Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) is leaning on its newcomers for its return to Russia, with half of the fights this Saturday (April 20, 2019) featuring at least one debutant. On this edition of “New Blood,” the series where I spend entirely too long digging through YouTube, we look at an elite Lightweight prospect, one of Russia’s top Bantamweights, and the “Ural Hulk,” among others.
Weight Class: Lightweight
Record: 13-1 (5 KO, 5 SUB)
Notable Victories: Takenori Sato, Júnior Assunção, Felipe Olivieri
Tsarukyan, one half of your co-main event, has not tasted defeat since his second pro fight. The current streak includes five first-round finishes and three wins over three UFC veterans, most recently a head kick knockout of Felipe Oliveiri in Aug. 2018.
The Tiger Muay Thai rep is a relentless wrestler first and foremost. Once he gets his hands on his opponent, they stay there for a while; he’s got excellent chain wrestling, great control in scrambles, and has a knack for getting to the rear waist lock and taking the back from there. He’s just damn near impossible to dislodge, even if you do manage to get back to your feet, and times his takedown entries well.
As you’d expect from someone in a camp full of phenomenal strikers, he’s getting increasingly comfortable on the feet. He’s a little too spin-happy, but has quick hands and a nice lead leg kick that felled Oliveiri. And it’s not like the spinning doesn’t work; he hurt Assuncao badly with a spinning back kick to the body and actually finished Haotian Wu with one.
Besides his overeagerness on the feet, he tends to leave himself open to submissions when shooting. Sato and Olivieri got kimura grips they were unable to finish and Assunção used a tight guillotine to sweep to mount, which would have been a major issue were there more than 10 seconds left in the round. He also has some issues passing guard; he didn’t get farther than half guard for more than a few seconds against either Assunção or Olivieri.
On the whole, though, he’s impressively polished for a 22-year-old and his wrestling alone should make a dent in the division.
Opponent: In a feat of incredibly poor prospect management, the UFC is throwing him in against Islam Makhachev, who’s won four straight in dominant fashion and should be able to match Tsarukyan’s wrestling. Tsarukyan’s more dangerous on the feet, but he’s got a serious uphill battle ahead of him.
Ivan “The Ural Hulk” Shtyrkov
Weight Class: Light Heavyweight
Record: 16-0-1 (6 KO, 6 SUB)
Notable Victories: Antonio Silva, Phil De Fries, Satoshi Ishii, Fabio Maldonado, Thiago Silva
Shtyrkov has essentially made a career out of fighting UFC veterans. In addition to those mentioned above, he’s beaten Jeff Monson and Ricco Rodriguez, plus former Bellator champion Christian M’Pumbu. He’s bounced between Light Heavyweight and Heavyweight throughout his career, most recently tapping Thiago Silva with a lovely armbar in December.
I came into this analysis expecting Shtyrkov to be a sideshow attraction, a meme waiting to happen. One could argue that he certainly was in the past; he unsurprisingly gassed to death against “Bigfoot” Silva and “Mondragon,” only for the judges to save him with a decision and a draw that even the Russian fans called BS on. Recently, though, I feel like Shtyrkov is making an effort to become a legitimate Light Heavyweight.
Where once he relied on ugly haymakers and the occasional spinning kick, Shtyrkov has recently developed a crisp switch kick and jab to go along with the power shots, mixing his head and body blows nicely. His clinch has become dangerous outside of his sheer strength, as seen in the nasty elbows he landed on Maldonado, and he’s actually learning to blend his takedowns with his striking. He seems aware of his cardio issues, as well, and has learned to pace himself.
The current Shtyrkov is a stalking power puncher who uses his body kick and body jab to close the distance and either hunt for a takedown or do damage inside. The difference between his fights with Mondragon and Maldonado was eye-popping.
The biggest red flag is still the cardio; his fights against Maldonado and Silva weren’t long enough to show us whether he’s fixed it. As far as the others, he’s flatfooted, doesn’t look to be a great ground-and-pounder, and the amount of tape on his joints in some of his fights was worrying. Still, he could have just been another Pudzianowski, but I respect his improvements.
Opponent: Shtyrkov faces “Lookin’ for a Fight” alumnus Devin Clark. “Brown Bear” has yet to live up to the potential afforded him by his athleticism, but he has a deep gas tank and the technical chops to keep Shtyrkov working. If the “Ural Hulk” can fight a full 15 minutes, this is certainly winnable; otherwise, Brown’s own wrestling attack could have Shtyrkov sucking wind before long.
