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UFC 242 - New Blood: Prospects abound in Abu Dhabi

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

The Octagon hits The Arena in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, this weekend (Sat., Sept. 7, 2019) for the first time since 2014. And unsurprisingly, UFC 242 features a large contingent of international mixed martial arts (MMA) talent in tow. On this edition of “New Blood,” the series where extrapolation is the name of the game, we look at two undefeated finishers, a Georgian submission specialist, and a French late replacement.

Lerone “The Miracle” Murphy

Weight Class: Featherweight
Age: 28
Record: 8-0 (5 KO)
Notable Victories: Ayton De Paepe

Training alongside strong domestic talent like Kane Mousah, Murphy spent his four-fight amateur career and eight-fight professional run on the British circuit. His last fight in May saw him snap a two-fight decision streak with a first-round finish of Manolo Scianna under the Full Contact Contender banner.

The 5’10” Murphy, a switch-hitting striker, honestly reminds me a lot of a miniature Leon Edwards. “The Miracle” boasts a fancy array of kicks at range, lethal elbows in the clinch, and a sound wrestling game that he can bust out as needed. He also packs considerable power in his hands, as seen when he demolished Scianna with a right hand on the break, and has demonstrated decent passing, ground-and-pound, and submission defense when he ends up on top.

Murphy really doesn’t have any standout flaws — all that remains to be seen his how well his success carries over to the world level.

Opponent: Well, we’ll see real soon. Murphy welcomes Zubaira Tukhugov back to the Octagon after three years away. Before his United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA)- and UFC 229 brawl-induced hiatus (details) — Tukhugov was considered a top prospect, though he lost some luster after an underwhelming split decision over Phillipe Nover and subsequent loss to Renato Moicano. Murphy passes the eye test, but he’s heading right into the deep end. I think he can squeak it out.


Ottman “The Bulldozer” Azaitar

Weight Class: Lightweight
Age: 29
Record: 11-0 (7 KO, 3 SUB)
Notable Victories: None

Azaitar, brother of UFC Middleweight Abu Azaitar, made his name in the Brave CF promotion, where he claimed the Lightweight title in 2017 with a body kick knockout of Alejandro Martinez. Nine months later, he temporarily moved up to Welterweight to fight Danijel Kokora, whom he knocked out in little more than 30 seconds.

Azaitar is cut from a similar cloth as his brother, favoring haymaker flurries and the occasional high-amplitude slam. Honestly, though, he does a lot of things better than Abu. Beyond having more one-punch power, Ottman boasts some nasty body shots, and while he prefers to wing bombs, he’s willing to work behind his jab once he starts to slow down.

He’s still a brawler at heart, though, with all the customary weaknesses that entails. His insane aggression has gotten him dropped in the past, he’s been taken down while recklessly slinging heat, and he can’t maintain his pace for more than a couple of rounds. He did manage to put together a fight-ending, third-round assault against Martinez, but his record is dotted with first-round finishes for a reason.

Oh, and he also throws naked low kicks.

Still, while he’ll never be elite, he’s got the power and aggression to score some highlight-reel finishes against lower-level opposition. I can definitely see him carving out a place for himself among the middle of the Lightweight pack.

Opponent: Like Murphy, Azaitar gets a UFC veteran coming off of a long layoff. Teemu Packalen has been out of action since getting knocked into oblivion by Marc Diakiese in 2017. Packalen is 6’1,” standing six inches taller than the squat Azaitar, and boasts the best submission game the latter has yet faced. Azaitar’s punching power figures to be enough of a game-changer to offset that, though, especially since Packalen isn’t a particularly overpowering wrestler. Either Azaitar lamps him in the first or Packalen lasts long enough to take him down and submit him once he’s tired.

Liana “Mgeli” Jojua

Weight Class: Bantamweight
Age: 24
Record: 7-2 (1 KO, 5 SUB)
Notable Victories: Marina Mokhnatkina

The first female UFC fighter out of Georgia (the country, not the state), Jojua is unbeaten since losses in her third and fourth professional fights. Her biggest fight was also her most recent, as she challenged Marina Mokhnatkina for the Fight Nights Global Bantamweight championship. Jojua wound up upsetting Mokhnatkina, hailed as the “Russian Ronda Rousey” after four straight first-round submissions, by split decision, surviving her grappling onslaught and ultimately outlasting her.

