterful performance and show where I should be. That's the goal, to have three first-round Fury finishes right before I get the call-up."
"… My fights are always super exciting. I'm a jiu-jitsu guy, but that's not really how I want to finish the fights. I don't mean to submit these guys. It just happens by accident when I'm in there. Usually they shoot in on me or they take me down because I'm not too concerned about that. Then, I'll submit them without even really trying. I've got excellent striking that I don't get to showcase every fight because we always end up grappling. I love to strike and I love to finish every fight striking."
"… At this point, the biggest driving factors is just going to be the first one in the UFC where I'm from, a small town in Louisiana, and just show people from here that they can do anything they set their mind to. I want this to be the beginning of MMA really taking off from where I'm from. I'm shining light on MMA in this area."
Weight class: Welterweight
Next Fight: Feb. 17 vs. Bassil Hafez (7-3-1) at Fury FC 75 in Dallas (UFC Fight Pass)
Background: For as long as he can remember, Evan Cutts has ben "super nerd who loves the hero story." In constant pursuit of hurdles to overcome, Cutts was driven by the want for empowerment. What's more "real" and more "empowering" than martial arts? It began with karate, then Cutts met Johnny Bedford and entered jiu-jitsu. He joined an LA Boxing to add another discipline and began competition in 2010. In 2011, he turned professional. In 2013, he entered Bellator reality series "Fight Master," as a member of Joe Warren's team and made it to the quarterfinals. Since then, Cutts has had wins and losses, but has always moved forward, through LFA, XKO, WXC, and more. In recent years, he picked up CFFC and Fury FC titles, the latter he still holds.
The skinny: Thirteen years is a long time to spend on the regional scene, but Cutts is still only 32. More importantly, he's improving fight by fight. A winner of five of his most recent six, Cutts has become must-watch viewing. Four of his five professional losses have come to eventual UFC signees. He hasn't shied away from tough fights. Even if its been detrimental to his win-loss record, Cutts has used the defeats to build. In recent years, he's dedicated his life to training others - adding to his perspective of life and martial arts. Seemingly at peace more now than ever, Cutts has become quite the finisher. If the UFC wants to add an fire-fight, well-rounded brawler to their welterweight roster, look no further than Cutts.
In his own words: "I've kind of evened out into a cold fury of wanting to be the best martial artist and athlete I can be. I want to be able to ask that not of just myself, but be an example to my students. That's been a part of the success of (my gym) Fitness Fight Factory. We've always led from the front. We've never asked any of our students something we wouldn't do ourselves. That's how martial arts stays real and stays pure and stays a spirit that lives on through generations. Not to be way weird or esoteric about it, but it can get that way."
"… I feel like when you look at my record, it shows I've been getting after it. I don't have a lot of fights where I'm fighting anyone with an upside-down record or anything silly. I actually got a little bit frustrated with my last couple fights. The promotion does what they can to fill a spot and make sure there's someone on the other side of the cage. But I've had to take some fights recently because I don't know if others are trying to protect their record or just trying to hang around the regional circuit, but I'm trying to get in the UFC. I would love to fight guys who are other up-and-comers to get there."
"… I definitely think I could make a big impact (in the UFC) right now. I always think I'm like one fight away, because that's what you hear from promoters or managers. It doesn't matter. I'm going to have 40 fights before I'm 40. I'm going to stack up as many wins as I can, as I'm getting to that goal. I definitely believe I can fight at the world level. I watch guys in the UFC and I get frustrated. There are guys in the UFC I have wins over. It can be irritating and you go to a fight watch party and you're watching guys fight and whether you see a whole or an opening… sometimes I just watch the guys on the newer side of the UFC and how often do those guys get cut within three fights? I'm not going to be that guy."
LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - OCTOBER 05: Daniel Barez prepares to fight Carlos Hernandez in a flyweight fight during Dana White's Contender Series season 5 week 6 at UFC APEX on October 05, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)
Weight class: Flyweight
Birthplace: Burjassot, Spain
Next Fight: Feb. 24 vs. Soslenis Carvalho (14-12) at UWC 40 in Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico (UFC Fight Pass)
Background: Spain hasn't had a ton of UFC representation to date, but [autotag]Daniel Barez[/autotag] hopes to change that. At 13, Barez started kickboxing and took third place in Spanish nationals. At 18, he transitioned to mixed martial arts. The passion found in kickboxing was amplified as additional disciplines were mixed in. After a 6-4 start to his professional career, Barez turned a corner in late 2016 as he embarked on nine-of-10 stretch of wins. The only loss was a split decision defeat to Carlos Hernandez on Dana White's Contender Series in 2021.
The skinny: Outside of the close loss on DWCS, the modern version of Barez has proven unbeatable on the regional scene. Since the defeat, Barez has gone 3-0 with three finishes, showing the loss in front of UFC president Dana White wasn't a morale-crusher. Instead, it was a valuable learning experience. His most recent two bouts were for UWC, a top Mexican regional promotion run by renowned coach Raul Arvizu. The UFC often turns to DWCS alums (even those who lost) for short-notice calls. Whether it's in Europe, Latin America, or the United States, Barez could be a perfect candidate.
In his own words: "Since I was little I always discussed it with a friend and our dream was to be champions of the Valencian community in Spain. We would never have imagined that we would go so far in boxing as well as in mixed martial arts.
