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Dominating wrestlers, submission sharks and elite strikers - Meet the top MMA prospects in the east

PUBLISHED: 11:30 29 October 2020 | UPDATED: 11:40 29 October 2020

The region's top MMA prospects, clockwise, from top left: Leigh Mitchell, Stefano Catacoli, Nik Bagley, Jimmy Fell, Muhidin Abubakar, Jack Eglin Picture: BRETT KING

The region's top MMA prospects, clockwise, from top left: Leigh Mitchell, Stefano Catacoli, Nik Bagley, Jimmy Fell, Muhidin Abubakar, Jack Eglin Picture: BRETT KING

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Like many sports, MMA has been hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic, with very few shows taking place regionally or nationally in 2020. Mark Heath takes a look at the best prospects in the east who will be looking to make waves in 2021....

Leigh Mitchell has his hand raised after his main event win over Rico Biggs at Cage Warriors Academy South East 24. Picture: BRETT KINGLeigh Mitchell has his hand raised after his main event win over Rico Biggs at Cage Warriors Academy South East 24. Picture: BRETT KING

1) Leigh Mitchell, bantamweight (3-1 pro record)

Fighters are resilient human beings, and the man who sits top of this list is a fine example. ‘Mini Hulk’ Mitchell broke his hand on the first punch of his pro debut, following a decorated amateur career, and lost to Liam Gittins back in June 2018. Gittins has gone on to become one of the top prospects in the country, so no shame there.

But that was the start of a tough road for Witham’s Mitchell, who struggled to remain motivated during the lengthy recovery process. Back he came though, moving up to bantamweight to face the much-taller and more experienced Rico Biggs as the main event of Cage Warriors Academy SE in Colchester last October. Talk about pressure!

Mitchell responded perfectly, tapping Biggs to a beautiful guillotine choke – my submission of the year – and has since won two more on the spin. He was due to take the step up to the main Cage Warriors promotion, against Nathan Fletcher, on one of the Trilogy shows in September, but that bout was scrapped by a positive Covid test.

Look for BKK Fighters Gym talent Mitchell, a dominant wrestler and grappler with ever-improving southpaw striking, to be one of the breakthrough stars of 2021.

Stefano Catacoli and Richard Mearns, centre, put on the fight of the night at Contenders 30 Picture: BRETT KINGStefano Catacoli and Richard Mearns, centre, put on the fight of the night at Contenders 30 Picture: BRETT KING

2) Stefano Catacoli, featherweight/lightweight (2-0 pro record)

Catacoli, only 21-years-old, isn’t messing around in trying to climb the pro ranks.

Just one fight into his professional career, the New Wave Academy product faced the much-respected Richard Mearns (then 3-2) in the co-main event of the ground-breaking Contenders 30 Drive-in show in Norwich in August, and put on a clinic, dropping the teak tough Mearns twice in the first two rounds en-route to a points win, his fifth in a row overall.

Catacoli, nicknamed The Ghost, blends a creative, hands-down striking approach with an aggressive, dangerous grappling and submission attack - indeed, despite his skill in the stand-up realm, he’ll tell you himself that he’s a grappler.

He’s had some online beef with the next man in this list too - and what a mouth-watering match-up that could be next year!

Nik Bagley, right, trains under UK MMA legend Brad Pickett Picture: BRETT KINGNik Bagley, right, trains under UK MMA legend Brad Pickett Picture: BRETT KING

3) Nik Bagley, featherweight (1-0 pro record)

Bagley had an up and down amateur career, finishing his unpaid schooling with a 7-4-1 record.

But he faced some serious talent during that time, and finished on a high note, taking the Cage Warriors Academy SE bantamweight title from Eglin (see below) in his final amateur dust-up, a points win.

The Great Britain Top Team talent, coached by UK MMA legend Brad Pickett, moved up to featherweight for his pro debut and promptly tapped Luke O’Neill to an arm triangle choke in the first round.

Bagley, aka ‘The Perfectionist’, is super-athletic, throws horrifying leg kicks among his impressive stand-up arsenal, and can wrestle with the best of them. If a scrap with Catacoli comes off – though I think they’d be better waiting a bit for it to build – it could be a contender for 2021 fight of the year.

Jack Eglin, right, is a dangerous puncher Picture: BRETT KINGJack Eglin, right, is a dangerous puncher Picture: BRETT KING

4) Jack Eglin, bantamweight (1-0 pro record)

Eglin is another from the conveyor belt of elite European talent you can see on Colchester’s Cage Warriors Academy SE shows.

He lost to both the aforementioned Mitchell and Bagley, on points, in his 8-5 amateur career, but there is certainly no shame in that, while he also held the CWSE bantamweight crown and reached the final of the Cage Warriors amateur tournament championship too, losing to the excellent Nathan Fletcher.

