Welterweight, AJ Fletcher
In the first fight of season five of the contender series, AJ Fletcher dazzled the people in attendance with a beauty of a flying knee knockout. Prior to this fight, the best record Fletcher beat was 6-3. The combined opponents’ record was 40-55. Coming into the fight his opponent Leonardo Damiani was obviously his toughest challenge by far. That was evident right away. Both guys were trading hands but Fletcher did a better job using feints and kicking the lead leg of Damiani.
Damiani wanting a firefight he landed a few crackers on Fletcher even forcing Fletcher to shoot a takedown which he completed. Fletcher, not one bit was flustered when they returned to the feet. He showed his flashy style of throwing wheel kick. Although it didn’t land it pressed Damiani against the cage and that’s when Fletcher landed that flying knee. Fletcher timed the knee perfectly when Damiani was against the cage and had nowhere to go. Fletcher got some serious air and the shot put Damiani down and out.
Fletcher having the ability to knock guys out with his hands, throw some creative and heavy kicks, and use effective wrestling can go a far way. Of the five contract winners, Fletcher is the youngest to receive the contract only being 24. Fletcher is a thick dude at 170 but is considered too small for the division. At welterweight, there is only one smaller fighter in the UFC that being Michal Prazeres. It will probably be tough for him to cut all the way down to 155 but he probably struggles at his size disadvantage. He’s not the quickest guy and with his incompetence of striking defense, it’s very possible to see him get outstruck.
Damiani tagged him a few good times in a short period of time. Damiani isn’t the most technical fighter at all so someone with range and technical ability will exploit his flaws. Fletchers best path to success is to wrestle. He has a heavy top position and ground and pound along with overall good grappling. Getting on the inside will be a problem though on a lot of guys. From a wrestle-heavy attack, it untelling how his cardio will hold up and his takedown defense is still in question.
Matching up Fletcher for his UFC debut I’d like to give him someone who will test his stand-up and possibly see how he does in the later rounds. Someone like Takashi Sato would make a lot of sense. Sato like fletcher is a good striker with a lot of power. Sato isn’t someone that’s gonna get ran over and someone you can’t be lazy against. It’s a good fight where Fletcher can use his wrestling as Sato struggles in that area. Fletcher is young and time is on his side and maybe a development deal would’ve been the better plan. He has the skill set but not the size to be a factor at 170 anytime soon.
Flyweight, Carlos Candelario
Candelario becomes the first one in contender series history to lose and still earn a UFC contract. With that said it was a fight he arguably won. Round one was clear for Candelario and round three was clear for Altamirano. It came down to round two and as I and others thought Candelario won it was close. Even UFC president Dana White thought Candelario won and that’s why he took Candelario as well.
Candelario returned to the cage earlier this month after a four-year absence. One fight (and four years) before that, he had decided to retire after winning on the Contender Series 2017. He did win, but didn’t get a contract that night; worse, he tore his ACL. It all culminated in walking away from active competition. When he did return he fought up at 145 and when he took this fight on short notice in only three weeks.
Candelario looked good early in this fight winning the exchanges on the feet and taking the fight down at will. Coming into this fight I was factoring in ring rust and the fact he was fighting up a weight class. After this one, I do have some real concerns. Candelario has good striking and solid wrestling but gassing out as quick as he did isn’t gonna fare so well for him. For the majority of flyweights, endurance is the main factor, and gassing out after five minutes is just not good. Maybe it was just cutting weight on short notice and for the first time since in four years
Candelario is coming off a loss so it’s important to start him off slowly. A fight with Juancamilo Ronderos would be a good test for both guys. Ronderos was signed way too early in his career last may pairing him up with David Dvořák. Dvorak dispatched of him inside the first round. Although Ronderos has the talent he’s just too early in his career. This fight would be a good way to see who is the better prospect between the two. If this was the Candelario from four years ago I’d predict a future top 15 flyweight. With that said unless he proves otherwise I can just see him winning a fight or two.
Flyweight, Victor Altamirano
To give the loser of the fight a contract it’s warranted to give the winner one as well. Altamirano fought through a lot of adversity in this fight. He was caught a few times and was taken down and dominated in round one. He stayed composed and most of all fought back. Even off his back, he was throwing more than Candelario who was on top. He had a better round two and a strong round three as he was still fresh and Candelario was exhausted.