Weight Class: Middleweight
Record: 8-0 (8 KO)
Notable Victories: Will Fleury, Ibrahim Mané
Amedovski, whom I believe is the first Macedonian to join the UFC, picked up five wins from 2012 to 2015 before a three-year hiatus. He returned in March of 2018, then joined Bellator for its two Italian shows and knocked out his opponents in a combined 2:01.
He steps in for injured Fight Nights champion Roman Kopylov on a month’s notice.
Any time there’s more than a few debutants, there’s bound to be one guy I can’t get a bead on. This time, it’s Amedovski, though for once it isn’t due to a lack of footage availability. His only fights in the last four years were a win over a 0-0 fighter and the Bellator fights, which didn’t last long enough to tell us anything besides the fact that he can punch. The last fight before his hiatus saw him and his opponent trade to pposition on the ground until Amedovski got the ground-and-pound finish, so his control may need work.
All said, though, everything besides his power is a question mark.
Opponent: Amedovski takes on Krzysztof Jotko, who went from top contender to afterthought after three consecutive losses. Jotko’s wrestling and length could give Amedovski fits, but Jotko’s ability to execute is in question at the moment, especially since his last two opponents knocked him out.
Weight Class: Featherweight
Record: 10-0 (3 KO, 4 SUB)
Notable Victories: Rafael Dias, Sergey Morozov, Pavel Vitruk
Evloev staked his claim as one of Russia’s top Bantamweights by winning the interim M-1 title in 2017 and unifying with the main belt three months later. He went on to pick up a pair of finishes in his next two title defenses, the sixth and seventh finishes of his professional career.
Evloev is simply an incredible young grappler whose natural punching power has an increasingly effective striking game with which to deliver it. He’s got phenomenal chain wrestling, great balance, can scramble off of his back, and has thus far demonstrated excellent submission defense. Once he’s on top, he’s position-over-submission, patiently working his way to the back and hunting for the RNC.
The wrestling’s the real highlight, though. Check out the uchi mata he landed on Dias and the slam counter.
Though he’s historically overcommitted to winging hooks, he’s shown increasingly sharp kickboxing recently. He KO’d Dias with a lovely lead right and rocked him with a tight hook early in the fight, showing that he’s a capable finisher wherever the fight goes.
The only real foible I can see right now is that he, like Tsarukyan, is over-reliant on his submission defense. He gets caught in guillotines more often than would be advisable, and he seems to prefer getting up from underneath opponents by giving up his back and slipping out the back door. He’s quick enough and has good enough timing to get away with it, but an ounce of prevention and all that.
Opponent: He was originally going to fight Muin Gafarov, but instead gets Korean puncher Seung Woo Choi. Evloev should be able to hold his own on the feet and is exponentially superior on the ground. I expect a dominant debut for Evloev.
Seung Woo Choi
Weight Class: Featherweight
Record: 7-1 (5 KO)
Notable Victories: Rocky Lee, Jae Woong Kim
Choi picked up the Top FC Featherweight title in his fifth pro fight with a knockout of Min Gu Lee, but lost it to Jae Woong Kim in just 36 seconds. After rebounding with a quick knockout four months later, he avenged the loss to Kim with a second-round finish to reclaim his belt.
He’s one of three fighters debuting on short notice, having replaced Muin Gafurov, and will be fighting for the first time since December 2017.
Choi is a straightforward slugger, fairly tall for the division at 5’11.” He generally leads with kicks of the low, front and Brazilian variety, relying mostly on 1-2s and lead right straights as far as his hands. That right hand is his most potent weapon, quick and untelegraphed, but he has a bad habit of overcommitting to both it and the standing elbow he’ll sometimes mix in. Kim KO’d him off of one of those elbows, and you can see Choi’s head swing to the outside of his lead leg when he throws. The killer instinct’s there, though, and he has enough power to make it work for him.
His ground game is an unknown quantity to me; all the footage I’ve seen was him on his feet.
As he is now, Choi is a fun action fighter who’s too limited and hittable to make a real run in the division. I can think of plenty of Featherweight hitters he would make a good dance partner for, though.
Opponent: The roughest assignment of the lot in Movsar Evloev. As I said when breaking the Russian down, Choi could have a slight edge on the feet, but it’s completely offset by the grappling difference. The South Korean is in for a rough evening.