Eglin, who fights out of the Dragons Lair, then won his pro debut against Laerte Pichierri via ground and pound at CWSE 25 in March.

He looks to be another cracking prospect – an exciting, come forward striker with a hint of menace, who does everything well and has the potential to be a star at the next level.

Muhidin Abubakar is the top-ranked amateur flyweight in the country. Picture: BRETT KINGMuhidin Abubakar is the top-ranked amateur flyweight in the country. Picture: BRETT KING

5) Muhidin Abubakar, flyweight (12-2 amateur record, set for pro debut)

In this day and age in MMA, it’s rare that a prospect remains amateur long enough to claim the title of the undisputed number one at their weight – but that’s exactly what Abubakar did.

The 21-year-old, now preparing for his pro debut, is the top ranked flyweight out of 223 across the UK in the amateur ranks, held the CWSE title among others on the regional scene and won the Cage Warriors amateur tournament championship too.

He’s skilled on the feet, and if you go to the ground with Abubakar look out - he’s got some outrageous submission wins on his fistic CV too.

If he was a heavyweight, the whole world would be talking about him - so store his name away now and be the first among your fight fan friends to tip him for the top!

Jimmy Fell with the Cage Warriors Academy South East amateur featherweight belt - he's also the Contenders amateur 145lbs champion. Picture: BRETT KINGJimmy Fell with the Cage Warriors Academy South East amateur featherweight belt - he's also the Contenders amateur 145lbs champion. Picture: BRETT KING

6) Jimmy Fell, featherweight (5-1 amateur record, set for pro debt)

Few fighters had a better 2019 than Mildenhall’s Fell, who fights out of Windy Miller’s Blue Wave Academy.

He started the year with a 2-1 slate and no titles, but finished it sitting on a 5-1 mark, having lifted both the Contenders and CWSE amateur featherweight crowns, the latter by upsetting the favoured George Tanasa (number eight on this list).

Now preparing for his pro debut in 2021 – and getting jacked in the gym, if his Instagram profile is anything to go by – Fell boasts heart by the bucketload and insane cardio.

He’s got a serious boxing background too, and is a BJJ purple belt.

Connor Hayes has his hand raised as the new Cage Warriors Academy South East middleweight champion. Picture: BRETT KINGConnor Hayes has his hand raised as the new Cage Warriors Academy South East middleweight champion. Picture: BRETT KING

7) Connor Hayes, middleweight (6-0 amateur record)

When I first saw Hayes, at a CWSE weigh-in last year, I thought ‘Blimey, he’s a big light-heavyweight’.

Turns out the SX MMA prospect is actually a middleweight, and he duly won the CWSE 185lbs title by submission the very next day.

Hayes is tall, long and rangy, throws straight punches, knees and kicks with serious accuracy and is a demon on the floor - go and watch his slick kneebar submission of Arvydas Pumputis for evidence of that. Indeed, he’s finished every single one of his wins so far (4 subs, 2 TKO).

He’ll be looking for a step up in competition in 2021, and I look forward to seeing him test his skills, as should you.

George Tanasa lands one of his destructive kicks  Picture: BRETT KINGGeorge Tanasa lands one of his destructive kicks Picture: BRETT KING

8) George Tanasa, featherweight (7-3 amateur record)

A contender for the best nickname in MMA, ‘Son of Dracula’ Tanasa was on a tear until he ran into Fell last year.

He’s a two-weight CWSE champion and has a very strong wrestling background, plus explosive striking, with hurtful kicks.

He’s lost two of his last three fights - to Fell and then Yuki Angdembe, both on points – but remains very highly thought of across the sport.

The BKK Fighters Gym prospect will be aiming for a big bounceback year in 2021.

Lexi Rook, left, has competed at the world amateur championships and won a CWSE title Picture: BRETT KINGLexi Rook, left, has competed at the world amateur championships and won a CWSE title Picture: BRETT KING

9) Lexi Rook, bantamweight (6-2 amateur record)

The 26-year-old is another fighter with an excellent nickname – ‘She-Ra’ – and has the warrior credentials to go along with it.

Having started training four years ago with Muay Thai and K1, she picked up BJJ and MMA and went on to win her first four fights, including the CWSE amateur bantamweight title.

She was then selected to represent her country in both the European and World Amateur Championships, losing to the same fighter, Frida Vastamaki, at both events.

Rook, now fighting in memory of close friend and fellow fighter Jahreau Shepherd, who lost his life in a stabbing in July, is a well-rounded, tough competitor who has a big career ahead.

