While the Heavyweight tussle between Curtis Blaydes and Junior dos Santos is the main attraction inside PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C., this Saturday (Jan. 25, 2020), there are several top-notch up-and-comers plying their craft, including a quartet of newbies. On this edition of “New Blood,” the series where I continue to be baffled by the prices Fite.TV charges for years-old cards, we check out three “Contender Series” alums and an all-action M-1 champion.
Also, just so I don’t have to write it each time, all the “Contender Series” bouts are on Fight Pass and ESPN+.
Jamahal “Sweet Dreams” Hill
Weight Class: Light Heavyweight
Record: 6-0 (3 KO)
Notable Victories: Dequan Townsend, Alexander Poppeck
Less than two years after his professional debut, Hill got the call to face Alexander Poppeck on “Contender Series.” Good takedown defense and sharp striking carried “Sweet Dreams” to a second-round technical knockout finish and a UFC contract. He was supposed to debut in Aug. 2019 against Da Un Jung, but ran into visa issues shortly before fight night.
Hill is still early in his professional career and is visibly learning on the job, but there’s definite promise there. He’s primarily a long-range southpaw striker, utilizing a spearing straight left and some heavy round kicks that take advantage of his 6’4” frame and 79-inch reach. He’s shown a nice jab to support those bigger blows, a willingness to work the body, and the ability to pummel and do damage in the clinch.
One major improvement I’ve seen recently is his defense. It was, in a word, lacking in his fight with Townsend, who badly hurt him more than once with some supremely ugly punches. He did a much better job managing range against Poppeck, staying patient and working from long distance until he had his man hurt.
His grappling has likewise grown immensely. In his fight with William Vincent, who came into the fight with a losing record, he repeatedly wound up in rough positions and basically just toughed his way out of a heel hook and rear-naked choke attempt. Against Townsend, meanwhile, he showed some offensive wrestling of his own, and he completely denied Poppeck’s attempts to bring him to the mat.
Overall, he’s still a bit of a greenhorn, but there’s a lot to like. Give him a couple years and we might have a contender.
Opponent: I was genuinely super high on Darko Stosic, which just made watching his mishaps at 205 pounds all the more painful. He performed well below his capabilities against Devin Clark and Kennedy Nzechukwu, and though he hits hard enough and wrestles well enough to give Hall issues, his height/reach disadvantages and underwhelming performances have me leaning toward the new guy.
Weight Class: Bantamweight
Record: 19-5 (8 KO, 3 SUB)
Notable Victories: Kody Nordby, Kris Moutinho, Ray Rodriguez
Gravely, a former high school and collegiate wrestling standout, brought a six-fight win streak and the CES Bantamweight title into his “Contender Series” bout with Ray Rodriguez. Relentless takedown and active top control resulted in a third-round ground-and-pound finish, Gravely’s seventh consecutive stoppage win.
Gravely’s wrestling pedigree is immediately apparent — he’s got some boxing chops, showing off a solid jab and good combinations, but it doesn’t take long for him to show off his rapid-fire level change and get to work from the top. He doesn’t over-rely on any specific entry, either; his takedowns are versatile and often high-amplitude, generally set up well by his punches.
His top control is similarly textbook, featuring a nice combination of balance, passing ability, and hard ground-and-pound. He’s remarkably tenacious once he has his man down, threatening with front chokes when his opponent spins to his knees and ducking right back into another takedown attempt when they manage to stand. A takedown in the early seconds can easily turn into an entire round spent stuck beneath him.
He’s shown solid takedown and submission defense against those looking to turn the tables on him. Rodriguez managed to take him down and sweep into top position, but never managed any significant offense once there. That said, Gravely’s record raises the question of how effective his game is against other strong grapplers; his three most recent losses came against ground specialists in Manny Bermudez, Merab Dvalishvili and Patrick Mix. While he doesn’t have any standout weaknesses, it remains to be seen how he’ll manage when the easy takedown isn’t there.
Even with that caveat, I still came away pretty impressed. Bantamweight’s a shark tank, but he can find a place for himself in the Top 25.
Opponent: He faces Brett Johns in something of a mirror match. “The Pikey” is reeling from losses to Aljamain Sterling and Pedro Munhoz, but has a similar skillset to Gravely and should give us an idea as to how the latter’s wrestling holds up against top-notch opposition. I’ve got this a coin flip, slightly favoring Gravely.
Tape: You can watch some of his CES fights on Fight Pass.
