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UFC on ESPN 2: New Blood - Elite prospects abound in Philly

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UFC on ESPN 2’s main event this weekend (Sat., March 30, 2019) between Edson Barboza and Justin Gaethje is a dream match up for mixed martial arts (MMA) fans; however, said fans shouldn’t ignore the rest of the card, which includes a Light Heavyweight prospect with UFC’s second-longest reach, an LFA double champion making an eight-day turnaround, and an undefeated 22-year-old prospect with a pair of brutal head kicks to her name. In this installment of “New Blood,” the series where I shake my “true MMA fan” stick at you until you listen, we take a look at a trio of elite young talents who could make immediate impacts in their respective divisions.

Kennedy Nzechukwu
Weight Class: Light Heavyweight
Age: 26
Record: 6-0 (4 KO)
Notable Victories: Anton Berzin, Dennis Bryant

Nzechukwu had just two professional fights when he stepped into the “Contender Series” cage against The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) veteran Anton Berzin, but volume and conditioning carried him to a split decision victory over the favored “Body Snatcher.” After two wins over marginal opponents on the regional scene, he returned for Season Two of “Contender Series” and made the most of his opportunity, stopping Dennis Bryant in less than two minutes with a sneaky head kick.

With Stefan Struve’s retirement, the 6’5” Nzechukwu has UFC’s second-longest reach at 83 inches. He uses that to steadily chip away at opponents with one-two combinations and other basic boxing combinations, but has recently introduced kicks to his game, which worked out quite well for him against Bryant. Though he hasn’t demonstrated an offensive grappling game, his takedown defense and ability to get back to his feet looked stout against Berzin and subsequent opponent Andre Kavanaugh.

Nzechukwu is still a work in progress after less than three years as a professional, obviously. The first big red flag is range management. Indeed, against Berzin, he was happy to plant his feet and sling one-two combinations, which would have been less of an issue if he hadn’t elected to put himself within Berzin’s reach. Berzin constantly found the mark with shots to the head and body because the stationary Nzechukwu presented an easy target, and only Berzin’s inability to maintain his pace kept him from running over Nzechukwu.

I will say that Nzechukwu looks to have at least taken steps to fix that. Against Bryant, he seemed far more cognizant of the distance and would either make short backsteps or shove Bryant away as needed when he tried to make his way inside. Some more head movement wouldn’t go awry, though.

The other red flag is the lack of venom in his punches. Though he’s improving here as well, he doesn’t seem to put his hips behind those one-two combinations he’s fond of. This could be a stylistic choice, and it did let him outlast Berzin, but it also makes it harder to dissuade opponents from absorbing the blows to step in deeper. I’d like to see him either sit down on those shots more or take the Diaz route and start mixing in body shots to further exploit that cardio edge.

Nzechukwu clearly wasn’t ready for the Octagon after the Berzin fight, but I can see him doing well — he’s already skilled enough to hold his own against low- to mid-tier UFC Light Heavyweights and will be learning on the job.

Opponent: He gets a tricky assignment, if nothing else, in Paul Craig. “Bearjew” is just 1-3 since a submission win in his Octagon debut and was literally one second away from being 0-4. Nzechukwu has the striking edge and a seven-inch reach advantage, plus the defensive wrestling and scrambling to avoid the Scot’s dangerous submission game. Craig could exploit Nzechukwu’s inexperience and is definitely the best grappler he’s ever fought, but Nzechukwu has a clear path to victory.

Tape:


Casey Kenney

Weight Class: Bantamweight
Age: 28
Record: 11-1-1 (2 KO, 4 SUB)
Notable Victories: Cee Jay Hamilton, Brandon Royval, Vincent Cachero

Kenney went 1-1 on “Contender Series,” defeating Cee Jay Hamilton, but losing a questionable split decision to Adam Antolin one month later. He took his talents back to LFA, where he captured the interim Flyweight and Bantamweight titles in quick succession.

