Over the years, MMA organizations have signed various veterans and former champions to make an immediate impact. Sometimes, growing from within is the best method to success.
We have seen that with Dana White’s Contender Series, with fighters like Jamahal Hill, Sean O’Malley, Bo Nickal, and Raul Rosas Jr. rising from out of nowhere to become hot names in the sport. In Bellator, Scott Coker has made it a mission to grow from within.
On Bellator cards, the highly-entertaining prelims often feature young prospects (those who potentially have what it takes to be a contender) ready to make a name for themselves. It has proven successful, as Bellator has been home to fighters like AJ McKee, Aaron Pico, and Johnny Eblen.
McKee, who signed with Bellator in 2015, was able to thrive under pressure by beating Patricio Freire, who signed with Bellator in 2010, in 2021 for the Bellator featherweight title.
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Pico, a knockout artist, was a blue-chip prospect when he signed with Bellator in 2014. Coker praised Pico, and although he lost his pro debut in 24 seconds, he still amassed an impressive 10-4 record, growing every fight. Nickal has that same hype, and Pico can relate to his confidence.
“When I first came in and got my career started, I knew I had my work cut out for me,” Pico told MMA Fighting on The Fighter vs. The Writer series. “The organization wanted me to be champion, and hindsight’s 20-20, I was rushed a little bit, but it’s very, very difficult.
“This sport is grueling on the body, mentally, and especially me being a perfectionist, I am so hard on myself. It keeps me up at night, and some mornings, I’m up early studying, trying to be a better fighter. By no means do I think I’ve arrived yet. It’s a very difficult sport, especially when you want to be great.”
Today, Bellator has several top-tier prospects who could become the future of MMA. Here are a few names who stand out:
Khasan Magomedsharipov (7-0)
Turning pro in 2019, the brother of former UFC fighter Zabit Magomedsharipov joined Bellator in 2021. He is 2-0 with the promotion, his last fight a unanimous decision win in February over Jose Sanchez.
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Cody Law (6-2)
A 2018 gold medalist in the NCAA Division II Championships, Law signed with Bellator in 2020. The 27-year-old won his first six fights with the promotion, with four of those wins coming by way of knockout. Law has since lost two in a row, all in 2022. He will look to recover in 2023, in what could be a pivotal year for the Bellator prospect.
Top Bellator prospects
Aviv Gozali (6-1)
Despite a loss this past February, Aviv Gozali’s potential is still as bright as ever.
At 18, Israel’s Gozali was one of Bellator’s youngest active signees. He won his debut fight in 2018 against Anton Lazebnov and his next fight against Travis Cain.
In August 2019, Gozali submitted Eduard Muravitskiy via a heel hook in eleven seconds, a Bellator record. He would tell Business Insider that he practiced the heel hook 50 times a day the week of the bout and asked Bellator executive Mike Kogan what the record for the fastest submission in Bellator history was (it was 15 seconds at the time). He was determined to break it.
Gozali has fought alongside his jiu-jitsu coach and father, Haim Gonzali, at Bellator 234 in Israel. Aviv has since worked with Long Island’s Ray Longo.
“He’s my biggest supporter,” Aviv told Business Insider about his father. “I started when I was a kid. He put me in this sport, and I dedicate all this for him. That’s how I’m seeing it. It is the best thing to happen in my life. My father is also an athlete, also a fighter, and he gave everything for me to continue the legacy.”
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Gozali won two more fights via submission before losing to Bobby King in February. Recovering from an injury to his leg, one of the most promising talents in Bellator is ready to return and make an immediate impact again. Don’t try to tell him he can’t.
Sumiko Inaba (5-0)
Sumiko Inaba initially started training as a form of fitness. She decided to go pro in 2020 following an amateur career where she went 6-1 with five finishes.
The 31-year-old won her first fight with Bellator in November 2020, beating Jessica Ruiz via TKO. From there, she won her next few bouts via TKO, submission, and KO. The “Lady Samurai” last fought in October, beating Nadine Mandiau, who she beat in the amateurs, via unanimous decision.
The Hawaiian-born Inaba may have started her career later than most, but she hopes to inspire anyone looking to follow their dreams.
“I’m on this huge platform, and I hope I get to show — not just young girls, but anyone in general pursuing their dreams — that if you put in hard work and you stick to it and chase your dreams, you totally can get to that next stage,” Inaba told Maui News. “I hope that I’m going to be a proven example and show the world.”
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Darragh Kelly (2-0)
A top prospect out of SGB Ireland, Darragh Kelly was 8-0 as an amateur before competing in his first pro bout at Bellator 275 in February. As he did three times in the amateurs, “The Moville Mauler” beat Junior Morgan via guillotine choke. Following that, Bellator secured Kelly to a long-term deal.
“I’ve been on the sidelines for long enough, I’m ready to get my f—— name out there,” Kelly stated after his bout, via Severe MMA.
Following that fight, Kelly beat Kye Stevens in September via unanimous decision. A three-time Irish amateur champion, Kelly will compete in his third pro fight in his backyard in Ireland on February 25 at Bellator 291. Fighting in front of family and friends, the ceiling for Kelly is high.
Norbert Novenyi Jr. (5-0)
Hungary’s Norbert Novenyi Jr. had a 2-0 amateur career before turning pro in 2018. Competing for Ultimate Challenge MMA, Novenyi joined Bellator in 2018. He is 4-0 with the promotion, with three wins via submission.
The 23-year-old has finally recovered from a torn ACL that took him out of action in 2021 and 2022. Novenyi returns against Andy Manzolo on February 25 in Ireland. While we haven’t seen much from “Magic” due to injury, the potential is there.
The London Shootfighters-associated fighter is ready to make an immediate impact inside the cage again.
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Lucas Brennan (7-0)
Born in 2000, Lucas Brennan joined Bellator in 2019 at 19 and has won all seven of his fights for the promotion.
Five of “Skywalker’s” seven wins have been via submission. His last bout was a neck crank submission win over Johnny Soto in June. Brennan has managed to enter the top ten of Bellator’s crowded featherweight division.
Not letting the ranking get to his head, Brennan is keeping his eye on the prize: adding more wins to his resume.
“I’m considerably more focused on developing as a fighter,” Brennan told MMA Sucka, “Despite the climb in my ranking, I’m still young and would rather be pushed back in ranking and develop more than rush ahead. I have full faith in my style and in my abilities, but there’s no harm in waiting for the right moment.”
Lucas’ father is Chris Brennan (21-14-1), a King of the Cage middleweight champion who competed in the UFC in 1998. Brennan is ready to continue honoring the family legacy while crafting his own.