Nate “The Train” Landwehr
Weight Class: Featherweight
Record: 13-2 (8 KO)
Notable Victories: Viktor Kolesnik, Khamzat Dalgiev
Landwehr made his name on the Russian circuit, where he claimed the M-1 Featherweight title with a knockout of Khamzat Dalgiev in 2018. After dispatching Andrey Lezhnev in his first defense, “The Train” once again warred his way past Viktor Kolesnik to extend his win streak to seven.
The best short description I can give of Landwehr is “Diet Gaethje.” His approach generally boils down to marching forward and hurling right hands and low kicks regardless of distance or return fire. He flashes a jab every once in a while, as if to assure viewers that he knows how to throw one, but usually looks for uppercuts and winging hooks.
His problems are threefold: he’s not as cartoonishly powerful, cartoonishly durable, or wrestling-savvy as “The Highlight.” While he can definitely do damage if he connects, he doesn’t pick people off their feet with uppercuts or consistently turn out the lights with single bombs. This is a problem when he’s prone to getting wobbled or dropped by his still-conscious foes; hell, Kolesnik dropped him more than once with the same head kick during their two battles. His recovery ability generally keeps him in the fight, but as we’ve seen from Eddie Alvarez’s losses, that only works for so long.
One of the main reasons Gaethje can be so aggressive is that his takedown defense is borderline impenetrable, and though Landwehr has a decent shot, his defensive wrestling isn’t up to that level. What he does do well, however, is get back to guard and scramble back to his feet. I’ve seen plenty of striking-focused fighters either fruitlessly hunt for submissions or try to bait out a referee standup, so it’s good to see someone being proactive about it.
Landwehr’s potential peaks at “action fighter.” He won’t be challenging for a title anytime soon, but I’ll be stunned if he doesn’t get at least one “Fight of the Night” bonus during his UFC tenure.
Opponent: Landwehr has enough thump to capitalize on Herbert Burns’ iffy defense, but his habit of getting dropped or surrendering takedowns while he’s on the advance bode ill against someone with this caliber of jiu-jitsu. I’ve got “The Blaze” winning via early submission, though Landwehr probably takes it if it goes past the first.
Herbert “The Blaze” Burns
Weight Class: Featherweight
Record: 9-2 (7 SUB)
Notable Victories: Timofey Nastyukhin, Luis Gomez, Darrick Minner
Burns got off to a red-hot professional start, winning five straight in ONE FC over the likes of Honorio Banario and future Alvarez-slayer Timofey Nastyukhin. Consecutive losses to Movlid Khaybulaev and Magomed Idrisov followed, after which Burns earned a “Contender Series” slot with submissions of Aibek Nurseit and Luis Gomez in Titan FC. He kept up his finishing ways on the show with a first-round triangle finish of Darrick Minner.
Like elder brother Gilbert, Burns is an elite jiu-jitsu artist with literally world-class credentials, and he’s every bit the nightmare on the mat you’d expect. He’s shown lethal submissions from his back, the ability to take the back in a flash, and a nasty leglock attack that opens up his dangerous scrambles. He’s often happy to jump guard when the takedown isn’t there, a tactic that works in his favor more often than not, and has excellent control when in dominant position.
Unfortunately, he lacks a lot of the traits that make his brother such a monster. For one, he’s nowhere near as dangerous on the feet; he throws a decent 1-2, albeit with some overcommitment to the right hand, and has some kicks in his arsenal that he throws from too close in, but isn’t much of a power puncher and his defense is sorely lacking. I know I tend to bring up defense a lot and I regularly second-guess myself over what an “acceptable” level of defensive prowess is, but Burns genuinely gets hits way too much. Khaybulaev hurt him early, and even the free-swinging Nurseit managed to hurt him more than once.
For two, his wrestling hasn’t caught up to his submissions. Though he had an excellent reactive shot to back take against Gomez, he generally relies on pulling guard. This earned him a thumping from Khaybulaev and he was losing to Nurseit before the latter initiated his own takedown and got caught in a triangle. He’s dangerous off of his back, but not dangerous enough to make that work at the highest level.
I see Burns basically functioning as a less-effective Brian Ortega; while those willing to play his game are screwed, he lacks the means to force unwilling participants into the danger zone. He’s definitely good for a post-fight bonus or two, though.
Opponent: See above.
Tape: You can watch his Titan FC fights on Fight Pass.
Remember that MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC Fight Night 166 fight card this weekend, starting with the ESPN+“Prelims” that are scheduled to begin at 5 p.m. ET, then the main card portion that will also stream on ESPN+ at 8 p.m. ET.
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