Sitting between the two most prolific divisions in the UFC, the featherweights add plenty of talent to an already stacked roster of fighters. This year's list of prospects features several international fighters who continue to pave their way in the biggest MMA promotion. Alexander Volkanovski's move up to challenge lightweight champion Islam Makhachev will temporarily stall the division at the top. Still, prospects will continue to try to position themselves in the rankings as he challenges for the 155 strap. Here are the best-unranked featherweights poised to make their mark in 2023.
Manchester's Lerone Murphy takes the top spot on this list with an overall undefeated record of 11-0-1. Murphy has been on the edge of the rankings for over a year, following a second-round finish of UFC mainstay Makwan Amirkhani in late 2021. Unfortunately, a near-death cycling accident kept him out of the octagon in 2022, but he is ready to make 2023 his year following a full recovery. Murphy is no stranger to adversity, having survived a near-fatal shooting in 2013. He looks to capitalize on this mental toughness to continue rising in the featherweight rankings and has a great style to keep climbing. Murphy is a sprawl-and-brawl fighter with extremely accurate punches and great octagon control. He is competent everywhere but does his best work on the feet. Activity is the name of the game for Murphy; if "the Miracle" can stay healthy for the entirety of 2023 and find someone to replace Nathaniel Wood in March, we could welcome yet another Englishman into the rankings at 145.
Nate Landwehr is probably the only guy from Tennessee to spend two years in Russia. "The Train" made a name for himself in M-1, one of the top Russian MMA promotions, where he became the featherweight champion. After two successful defenses, Landwehr finally made his way into the big show at 32. "The Train" shares a distinction on this list with Billy Q as the only two fighters to be scheduled against currently ranked opponents. He fights 15th-ranked Alex Caceres in March, with an opportunity to steal the number and continue his climb. Landwehr had a shaky start to his UFC career, going 1-2, but has since collected two impressive wins against L'udovít Klein (2-0 since losing to Landwehr) and David Onama. The Onama fight put him on the map for UFC fans, where he played to the crowd for 15 minutes and displayed his never-say-die attitude. Landwehr is a fighter's fighter – he might not have the cleanest striking, but he makes up for it in spades with endless levels of heart and aggression. Nate "the Train" has settled into the UFC, and there's no reason that he can't keep rising.
Billy Quarantillo has quickly managed to garner the adoration of UFC fans with his all-action style. The New York native is seemingly allergic to boring fights, showing grit and determination every time he steps into the octagon. Quarantillo has amassed a respectable 5-2 record in the UFC and hasn't been finished since stepping into the big show. He will have his toughest test in April when Quarantillo will fight Edson Barboza in a Fight Night headlined by Max Holloway and Arnold Allen. The UFC loves to reward fighters willing to (figuratively) die on their shield. While Billy Q's record isn't as perfect as some of his fellow fighters on this list, he shares a distinction with Nate Landwehr for having the direct opportunity to enter the rankings. While Barboza definitively out-struck Shane Burgos, who then went on to do the same to Quarantillo, we all know how faulty MMA math can get. I'm expecting Billy Q's underrated ground skills and scrambling ability to come into play in a matchup that necessitates level changes against a world-class kickboxer.
Jonathan Pearce touched the UFC rankings in late 2022, entering at the 15 spot before Alex Caceres' first-round knockout that pushed him back out. "JSP" has the most impressive UFC win streak on this list, bagging five straight after debuting in a first-round loss to veteran Joe Lauzon. At 30 years old, Pearce is about to hit his prime as a fighter and displays excellent decision-making in each performance. While Pearce's brush with the rankings likely signifies that he is one win away from firm entrenchment into the elite of 145, it's hard to foresee the momentum of a win from the aforementioned top three to be trumped by a decision win over Darren Elkins. Pearce has the skills to continue building himself up for a long time in the UFC, but he still needs a signature performance to push him over the edge.
Edson Barboza is the only Brazilian currently occupying a spot in the 145 rankings in the UFC, but that might change soon. Joanderson Brito fought three times in 2022, amassing a 2-1 record, but the eye test speaks volumes about this guy. After slipping up against a formidable Bill Algeo in his debut, Brito has finished his next two opponents in the first round by knockout and then by submission. The scariest kind of prospect is the type of fighter who feels comfortable wherever the fight goes, and Brito embodies this mantra. "Tubarão," or "Shark" in English, has an ultra-aggressive style that favors a grappling approach. He does his best work in the first round but has displayed an ability to maintain a strong gas tank from start to finish. At just 27, he has plenty of time to crack the rankings, but with a high-level activity, it could come as soon as 2023.
While Joshua Culibao started his UFC career with a loss, it could not have been a more glaring mismatch. He was matched against Jalin Turner, one of the largest lightweights on the roster. However, since taking that loss, Culibao has yet to lose in the UFC, moving back to the featherweight division where he had always done his best work. Aside from that lightweight appearance, Culibao sits at 10-0-1 and will look to continue that streak tomorrow against Melsik Baghdasaryan. Culibao still needs to turn in a finish in his UFC run but will have the perfect opportunity to make a statement in front of an Australian crowd that will surely be on his side throughout the fight. Culibao prefers to strike but is willing to take opponents to the ground in his recent fights. His path to victory against Baghdasaryan will depend on his ground skills and his ability to get inside since his opponent will have a striking advantage from kickboxing range.
The next great fighter with Armenian roots might already be here. Melsik Baghdasaryan is one of the UFC's best-kept secrets – his crisp striking comes from a wealth of boxing and kickboxing experience, which he has leaned on to put together a 7-1 MMA record. Having gone undefeated since his debut, "the Gun" turned in four knockouts, each in an average of 16 seconds, to earn an appearance on the contender series. He beat one of the best-unsigned prospects, Dennis Buzukja, to make it into the UFC. Having gone 2-0 since making it into the octagon, Baghdasaryan needs to keep climbing to reach the rankings eventually. Still, he has a perfect opportunity to spoil the party and set that opportunity up for himself with a win over Culibao tomorrow in Australia. Keep an eye on this fight, as the winner will probably see a number next to their name in 2024.
Another English prospect to grace the list, Nathaniel Wood, has been perfect since moving up to 145, sitting at 2-0 in the new weight class. Wood was scheduled to face Murphy in an all-England matchup but was recently forced to pull out due to a knee injury. Wood is as well-rounded as it gets, having started training jiu-jitsu with his father at 16. Regardless of his BJJ pedigree, "the Prospect" has begun to favor the standup game, having made giant leaps as of late. At just 5'6", Wood is certainly undersized for the division, but he relies on his technique to pick his opponents apart. Unfortunately, he falls short of the top three because his injury should keep him out of the octagon for the foreseeable future. However, at just 29 years old, don't be surprised if he continues to show improvement in each fight and finds ways to win once he returns. Guys like Wood and Murphy, along with Arnold Allen and Brendan Loughnane, make 145 the most abundant hotbed for English prospects inside and outside the UFC.
It isn't often that you come away from watching a fight being more excited about the winner than you are about the loser. However, this was my sentiment after seeing Lucas Almeida lose a competitive decision in Contender Series against Daniel Zellhuber at lightweight. The UFC felt similarly, as Almeida was invited directly into the promotion after picking up a quick first-round finish in Brazil two months later. Almeida was immediately thrown into the fire against the battle-tested Mike Trizano and picked up an impressive third-round finish. Almeida has finishes from 145-170, and if he can stay at featherweight, he could be a force for years to come. With canceled matchups against Zubaira Tukhugov and Andre Fili, Almeida is already looking toward to 16-25 range for his next matchup.