Bellator Fighting Championships has been delivering great action from start to finish for almost six full seasons, with one “Summer Series” in between, and while the promotion has delivered such veterans as Brad Blackburn, Jamie Jara, Roger Huerta and Shinya Aoki, the key thing at which it excels is building and development of young top-shelf prospects of whom  many have not heard. Before last season, people knew of Hector Lombard, Eddie Alvarez and Trevor Prangley, but not that many had kept Michael Chandler on their radar. For that matter, the same can be said of Marcos Galvao, Alexis Vila, Daniel Straus and current champs Eduardo Dantas and Pat Curran.

Not only has Bellator delivered great prospects through its season tournaments, but it has also done a fantastic job of preparing a lot of these young men in the right way by featuring them in local feature fights. The local feature fights are more for the crowds to get a taste of a young fighter on the rise and for the fighters themselves to show a crowd exactly what they can do when facing difficult opposition, even if said competition is not a tournament participant. Despite the pressure of tournament progression not being on some of these up-and-comers, all eyes should be on five of these young fighters who bring a few strong things to the table that could come into effect later in their careers, whether in a tournament for Bellator or otherwise.

Who are the five to which I’m referring? You’re about to meet them right now, so if we can cut the formalities, let’s get right down to it. These five men are the prospects you need to watch in the year 2012 as they rise to the top in Bellator Fighting Championships!

Trey “That Just Happened” Houston (9-0)

Trey Houston was one of the first to catch the eye of fans around the world when he debuted at Bellator 61 against one Jeremiah Riggs. In addition to a willingness to stand and trade leg kicks, Houston answered a Riggs’ takedown by delivering on a takedown of his own, and with Riggs fatigued, Houston was able to find a tight armbar with Riggs face down and left with no option but to tap out. Questions remain about his striking, and at 9-0 as a professional, he will need some serious experience in order to look forward to any real success at this level of competition, even though this isn’t necessarily UFC-level competition he is facing.

Trey Houston (Andy Hemingway/Sherdog)

With that said, we’ve seen fighters upset in the Bellator cage before, and although Maiquel Falcao and Andreas Spang would give Houston problems on the feet, it’s not ridiculous to see Falcao or Spang somehow overwhelmed by Houston, who does have two TKO wins and a 15-second first-round knockout win to his credit. Also, Spang found himself in many a precarious position on the feet against Brian Rogers before that come-from-behind knockout over Rogers, and Falcao had the chance to go in for the kill against Norman Paraisy in their quarterfinal bout, but he toyed around with him a little bit more than he should have, as Paraisy was badly hurt by Falcao’s flurries and was only moments away from being finished throughout the moments of the fight that saw Falcao get the upper hand.

Houston is also able to use some of the wrestling he used against Riggs at another level against Alexander Shlemenko, who had little answers on the ground for now-former Bellator world middleweight champion Hector Lombard. Of course, Shlemenko does have a well-known striking game and an underrated submission offense, but from his back against someone with a strong ground game, Shlemenko may find himself in trouble. Houston’s submission awareness does not do Shlemenko any favors if Shlemenko tries to look for a fifth career win by way of triangle choke. Shlemenko would need to wear Houston down in order to give him any problems, but if Houston progresses well through the sport at this level, he may be good enough to present more problems to Shlemenko than Shlemenko presents to him. Whether he becomes a key player in this division remains to be seen, but if his development continues as well as it appeared to against Riggs, Houston could potentially make enough noise to find himself somewhere in the top 15 of middleweights in the world.

Cosmo “Good Boy” Alexandre (1-1)

Cosmo Alexandre is a rather interesting sort, having gone 40-14-1 in his kickboxing career. Having done everything he wanted to do in the kickboxing world, he sought to improve his all-around skills by getting started in MMA. His MMA debut saw him defeated via unanimous decision by Josh Quayhagen. But in his second pro fight against Avery McPhatter, Alexandre needed only twenty seconds to drop McPhatter with a big left hand and then knock him out with an emphatic knee. The only gripes on Cosmo are that the man is only 1-1 in his career and that he’s still adjusting somewhat to MMA. He has the striking and the kickboxing credentials to threaten anyone on the feet, even heavy-handed fighters like finalists Rick Hawn and Brent Weedman or champion Michael Chandler, but the two finalists and the champion each have a strength that plays into Alexandre’s biggest disadvantage thus far, which is his ground game.

