On the Doorstep: 10 fighters who could make UFC with July wins

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Every champion in MMA history started 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, 10 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 10 are particularly exemplary.

Marcos Degli

Record: 11-2*
Age: 24
Height: 5’6″
Weight: Flyweight
Birthplace: Brazil
Next fight: July 6 vs. Ignacio Fernandez (8-2) at LFA 187 in Cajamar, Sao Paulo, Brazil (UFC Fight Pass)

The Skinny: The fighting journey began for Marcos Degli at 12 years old with muay Thai under master Cristian Nogueira, who he still trains under to this day. Degli hopes to join Kalindra Faria and Carlos Prates as the third UFC fighter to come out of the team. Self-described as “versatile,” “intelligent,” and “disciplined,” Degli is also pretty self-aware, since all three traits accurately reflect him. Degli’s record speaks for itself. Currently Tapology’s No. 3-ranked Brazilian flyweight, Degli’s last six opponents had a combined record of 39-13. He’s a finisher, he’s fun, and he’s only 24. A win at LFA 187 will be nine in a row – and will align him perfectly as a final roster addition to “Dana White’s Contender Series.”

“(I want to) show that I’m the best in the class, and win many victories, be a regarded as guy who built a legacy in the world of MMA, this way I’ll change my family’s life and my parents’ reality,” Degli recently told MMA Junkie through a Portuguese-language interpreter. “… I sleep and wake up thinking about it every day, I’m ready to go in and show the strength of my dream. Because I am a very dedicated guy, I would be ready for whoever is i front of me, in any area I raise doubts for my opponents and in the UFC it would be no different, I learned that the definition of luck is being prepared, so if they called me they would be impressed with my style of fight.”

* = Degli moved to 11-3 when he defeated Fernandez via TKO (ground-and-pound) – Round 1, 4:32

Carlos Leal

2023 PFL 3 Las Vegas at the The Theater at Virgin Hotels in Las Vegas, Nevada, Friday, April 14, 2023. (Cooper Neill / PFL)

Record: 20-5*
Age: 30
Height: 5’11”
Weight: Welterweight
Birthplace: Curitiba, Parana, Brazil
Next fight: July 6 vs. Manuel Mena (12-3) at LFA 187 in Cajamar, Sao Paulo, Brazil (UFC Fight Pass)

The Skinny: Martial arts came to Carlos Leal as a form of therapy after the loss of his father. He found comfort and peace through the muay Thai. His mother was his biggest supporter and helped guide him through the difficult times. Eventually, he found beliefs in God, Jesus Christ, and religion which he attributes to helping him find purpose. It was a long and winding road for Leal, who eventually got his big break in 2022. Following back-to-back wins at PFL Challenger Series, Leal stepped in to fight Ray Cooper III on short notice – and won a unanimous decision. He then fought in the 2022 PFL playoffs against Sadibou Sy and lost a unanimous decision. Leal qualified for the 2023 playoffs after two regular season wins, but Sy beat him again – this time by unanimous decision. Now (surprisingly) free of PFL ties, Leal is one of the most talented free agents out there. He’s 1-0 since. The UFC needs to give this man a look because they are unlikely to regret it.

“The PFL was a very important event for me because through it, I was able to provide a better living condition for my family,” Leal recently told MMA Junkie through a Portuguese-language interpreter. “I only have gratitude for everyone at the event. But I felt it was time for me to leave and try something new. … Today, my goal is the UFC. … I strongly believe there is a chance for that. That’s why I’m prepared to deliver the best performance of my life. I definitely see myself among the best in my division, and I believe I have everything it takes to become the champion of the weight class.”

