As 2023 comes to an end, it is time to look back on what was an extremely exciting year for combat sports in general.
Whilst surging stars such as Jack Della Maddalena and Muhammad Mokaev have entered the UFC in search of gold, there are also a number of rising prospects who are on the cusp of greatness. These fighters may not be on every fight fans radar just yet, but they all possess the potential to become something truly great in the near future – starting in 2022.
2022 has been an incredible year for European MMA, and that is highlighted in the LowKickMMA Prospect of the Year pick.
Prospect of the Year: Paul Hughes – Cage Warriors 145lb Champion (4 votes)
Another year, another Irish prospect on the rise.
2021 saw the emergence of Ian Garry, as ‘The Future’ captured the Cage Warriors welterweight title and signed with the UFC. In 2022, Paul Hughes has been the Irish fighter to watch, capturing the CW featherweight title, and all but guaranteeing a call-up to the UFC in 2023.
Hughes may have only fought once in 2022, but that one bout may well have been the most talked about regional fight of the year. In 2020, Hughes had lost an extremely close decision to Jordan Vucenic, who went on to capture the CW 145lb title. Hughes bounced back, with back-to-back wins in 2021, defeating both James Hendin and Morgan Charriere – names that those familiar with the European MMA scene will be very familiar with – and capturing the interim title in the process.
Vucenic also picked up several wins in this time, and anticipation quickly grew as rumors of a rematch became increasingly concrete. Eventually, to the delight of many an Irish and English fight fan, the fight would be booked to headline Cage Warriors 145. Both Hughes and Vucenic’s walkout to that fight were some of the most spine-tingling moments of the year.
However, the fight itself was a masterclass from Hughes. The young Irishman showed just how much he had improved over the past 2 years, dominating Vucenic from pillar to post. Hughes now appears to have reached such a level that he is more than equipped to be competing against the very best in the world.
A UFC debut in March seems very likely.
George Hardwick (3 votes)
Just coming short by 1 vote of Paul Hughes is Cage Warriors lightweight champion, George Hardwick.
Hardwick had a sensational 2022, picking up three wins and the CW 155lb title along the way. The 26-year-old striker from Middlesbrough started his year with a bang, running through Łukasz Kopera in emphatic fashion. This victory was enough to secure him a title shot.
Four months later, Hardwick would square off against American fighter Kyle Driscoll for the vacant CW 145lb strap. In a relentless back-and-forth war, Hardwick would land one of his signature body shots to crumple Driscoll to the canvas in round 4 – capturing the belt in the process.
Unfortunately, due to the injuries sustained in this fight, Hardwick was forced to turn down a short-notice contract with the UFC to fight in Paris. Instead, he opted to defend his belt later in the year, taking on Scottish fan favorite Chris Bungard. This may well have been Hardwick’s most impressive win to date, piecing Bungard up and finishing him in the second with yet another body shot.
Khasan Magomedsharipov (1 vote)
The younger brother of Zabit Magomedsharipov, Khasan is currently plying his trade in Bellator MMA. The young Dagestani holds a record of 7-0, with two wins in Bellator already.
Considering just how much potential and star power his older brother had, Khasan really has an incredible future ahead of him, if he is able to remain active. In 2022, he only fought once, in an extremely dominant three-round fight vs. Jose Sanchez at Bellator 275.
Khasan won via unanimous decision, showing off his impressively diverse skillset that blends the dominant Dagestani wrestling often associated with Khabib Nurmagomedov and the flashy striking his brother repeatedly showed off in the UFC.
Akbar Abdullaev (1 vote)
Another fighter to keep an eye on in 2023 is Kyrgyzstan’s Akbar Abdullaev.
The young featherweight is 8-0, with each win coming inside the distance. It is worth noting that his past three fights all took place on the same night, as he annihilated the opposition at WEF Selection 42.
Abdullaev appears to have huge potential, and 2023 may well be the year he makes the step up to the big leagues, as rumors circulate about a supposed contract with One Championship. Watch this space.
Full List Of 2022 Prospect Of The Year Votes
Frank Bonada: George Hardwick
Ross Markey: Paul Hughes
Murdo Todd: Paul Hughes
Patrick Post: Paul Hughes
Ian Shutts: George Hardwick
Tim Wheaton: Akbar Abdullaev
Ollie Brockett: George Hardwick
Keelin McNamara: Paul Hughes
Marc Ray: Khasan Magomedsharipov