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UFC Norfolk - New Blood: Injury means opportunity

The Ultimate Fighter: Undefeated Cast & Coaches Media Day Photo by Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

This Saturday’s (Feb. 29, 2020) ESPN+ card inside Chartway Arena in Norfolk, Va., is a wee bit dire on the name front, but that does mean a bunch of fresh faces looking to get their feet wet in the Octagon. On this edition of “New Blood,” the series where I get angrier at late-notice injuries than the people who suffered them, we look at five “Contender Series” veterans, an undefeated Brazilian Featherweight, and a highly credentialed grappler.

UFC Fight Night 169 features seven newbies this time, so you’ll have to content yourselves with quick hits. As always, everyone’s “Contender Series” bouts are on Fight Pass, as is Phillips’ stint on The Ultimate Fighter (TUF).

Norma “Imortal” Dumont

Weight Class: Bantamweight/Featherweight
Age: 29
Record: 4-0 (2 SUB)
Notable Victories: Mariana Morais

Dumont has spent the entirety of her career in her native Brazil, fighting in well-regarded organizations like Jungle Fight and Shooto Brasil. Her most recent effort saw her claim a majority decision over Invicta veteran Mariana Morais.

This will be her first fight since Aug. 2018.

I was only ever able to access one fight of Dumont’s, a 2017 clash with 0-2 Erica Leidiane, and there’s only so much you can glean from a mismatch like that. Best as I can tell, the flat-footed Dumont has some heavy low kicks, some quick head kicks, and a 1-2 she loops a bit too much. Her top control and ground-and-pound looked solid but, again, 0-2 opponent.

So, yeah, no real red flags against cannon fodder. Don’t think she has much of a chance against Megan Anderson in her debut, though; she appears to be a natural Bantamweight and faces five-inch disadvantages in height and reach. She’s got a bit of grappling know-how, which Anderson has always struggled with, but the likeliest outcome sees her taken apart at long distance.

Kyler “Matrix” Phillips

Weight Class: Bantamweight
Age: 24
Record: 6-1 (4 KO, 1 SUB)
Notable Victories: James Gray

Phillips took just 46 seconds to demolish James Gray on “Contender Series,” earning himself a spot among TUF 27: “Undefeated” roster. As Team Stipe Miocic’s first pick, his coach pitted him against Brad Katona, only for “Superman” to grapple and leg kick his way to a majority decision. He dropped a close split decision to Rizin standout Victor Henry upon his return to the paid ranks, but got back in the win column with a head kick knockout of Emeka Ifekandu.

This will be his first fight in a year, as injury scrapped a March 2019 debut against Ray Borg.

That knockout percentage is no joke — Phillips is a powerful, stalking striker, boasting a stiff jab, a nasty right hand behind it, and some heavy kicks to top it off. He rarely throws more than two at a time, but there’s generally enough heat behind everything he throws (jab included) to make him effective. For flavor, he’s also shown some strong spinning kicks, particularly one to the body that he chained into a head kick to knock out Ifekandu.

He also boasts a deep grappling game to lean on when the standup isn’t working, handily outwrestling a Josh Barnett protégé in Henry early in their fight. His strong jiu-jitsu pedigree also allowed him to find multiple dominant positions in that fight.

When he’s able to dictate the fight, he’s lethal. Katona and Henry, however, found ways around that. “Superman” zeroed in on Phillips’ reluctance to check low kicks, often throwing several in sequence to great effect, and Henry turned the tide after a rough start by simply walking down Phillips and throwing volume. “Matrix” also overcommits to his punches, leaving him open for level changes and clinches, and slowed late against Henry.

Debut opponent, Gabriel Silva — an all-offense bruiser with a stout takedown game — will be a major headache if Phillips hasn’t figured out how to deal with pressure. Phillips is still young and is showing noticeable improvement in his combination striking, though, so I favor Silva only slightly.

Darrick Minner

Weight Class: Featherweight
Age: 29
Record: 24-10 (1 KO, 21 SUB)
Notable Victories: Clay Collard, Terrance McKinney

Dispatching UFC veteran and surprisingly successful boxer Clay Collard in 31 seconds led Minner to a “Contender Series” spot opposite ONE FC veteran Herbert Burns. Despite Burns’ grappling pedigree, Minner engaged him in a ground battle, scrambling with him on fairly even terms until “The Blaze” wrapped up a triangle. Minner has since won two straight in a combined 2:30, including a first-round finish of fellow “Contender Series” alum Terrance McKinney.

