In 2015, BluegrassMMA decided to put together a list of fighters from our coverage area that we believed could eventually make it to the UFC.
Flash forward four and a half years later, and many of our predictions have come true, including Khama Worthy recently making his UFC debut with an upset TKO over Devonte Smith, and Nate Landwehr signing to fight in the UFC as well.
Overall, six of the ten fighters on this list have either made their UFC debut or signed with the promotion. Others have had massive successes outside of the Octagon as well. Check out the original post below, with updates on each fighter in italics.
The Ohio Valley region of Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, Tennessee, and Western Pennsylvania has long been one of the hotbeds for mixed martial arts talent, but recently it seems as though a boom of top-level events has helped propel some fighters to the area not just to the sport’s highest organizations, but to the highest levels of those highest organizations.
Currently there are a handful of Ohio Valley fighters making waves in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, including the likes of Stipe Miocic, Jessica Eye, Cody Garbrandt, Lorenz Larkin, Ovince St. Preux, and more.
But there are many future stars still fighting in the regional organizations that fill up bingo halls, national guard armories and smaller venues each week. That’s why I decided to put together a list of the top unsigned stars in the area, who could all reasonably be fighting in the Octagon by the time the calendar flips to 2016 or shortly there after.
Check out our list below, and let us know if we missed your favorite.
Mark “The Pride of Bloomfield” Cherico (7-1)
Posing an impressive 7-1 record as a pro along with a 9-0 amateur record, Mark Cherico is still one of the best fighters in the area despite a recent loss on Thanksgiving Eve. “The Pride” has shown a penchant to come out on the winning side each and every time he steps into the cage, and perhaps the only thing more impressive than his record inside the cage is the way that he markets himself as a fighter outside of the cage. It’s no secret that he’s one of the most popular fighters in the area, and Mr. Pittsburgh always brings a crowd when competing for Pinnacle FC. He has headlined 6 of the 9 Pinnacle FC cards, with his record and popularity growing alongside the organization.
Cherico not only runs his own training camps, but he’s also the general manager at Fight Club Pittsburgh, meaning that he helps break young fighters into the sport on a regular basis. Apart from training with “Alpha Male East” at FCP, he has also made trips to Florida to train with American Top Team and was even out in California earlier this year to train at Team Alpha Male.
Cherico is currently on the verge of the biggest fight of his career, as he is set to take on Nate Landwehr in the main event at GOTC MMA 16 next month in his hometown.
Cherico has always been one of my favorite local fighters. Few can promote themselves like he has and be able to back it up inside the cage. At the time of this writing he was 7-1 with a bout scheduled against Nate Landwehr. Cherico went on to win that bout, and followed it up with wins over D’Juan Owens and Antonio Castillo Jr. to earn a shot on Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series in 2017. He lost that bout in 2017 and hasn’t competed since.
Now 33, Cherico may have missed out on that opportunity at the Octagon, but he’s a winner outside of the cage, with twins born in 2018 and still training. Although he’s dealt with some injuries, he was able to travel to California this past weekend to corner his longtime training partner Khama Worthy in his UFC debut. Now retired (maybe?), I feel like we haven’t heard the last of “The Pride” inside the cage. He’s now 11-2 overall.
Josh “Sandman” Stansbury (6-2)
Stansbury was almost there. The current NAAFS and Prize Fighting Championships light heavyweight champion, Josh competed on The Ultimate Fighter 19 and was winning his fight to get into “the house” before his knee gave out on him and he lost the bout due to injury.
Since then, the East Liverpool, Ohio native has shown up on just about every short list of fighters who are on the UFC’s radar, and rightfully so. He has impressive wins over Dan Spohn, John Hawk, and Jeremy Osheim to go along with a 2-0 pro boxing record. At this point, it’s a matter of when, not if, Josh gets the call to the Octagon.
Stansbury is a great example of a fighter who kept working and eventually got his shot. After missing out on TUF 19, he tried out again for TUF 23 and made it into the house with a win over Tyler Carlson. He made it to the semifinals before eventually making his UFC debut on the series finale. At the finale, he beat Cory Hendricks before losing to Devin Clark and Jeremy Kimball and receiving his UFC release in 2017. His only fight since was last December, where he lost to Karl Albrektsson at Superior Challenge 18 in Sweden. He’s now 8-5 overall.
