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UFC 245 - New Blood: The penultimate contenders

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Let’s meet UFC 245’s Octagon debutants this weekend in “Sin City,” shall we?

It may not be the final show of the year, but UFC 245, which takes place inside T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada, this weekend (Sat., Dec. 14, 2019) definitely feels like the big finale, and two “Contender Series” alums are lucky enough to be part of it. On 2019’s penultimate edition of “New Blood,” the series where I realize nobody knows how to check a damn leg kick, we look at the new youngest fighter on the roster and a Hawaiian powerhouse with a penchant for first-round finishes.

Chase “The Teenage Dream” Hooper

Weight Class: Featherweight
Age: 20
Record: 8-0-1 (2 KO, 4 SUB)
Notable Victories: Canaan Kawaihae, Luis Gomez

Cooper began his amateur career at 17 years old, racking up five first-round finishes before making the jump to the pros in 2017. Four victories brought him to “Contender Series,” where he weathered a disastrous first round to defeat Canaan Kawaihae and earn a developmental contract.

Now, one draw and two wins later, it’s been upgraded to a full one.

A gangly, towering 6’1” — tied for the second-tallest Featherweight in the organization alongside Zabit Magomedsharipov — Hooper is built like a heretofore unknown Diaz brother Nick and Nate keep under the stairs and feed table scraps. Those long limbs make him an absolute nightmare on the mat to the point where pulling guard has proven a viable strategy. Indeed, between his sweeps and submission onslaught, highlighted by his armbar and guillotine, opponents are never safe on top of him.

Things get even worse when he gets on top, as he does an excellent job of alternating between strikes and submission attempts while passing through offbeat positions. His ground-and-pound isn’t the type that’ll turn a man’s lights out with one blow, but it’s voluminous and powerful enough to force opponents to either deal with it or suffer a stoppage loss. The man just never stops moving or looking to finish, making for some delightful ground action.

Hoo boy, does he still have some problems, though, chief among them his striking. He’s learned to throw a decent one-two combination, but regularly insists on stepping in with naked body kicks; though it can be a solid bait to provoke a takedown, it also leaves his chin in the firing line as he compromises his height advantage and worsens his already poor defense. Kawaihae basically dropped a carpet bombing on his face before gassing out and even Lashawn Alcocks, who entered the Hooper fight with a losing record, managed to rock and drop him en route to forcing a split draw.

The second-biggest problem is that he seems unable to bring it to the mat on his own terms. I don’t think I’ve seen him hit a single takedown; he’s made do with sweeps, capitalizing on slips, and stuffing Kawaihae’s takedowns after the latter gassed. If opponents don’t oblige him, he doesn’t have the means to force grappling exchanges. With the number of quality defensive wrestlers lurking in UFC, that’s going to be a huge handicap.

Hooper has a UFC-caliber submission game burdened with sorely underdeveloped physicality, striking and wrestling. There are definitely some guys he can beat and he could very well develop into a contender given time, but anyone with decent striking and the composure to stick to a gameplan is going to wreck his current iteration.

Opponent: Hooper faces perennial underachiever Daniel Teymur, whose brother David Teymur you’re probably more familiar with. Teymur hits damn hard and showed some much-needed improvements to his grappling and cardio in his recent win over Sung Bin Jo, so while Hooper will tear him a new one on the ground, it’s a toss-up as to whether he gets it there without getting knocked cold.

Tape: His most recent bouts are on Fight Pass.

Punahele “Story Time” Soriano

Weight Class: Middleweight
Age: 27
Record: 6-0 (3 KO, 2 SUB)
Notable Victories: Jamie Pickett

Soriano, a former Division III All-American wrestler, entered “Contender Series” having never gone past the four-minute mark as a professional. Jamie Pickett proved more resilient than most, however, forcing Soriano to settle for a unanimous decision that nonetheless earned him a UFC contract.

He was originally supposed to debut in September before opponent Adam Yandiev injured his knee.

Soriano fits the “heavy-handed wrestler” mold to a tee. His preferred tactic is to crouch down and hurl haymakers with everything he’s got. It works a charm against people willing to engage, but he’s also got enough craft to deal with those who aren’t, including a well-timed and powerful counter left. What kicks he does throw are also thrown properly, though he doesn’t blend them in with the rest of his arsenal all that smoothly.

His takedown prowess is as potent as his pedigree would suggest. Good timing, good execution, good variety. His top game doesn’t seem to have caught up quite yet, though; Dominick Cruz said Soriano had good ground-and-pound while commentating his Contender Series bout, but he didn’t show much of that.

Overzealousness and cardio look to be his big issues. When he knuckles down for a donnybrook, he throws his left so hard that his head winds up in front of his lead foot, which is a great way to get your block knocked off by a capable counter-striker. He’s also so eager to slug that he neglects his jab and, if that Pickett fight was anything to go by, he still needs to learn to pace himself. He still managed to repeatedly take Pickett down after slowing down, though, so at least he knows what to do when the gas tank empties.

He’s got the background and physical tools to be a threat; I’d have preferred a little more seasoning before throwing him into the deep end, but we should get an idea of his true potential after a fight or two in the Octagon.

Opponent: Oskar Piechota is a top-notch submission artist with natural punching power, and while the way he collapsed against Gerald Meerschaert was worrying, I’m not going to hold a loss to an ATG jiu-jitsu player like Rodolfo Vieira against him. The incarnation of Soriano that appeared on “Contender Series” is probably in trouble, but this is a toss-up if Soriano fights smart.

Tape: His Contender Series bout is on ESPN+, his Titan FC bout on Fight Pass.

Remember that will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC 245 fight card this weekend RIGHT HERE, starting with the Fight Pass/ESPN+ “Prelims” matches online, which are scheduled to begin at 6:15 p.m. ET, then the remaining undercard balance on ESPN 2 at 8 p.m. ET, before the PPV main card start time at 10 p.m. ET on ESPN+.

To check out the latest and greatest UFC 245: “Usman vs. Covington” news and notes be sure to hit up our comprehensive event archive right here.