Before the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) pay-per-view (PPV) championship doubleheader hits your screens this Saturday (Aug. 4, 2018) from inside Staples Center in Los Angeles, Calif., four promising mixed martial arts (MMA) up-and-comers will make their first appearances in the Octagon, including three “Tuesday Night Contender Series” (TNCS) alums and the brightest prospect yet out of China.
Welcome back to “New Blood,” where we answer the question “who da fook is dat guy?” Let’s have a look!
Name: Kevin “The Trailblazer” Holland
Weight Class: Middleweight
Record: 12-3 (6 KO, 5 SUB)
Notable Victories: Geoffrey Neal, Will Santiago, Bubba McDaniels (in Muay Thai)
Kevin Holland did most of his work in King of the Cage and XKO, winning the latter’s Middleweight title and dabbling in its Muay Thai. He went on to win his sole Bellator appearance in March, then defeated Will Santiago Jr. on “TNCS” three months later. Though the Santiago win wasn’t impressive enough to earn him an immediate contract, he nonetheless finds himself in the Octagon this weekend.
Despite that history of finishes, Holland isn’t the most visually appealing fighter you’ll ever see. He uses his 6’3” frame and 81” reach to throw fancy kicks and looping punches from well outside his opponents’ range. That sounds fun, but those kicks can be a bit slow and labored, and his hands and feet don’t mesh terribly well.
Those punches have some pop to them when he straightens them out, though, and he’s legitimately dangerous on the inside, where he can use his height to deliver knees and his lengthy arms to lever elbows around others’ guards. He’s a lot more fun to watch there, as you can see by checking out his Muay Thai bouts, so it’s a shame he didn’t use that on “TNCS” against the much shorter Santiago.
He’s similarly offbeat, but threatening on the mat. He’s got some dangerous punches from top position and uses those rangy limbs of his to threaten submissions and sweeps should opponents put him on his back. His Bellator fight saw him engage in some fun scrambles before locking up a triangle, while he steadily overpowered the grappling-focused Hayward Charles on the mat with heavy ground-and-pound.
As you’ve probably gathered, he’s still got plenty of flaws. His punches are so awkward that it also opponents to get inside and he’s not terribly difficult to take down once they do so. He’s also fairly slow and lacks fluidity in those kicks he loves so much. He’s still in his mid-20s, so he’s got time to sharpen up, but there’s a lot of work to do.
Opponent: Holland has arguably the toughest assignment of any of the newbies: Thiago “Marreta” Santos, one of the fiercest knockout artists in the entire UFC. Holland is a fair bit rangier than the Brazilian and the latter’s chin has failed him before, which makes things interesting, but “Trailblazer” is a 3:1 underdog for good reason.
Name: Montel “Quik” Jackson
Weight Class: Bantamweight
Record: 6-0 (5 KO)
Notable Victories: Rico DiSciullo
Montel Jackson brought a strong Greco-Roman pedigree and an 8-1 amateur record into his pro career, ultimately reaching the “TNCS” in June. He looked poised to secure a contract after dropping Rico DiSciullo early, but landed a blatant shot to the back of the head and wound up losing a point. He lost another point for repeated eye pokes before stopping DiSciullo in the third round, a finish that wasn’t impressive enough to override everything else.
Though he didn’t get a contract, he was ready and waiting when Benito Lopez injured his ankle and withdrew from a planned bout with Ricky Simon this upcoming weekend.
The first thing that stands out when you see Jackson is his size. He’s 5’10,” leaving him tied for the second-tallest fighter in the division, and is packing plenty of muscle on that frame. He uses that size to deliver powerful roundhouse kicks punctuated by a stiff jab and dangerous left straight. While he hasn’t shown the sort of linear kicks that fellow big-tall-Greco-guy Jon Jones uses to maintain range, his takedown defense has proven impenetrable and he’s got some strong knees to the body.
He’s also scored two knockouts via Travis Browne-style elbows, so maybe don’t try taking him down.