The UFC needs all the 125ers I can get so I do understand taking both but off of their performance I would’ve passed at the time. Altamirano has a style I can’t see exceding in the UFC. He is a good striker but his hands are always hanging low and getting hit happens too often. What’s really gonna hold him back is his takedown defense and being far too comfortable off his back. Even on the feet where he is at his best, he doesn’t do anything spectacular. Altamirano doesn’t go away and competes no matter where the fights at and that’s the best aspect of his game. His inability to defend takedowns is gonna be his main issue in the UFC. In the UFC guys like Manel Kape, Tyson Nam, and Kai Kara-France who can all strike would make Altamirano pay for keeping his hands low.
Ode Osbourne would be a great debut opponent for Altamirano. Osbourne is a dangerous guy everywhere the fight goes and has some wholes everywhere as well. He and Altamirano match up against each other very interestingly. The styles between the two mesh together quite well and it could be a fight that presses one forward and the other a big step backward. It’s a fight that will test Altamirano no matter where the fight takes place.
Featherweight, Joanderson Brito
This was the fight between two guys that are UFC-ready today. In what was an exciting fight Brito poked Lopes in the eye in the third and the fight was called. As it was deemed unintentional and it happened in the third round it went to a technical decision. It sucks the guy that got pocked in the eye and had an entire round three lost the fight. In the same sense, Brito was most likely on his way to a win. Lopes was that huge submission threat and Brito was fending off every sub attempt and beating Lopes up on top. Dana still gave Brito a contract and said Lopes wasn’t far behind another chance.
I believe Brito is gonna be a welcomed addition to the UFC featherweight roster. Not a lot of guys on the current roster can match his aggression and power. In the fight with Lopes not being afraid to take a dangerous jiu-jitsu guy down and winning on top is a testament to how good he is. And the fight with Lopes he didn’t even show a fraction of what he’s really good at and that’s throwing down.
Brito is a bull that marches forward and slings nothing but bombs. He is very wild in his approach but the chaos he brings is relentless and heavy. His takedown defense is a concern and so is his defensive grappling. It didn’t show at all against Lopes but he was the one pressing takedowns which were surprising but yet nice to see. I don’t know how good he will be but I see a career resemblance of UFC fighter Ricardo Ramos. Someone that flashes against the lesser competition but falls short to tougher competition.
Match Brito up with a banger right away in his UFC debut. There are a lot of options for that opponent but Marcelo Rojo would be amazing. Rojo is fighting this week against Jonathan Martinez and win or lose it’s the fight to make. Rojo is a dog who is an action fighter like Brito. It’s a hardcore fan’s delight and easy fight of the night potential. If Brito was to get past Rojo give him a wrestler and test how he fares there.
Light-heavyweight, Azamat Murzakanov
Of the five contracts winners, Murzakanov had the cleanest performance. Yeah, Fletcher has the ESPN top 10 moment but Murzakanov wasn’t too shabby either. The only issue is he had trouble finding his range early on. Scheffel had a five-inch height advantage and kept Murzakanov at bay with some heavy kicks. Murzakanov fought light on his feet attempting to land with that overhand left. As he threw it at a point when he stepped back he laded a big right hand putting Scheffel away. Never fought through adversity and had a strong knockout. The biggest knock on his performance is Scheffel was the least threat among the other fighters on the card. To put it better, this was a set-up fight for Murzakanov.
As Dana signed Murzakanov he did mention he should be fighting at 185 and I agree with that. Even at light-heavyweight, he has knockout power and the speed is what would separate him from some others. If he was to go against the middleweights he’s fighting guys his size and he wouldn’t have to close the distance. Murzakanov has wins over Mohammad Fakhreddine, the well-traveled Guto Inocente, and UFC fighter Andre Muniz. Murzakanov has a background in judo and hand-to-hand combat, where he beat UFC fighter Ion Cutelaba. He is 32 so age isn’t on his side but he’s at his prime. He’s easily out of the five signings that can make an immediate impact.
Murzakanov being on the older side and with some good experience, I’d be fine with giving him a stiff test in his UFC debut. America’s Anthony Hernandez would be a fitting debut opponent. Although Hernandez is 2-2 in the UFC he had a career performance last time out. He handed jiu-jitsu expert Rodolfo Vieira his first career MMA loss. He stopped one hype train and if he was to do it again to Murzakanov that would skyrocket Hernandez. On the other side, Hernandez is a tough guy and a solid fight for Murzakanov. That’s at middleweight but I fully expect him to fight at light-heavyweight first. A fight with William Knight would be quite the show and a good stylistic matchup.