Cosmo Alexandre (Keith Mills/Sherdog)

Yes, it’s hard not to like a good striker in MMA, but Hawn’s a former Olympian in Judo, Chandler is a decorated collegiate wrestler and 2009 NCAA Division I All-American,  and Weedman presents one of the most unique jiu-jitsu games in the sport. In short, Alexandre may be able to hold his own in the striking department, but unless he develops his takedown defense and his ground game, Weedman definitely has his way with Cosmo, provided Weedman doesn not find a way to apply his underrated hand power on Alexandre, but striking with “Good Boy” is a difficult thing to do. Then again, Quayhagen was able to land more strikes than Cosmo in their fight, so in that respect, Weedman may have a shot.

Hawn and Chandler may fare better overall on paper, though, because of the power Hawn packs in his hands and in his tight kickboxing, and because of the insane pace Chandler always sets. Nobody had ever outworked Eddie Alvarez before Chandler came along, and he dropped Alvarez more times than any of Alvarez’s past Bellator foes.  In a similar respect, Lloyd Woodard had been hurt by fighters before, but the fight with Patricky Freire was the only time in which Woodard had been hit with anything hard before the fight with Hawn. Consequently, Hawn wasted little time in timing a shot well and laying Woodard out to punch his ticket to Weedman and the potential crack at Chandler’s belt.

At this stage in Alexandre’s career, it’s difficult to decide where Cosmo could fall, rankings-wise, if he keeps racking up wins. All we can say is that he’s one of the more promising strikers in Bellator right now, so we will wait and see what Alexandre does next before we predict him being in the top-anything of the lightweight division overall, but let’s not sleep on this man just yet.  He’s faced the likes of Yodsanklai Fairtex, Giorgio Petrosyan and Cyrus Washington in his kickboxing run, and while he lost to Fairtex twice as well as Petrosyan, the fights speak to the level of competition that he has faced—at this stage of his career, Alexandre’s kickboxing resume speaks to his willingness to take on any challenge head-on. If he’s given the time to improve as a fighter and develop his other aspects, who knows where Alexandre could wind up in the sport of mixed martial arts?

Frank Caraballo (9-4)

Last week, highly-touted light heavyweight Attila Vegh came into Bellator with some serious hype and proved that he was worth every bit of it against Dan Spohn, but Vegh was not the only prospect packing four defeats and showing quite the promise at Bellator 66. On the undercard of Bellator 66, NAAFS featherweight champion Frank “The Tank” Caraballo gave the crowd more than their money’s worth as he dominated the striking game for more than three full rounds before eventually putting UFC veteran Donny Walker away in round four to retain his title. In all truth, Walker was tough as nails and kept coming forward as much as he could, but on the feet, he could not maintain much of an edge as Caraballo put Walker through the hellfire and brimstone in securing a fourth-round stoppage when Walker face-planted to the canvas after Caraballo threw a knee.

Hard to believe that Bellator 66 would feature a NAAFS title fight as part of its undercard, right? Remember though, this same promotion’s former lightweight and middleweight champions were seen as the best lightweight and middleweight in the world, respectively, to not have been under UFC contract. In short, nobody should be surprised that a prospect like Caraballo would ever be featured on a Bellator card. Besides the fact that we are talking about Bellator, Caraballo is a 27-year-old prospect who, in addition to his now 9-4 record, posted up an 8-4 amateur record. In the nine victories of his pro career, Caraballo has posted four wins by way of some form of knockout and three by submission, and of the seven finishes, five ended in the first round, with two of the finishes coming within the first 11 to 13 seconds of the fight.

