clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

UFC 254 - New Blood: Prospects galore on ‘Fight Island’

UFC 254 needed only a moderate amount of finagling to keep intact, but that still means a number of top-notch newcomers getting their shots at the big time. On this edition of “New Blood,” the series where I expect you to get excited about fighters you’ve never heard of, we check out five prospects with the potential to become Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) contenders. Since there’s five of ‘em, we’re going with quick hits.

As always, all “Contender Series” bouts can be found on ESPN+ and/or Fight Pass.

Phil “Megatron” Hawes

Weight Class: Middleweight
Age: 31
Record: 8-2 (6 KO, 2 SUB)
Notable Victories: Khadzhimurat Bestaev

Once tabbed as a potential superstar after a 4-0 amateur career and 3-0 professional start, Hawes’ prospects appeared to evaporate after losses on The Ultimate Fighter (TUF), World Series of Fighting (WSOF) and “Contender Series.” The Hard Knocks 365-trained product has since bounced back with four consecutive first-round finishes, among them a 78-second knockout of Khadzhimurat Bestaev on “Contender Series” just last month.

It’s not hard to see why Hawes generated so much buzz. He’s a physical monster who won a junior college wrestling national title while attending the same school that produced Jon Jones. In the cage itself, he’s got a heavy right hand, brutal kicks, and a remarkably sharp jab to go along with that wrestling prowess. That right hand can be loopier than it needs to be, but he times it brilliantly, especially on the counter (it twice dropped his recent Bellator foe and spelled the end for Bestaev).

So why all the losses?

The answer seems to be his difficulty actually setting up his wrestling and completing takedowns. Andrew Sanchez largely shut down his grappling and out-worked him on the feet on TUF, Louis Taylor did much the same before catching him in a guillotine in WSOF, and Julian Marquez forced Hawes into panicked takedowns before kicking him in the face on “Contender Series.” He seems to have turned a corner on his striking, but he’ll need to demonstrate an ability to actually blend it with his takedowns if he wants to be a contender.

He also appeared to slow down a bit against Marquez, but that may have been a product of the same flurry that forced him into pure wrestling mode.

His UFC debut is absolutely more of a challenge than the odds indicate. Jacob Malkoun is the better boxer and is no slouch on the ground. Meanwhile, I slightly favor Hawes on the strength of his kicking game, but this one’s a coin flip. If he can beat Malkoun convincingly, the hype train is back on the rails. Indeed, a Hawes firing on all cylinders is an immediate contender.

Tape: You can find his recent fights on ESPN+ and Bellator’s website.

Jacob Malkoun

Weight Class: Middleweight
Age: 25
Record: 4-0 (2 KO)
Notable Victories: None

Australia’s Malkoun has enjoyed considerable success in multiple combat sports, including amassing a 3-0 boxing record and successfully qualifying for ADCC 2019. He’s yet to taste defeat as a professional or amateur in mixed martial arts (MMA) and was last seen taking a dominant decision over Sebastian Temesi in Oct. 2019.

Recent footage suggests that Malkoun’s boxing is the star of his game. He’s got a razor-sharp jab that he doubles up or pairs with a sneaky lead hook to keep opponents guessing, throws quality combinations to the head and body, and does an excellent job of slipping just out of range of return fire. There’s obvious speed and power in those hands, which are supported by effective kicks from both sides.

Should he decide to forgo the stand up, he’s a strong, versatile wrestler. Interestingly, despite that ADCC pedigree, he looks like more of a ground-and-pounder than a submission specialist, as he uses his quality top control to land steady, powerful punches. He’s not lost off his back, either, as he quickly threatened a guillotine and then stood when his last foe caught a head kick for a takedown.

I really don’t see a flaw in Malkoun, and with a main training partner like Robert Whittaker, he might have the potential to be Australia’s “Next Big Thing” in the Octagon. That said, he’s in for a tough debut against Hawes, as outlined above.


Liliya Shakirova

Weight Class: Flyweight
Age: 28
Record: 8-1 (3 KO, 1 SUB)
Notable Victories: None

Shakirova — the second Uzbek to join UFC after Middleweight contender Makhmud Muradov — does so in the midst of a three-fight win streak. Two of those three came inside the distance, including a ground-and-pound finish almost exactly one year ago.

She steps in for Cynthia Calvillo on a week’s notice.

A freestyle wrestling veteran who found success on the international level, Shakirova’s grappling pedigree looks like it made the transition to the cage intact. She’s a powerful, highly technical takedown artist who can shoot well from either stance, and once she gets on top, she’s all about doing damage. Good passing, solid riding and steady punching output make opponents’ lives miserable as they try to get out from underneath her.