"… I think my fighting style is quite showy, although I didn't perform well on Contender Series because I was coming off such a long layoff from coronavirus. But I consider myself a very explosive fighter with a lot of potential. Once I enter the cage I become a lion looking for its prey."
"… Without a doubt, I believe and think that I have a sufficient level to be in the UFC and I am proving it. I also know that I am at the level because I have been training with many UFC fighters. I just need an opportunity - a contract - and you will see an authentic Daniel Barez that has nothing to do with what you saw on Contender Series. … In my last 10 fights my record is 9-1. The one I lost was a very close split decision that I could have won. In February, I will be 10-1, I am sure of it, and that's all I can do."
This interview was conducted using a Spanish-language interpreter.
Weight class: Bantamweight
Next Fight: Feb. 25 vs. TBA at UAE Warriors 36 on Yas Island, Abu Dhabi
Background: Since childhood, [autotag]Bekzat Almakhan[/autotag] has loved watching fighting. It's one thing to watch, but certainly it's another to actually do it. When he graduated from school, Almakhan decided to try it out for himself. Initially, it was a bit of a pipe dream hobby. But when he turned out to be pretty damn good at throwing punches and shooting for takedowns, Almakhan determined he stumbled upon a new career path. Since 2016, Almakhan has gone 14-1 with 13 finishes. His only loss was against highly-touted Sultan Zholdoshbek Uulu in 2020. Almakhan currently rides a six-fight winning streak.
The skinny: There is a wave of Kazakhstani fighters crashing into the UFC and Almakhan could certainly be next. There are no cultural gaps between Kazakhastanis and the world audience when dominance and excitement is factored in. That's the case here with Almakhan. He has a well-rounded attack and doesn't waste much time. He's been battled tested with fighters with 10-3, 7-1, 11-6-1, and 12-4 records - experienced yet talented opposition. A win in his UAE Warriors debut should further provide evidence the regional scene isn't his ceiling.
In his own words: "I'm hungrier than these guys. I started from the bottom. I have 90 percent finishes. I have the whole country behind me, where MMA is becoming almost a national sport. You think we're the ninth largest country in the world for nothing? You think somebody gave it to us? No, it's because we have the blood of the best warriors in the world. … Expect exciting battles, we will go forward to the best of our ability."
"To glorify the flag of Kazakhstan is a great honor for me. That's what I'm here for and what I strive for. My goal is to become UFC champion for a long time. So that no one can deprive me of the championship."
This interview was conducted using a Kazakh-language interpreter.
Fighters worth watching who didn't crack the list, yet are on the verge of something big:
[autotag]Nayib Lopez[/autotag] (15-0) - Feb. 3 def. Ivan Valenzuela (8-3) at Lux Fight League 30 in Monterrey, Mexico (UFC Fight Pass)
[autotag]Cameron Smotherman[/autotag] (8-3) - Feb. 5 def. Peter Caballero (13-5) at Fury FC 74 in Houston (UFC Fight Pass)
[autotag]Terrance Jean-Jacques[/autotag] (8-3) - Friday vs. Dirlei Broenstrup (17-9) at Combat FC 3 in Wilmington, Mass. (UFC Fight Pass)
[autotag]Magomed Idrisov[/autotag] (7-0) - Friday vs. Brandon Phillips (8-5) at LFA 152 in Shawnee, Okla. (UFC Fight Pass)
[autotag]Abdullah Biayda[/autotag] (6-1) - Saturday vs. Alan Philpott (19-14) at Eternal MMA 73 in Perth, Australia (UFC Fight Pass)
[autotag]Ilyor Bakhtiyar Uulu[/autotag] (7-1) - Feb. 17 vs. Edwin Cooper Jr. (6-1) at LFA 153 in Hammond, Ind. (UFC Fight Pass)
[autotag]Edwin Cooper Jr.[/autotag] (6-1) - Feb. 17 vs. Ilyor Bakhtiyar Uulu (7-1) at LFA 153 in Hammond, Ind. (UFC Fight Pass)
[autotag]Askar Askar[/autotag] (14-3) - Feb. 17 vs. Matheus Silva (8-2) at LFA 153 in Hammond, Ind. (UFC Fight Pass)
[autotag]Jose Mariscal[/autotag] (12-6) - Feb. 17 vs. Guilherme Faria (18-9) at LFA 153 in Hammond, Ind. (UFC Fight Pass)
[autotag]Julius Holmes[/autotag] (6-2) - Feb. 17 vs. Joe Boerschig (6-6) at Fury FC 75 in Dallas (UFC Fight Pass)
[autotag]Abdul-Kareem Al-Selwady[/autotag] (13-3) - Feb. 17 vs. Michael Murphy (8-4-1) at Fury FC 75 in Dallas (UFC Fight Pass)
[autotag]Kaan Ofli[/autotag] (10-2-1) - Feb. 24 vs. Jarrett Wilbraham (6-1) at Hex Fight Series 25 in Melbourne (UFC Fight Pass)
[autotag]Mohammad Yahya[/autotag] (11-3) - Feb. 26 vs. Souhil Tahiri (5-3-1) at UAE Warriors 37 on Yas Island, Abu Dhabi
Story originally appeared on MMA Junkie