On the surface, the only question seems to be whether Caraballo is susceptible to submissions as he has two losses by submission, with one technical submission loss in 2010, but with the way in which he pushes the action in order to force his opponents to fight his fight, there’s no other real questions other than his realistic odds against finalists Marlon Sandro and Daniel Straus, or against champion Pat Curran. Standing with Sandro is never a good option unless you’re Curran, Straus is a wrestler who is actually responsible for Caraballo’s only submission loss by punches, and Curran’s one-punch power is arguably the most underrated in the division by far.

Frank Caraballo (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

That said, could Caraballo last with Straus in a rematch?

Absolutely, he could with some takedown defense.

Submission awareness and a non-stop pace?

Sounds like the way Eddie Alvarez retained his lightweight title against Curran, and it could be the way Caraballo defeats Curran if he can figure out Curran on the feet.

That just leaves Sandro, who also is a decorated jiu-jitsu champion as well as the featherweight King of Pancrase and the former Sengoku featherweight champion. Caraballo has fought tough fighters, but at this stage of his career, would he have the submission awareness to avoid any submission attempts that Sandro aimed for? Would he be able to last on the feet with Sandro unless he were to tap in to an inner Mike Zambidis and go for broke against Sandro, who is known for being wild on the feet, even if technical at times? These questions will only be answered when Caraballo enters a Bellator tournament and secures a match with either Sandro, Straus or Curran for the belt. But if there’s any doubt that Caraballo would even make a fight with any of these three into a competitive contest, let him do battle with whoever is lined up for him next in Bellator, and let him prove the world wrong.

Mike “The Marine” Richman (12-1)

Let’s be honest: Mike Richman was nothing more than a man who was lined up against Chris Horodecki so that the former IFL star could soothe the sting of a draw against Mike Corey and score a win at 145 pounds. Horodecki was able to record a quick KO in the fight with Richman, which was good news for MMA fans, as many seem to enjoy knockouts. The only bad news is that Horodecki was forced to record a quick KO in the form of a loss against Richman.

Mike Richman (Keith Mills/Sherdog)

Richman may only be 12-1 as a fighter and 1-0 in Bellator, but his future is looking as bright as anyone’s future could be in the sport. Armed with a deadly right uppercut and notable for winning six straight fights by way of submission, Richman is a fighter who may realistically have a strong shot of success in the Bellator cage, even if his debut win was only against one man in Horodecki. Though he may get one more fight before getting considered for a Bellator featherweight tourney bout, Richman surely understands that Bellator is a place in which he can expect to really get tested quickly, as past tournaments will show. Nobody’s truly a favorite in a tournament unless they make themselves a favorite, and all of the pre-determined “favorites” have found out without hesitation that the tide can always turn in the Bellator cage.

To put it another way, line Richman up against Marlon Sandro and he will find a way to at least hurt the iron-jawed Brazilian on the feet, even if he doesn’t overwhelm Sandro or cause him to slip in the way that some thought he might against underdogs Alexandre Bezerra and Roberto Vargas. Set him up against Daniel Straus, and Straus may not find it as easy a task to dominate Richman as it was to dominate Mike Corey and Jeremy Spoon. Fix champion Pat Curran up against Richman in a Bellator featherweight bout and expect Curran’s chin to be tested greatly against the hands of Richman.

Would Richman need takedown defense against Straus or submission defense against Sandro? Of course he would, and would he need to make sure he wasn’t moving or attacking in one direction or one angle against Curran? Of course he would. It’s a longshot that Richman might even last long against Sandro, Curran or Straus, but it was also a longshot that he would defeat the WEC veteran Horodecki. Lightning struck once for Richman when it counted, and now the only thing preventing lightning from striking twice is Richman himself. But if Richman allows for lightning to strike twice, it’s always possible that he becomes only the second most unlikely featherweight to earn a shot at—and potentially even win—the Bellator featherweight title.

Andrey “Spartan” Koreshkov (9-0)

Andrey Koreshkov is an undefeated fighter competing in the Bellator welterweight division, arguably the most stacked division in Bellator right now. He hasn’t lost yet and it’s unlikely that a loss will hurt the luster on this 21-year-old Rusfighters Sports Club phenom, especially considering that he trains with Alexander Shlemenko and is accustomed to having trained with fighters larger than himself. Of all the prospects on this rundown, this is the one that all MMA fans need to probably look out for the most.

