The sport of MMA is more popular than it has ever been in its young history as we move forward into 2020. With that being said, Colorado has become a hub sought after by fighters from all over the world to come and train.
In this article, we will take a look at prospects rising up the ranks whom we think are worth keeping an eye on in 2020. As a guideline, we are following the Tapology protocol, so fighters who have competed for a major promotion (UFC or Bellator main cards) are ineligible for this list. Within this list, there will be fighters that are ready to take a crack at the big stage, up and coming pros on the local/regional scene, and a couple of amateurs that were surging hot at the end of 2019.
Knocking On The Big Time’s Door:
Brandon “Raw Dawg” Royval (10-4) Flyweight
Brandon Royval (center) poses with Factory X Head Coach Marc Montoya (left) and #12 UFC Middleweight Ian Heinisch (right) after winning the LFA flyweight title in November 2019. Photo by Jordan Kurtz.
The recently promoted Factory X BJJ blackbelt Brandon “Raw Dawg” Royval took the MMA world by storm when he closed out his 2019 campaign with a record-breaking performance en route to being crowned the Legacy Fighting Alliance (LFA) flyweight world champion. The 0:23 victory via armbar submission was the second main event victory of the year for the Denver native. In May, Royval submitted UFC veteran Joby Sanchez in the first round also by armbar in Vail, Colo., at LFA 65. In 10 wins, 9 have came by way of finish with 8 of them in the first round. If anyone has presented a case for the major promotions to come calling, it is certainly “Raw Dawg”.
Anthony “SugaFoot” Adams (8-1) Welterweight
Anthony Adams poses with the Sparta Combat League belt. Photo sourced from Tapology
This is an interesting case here. It was a difficult decision whether to omit or not based on a Contender Series appearance. However, it was determined that only fights directly under the UFC/Bellator banner would be subject for omission. Unfortunately, we only got to see the 6’1” hammer-thrower one time in 2019. Granted, the whole AXS TV fiasco with LFA played a role in this as Adams was scheduled to fight in October, but was not on the previously mentioned rescheduled card that was held in November. Adams was impressive in his lone outing of 2019 with a first-round finish at LFA 57.
Chepe “Machine Gun” Mariscal (10-4) Featherweight
Chepe Mariscal getting vaseline applied pre-fight at LFA 65 in Vail, Colo. Photo by Jordan Kurtz.
Chepe Mariscal kicks off the new year for LFA on UFC Fight Pass on January 17th against grizzled veteran Steve “Mean Machine” Garcia Jr. Mariscal went 2-1 in 2019 with a fight of the year candidate performance against Youssef Zalal in the main event at LFA 57 and also picking up a Hoosier Fight Club title to close out the year. The Elevation Fight Team prospect has shared the octagon with multiple, notable UFC veterans such as Bryce “Thug Nasty” Mitchell and Gregor Gillespie.
Pauline “Pita” Macias (3-0) Women’s Strawweight
Pita Macias stands in the pocket waiting for an opening at LFA 65 in Vail, Colo. Photo by Jordan Kurtz.
Pauline “Pita” Macias is no stranger to elite-level competition, as she is a veteran of the US National Judo team and came up under the wing of Women’s MMA legend, Ronda Rousey. Sitting at perfect 3-0, Macias has stopped two of her three opponents while displaying rare, literal jaw-breaking power in her second-round TKO victory over Madaline Meachum at LFA 57.
Youssef “The Moroccan Devil” Zalal (7-2) Bantamweight
Youssef Zalal feels the vibe of the First Bank Center crowd in Broomfield, Colo., at LFA 79. Photo by Jordan Kurtz.
“The Moroccan Devil” is as electric outside of the cage as he is in it, just ask anyone who has ever came into contact with the Factory X prospect. At only 23-years-old, Zalal has tremendous upside potential, and was able to right the ship and end 2019 on a high-note with an ESPN Top 10 highlight reel knockout via flying knee at LFA 79. As previously mentioned, Zalal threw down with Mariscal in a Fight Of The Year worthy performance, but has since made the move down to bantamweight. All seven of Zalal’s wins have come by way of finish. When you see this Moroccan native on any fight card, don’t blink, you just might miss the highlight of the evening.
