The sport of mixed martial arts is not necessarily kind to young fighters (unless your name is Jon Jones) as a career for a fighter under 25 is ripe with growing pains.
Unlike boxing, young MMA fighters are tested in their careers relatively early, with few going on unbeaten runs and claiming a world title before they turn a quarter-century old. Nevertheless, the MMA industry is booming and is seeing more fighters dive in at a young age.
Some talents are undeniable from the moment you lay eyes on them and just need seasoning and experience (Jose Aldo). Others have potential and are deemed as “can’t miss” but never see that potential fully realized for one reason or another (Edmen Shahbazyan).
And then there are those who don’t necessarily seem like future world champions when you first lay your eyes on them, but mature into some of the best fighters in the world after taking some lumps early on (Max Holloway).
The future of MMA is bright and The Sporting News provides a guide to the best fighters under the age of 25. As volatile as the wonderful world of MMA is, there’s no guarantee that everyone on this list will pan out. However, some names will almost certainly become world champions or title contenders in the next 12-18 months.
Here are The Sporting News’ best MMA fighters under the age of 25 across the UFC, PFL and Bellator.
*Must be aged under 25 as of November 1, 2023
MORE: The Sporting News’ top 25 boxers under the age of 25
The 21-year-old flyweight may have suffered a brutal knockout loss last year but the product of the Czech Republic is a dangerous fighter with three first-round finishes already in her career. One of the youngest women on the roster, Bleda oozes potential.
The 24-year-old from Russia is undefeated and impressed in her Dana White’s Contender Series debut in 2022 against Maria Silva. Since then, Dudakova has won two in a row in the octagon, her last fight being an impressive unanimous decision win against Jihn Yu Frey in October. An Open Fight Championship alum, she may have lied about hiding a staph infection during her last fight, but Dudakova has the skills to prove she can take over the division.
Dos Santos came out of nowhere as a late replacement to face Manel Kape at UFC 293 and gave the ranked flyweight hell despite losing. Training with Charles Oliveira has put a high ceiling on Dos Santos and his impressive UFC debut will put him on the radar of every flyweight in the promotion.
While he has lost two in a row, Maheshate has shown he can be a true standout fighter. The 23-year-old dominated in WLF before joining Dana White’s Contender Series. His best performance in the octagon was a knockout against Steve Garcia. If he can regain momentum, it shouldn’t be long until Maheshate is higher on the list.
Takahashi hasn’t been here long and found himself in a position to become Bellator’s inaugural flyweight champion when he faced former champion Kyoji Horiguchi earlier this year. Unfortunately, an accidental eye poke caused the fight to end in a No Contest. The skilled submission machine has run through some of RIZIN’s finest on his way to the title opportunity and could find himself very high on the list next time if he wins the rematch on New Year’s Eve.
After losing his third pro fight, “The Fearless” Joshua Van has won six in a row. Dominating the competition over at Fury FC, the 22-year-old was going to join the Contender Series until acting as a replacement opponent on a few weeks’ notice. He took advantage of the opportunity by beating Zhalas Zhumagulov in his UFC debut. If he can win his next fight in the octagon, this time with more preparation, he can prove the win wasn’t a fluke.
Novelyi Jr. was on the rise in Bellator until a torn ACL benched him for nearly two years. Upon his return, he secured consecutive knockout victories, reminding everyone why he was one to watch. He’ll need to be more active and face tougher competition to figure out just how good he really is but the ceiling is certainly high for the Hungarian.
Don’t let his small frame fool you, Chase Hooper is as tough as they come. A 2016 silver and gold medalist in the Pan American Jiu-Jitsu Championships, Hooper made an immediate impact when he joined the UFC in 2019, beating Daniel Tybura via TKO. While trading wins and losses in the octagon, Hooper has improved his craft. He’ll need to win two straight, his next contest being against Jordan Leavitt, to prove the hype on the Washington-born lightweight is real.
Prado is one of Argentina’s finest young talents and made his mark following a tough loss to Jamie Mullarkey with a brutal first-round knockout over slugger Ottman Azaitar. All of his wins have come by stoppage and the 21-year-old lightweight has the tools to be a force in the division.
Like his nickname, Simeon Powell’s run in the PFL has been “Smooth” since joining the organization in 2022. Using the Challenger Series to impress, Powell has become a top star in the PFL Europe format. The 24-year-old can call himself a PFL Champion and secure a spot in the top 25 before his next birthday if he can beat Jakob Nedoh in the PFL Europe Championship Finals.
McKenna has been one to watch for several years now after starting her amateur career at 15 and making her UFC debut at 21. Injuries and a split decision loss to Elise Reed after a 16-month absence have slowed her rise but she has bounced back with a pair of victories that put the strawweight division on notice. She’s young but her experience ranks up there with plenty of veterans in their 30s.