He steps in for Kyler Phillips, who himself stepped in for Pingyuan Liu, on less than a week’s notice.

On the feet, the southpaw Kenney mixes his left hand with heavy kicks to the body and legs. Though he’s plenty capable on the front foot, he’s most effective as a counter-striker. More specifically, he’s the sort who counters as his opponent throws, rather than blocking/slipping incoming blows and then coming back with his own. This lets him catch people in the act of driving their weight towards him or, if he elects to go low, chop the lead leg while it’s planted for additional damage.

His grappling is truly exceptional. A black belt in judo for over a decade and a decorated wrestler besides, he possesses excellent timing and versatility with his takedowns. Once on the ground, he has some of the smoothest top control I’ve seen in a while. He’s a natural at “riding” opponents as they scramble, maintaining dominant position no matter how his man shrimps, bridges, rolls, or otherwise tries to escape. He’s just got this knack for navigating unconventional positions that makes him a complete nightmare to deal with.

As far as issues, his countering style means he’s often still in range when he throws, leaving him open for additional fire if his counter doesn’t land. This is especially dangerous when he counters punches with low kicks, a Justin Gaethje technique that got the latter knocked out by Dustin Poirier. His cardio is also a question mark — he faded in both of his “Contender Series” appearances, but admittedly scrambled for five hard rounds against Royval. The Royval fight was almost all groundwork while the Antolin fight took place completely on the feet, though, so it could just be that he’s got a good gas tank but isn’t as good at managing it when striking.

Opponent: In what should be a grappling enthusiast’s delight, he fights Ray Borg on short notice. This looks to be a coin toss, with the potential deciding factor being Kenney’s ability to fight hard for 15 minutes on an eight-day turnaround.

Tape:


Sabina “Colombian Queen” Mazo

Weight Class: Flyweight
Age: 22
Record: 6-0 (2 KO)
Notable Victories: Shannon Sinn, Carol Yariwaki

Mazo fought twice in 2015, took 1.5 years off, then returned with a pair of brutal first-round head kick knockouts. This got her a crack at the vacant LFA Flyweight title against Invicta veteran Shannon Sinn, whom Mazo outclassed over the course of five rounds. She was last seen defending her belt in November against Carol Yariwaki, who missed weight coming in.

Despite just turning 22 earlier this week, Mazo is remarkably composed in the cage. She’s a patient, crisp striker who works primarily behind a strong jab and right cross. She’ll tack on additional punches to the end of her one-two combination if her opponent isn’t inclined to throw back and, perhaps most impressively, mixes in her kicks extremely well. Those two head kicks weren’t flukes; Mazo’s kicks are dexterous, fast and well-disguised.

She has a Brazilian jiu-jitsu background alongside her Muay Thai pedigree, though I haven’t seen her have to use it yet. Her takedown defense has held up except for in her second professional fight, which again was back in 2015.

Her potential is sky-high, and the only thing I can really see troubling her right now besides the lack of upper body movement endemic to Muay Thai fighters is a bit of passivity off the back foot. She’s quite a bit more dangerous when opponents are willing to give ground, but I’d like to see her get more tools to force them to do so. I have seen a good intercepting knee out of her, which did wonders for someone with similar issues in Donald Cerrone, so she’s on the right track.

Opponent: Maryna Moroz was once the hot prospect Mazo is now, but has underperformed since shocking Joanne Calderwood in her Octagon debut. Mazo figures to have the edge in most areas, and should dominate so long as she can get Moroz to retreat.

Tape:


Remember that MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC on ESPN 2 fight card right here, starting with the ESPN+ “Prelims” matches online, which are scheduled to begin at 3:30 p.m. ET, then the remaining undercard balance on ESPN at 5 p.m. ET, before the ESPN main card start time at 7 p.m. ET.

To check out the latest and greatest UFC on ESPN 2: “Barboza vs. Gaethje” news and notes be sure to hit up our comprehensive event archive right here.