While she does her best work on the ground and prefers to be there, she’s no slouch on the feet, using a basic-but-effective stream of low kicks and one-two combinations thrown with good technique. She dominated Mokhnatkina in the standup and looks sharp enough to hold her own even when the takedowns aren’t forthcoming.

Her grappling is what’s gotten her this far, though, and it looks to be legit — strong passing, dangerous submissions from the top and bottom, airtight submission defense, and quality sweeps. I haven’t seen much of her offensive wrestling, but she landed the one takedown I saw her try.

It’s the defensive wrestling that’s the issue right now. Much her success against Mokhnatkina came from her Russian foe prioritizing quick-kill submissions over strong top control, allowing Jojua to sweep her way out of trouble while leaning on her excellent submission defense. In the second round, when Mokhnatkina made an effort to maintain position, Jojua struggled to get off of her back. She did far better when Mokhnatkina started to slow down, though, and countered a takedown into mount in one of her previous fights.

In short, not a game-breaking issue, but one she needs to work on.

Overall, Jojua is a solid, aggressive finisher with quality skills in all areas of the game. She’s not an immediate title threat, but someone who should enjoy an above-average Octagon career.

Opponent: Sarah Moras has lost three straight, pretty much all because of the disparity between her excellent Brazilian jiu-jitsu and her sub-par wrestling. Jojua figures to at least be her match wherever the fight goes, and should ride her striking edge to a comfortable decision.


Fares “Smile Killer” Ziam

Weight Class: Lightweight
Age: 22
Record: 10-2 (4 KO, 5 SUB)
Notable Victories: Abner Lloveras, Yassine Belhadj

Ziam — who made his professional debut at 17 years old — joins the world’s largest MMA promotion on a five-fight win streak that includes four finishes. Among those he finished was The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) veteran Abner Lloveras, whom Ziam knocked out in the second March of last year.

Ziam is towering for a Lightweight at 6’1,” but though he has good jabs, crosses and leg kicks, he seems to make the best use of his frame in the clinch. He’s shown nasty elbows and, more prominently, an excellent series of trips and reaps. From further out, he prefers to shoot behind punches, usually either his jab or his straight/overhand right; if he can’t complete the initial takedown, he’s got the aforementioned clinch technique to fall back on.

His size allows him to get good leverage behind his ground-and-pound and opens up some submission opportunities. His most recent finish came via nasty palm-to-palm guillotine, though he’s also earned tapouts by rear-naked choke, arm-triangle and armbar.

He’s got a fairly complete game that uses his size well, but beyond some possible issues maintaining top control, he’s got some classic Tall Guy problems. He backs straight up when pressured and doesn’t circle out, allowing smaller and cruder opponents to find his chin. In addition, he doesn’t seem to keep a safe range when unloading, again potentially opening himself up to return fire. He’s definitely young enough to outgrow these problems, but hopefully he won’t have to get knocked out to get the picture.

A good frame for the division and the ability to at least know what he’s doing in most facets of the sport are good signs in a prospect this young. With the right training, he could develop into a strong talent.

Opponent: He’ll have to get through Don Madge first, though. The South African striker smashed expectations in his Octagon debut, demolishing the favored Te Edwards and showing off some submission chops in the process. Madge has a similar build as Ziam and is the more proven of the two, making it an uphill battle for “Smile Killer.”


Remember that will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC 242 fight card right HERE, starting with the Fight Pass “Prelims” matches online, which are scheduled to begin at 10 a.m. ET, then the remaining undercard balance on FX at 12 p.m. ET, before the PPV main card start time at 2 p.m. ET on ESPN+.

To check out the latest and greatest UFC 242: “Khabib vs. Poirier” news and notes be sure to hit up our comprehensive event archive right here.

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