Chris Hayes celebrates after winning his pro MMA debut in emphatic style at Contenders 30 Picture: BRETT KINGChris Hayes celebrates after winning his pro MMA debut in emphatic style at Contenders 30 Picture: BRETT KING

10) Chris Hayes, featherweight (1-0 pro record)

Great Yarmouth’s Hayes lost his first four amateur fights – admittedly to strong opposition, including Kingsley Crawford and Mike Ekundayo.

He’d improved his amateur mark to 3-6 and was due to face Bagley back in September 2017, but the bout fell off and that was the last we heard of ‘The Honey Badger’.

But he spent that time honing his BJJ game, competing frequently in grappling events and earning his brown belt, before returning for his pro debut at Contenders 30 in August.

He was matched tough too, facing Jabeed Rahman, a foe who’d won all 11 of his previous amateur and pro fights - but Hayes took him down, threw up multiple submission attempts and finally got the tap to a nasty heel hook. It will be interesting to see what he does next.

Chloe Cooke is unbeaten as an amateur Picture: BRETT KINGChloe Cooke is unbeaten as an amateur Picture: BRETT KING

11) Chloe Cooke, strawweight (3-0 amateur record)

The next two names on this list are potential future superstars and faces of female MMA - and they both train together at Team Underground.

Cooke, just 20-years-old, has won all of her fights by stoppage (two KO, one sub) and lifted the CWSE amateur title last time out, submitting the previously unbeaten Giulia Solito with a nasty armbar.

That showed just how well-rounded Cooke is becoming - she’s got a background in Thai boxing and has spent time training in Thailand, while also boasting a BJJ blue belt.

The fact she trains alongside fighters of the quality of Dyer - and many more – can only be a good thing going forward too. A fascinating prospect.

Shanelle Dyer, right, is a Muay Thai phenom Picture: BRETT KINGShanelle Dyer, right, is a Muay Thai phenom Picture: BRETT KING

12) Shanelle Dyer, flyweight (3-1 amateur record)

‘The Nightmare’ is a 19-year-old Muay Thai phenom with four world titles to her name. She’s still very early in her MMA journey, but is making big waves.

She’s already featured on a BBC Three documentary about women in the sport and won her first three MMA fights - two by stoppage.

No-one who faces her will want to stand and trade punches and kicks - unless they fancy getting slept – so she knows going into a fight that stopping the takedowns is key.

Lost last time out to Ivana Siric, in a battle for the CWSE flyweight belt, but give her a couple more years of BJJ and grappling, added to her already elite striking, and Dyer will be a terrifying proposition for anyone.

Phil Taylor has his hand raised after stopping rival Luke Goodge in the first round at Contenders 30 Picture: BRETT KINGPhil Taylor has his hand raised after stopping rival Luke Goodge in the first round at Contenders 30 Picture: BRETT KING

13) Phil Taylor, featherweight (3-0 amateur record)

Still just 18, Great Yarmouth’s Taylor is coming off the biggest win of his young career so far, a first round stoppage of local rival Luke Goodge (below), at Contenders 30.

He’s tall and rangy, armed with a flashy, creative striking attack and the confidence of youth.

He’s not just all about striking though, as his BJJ blue belt will attest.

Still very early in his career and life, but has all the tools to excel - and could perhaps rematch Norwich’s Reece Ward, whom gave him a stern test when they first met, in 2021.

A star in the making - Bury St Edmunds teenager Cameron Cunningham. Picture: BRETT KINGA star in the making - Bury St Edmunds teenager Cameron Cunningham. Picture: BRETT KING

14) Cameron Cunningham, featherweight (2-0 amateur record)

Teenager Cunningham is a freakish natural athlete with a background in gymnastics and the ability to seemingly pick skills up with ease.

He started as a Muay Thai and K1 striker at Unit One in Bury, before transitioning over to MMA under the aforemtioned Miller at Blue Wave, where I’m told he’s also picked up wrestling and grappling like a duck to water.

He’s stopped both of his MMA foes so far - last time out via suplex to ground and pound – and seems to have no limit to his potential.

The only issue now is finding opponents willing to fight him!

Luke Goodge, left, is still very early in his fighting journey but has great potential Picture: BRETT KINGLuke Goodge, left, is still very early in his fighting journey but has great potential Picture: BRETT KING

15) Luke Goodge, featherweight (2-1 amateur record)

Of all the names on this list, Norwich’s Goodge is by far the earliest in his fighting journey.

He’s only recently starting training seriously, having entered the sport via a charity fight, following a background as a footballer.

But he certainly has potential, and shows a natural aptitude for the sport - Goodge boasts aggressive striking, with some nasty leg kicks, and already has a submission win on his record.

Lost to Taylor last time out, but he’s got plenty of time to improve and grow as a fighter. In three years, he could be something special.


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