Alex “Leko” da Silva
Weight Class: Lightweight
Record: 20-1 (13 KO, 7 SUB)
Notable Victories: None
da Silva spent a large chunk of his career in his native Brazil, but has recently entered the Eurasian scene, fighting in Bahrain, India, and Serbia in his last four fights. The India bout saw him taste his first defeat at the hands of Jakub Kowalewicz, he’s since picked up a pair of wins in four combined minutes.
He replaces Finland’s Teemu Packalén on short notice.
To explain the gaudy record: da Silva is part of Astra Fight Team, and building extensive-but-empty records is kind of their thing. Other examples include 34-1 Julio Cesar Neves and recent UFC debutante Taila Santos. That’s not to say this kid can’t fight, though; he’s fast, powerful, crazy aggressive, and has that Matt Brown knack for knowing just what to throw at close range to inflict the maximum amount of pain. In addition, he’s not as wild with his punches as I expected him to be, instead focusing on tight 1-2s to go along with his quick kicks.
Wrestling looks to be the weakness at the moment, but he’s fairly strong off of his back. His guard is active, he scrambles well, and he’s shown a nice deep half guard sweep on a couple of occasions. That said, I’m not sure how long he can maintain that grappling pace, as he visibly slowed against Kowalewicz and struggled to get off the fence late.
He’s got quite a bit of potential at a young age and could make a strong run in the UFC’s most crowded division if he continues to develop.
Opponent: “Leko” welcomes Alexander Yakovlev back to the Octagon after 2.5 years away. I expect Yakovlev to be much more effective at 155 and the Russian is both extremely durable and a quality grinder. Worse, da Silva used to be a Featherweight, while Yakovlev campaigned at 170. All that said, I’m still taking da Silva for his superior speed and striking acumen.
Rafael “Ataman” Fiziev
Weight Class: Lightweight
Record: 6-0 (5 KO, 1 SUB)
Notable Victories: None
The latest striking standout out of Tiger Muay Thai, Fiziev compiled extensive records in amateur and professional Muay Thai alongside his MMA career. He’s fought all over Europe and Asia, including South Korea, Thailand, England, and his native Kazakhstan. He was originally slated to appear on the Contender Series against Joey Gomez before running into visa issues.
Fiziev is a compact, remarkably fast, and absolutely devastating knockout artist, somewhat reminiscent of teammate Mairbek Taisumov. He’s got powerful, crisp kicks at range, especially to the legs, but does his best work in the pocket. Beyond the clinchwork you’d expect out of a Muay Thai specialist, his hands are excellent; he’ll mix up his combinations beautifully, doubling or tripling up with one hand or sneaking in elbows alongside the punches. He’s shown some nasty body shots as well.
If opponents try to initiate, he’s got quality counter hooks, and overall thrives in protracted close-range exchanges. He got some viral fame for his habit of dodging head kicks by leaning straight back, though his head movement on the whole tends to be more subtle.
The grappling is a question mark at the moment; he has a submission finish and can hold his own in the clinch, but I haven’t seen him off of his back and the one takedown attempt I’ve seen wasn’t great. He’s got training partners with excellent takedown defense, though, so I’d imagine it’s something he regularly works on.
My biggest concern actually came from one of his Muay Thai matches, a 2017 bout with Leyton Collymore. The taller Collymore had great success staying at range and potshotting Fiziev with kicks while the latter tried to march his way inside. “Ataman” did have some luck with body shots later on, but his frustration and inability to adapt to an opponent playing keep-away bodes ill.
That could have just been a Muay Thai issue, though; he was far less flat-footed in his last MMA bout. Still worth keeping an eye on.
Opponent: In a sleeper contender for Fight of the Night, he’s up against lethal finisher Magomed Mustafaev, who’s back in action for the first time since 2016. I feel as though Mustafaev’s aggression plays right into Fiziev’s hands, but the former represents a considerable step up. Expect an absolute slugfest, with Fiziev coming out on top more often than not.
Tape: His most recent bout in Titan FC is on Fight Pass
Remember that MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC Fight Night 149 card tomorrow, starting with the ESPN+ “Prelims” matches online, which are scheduled to begin at 10 a.m. ET, then the remaining main card balance at 1 p.m. ET.
To check out the latest and greatest UFC Fight Night 149: “Overeem vs. Oleinik” news and notes be sure to hit up our comprehensive event archive right here.