* = Leal moved to 21-5 when he defeated Mena via TKO (punches) – Round 1, 3:09

Tedrick Macklin

Record: 6-0
Age: 27
Height: 5’11”
Weight: Lightweight
Birthplace: Midland, Texas
Next fight: July 12 vs. Devon Dixon (6-1-1) at Fury FC 93 in San Antonio (UFC Fight Pass)

The Skinny: Tedrick Macklin has trucked every opponent thrown his way over the course of his short professional career. A taekwondo black belt, Macklin began in the discipline at age 6. He won a state title and competed internationally for the International Sport Karate Association (ISKA) in continuous point-fighting. That’s his background, his foundation, his roots – and Macklin doesn’t mind the “point-fighter” tag. At the same time, he understands the criticism. He’s not a discipline homer. He’s undefeated as a professional with five finishes in six fights. His focus has been excitement and if he continues to improve in that department, there’s seemingly no stopping him from getting to the UFC. His biggest problem has been finding fights, but with a willing 6-1-1 opponent in Devon Dixon, this could be the one that gets him to the big show.

“On paper, this is in a way a Contender Series fight that’s not legitimately a Contender Series fight,” Macklin recently told MMA Junkie. “… I can’t see a win not either getting me one of these three things: a Contender Series shot, a late notice shot into the UFC, or at least a title shot in Fury. I’m thinking what I’m going to go out there and do and the style in which I’m going to do it is going to be hard to not have eyes on me that will get me to the UFC. When I go out there and beat this opponent the way I’m going to beat him, it’s not going to be me begging to get into the UFC; it’s going to be them begging for me. My goal is not to just be a fighter in the UFC. I’m trying to bring my unique style and really captivate the fans – and be a star. I’m going to be one of those names people go, ‘Oh, man, we’ve got to watch a ‘T-Money’ fight.’”

John Sweeney

Image via Legacy Fighting Alliance (LFA)

Record: 13-3
Age: 29
Height: 5’7″
Weight: Bantamweight
Birthplace: Spartanburg, South Carolina
Next fight: July 12 vs. Rafael do Nascimento (9-2) at LFA 188 in Chandler, Ariz. (UFC Fight Pass)

The Skinny: As an overweight teenager, John Sweeney didn’t take wrestling seriously. He wasn’t interested to begin with, but his dad talked him into it. Sweeney lost the weight through wrestling and transitioned to karate. It was his first official striking experience, though growing up with 10 blood-related aunts and uncles meant a lot of “crazy as hell” cousins and toughness built on the playground. He competed collegiately for a year but encountered some disciplinary issues and dropped out of college. He went pro in fighting, moving up the ranks under the tutelage of Upstate Karate. In a day and age where seemingly everyone is getting signed left and right, we seldom have “must-sign” prospects sitting on the shelf. Sweeney is one of them. But rather than sit around and feel bad for himself, Sweeney has remained active to prove he’s worth a major promotion’s investment. Although not a finishing machine, Sweeney is far from boring – and has mic skills – and now holds an LFA title, too. Now with a new team and management, Sweeney hopes the final tweaks were made to get a UFC call.

“It’s been a while but I’ve been honing different skills,” Sweeney recently told MMA Junkie. “I’ve been skateboarding and playing basketball – just doing everything I love with real passion behind it. I’m in even better shape. It’s going to be the best performance that I’ve ever had, so I’m excited to display my skills. … I’ve made a lot of big changes. I’ve had some mad experiences been going on in my life to wake me up and shake me up in the right direction. I ended up making some moves for myself. Maybe not all of them were correct, but regardless I made proper and correct moves. … This should be the one. Do I know completely? Nah, anything can happen. But my resume speaks for itself.”

Cameron Smotherman

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – AUGUST 15: Cameron Smotherman prepares to face Charalampos Grigoriou of Cyprus in a bantamweight fight during Dana White’s Contender Series season seven, week two at UFC APEX on August 15, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Louis Grasse/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

Record: 10-4
Age: 26
Height: 5’9″
Weight: Bantamweight
Birthplace: Houston
Next fight: July 21 vs. Ryan Mondala (4-6) at Fury FC 94 in Houston (UFC Fight Pass)

The Skinny: One day, Cameron Smotherman was bored. Out of all the times his buddy nagged him to try training, he finally took him up on it. After a 3-2 amateur stint, Smotherman turned pro. He trained under the late Saul Soliz, who laid the foundation as Smotherman built himself as a pro. Following four wins in a row, Smotherman fought on Dana White’s Contender Series. He was finished in exactly one minute by Charalampos Grigoriou in 2023. Smotherman said he learned through that experience that “sometimes life sucks and that sh*t happens,” but hopped back in the gym after three months of processing. He’s 2-0 since under the Fury FC banner.