That combination of physicality, grappling prowess, and knockout power make him a genuine blue-chip prospect. That said, those fouls in the DiSciullo fight weren’t an isolated incident; he has a bad habit of keeping his fingers extended, and the fact that he torpedoed a chance at an early finish with an obviously illegal shot doesn’t speak highly of his fight IQ. He’s still young, though, so here’s hoping they iron those issues out.
Opponent: Jackson faces a genuinely intriguing matchup against former LFA champ Ricky Simon. Though Jackson has height and a whole heap of reach on him, Simon can do damage if he gets inside that reach and, crucially, had a whole training camp. I can’t imagine it’s easy for Jackson to make 135 pounds — especially on short notice — so this one could come down to the wire.
Name: Matt “Robo” Sayles
Weight Class: Featherweight
Record: 7-1 (6 KO)
Notable Victories: Christian Aguilera, Yazan Hajeh
Shortly after his first professional loss, a controversial split decision against wrestling standout George Hickman, Matt Sayles appeared on “Lookin’ for a Fight,” where he made Matt Serra and Dana White eat crow with a knockout of Christian Aguilera. He went on to headline a “TNCS” episode, smashing Yazan Hajeh in under two minutes to earn a contract.
Sayles is, at his core, an aggressive puncher with a lethal right hand. His combinations aren’t anything out of the ordinary, usually comprising a one-two combination with additional punches tacked on at the end as necessary, but the sheer power he packs in that right hand makes frippery unnecessary. He hits you, you go down.
Grappling-wise, he can hit clinch takedowns if needed and moves quite well on the mat, delivering heavy shots in scrambles and pouring on the hurt against wounded opponents. His takedown defense looks fairly stout as well; Hickman got him down in the first round and stayed on his back until the bell, but Sayles did a great job keeping it standing from then on.
He doesn’t have any standout weaknesses aside from an inability to blend kicks with punches, and that hasn’t really slowed him down thus far. Keep an eye on this kid.
Opponent: Sayles gets an opponent more than happy to stand with him in Sheymon Moraes, an experienced Muay Thai competitor whose only MMA losses came against Marlon Moraes and Zabit Magomedsharipov. Moraes has the better pedigree, but he’s not super active and overcommits to his left hook. This could go either way.
Name: Weili Zhang
Weight Class: Strawweight
Record: 16-1 (9 KO, 6 SUB)
Notable Victories: Marilia Santos, Emi Fujino
Weili Zhang — arguably China’s top fighter in any weight class — has not tasted defeat since her professional debut in 2013. Only one of her 16 victories has gone past the second round and she fought seven times last year.
In short, she’s the most interesting addition to the women’s Strawweight roster in ages.
Zhang’s basic modus operandi is to press forward with heavy punching combinations that generally begin and/or end with kicks to the leg and body. Blending attacks on multiple levels like this drastically increases their effectiveness, as someone covering their head is open to the body and vice-versa. Combine this with her volume and sheer power and you have a lethal offense.
If she doesn’t like the ranged striking for any reason, she shines with brutal elbows from either the clinch or top position, which she has the takedown and scrambling skills to achieve. It also helps that she passes guard quite well, able to swiftly take mount and rain down punches and elbows.
The only real issue I can see is that her habit of throwing lead kicks leaves her open to counters, a tendency that got her clipped more than once by the aforementioned Santos. That said, she’s plenty tough, and her aggression and heavy hands allow her to fight through adversity and put opponents back on the offensive.
I see Zhang going plenty far in UFC and can’t wait to see how she fares against some of the killers lurking at the top of the division.
Opponent: Zhang faces Danielle Taylor, whose strength and punching power are offset by a lack of reach, accuracy, and volume. Taylor would be winless (0-3) in UFC with better judging, and I expect Zhang to overpower her wherever the fight goes.
Remember, too, that MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC 227 fight card, starting with the Fight Pass “Prelims” matches online, which are scheduled to begin at 6:30 p.m. ET, then the remaining undercard balance on FX Network at 8 p.m. ET, before the PPV main card start time at 10 p.m. ET.