Her stand up is, perhaps unsurprisingly, still a work in progress, though it’s definitely better than it was in her one professional loss. She throws fast kicks and a decent one-two combination from both orthodox and southpaw, but she stands so square that she’s worryingly vulnerable to head shots. She also tends to lean in too far when throwing her power hand, which could spell trouble if an opponent’s already preparing a knee or uppercut for her level change.

If she can clean up her striking and fix her tendency to wait until late in the round to actually shoot, she’s got the tools to be a Top 10 Flyweight. Debut opponent Lauren Murphy will be a real test, however, sporting superior striking and some wrestling chops of her own. This looks like a bit too much, too soon for Shakirova, but she’s more of a live dog than the odds would suggest.


Shavkat “Nomad” Rakhmonov

Weight Class: Welterweight
Age: 25
Record: 12-0 (7 KO, 5 SUB)
Notable Victories: Jun Yong Park, Daniil Prikaza

Rakhmonov’s sixth fight under the M-1 banner saw him take on Daniil Prikaza for the Welterweight belt and claim it with a brutal ground-and-pound assault. He made his first defense three months later, again using ground strikes to dispatch Brazil’s Tiago Varejao late in the first round.

This will be his third attempt at an Octagon debut after March and July dates fell through.

Though a lanky Welterweight at 6’1,” Rakhmonov’s strongest skills are his wrestling and ground-and-pound. His quality takedown defense, admittedly hampered a bit by his trigger-happy guillotine, and impressive clinch takedown arsenal mean he’s usually the one to end up in top position, and he’s genuinely scary from there. That long frame of his allows him to deliver genuine knockout punches from full guard and he’s got the submission defense to throw with impunity.

You do not want to get caught underneath his man.

That’s not to say that he’s lost on the feet, as he boasts a decent jab, heavy and versatile kicks, and effective knees to go along with good counter timing. He is, however, definitely more vulnerable standing than on the mat. He stands so tall that he can leave his chin open and off-balance himself when throwing boxing combinations, a defensive weakness compounded by a tendency to back straight up. He actually got sparked clean out by an overhand right from Faridun Odilov two years back, though he ultimately managed to survive.

To his credit, he is getting better at actually using his reach to stay out of the line of fire, and he’ll absolutely need it to survive his Octagon debut against late-notice replacement Alex “Cowboy” Oliveira. Rakhmonov has the higher ceiling of the two and should be able to take over if he can get past the first round, but Oliveira won’t make it easy for him.


Miranda “Fear The” Maverick

Weight Class: Flyweight
Age: 22
Record: 7-2 (5 SUB)
Notable Victories: Pearl Gonzalez, DeAnna Bennett

Maverick — who made her professional debut in Invicta at just 19 years old after a 7-1 amateur career — earned three consecutive victories before hitting a 1-2 skid. She hasn’t tasted defeat since, winning Invicta’s Phoenix Series 2 tournament with a revenge submission of DeAnna Bennett and defeating UFC veteran Pearl Gonzalez this past February.

She was slated to debut against Mara Borella in June, but ultimately withdrew.

Maverick was a standout wrestler in high school, even competing on the men’s varsity team her senior year, and her takedown game is as potent as you’d expect. She’s got a strong double-leg, a nice inside reap in the clinch, and excellent scrambling ability, especially when looking to take the back. Her submissions are up to snuff as well, from her vicious rear-naked choke squeeze to a dangerous armbar/triangle series should she end up on her back.

On the striking side, she’s solid enough. She puts together slick combinations, blending her kicks and punches together nicely, and her good sense of range keeps her effective on the counter. She does, however, have a tendency to lead with naked kicks that’s gotten her taken down on multiple occasions. While she does do a good job of threatening from guard and getting to her feet, it’s a habit she’ll want to break.

Overall, she’s extremely promising and remarkably seasoned at an extremely young age. She’s also way, way too much for debut opponent Liana Jojua, whom she out-classes in every conceivable category. In the end, expect a dominant win and potentially a finish.


Remember that will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC 254 fight card right here, starting with the early ESPN+ “Prelims” matches online, which are scheduled to begin at 10:30 a.m. ET, then the remaining undercard balance on ESPN 2/ESPN+ 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 254: “Khabib vs. Gaethje” news and notes be sure to hit up our comprehensive event archive right here.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for the MMA Mania Daily Roundup newsletter!

A daily roundup of all your fighting news from MMA Mania