Pros On The Rise:
Michael Stack (4-0) Featherweight
Michael Stack steps on the scales prior to LFA 79. Photo by Jordan Kurtz.
“The Frat Boy Killer” is making the climb through the rankings while sitting at an unblemished 4-0. Although his record is clean, Stack’s style is far from it. Stack brings a gritty, take-one-to-give-one approach to the cage and has been able to weather some visible adversity en route to victory. At LFA 79, Stack took a big shot from Brian Mitchell, but was ultimately able to recover and pull off the rear-naked choke submission in the first round. Stack was a cageside invite at Fury 37 who was hand-selected by the promoters. Comments online of the Mitchell matchup dubbed the fight the “Battle of the Beach Bodies”, so Stack is one that promoters nationwide are keeping an eye on.
Edwin Chavez (2-0) Featherweight
Edwin Chavez attempts a rear-naked choke at LFA 79 in Broomfield, Colo. Photo by Jordan Kurtz.
Chavez is another featherweight on the list, but with good reason. Chavez may only be 2-0 as a pro, but he is 8-0 overall. Oh yeah, those two wins happened to be under the Fury Fighting Championship (Fury FC) and LFA banners respectively. Chavez is a suffocating grappler with long limbs that present a variety of issues to his opponents in the flyweight division. Look for the Pariah MMA prospect continue the winning streak in 2020.
Grant Neal (2-0) Light Heavyweight
Grant Neal gets his hand raised by referee Tim Mills. Photo sourced from Tapology by way of Combat Press.
Grant Neal is another undefeated pro who also carried that zero all the way through their amateur career. Neal is an all-around athlete who has collegiate-level experience in both wrestling and football. Neal has also had to battle a mountain of adversity to get to where he is in life after his collegiate athletic career was ripped away from him in a nationally publicized Title IX case in which allegations against him were later determined to be false. This is a man with a hunger in his belly and an appetite for success that cannot be satiated. That right there is a dangerous mix for anyone who signs the dotted line and makes the walk against Neal.
Zac Pauga (4-0) Heavyweight
Zac Pauga (left) poses with Elevation Fight Team coach Peter Straub (center) and UFC Heavyweight Alistair Overeem. Photo via Instagram.
Some of you may recognize this name if you follow football. Pauga was an ironman for the Colorado State Rams who played in 49 consecutive games before making an appearance in the NFL as an undrafted free agent signing by the Houston Texans. With an obvious level of athleticism, Pauga has successfully managed to parlay those skills into wins in the cage. Pauga is one of the many big bodies on the Elevation Fight Team including the likes of UFC veterans Alistair Overeem and Curtis Blaydes. We look forward to seeing how the Lakewood native continues to develop in the cage after a busy 2019 that included four fights with three finishes.
Jota Ninomiya (2-2) Featherweight
Jota Ninomiya controls the center of the cage at LFA 79 in Broomfield, Colo. Photo by Jordan Kurtz.
Now, you may be wondering how does a .500 amateur make this list? Allow me to explain. One loss came at the hands of the previously mentioned Chavez in his debut fight, the other came by way of disqualification following what was determined to be an illegal knee in a fight that he was ahead after one round at LFA 57. Ninomiya has shown impressive growth in each fight following the DQ, racking up two finishes at LFA 65 and LFA 79 respectively. Keep your eye on this Enshin Karate product to keep turning heads this year.
Jacobi Jones (Amateur)
There are so many talented fighters all across the state of Colorado that this list was incredibly hard to narrow down. Let us know in the comments who you are most looking forward to seeing go to battle in 2020?
-Jordan Kurtz is a founding member of Comments From The Peanut Gallery and can be followed on Instagram at @CommentsFromThePeanutGallery