Adam “Prime Time” Townsend (12-3),
On Halloween last year, Townsend was a 9-3 fighter just looking to make his mark on the sport. Today, his record stands at 12-3 and he’s one of the most charismatic MMA prospects in the country. The Tennessee product has made a penchant for winning fights in just about any division where he can find an interesting matchup.
“Primetime” was supposed to be back in the cage later this month, but his fight agiainst V3 Fights welterweight champ Ben Brewer will no longer be happening in Nashville on February 21. And yeah, he’s naturally a featherweight who fights at any weight where he can find an interesting matchup.
Townsend has been busy since we compiled this list, as he’s competed ten times, compiling a 7-3 record. Those fights have taken him to the RFA promotion for two fights, to China, one fight in the LFA, and to ACB, where he’s competed in England, Austria, and Australia. He most recently competed in South Africa at Brave 19 last December, but has yet to make his way to the UFC. He’s now 20-6 overall.
Khama “The Death Star” Worthy (7-2)
Perhaps no fighter in the Ohio Valley had a more impressive 2014 than Worthy. The Fight Club Pittsburgh product – who trains alongside the likes of Mark Cherico and Adam Milstead – stepped into the Pinnacle FC cage three times, and all three times the outcome was the same: a TKO victory.
From impressive 20-second knockouts to complete decimations of his opponents, Worthy is one of the most dynamic strikers in all of mixed martial arts. When he steps into the cage, it is appointment viewing.
“The Death Star” will get the first main event opportunity of his career later this month when he faces William Quarantillo for the featherweight title in the main event at Strike Off 4 in Virginia.
Worthy may have had the craziest ride of any fighter on this list. After making this list, the Pittsburgh native proceeded to drop four of his next six bouts, all via knockout. But he had a resurgence beginning in 2018 that combined with his return to the lightweight division. Since then, he’s 6-0, including an upset TKO win over Devonte Smith in his short-notice UFC debut this past weekend at UFC 241. He’s now 15-6 overall.
Dan “Dragon” Spohn (9-4)
Spohn is actually the only fighter on this list who has already tasted UFC glory. He was a competitor on The Ultimate Fighter 19 – in which he produced the fastest and perhaps most impressive knockout in the show’s history to make his way into “the house” – but he came up short in his official UFC debut on the show’s finale in a loss to Patrick Walsh.
A black belt in kachido akijitsu, Spohn posseses some of the most impressive counter striking in the area. That coupled with a highly underrated ground game has made him one of the most dangerous fighters in the area. A former NAAFS light heavyweight champion, he got back on the winning track in November, when he submitted Michael Cockerham in under a minute in the main event at IT Fight Series 29.
Spohn will be back in action next month, when he faces Marcus Finch on a card in Columbus during the annual Arnold Sports Festival weekend.
Spohn hasn’t officially returned to the UFC since this list, but he’s compiled a 9-3 record that includes a win over current UFC heavyweight Jeff Hughes in 2016. Spohn rode a three-fight winning streak into Dana White’s Contender Series in 2017, but he failed to earn a UFC contract despite posting a first round submission over Angel DeAnda. He’s currently signed to PFL, where he has posted a 2-2 record since last June. He’s now 18-7 overall.
Adam “The Prototype” Milstead (5-1)
In a sport that seriously lacks top-flight heavyweight prospects, Milstead is one of the best. A former light heavyweight as an amateur, he made the decision to stop killing his body to make the 205-pound weight limit and instead bulked up to be a chiseled heavyweight. That move has proved to be a great choice for Milstead, who is unbeaten as a heavyweight.
Most recently, he returned from an extended hiatus to completely wax Nick Smiley with a vicious knockout in just 58 seconds. The Pittsburgh native has battled injuries since then, but here’s hoping he’ll be back in 2015 knocking more opponents out.
Milstead finally got the UFC call in 2016, and he made a successful debut with a TKO over Chris DeLaRocha. His next bout against Curtis Blaydes ended in no contest after a knee injury, and he then returned to the light heavyweight division. He lost his next two bouts, including a first round TKO against Mike Rodriguez at UFC on FOX 31 in December 2018. Following the bout, the Pittsburgh native announced his retirement from MMA. He retired with an 8-3 record.