A multi-time jiu-jitsu champion, Lucindo started training in MMA at 13 to protect her loved ones, and it has now become her career. The 21-year-old beat Layze Cerqueira in 2019, a fight that brought her further recognition in MMA. After losing her UFC debut in 2022, she has won two in a row, with an impressive submission win against Polyana Viana in August. Already considered a veteran, Lucindo looks to prove that 2024 is her year.
Zellhuber went an impressive 12-0 in Mexico before arriving in the UFC with a decision win over Lucas Almeida on Dana White’s Contender series in 2021. Although he fell short against Trey Ogden the following year, he has reeled off consecutive victories, with his win over seasoned veteran Lando Vannata being the most impressive of his young career.
The 22-year-old South African is nicknamed the “Most Savage Player.” His six wins via knockout elevate the name. While he lost his last fight against Christian Rodriguez (who missed weight), the Dana White’s Contender Series standout impressed with wins against Steve Koslow and Terrence Mitchell. If he can rebound in his next fight, the world may hear Cameron Saaiman’s name for a long time.
Hiestand’s mix of wrestling and solid standup saw him run up to the finals of the 29th season of The Ultimate Fighter but fell short with a split decision loss in a stunning slugfest with Ricky Turcios. If he can get his standup near a level playing field as his grappling, he’ll present a problem for the bantamweight division.
A champion with Combate Global, including winning three fights in one night, 24-year-old Yazmin Jauregui is 2-1 with the UFC, losing her win streak against Denise Gomes in her last contest. Still, a rebound from the Mexican-born fighter can return her to her former glory.
Gomes burst onto the scene by brutally knocking off the woman many thought would be a pillar of the strawweight division and expected to rank high on the list. Gomes ruthlessly plowed through Yazmin Jauregui in just 20 seconds with a pair of right hands and a barrage of ground and pound. Although she recently fell short to seasoned veteran Angela Hill, Gomes has the potential to move up the ranks at strawweight in her next few fights.
The “Tajik Eagle” has plowed through the competition since making his pro debut five years ago. Aliev earned a UFC contract with a first-round stoppage of Josh Wick last September and took home a majority decision over Rafael Alves. The lightweight division is arguably the most stacked around, so Aliev has his work cut out for him. His suffocating grappling style has proven successful and could see him rise in the ranks over the next few years.
One of the most hyped young fighters since Aaron Pico, Raul Rosas Jr. is a popular 19-year-old fighter with plenty of pop. “El Nino Problema” impressed during Dana White’s Contender Series, and after White easily signed him, Rosas is 2-1 in the octagon. Losing against Christian Rodriguez, he didn’t lose momentum, beating Terrence Michell in September. Rosas would be higher on the list, but there is still a lot of unknown to what he can do. That could change by next year.
The brother of Zabit Magomedsharipov, Khasan is a European Junior Championship gold medalist and became a known name in the MMA space at 16 years old. The Russian joined Bellator in 2021 and has decimated the competition. Only one fight in the Bellator cage has gone the distance. While the future is unknown for the promotion, whatever happens to him, the 23-year-old Magomedsharipov expects to be a hot commodity.
Brennan is the highest ranked Bellator fighter on this list and for good reason. Currently ranked as the No.8 featherweight in Bellator, the 23-year-old jiujitsu practitioner has torn through the competition. With all but one of his fights ending inside the distance, it’s easy to see why Brennan is proving to be a threat to anybody in the division.
The sheer variety of his finishes is impressive as he’s landed a variety of chokes ranging from your typical rear-naked choke to becoming the first fighter in Bellator history to win with an assassin’s choke. As everyone he’s faced has quickly found out, don’t go to the ground with Lucas Brennan.
Once a dead division, flyweight has recently thrived in the UFC. Fighters like Tatsuro Taira, with four wins in the octagon, are part of the reason.
The Japanese starlet has already won two fights in 2023 and looks to win one more before the year ends. He could be ranked and fighting for gold by the time 2024 comes to a close.
Morales earned his UFC contract on Dana White’s Contender Series in 2021 and wasted little time torching both Trevin Giles and Adam Fugitt in 2022 before entering the Octagon against fringe top-15 welterweight Max Griffin in July of 2023. After falling behind in the first round, Morales proved why he’s one of the hottest young talents in MMA when he put his striking on display and showed the grit to weather a late rally to take home his fourth win in the UFC.
He has yet to taste defeat and is still evolving as a fighter. The welterweight division isn’t terribly crowded and Morales could find himself knocking at the door of the top 10 by this time next year.
Muhammad Mokaev has already shown he can be a lethal fighter at flyweight. The Russian is a former British Championships and English Nationals medalist and has used his wrestling to manhandle the competition. Nearly perfect with Brave CF, Mokaev joined the UFC in 2022 and has already won five fights in the octagon.