“I feel like I’ve made adjustments and I’m constantly trying to get better every day to make sure something like that (DWCS loss) never happens again,” Smotherman recently told MMA Junkie. “… I felt like I had a harder path to everyone to get to Contender Series and I’m still trying to figure out what I can possibly do to make something happen. I have the exciting fights and get the crazy knockouts. The battle for me is mental. It’s not even putting in the work. It’s trying to stay positive and make something happen. … I’ve trained with enough guys from UFC, Bellator, and ONE. I’m more than good enough and more than hold my own.”

Smotherman frequently works alongside UFC contender Adrian Yanez and under UFC alum Yves Edwards. Yanez sings his praises.

Yanez recently told MMA Junkie, “Cameron is one of the few guys I’ve ever trained with who will fight on Sunday and get back in the gym on Monday morning. He’s that type of fighter. He’s very harsh even in the wins he has, where he wants to get better. There are not many people that will take a win as a loss. He’s one of those guys. Even if he did a spectacular job at it, he’s going to sit back and critique every little thing that he did wrong. There’s not many people built like that.”

Michael Pagani

Record: 7-0
Age: 25
Height: 5’9″
Weight: Lightweight
Birthplace: Italy
Next fight: July 25 vs. Mason Jones (14-2) at Cage Warriors 175 in Manchester, England (UFC Fight Pass)

The Skinny: Michael Pagani has been training since he began kickboxing at age 15. MMA began at age 20. With one year of amateur experience, Pagani turned professional at 21. It started out at the base level of the pro ranks in Italy, but Pagani’s competition level slowly increased over time. While the opponents changed, the results stayed the same. Pagani has five finishes in seven fights. He made his Cage Warriors debut in July 2023 when he defeated previously undefeated James Power, which was big – but not as big if he defeats Mason Jones, who is also “on the doorstep.” The UFC is in need of more Italian representation with Marvin Vettori and Manolo Zecchini the country’s lone representatives at the moment.

“I’m ready for this. I’m very excited for this matchup and I cannot wait. This is a big name, but my dream and my objective is UFC. I’ve trained very hard for this. This guy was before in the UFC. For me, it’s a very good test and a chance to get into the UFC. I’m ready for this fight and I cannot wait. It’s showtime. It’s ‘Sniper’ time. … It’s possible that this is (for a UFC contract). But my focus is on this match, not the next. First, this match and I’ll think about it afterward. … But I think my skillset is good for the UFC. I train hard. My skills, right now, are ready for the UFC.”

Mason Jones

Jul 23, 2022; London, United Kingdom; Mason Jones (red gloves) before his fight against Ludovit Klein (blue gloves) during UFC Fight Night at O2 Arena. Mandatory Credit: Per Haljestam-USA TODAY Sports

Record: 14-2
Age: 29
Height: 5’10”
Weight: Lightweight
Birthplace: Wales
Next fight: July 25 vs. Michael Pagani (7-0) at Cage Warriors 175 in Manchester, England (UFC Fight Pass)

The Skinny: Mason Jones started off in kickboxing when he was seven years old. From kickboxing, he moved into Japanese jiu-jitsu to judo to Brazilian jiu-jitsu to boxing to muay Thai to taekwondo; Jones piled up the martial arts. Fast forward to the present day, and Jones has three black belts: kickboxing, judo, and BJJ. A proud representative of Wales, Jones carried his flag into the UFC where he competed four times from January 2021 to July 2022. He went 1-2 with one no contest. His fights were competitive and fun. His losses aged well, as they were against Mike Davis and Ludovit Klein. Though his release surprised many, Jones didn’t put things on hold to figure it out. He jumped right back on the horse. He’s 3-0 in Cage Warriors since with three knockouts/TKOs over tough competition.