Cody Gabelman (2-0)
Still not even old enough to buy a beer, the 20-year-old has had one of the fastest rises to prominence in the area in recent memory. After a banner 2013 that saw him post a 10-0 amateur record to move his overall record to 12-1, Gabelman turned pro in 2014 and racked up a pair of impressive victories to kick off his career. The Cincinnati-based flyweight was impressive in his last outing in October, when he stopped fellow top prospect Darnell Pettis with a submission in the second round.
He already has two fights lined up in the next two months, including a fantastic fight against Dennis Brown at RFO in March. Don’t be surprised if he’s 4-0 by the time the snow finishes melting.
Admittedly, it may have been a bit too early in his career to place Gabelman on this list. After a 2-0 start, he has lost four of his last seven bouts, including his last two in a row. He’s still just 25, though, so there’s plenty of time for him if he decides to continue in the sport. He’s now 5-4 overall.
Andrew Holbrook (8-0)
The MMA scene in Indiana has been booming over the past few years, and one fighter who has been impressive on that circuit is Indianapolis fighter Andrew Holbrook. The 28-year-old has finished all eight of his bouts as a pro via submission, including seven inside the first round.
His most recent outing was this past weekend, when he stopped Strikeforce and Bellator veteran Ian Rammel in just 90 seconds in the main event at Midwest Fight Series XII. That win could propel Holbrook into the UFC or very near it at least.
The win over Rammel didn’t propel Holbrook into the UFC, but two more first round finishes in 2015 did. He made his Octagon debut against former TUF winner Ramsey Nijem at UFC on FOX 16, which he won via decision. After that bout though, he lost three of his next four in the UFC, all via strikes in the first round. He hasn’t competed since 2017, but he was recently schedule to compete at a HRMMA event, so we could see him back in action sooner rather than later. He’s now 12-3 overall.
“Cool Hand” Luke Sanders (9-0)
If you’re a fan of exciting fighters who put on exciting fights, then Luke Sanders is your guy. The Tennessee native made his professional debut on a Strikeforce card in Nashville in 2011, and he hasn’t looked back since. He put on a pair of impressive performances under the XFC banner on AXS TV, and then made the Mark Cuban network his home away from home by signing with the RFA in last year . He went 3-0 during 2014, including winning the organization’s bantamweight title with a 66-second victory over Jarred Mercado at RFA 20 in November.
The RFA has become a feeder system to the UFC since its inception, and Sanders could be the next fighter to make his way to the Octagon after a stint in the organization.
Sanders made his UFC debut about six months after we originally posted this article, and he has posted a 3-3 record. Most recently, he had the biggest win of his career, topping former bantamweight champion Renan Barao at UFC Fight Night in February. He’s now 13-3 overall.
Nate “The Train” Landwehr (5-1)
What can you say about fan favorite “Nate the Train”? The Tennessee native made his professional debut for the XFC on national TV, and then proceeded to win three of his first four fights in the organization, all via knockout. After his knockout win over veteran Keith Richardson, Landwehr fought in his home state once again, where he won the 3FC featherweight title with a win over Adam Townsend in one of the biggest Ohio Valley fights of 2014.
Apparently that win put him on the short list of fighters that other fighters don’t want to fight, so he didn’t compete again for all of 2014. But he surfaced again last month in Eastern Pennsylvania, earning a decision over fellow fan favorite Justin Steave at Gladiators of the Cage 15. The unorthodox fighter could become a bit of a fighting gypsy, fighting all over the country and taking on the best prospects that each area has to offer. That is if the UFC doesn’t snatch him up first.
Up next for Landwehr is a “fight of the year” candidate against Mark Cherico next month in the main event at GOTC MMA 16 in Pittsburgh.
Landwehr has just one loss since we posted this article – a second round submission against Cherico in 2015. Since that loss, he’s made his way to M-1 Global in Russia, where he became their high-flying featherweight champion in 2018 and has successfully defend the title twice since then. Last week, he became the latest fighter on this list to sign with the UFC, and he’s expect to make his promotional debut soon. He’s now 13-2 overall.
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