On the Doorstep: 5 fighters who could make UFC with February wins

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.

  • A New Englander migrated to Florida and American Top Team to help make his dreams come true – and he thinks he’s close.

  • Erin Blanchfield’s main training partner continues down a similar path with major UFC aspirations on her mind.

  • A Vietnam-born flyweight is only 23, but making huge waves thus far on the regional scene and plans to continue them until Mick Maynard comes calling.

  • Formerly of Oklahoma State University, a standout wrestler’s transition into MMA is seemingly destiny, bolstered by a recent move to Fortis MMA.

  • Don’t call it a comeback, but a Welsh lightweight is obsessed with earning a second UFC opportunity – and is on his way to doing so.

Nate Ghareeb

Image via CES MMA
Image via CES MMA

Record: 9-2
Age: 30
Weight class: Featherweight
Height: 5’8″
Birthplace: Hot Springs, Ark.
Next Fight: Friday vs. Don Shainis (13-6) at Combat FC 6 in Wilmington, Mass. (UFC Fight Pass)*

Background: High school wrestling paved the path for Nate Ghareeb. So the obvious was next – a WWE wrestler. Ghareeb’s dream of professional wrestling was short-lived, however. He considered going to pro wrestling school, but his high school coach advised him against it and go with MMA instead. Ghareeb wasn’t really familiar, but the more he looked, the more he liked. After injuries in consecutive years during his collegiate wrestling stint at Springfield College (Mass.), he decided to pivot to a jiu-jitsu gym. The gym had a kickboxing class – and he fell in love with striking. After he transferred to West Virginia University, he dedicated himself to the art of muay Thai. Combat sports became his life. At the crossroads of pursuing a potential career as a police officer or becoming a full-time fighter in 2016, Ghareeb chose the latter. After a 6-3 amateur career, Ghareeb turned pro in July 2019. Over the span of 11 fights, his only losses were to top Bellator prospect Cody Law, and a close and controversial decision against Dan Dubuque. He bounced back nicely with three straight wins, including a rare Suloev stretch submission.

The skinny: It hasn’t been a straight shot to the top for Ghareeb, but his path has been effective in the long term. As he’s progressed through his career, Ghareeb has slowly but surely figured out a stable and successful recipe to improve as a fighter. He’s got a good personality, finishing abilities, great cardio, and a dog in him – an attribute you really can’t teach. For a while, he was a bit of a training nomad. He picks up knowledge from a number of different gyms and training partners in New England – although much of his training took place at his actual house. Eventually, Ghareeb pivoted. In order to make his dream come true, he couldn’t do it all by himself. So he packed up his bags and moved to South Florida where he trains every day with the likes of Arman Tsarukyan, Movsar Evloev, and others at American Top Team. On a three-fight finishing streak, Ghareeb should get a UFC glance should he make it four-for-four.

In his own words: “I absolutely love it down here. I train with the best in the world every single day – people I look up to. These are really high-level guys who are in the UFC already. They’re where I want to be. I ended up coming down here my last two camps down here and prepared with Mike Brown, Thiago Alves, and Steve Mocco. It’s made a world of difference when you’re training with the best in the world every single day and helping guys get ready for UFC-level fights like Arman Tsarukyan and Grant Dawson, who I sparred with a lot, helping them get ready for their fights.

“I train with guys like Edson Barboza, who I’ve looked up to forever. It gives you a certain level of confidence because if you can find little bits of success within your rounds with these guys, you know these are some of the best in the world. … Being put to the test every day in a room where there are no rest rounds makes a world of difference. … If they’re telling you, ‘This is good,’ it means so much more than some guy that doesn’t have those credentials.”

“… I 100 percent believe that I am 100 percent ready. I just think I need my opportunity. I think they just need to give me one chance. I don’t think I’m one of those guys who will waste that opportunity. I’ve been waiting for this for years. Last time I was (‘On The Doorstep’), I truly felt I was on that trajectory and path. I’ve had another year and three more fights to make those adjustments and improvements. Now, compared to where I was mentally, physically, and technically, I’m just an overall way better fighter. … If they call me tomorrow, I’m ready to go.”

* Following the finalization of this story, Ghareeb withdrew from his fight vs. Don Shainis, who remains on Combat FC 6 vs. Damion Nelson on UFC Fight Pass.