“I’m very self-critical and I look at those performances,” Jones told MMA Junkie in February. “The positive points don’t do anything for me. I’m an arrogant person. You have to be in this sport. I’m the greatest fighter at 155 pounds and I have to believe that I am. I have potential to be the world champion at lightweight in the UFC or whatever organization I end up in. I know the caliber I am. I train with guys at the top of 155, the top of 145, the top of 170. I know the caliber I’m at, but we are the one percent. This game is split into one percents. What I do is look at what I did wrong and improve.”

Phillip Latu

Record: 6-1
Age: 33
Height: 6’3″
Weight: Light heavyweight
Birthplace: Los Angeles
Next fight: July 26 vs. Steve MacDonald (4-1) at CFFC 133 in Tampa (UFC Fight Pass)

The Skinny: For Phillip Latu, growing up wasn’t easy. It’s what led him to fighting. Latu remembers the exact moment he realized he’d pursue fighting: when he fought back against his father and dropped him. Right then and there, he embraced the sense of empowerment and became addicted to overcoming obstacles. He moved to Colorado and Elevation Fight Team with Abdul Razak Alhassan, Zac Pauga, and Curtis Blaydes among others. Latu turned professional in 2021 and all seven of his fights since have ended inside the distance. In a division where legit prospects are sparse, the UFC should be all over Latu. He’s exciting and well-spoken with a good backstory. He’s also a proud representative of Tonga, a nation where he could be the first UFC representative. Oh, and he already has a callout ready. Mohammed Usman, if you’re reading this, he says he wants a fight. Riding a three-fight TKO/knockout streak, a fourth should get him into the big leagues.

“Being a UFC champion is great, but I just want to make my stamp. I want the whole world to know I’m going to be the most dangerous man alive. That comes with territory. That is what it is. That’s what’s going to happen. Whoever is in front of me, I don’t care. I want everyone in the UFC. I want any 205er, any light heavyweight in the UFC, especially Mohammed Usman. … If the UFC calls me, I’d be ready right now. I’m comfortable being who I am. I realize we go through so many different characters and types of styles of fighting. I’ve realized the type of character I am after all this time. … Now that I know who I am, I’m just going to go and f*ck shit up. I just want destruction.”

Amru Magomedov

Record: 7-0
Age: 25
Height: 5’11”
Weight: Lightweight
Birthplace: Kyzyl-Yurt, Russia
Next fight: July 27 vs. Ali Kabdulla (9-2-1) at UAE Warriors 51 in Abu Dhabi (UFC Fight Pass)

The Skinny: Khabib Nurmagomedov. Islam Makhachev. Usman Nurmagomedov. Umar Nurmagomedov. Amru Magomedov could very well be joining these names soon. The next in line of an other-wordly fight team lineage, Magomedov is destined for greatness. For years, Magomedov has been molded to have all the traits of a champion. He’s traveled the world to experience UFC, Bellator, and PFL fight weeks with some of the world’s greatest fighters. Now at 7-0 himself, Magomedov is likely one win away from notching a UFC deal of his own. He’s sped through much of his professional career with five first-round finishes in seven fights. He’s never fought an opponent with a losing record. UAE Warriors puts on as legit regional fights as any promotion out there, so Magomedov (3-0 in the promotion) has proven himself against legitimate competition. Magomedov is already ready. Right now, this is extra credit.

Joe Giannetti

July 6, 2018; Las Vegas, NV, USA; Joe Giannetti defends against Mike Trizano during the TUF 27 Finale at Pearl Theater. Mandatory Credit: Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Record: 16-5-1
Age: 29
Height: 6’0″
Weight: Lightweight
Birthplace: Whitman, Mass.
Next fight: July 20 vs. Peter Barrett (16-6) at Cage Titans 66 in Plymouth, Mass. (Spectation Sports)

The Skinny: Fight fans might remember Joe Giannetti as the crafty submission specialist who was the lightweight runner-up for “The Ultimate Fighter 27.” But he’s become much more than that since. When he competed for the UFC reality series back in 2018, he wasn’t that far removed from being an overweight kid who turned to MMA for self-defense. He even admits his one UFC showing wasn’t a good one. Six years later, Giannetti has grown tremendously. He’s taken risks on the regional scene and they haven’t always paid off. But the fighter that exists now in 2024 would school the guy from six years ago, so it seems like he’s made the right decisions. He’s 7-1 in his most recent eight, including back-to-back highlight reel knockouts in his most recent two. Now cross-training with Tyson Chartier and the New England Cartel, a win over Peter Barrett, another guy on the cusp of a UFC call back, should put a stamp on a ticket back to the promotion.