Against a Bryan Baker or a David Rickels, Koreshkov may actually be able to throw that RSC-caliber striking that most associate with Shlemenko. Truthfully, the only real thing Baker or Rickels could expose is a potential lack of a ground game, and even if the two wins by armbar and the one second-round submission win by anaconda choke, respectively, hint at some sort of strong ground expertise, Rickels has what is needed to neutralize that strength in an instant, as does Baker. Let’s not forget, though, Baker does have some knockout power for all to contend with at any division, and only a tough weight cut might be the reason why some might think that power abandoned him against Carlos Alexandre Pereira. Rickels, however, did not exhibit anything suggestive of a tough weight cut when he brought Jordan Smith down and finished him convincingly in their quarterfinal contest.

Ben Saunders’ Muay Thai clinch might be as lethal an obstacle for Koreshkov as his submission game, but the 6-foot-tall welterweight prospect is knowledgeable at this stage of his career to where he knows how to remain comfortable on the feet and maintain his cool on the ground. As far as a grappler like Karl Amoussou goes, it will be a miracle if Koreshkov can find a way to maintain his cool at the weigh-ins, where Amoussou has been known to infuriate opponents during the staredown. Truthfully, Saunders might be the more well-rounded fighter, but Amoussou lives up to his nickname of “The Psycho” whenever he fights, whether it stays on the feet or goes to the ground, and especially when it goes to the ground. At this stage of Koreshkov’s career, one may convince themselves that training with Shlemenko and training with whoever the Rusfighters team can find to emulate Saunders or Amoussou would give Koreshkov an edge, but emulating Saunders or Amoussou isn’t the same as fighting the genuine article on fight night.

That leads us to welterweight champion Ben Askren, and while it’s okay to admit you didn’t like his Douglas Lima fight, you can’t argue with results. The simple fact is that Askren has that funky style of wrestling where he looks like he’s not doing all that much and sometimes he’ll look as though he’s had a lot taken out of him, but at the end of the day, his wrestling gets results. Against Koreshkov, Askren will look to ensure that the 21-year-old looks like he has neither takedown defense nor any ground or wrestling experience, and that’s not a knock on Koreshkov at all. All it means is that, in order for Koreshkov to win in the strength of 11 or 12, or even 13, pro wins, he has to figure out Askren’s style, defend every takedown attempt to the point where Askren starts to actually get sloppy with his shots, and he has to make Askren play according to what Koreshkov’s game plan is, regardless of what that game plan may be.

So far, we’ve seen Eduardo Dantas defend the best attempts at a victory from Zach Makovsky in order to choke Makovsky unconscious. We’ve seen Pat Curran punish Joe Warren and make the self-proclaimed “baddest man on the planet” look like he didn’t know how to use his wrestling. Heck, we’ve even seen Shinya Aoki finished for the first time in three years and fifteen days, but we haven’t seen anyone defend Ben Askren’s wrestling, neutralize it to the point where even your diehard fans couldn’t tell Askren ever had a wrestling game, and derail his crazy train of funky dominance by beating him for the Bellator welterweight title. Will Koreshkov be the first? This writer believes it’s possible, and the reason is because, except for Hector Lombard, everyone who has ever emerged from a tournament to win a Bellator title has always been a person that nobody has seen coming, and at this stage of his still-young MMA life, Koreshkov is without question a man that none of us have seen or will see coming.

Then again, all five men mentioned in this piece are fighters we may not see coming, but if they are coming, we definitely won’t know they’ve arrived until we see the weight of Bellator world championship gold wrapped around their waist.

Top Photo: Andrey Koreshkov (Keith Mills/Sherdog)

About The Author

Dale De Souza
Staff Writer

Dale De Souza is a 22-year-old kid straight out of Texas, who grew up around Professional Wrestling but embraced the beauty of Mixed Martial Arts and Combat Sports at a young age. Dale is a Featured Columnist at Bleacher Report MMA, a writer at The MMA Corner.