Fatima Kline

An Tuan Ho

Jacobe Smith

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
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: 13-2
Age: 28
Weight class: Featherweight
Height: 5’10”
Birthplace: Wales
Next Fight: Feb. 23 vs. Bryce Logan (13-7) at Cage Warriors 166 in Wilmington, Mass. (UFC Fight Pass)

Background: Mason Jones started off in kickboxing when he was seven years old. From kickboxing, he moved into Japanese jiu-jitsu. Jiu-jitsu was followed by judo, which was followed by Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Then came boxing and muay Thai and taekwondo. Fast forward to the present day, and Jones has three black belts: one in kickboxing, one in judo, and a first-degree in BJJ. A proud representative of Wales, Jones carried his flag into the UFC where he competed four times from January 2021 to July 2022. Though he went 1-2 with one no contest, Jones proved to be an exciting, game fighter. Since his UFC departure, Jones has gone 2-0 for Cage Warriors, the promotion he previously held two titles for. Both wins were TKOs.

The skinny: When a fighter wins only one of their first four UFC fights, it’s not a surprise that the promotion may split from them. That said, wins and losses don’t accurately define Jones, who has consistently proven to be one of the best fighters from Western Europe. His strength of schedule in the UFC has aged well. His two losses were against Mike Davis and Ludovit Klein. He defeated David Onama, who is viewed as a hot up-and-comer. Jones is enthusiastic, emphatic, and exciting. At 28, Jones is a rare case of someone who clearly deserves a second UFC opportunity. A third straight win under the Cage Warriors banner should push him over the finish line.

In his own words: “It doesn’t matter the caliber of the fights. It doesn’t matter how close the decisions were. It doesn’t matter two or three of those (UFC appearances) should’ve been wins rather than just the one. It was just the fact I had two losses, one no contest, and one win. That’s the important part. As a fighter, that’s all I can do is stick to the facts – and those are the facts.”

“… I’m very self-critical and I look at those performances. 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. I’ve literally broken those fights down. The easiest thing in the world is say, ‘Wow, the judges were against me,’ or ‘I won the statistics.'”

“… I’m not going to specify if I want to go back to the UFC or go to the PFL. It’s about whatever is available to me. I just want to stay active and keep learning. For me, it’s a big learning experience. I can’t control things. I’ll leave that in the hand of my management team and they’ll find fights for me. All I can control is the things I need to work on.”

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

  • Timmy Cuamba (8-1) – Feb. 2 def. Michael Stack (7-1) via TKO (head kick and punches) at Tuff-N-Uff 135 in Las Vegas (UFC Fight Pass)

  • Ernesto Rodriguez (8-1) – Feb. 2 def. Edson Marques (11-2) via TKO (punches) at Tuff-N-Uff 135 in Las Vegas (UFC Fight Pass)

  • Yadier DelValle (6-0) – def. Adam Smith (11-11) via submission (armbar) at Fury Challenger Series 11 in Houston (YouTube)

  • Scottie Stockman (10-2) – Feb. 8 vs. Rodrigo Sezinando (5-1) at BFL 79 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada (UFC Fight Pass)

  • Quillan Salkilld (5-1) – Feb. 10 vs. Dom Mar Fan (4-1) at Eternal MMA 82 in Perth, Western Australia, Australia (UFC Fight Pass)

  • Shamidkhan Magomedov (7-1) – Feb. 23 vs. Devin Smyth (10-3) at LFA 177 in Niagara Falls, N.Y. (UFC Fight Pass)

  • Devin Smyth (10-3) – Feb. 23 vs. Shamidkhan Magomedov (7-1) at LFA 177 in Niagara Falls, N.Y. (UFC Fight Pass)

  • Taylor Mauldin (4-0) – Feb. 23 vs. Valesca Machado (12-4) at Urijah Faber’s A1 Combat 18 in Leemore, Calif. (UFC Fight Pass)

  • Julius Holmes (9-2) – Feb. 24 vs. Aaron Phillips (8-4) at Fury FC 86 in Dallas (UFC Fight Pass)

  • Andres Luna Martinetti (14-1) – Feb. 25 vs. Jesus Ramos (11-8) at UWC in Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico (UFC Fight Pass)

  • Adrian Luna Martinetti (13-1) – Feb. 25 vs. Mahatma Garcia (13-10-1) at UWC in Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico (UFC Fight Pass)

Story originally appeared on MMA Junkie