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UFC Vegas 17 - New Blood: 2020’s final ‘Contender Series’ trio

Dana White’s Contender Series - Martinez v Rodriguez Photo by Chris Unger/DWCS LLC/Zuffa LLC

Despite everything, UFC Vegas 17 claws its way to the finish line this Saturday (Dec. 19, 2020) with 14 13 fights intact, including some fresh faces. On this final 2020 edition of “New Blood,” the series where there’s always new frustrations to be found, we look at three “Contender Series” veterans who punched their tickets to the Octagon with impressive finishes.

All recent “Contender Series” bouts are on ESPN+ (earlier ones can also be found on Fight Pass).

Drako “The Great Drakolini” Rodriguez

Weight Class: Bantamweight
Age: 24
Record: 7-1 (2 KO, 4 SUB)
Notable Victories: Mana Martinez

Rodriguez won all 13 of his amateur bouts and his first four professional bouts before running afoul of future UFC contender, Tony Gravely, in a bid for KOTC gold. After rebounding with a pair of wins, he joined “Contender Series,” where he choked out touted prospect Mana Martinez in less than a half-round.

Back in July 2019, KOTC founder Terry Trebilcock had this to say about Rodriguez:

“This kid is not ready for the UFC. He’s 22 years old, he’s got a handful of pro fights, and he could be very, very good. He’s one of the best boxers that I’ve seen in MMA at this point. His wrestling is decent, and his jiu-jitsu is terrible. So the problem is he has the ability to get away, but he has no offensive jiu-jitsu.”

That statement isn’t entirely accurate anymore, with the exception of his striking. While much of Rodriguez’s recent footage takes place on the ground, his hands looked plenty sharp in his brief standup exchange with Martinez and he seems adept at catching kicks. In addition, his Brazilian jiu-jitsu has improved considerably. Indeed, while locking up a fight-ending triangle on Martinez as the latter tried to sweep, he showed some sweeping skills of his own against Shaine Moffitt three fights back and caught him with a nice armbar transition.

His passing and bottom game both look legitimate.

The bit about his wrestling might not be entirely wrong, though. Gravely put him through the wringer with a relentless takedown onslaught, and while Rodriguez made admirable attempts to sweep or submit, including a damn close Hail Mary triangle in the fourth, his gas tank ultimately gave out on him and allowed Gravely to pound him out. That said, Gravely is one of the best wrestlers in the division, and Rodriguez’s refusal to accept bad positions bodes well for his future.

It’s hard to get an exact bead on Rodriguez’s abilities, as Gravely was a toxic match up and his most recent available fights ended too quickly to get good data; however, what I’ve seen looks extremely promising. He’s definitely a strong addition to the Bantamweight roster.

Opponent: He welcomes Aiemann Zahabi back to the Octagon after a lengthy hiatus. Zahabi’s dangerous on the ground, but his lack of offensive wrestling should allow Rodriguez to piece him up on the feet without issue.

Tape: His fight with Martinez is on ESPN+.


Tafon “Da Don” Nchukwi

Weight Class: Middleweight
Age: 26
Record: 4-0 (4 KO)
Notable Victories: William Knight, Al Matavao

Three amateur knockouts and three professional knockouts — one of which came over “Contender Series” alum William Knight — earned Nchukwi a spot on the program. There, he met Al Matavao, whom he head kicked into oblivion in the second round.

Nchukwi is as imposing as they come, a 6’0” slab of muscle whose every strike screams “get the f—k out of the way.” He switch-hits well, bangs the body with admirable fervor, and has kicks as heavy as his hands. His favorite combination seems to be the three-two, and as seen in the Matavao fight, he does an excellent job of catching people with strikes as they try to circle out of engagements.

Despite training under a highly skilled jiu-jitsu player, Nchukwi has yet to show much of his ground game besides some remarkably stout takedown defense, which he used to shut down and ultimately finish Knight.

What holds him back at present — and which may prove the move to Middleweight unwise — is how flat-footed and ponderous he is. Besides the fact that he doesn’t check leg kicks, he’s just slow in general, which makes his middling cage cutting abilities stand out even further. I really think he’s better suited for Light Heavyweight, even without taking into consideration that he looked shredded at 204 pounds against Matavao. He’s got strength to spare, which would keep him afloat against 205 pounders, but he’s going to find it difficult to corral mobile 185 pounders.

Nchukwi certainly has the tools to make a serious impact in the Octagon; however, he’ll need to ratchet up his footwork if he wants to reach the upper echelon, though.

Opponent: He meets Jamie Pickett, a lengthy sharpshooter with some similarities to the aforementioned Matavao. Pickett’s movement could give Nchukwi issues, but the ease with which he can be backed to the fence suggests Nchukwi will level him before too long.

Tape: His CFFC bouts are on Fight Pass and his “Contender Series” bout is on ESPN+.


Jamie “Nightwolf” Pickett

Weight Class: Middleweight
Age: 32
Record: 11-4 (8 KO, 1 SUB)
Notable Victories: Jhonoven Pati

Pickett fell short in his first two “Contender Series” bids, tapping to Charles Byrd in 2017 and losing to Punahele Soriano by decision two years later. Undaunted, he knocked out Jhonoven Pati with a vicious flurry in August to secure his long-desired contract.

Standing a stringy 6’2” with an impressive 80-inch reach, Pickett does his best work at a distance, sniping with single strikes from either stance. He’s remarkably quick mobile, allowing him to circle nicely and retreat out of range when opponents fire back. Should said opponents get too eager in their pursuit, he’ll meet them with a nice check hook.

In short, he’s a massive headache when given room to operate.

Issues arise when he runs out of room, however. His cage awareness isn’t great, and as a result, he winds up with his back against the fence much more often than he can afford. He’s extremely vulnerable to strikes once there, a weakness compounded by a tendency to try and duck incoming fire with his hands low. Dedicated aggressors, even ones with less polished technique, are going to give Pickett fits.

His wrestling is a similarly mixed bag. The aforementioned issues and a tendency to lean in too far when throwing leave him vulnerable to takedowns, but he generally does a good job of getting back to his feet. Despite this, Soriano managed to keep him down and rack up a long stretch of top control, so that scrambling skill is far from ironclad. On the offensive side, he showed a well-timed double-leg against Pati, though he didn’t manage to hold him down for long.

Pickett’s fun to watch, but there’s a reason he’s only beaten four men with winning records as a professional. He won’t last terribly long in the Octagon without careful matchmaking.

Opponent: See above.

Tape: His “Contender Series” bouts are on ESPN+ and/or Fight Pass.


Remember that MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC Vegas 17 fight card this weekend, starting with the ESPN+ “Prelims” matches, which are scheduled to begin at 4 p.m. ET, then the remaining main card balance on ESPN+ at 7 p.m. ET.

To check out the latest and greatest UFC Vegas 17: “Thompson vs. Neal” news and notes be sure to hit up our comprehensive event archive right here.