“I feel like a completely different fighter. I feel like me now would just do terrible things to 22-year-old me. Honestly, that’s kind of been my goal since getting cut. Everybody is like, ‘Two or three wins and you’ll be back in the UFC. I’ve gotten offered different promotions’ lesser guys. Maybe finishing a couple of bums in two or three fights would’ve gotten me back to the UFC so fast. But I’ve been telling everybody since the day I’ve got cut that I need to improve. I need to beat good guys. Because when I do get back, it’s not going to just be another New England guy making a two or three-fight run. I want to fight for a title one day. I want to be the best in the world. I’ve taken the years since and focused on improving. I’ve done that and I’m not close to my peak.”

Fighters worth watching who didn’t crack the list, yet are on the verge of something big:

  • Hugo Paiva (9-2) – July 5 def. Rodrigo Roldan (6-5) via TKO in Round 1 at LFA 187 in Cajamar, Sao Paulo, Brazil (UFC Fight Pass)
  • Pedro Doreto (6-0) – July 5 def. Leandro Solano (3-1) via TKO in Round 1 at LFA 187 in Cajamar, Sao Paulo, Brazil (UFC Fight Pass)
  • Lionel Abojer (11-2) – July 5 def. Apollo Gomes (9-1) via submission in Round 2 at LFA 187 in Cajamar, Sao Paulo, Brazil (UFC Fight Pass)
  • Samuel Dias (10-2) – July 5 def. Renzo Cortti (9-5) via TKO in Round 1 at LFA 187 in Cajamar, Sao Paulo, Brazil (UFC Fight Pass)
  • Maike Linhares (19-3) – July 6 def. Antonio da Silva (21-10) via unanimous decision at Lajeado Fight MMA in Lajeado, Tocantins, Brazil (YouTube)
  • Igeu Kabesa (18-2) – Thursday vs. Humphrey Mulenga (6-1) at EFC 115 in Sandton, South Africa
  • Jose Delgado (6-1) – Friday vs. Lucas Faria (7-2) at LFA 188 in Chandler, Ariz. (UFC Fight Pass)
  • Nicolas Leblond (10-4) – July 20 vs. Shajidul Haque (16-5) at Cage Warriors 174 in London (UFC Fight Pass)
  • Shajidul Haque (16-5) – July 20 vs. Nicolas Leblond (10-4) at Cage Warriors 174 in London (UFC Fight Pass)
  • Peter Barrett (16-6) – July 20 vs. Joe Giannetti (16-5-1) at Cage Titans 66 in Plymouth, Mass. (Spectation Sports)
  • Jonathan Kunnerman (5-0) – July 20 vs. Tristyn DeHart (5-6) at New Line Cagefighting 26 in Catlettsburg, Ky.
  • Stefano Paterno (17-4-1) – July 25 vs. Olli Santalahti (14-6) at Cage Warriors 175 in Manchester, England (UFC Fight Pass)
  • Morquez Forest (5-0) – July 26 vs. Robert Watley (14-3) at CFFC 133 in Tampa, Fla. (UFC Fight Pass)
  • Robert Watley (14-3) – July 26 vs. Morquez Forest (5-0) at CFFC 133 in Tampa, Fla. (UFC Fight Pass)
  • Devin Goodale (5-0) – July 26 vs. Alonzo Turner (4-0) at Tuff-N-Uff 138 in Las Vegas (UFC Fight Pass)
  • Christian Avalos (5-1) – July 26 vs. Samuel Alvarez (10-6) at Urijah Faber’s A1 Combat 23 (UFC Fight Pass)

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