He steps in for the injured Chas Skelly on less than two weeks’ notice.

Minner could best be described as a grappling glass cannon. He’s not much of a factor on the feet, usually just relying on heavy swings, but it’s enough to set up his very stout, versatile, and above all persistent takedown game. Once on the mat, it’s all about offense, whether it be his nasty elbows or his pursuit of a dominant position. What makes him entertaining is his willingness to go for technical-but-risky submissions and passes as he looks to end the fight. He’s got some go-to finishes, namely the guillotine he possesses several setups for and has used to tap 10 opponents, but he’s got a very deep bag of tricks he can lean on.

Unfortunately, you can only gamble so much. He’s been tapped seven times, more than once in a fight he was dominating with his ground skills. Fighting with a boom-or-bust style like this makes him unique and dangerous, but also limits his consistency and will almost certainly relegate him to “action fighter” status for the foreseeable future.

Though he’ll never be a contender, he’s guaranteed excitement anytime he steps into the cage. Hopefully, UFC will give him some more chances after debut opponent Grant Dawson — an extremely adept submission specialist — capitalizes on the former’s leaky defense for an early tapout.

Steve “Mean Machine” Garcia Jr.

Weight Class: Featherweight/Lightweight
Age: 27
Record: 11-3 (8 KO)
Notable Victories: Abel Cullum, Desmond Torres

A brutal first-round knockout on “Contender Series” wasn’t enough to make up for Garcia badly missing the Bantamweight limit, which likely cost him a UFC contract. Moving back up to Featherweight, he headlined an LFA show opposite Jose Mariscal, only to miss weight again ahead of a questionable stoppage victory.

He’s the latest replacement on the card, having stepped in on Monday for would-be debutant Alex Munoz.

One look at Garcia will tell you why he couldn’t make 135 pounds. I already used “hulking” in my “Prelims” post (read it), but it’s an appropriate descriptor. He’s a huge 6’0” striker, using constant front kicks to the body and a brutal straight left to do damage at range. That front kick also serves to set up his Brazilian kicked, with which he rocked Mariscal. Should opponents find their way inside, heavy level elbows and a winging uppercut are there to meet them. His whole arsenal packs eye-catching power, and he’s got strong enough takedown defense and scrambling ability to throw without worry.

Besides a willingness to throw uppercuts from too far out, which you may recall spelled doom for Junior Dos Santos in his most recent effort, there are lingering questions over how well he can perform without a ludicrous size advantage. He’ll still be a big Featherweight, sure, but he has to prove that he can hurt and physically match bigger opponents.

That’s the big concern for his debut, which comes at Lightweight against the towering Luis Peña. Without access to his customary range and size advantages, I see Garcia having an unpleasant debut, though he’s got the goods to make a decent run at 145 pounds if he can get that weight in check.

Aalon Cruz

Weight Class: Featherweight
Age: 30
Record: 8-2 (2 KO, 2 SUB)
Notable Victories: Steve Garcia Jr., Steven Nguyen

Despite entering the cage on a three-fight win streak, Cruz found himself an underdog against Steven Nguyen on “Contender Series.” Undaunted, he went back-and-forth with his favored foe for most of three rounds before putting him to sleep with a beautiful flying knee.

Another 6’0” Featherweight, Cruz sports a downright unfair 78-inch reach and knows how to use it. He’s a mobile, high-volume striker with remarkably good footwork and a wide arsenal of long-range techniques. His kicks target the legs, body and head with equal impunity, bolstered with basic-but-effective boxing that never compromises his range for the sake of power.

What really impressed me was the fact that he never really got caught on the fence against Nguyen — he angled and circled well, never moving straight back. That’s Tall Guy 101, and a lot of green fighters with his sort of build fail that course.

His grappling looks solid overall. He showed some decent takedown defense and ability to get to his feet in an older fight of his, and he had some nice entries and fake level changes against Nguyen. Plus, a post-fight report from his clash with Garcia states that he managed to get out from under “The Mean Machine” and tap him with a rear-naked choke after dropping him in return, which is a good sign. His sheer length and distance management also just generally make it difficult to get in on him.

My big concern, besides the fact that it seems fairly easy to sidestep his front kick and punch him while he’s on one foot, is the apparent lack of stopping power. Half his fights have gone the distance, and he’s clearly not putting a lot of heat behind his punches and kicks. That said, it’s a strategy that keeps him out of harm’s way, so I suppose I can’t really criticize until it stops working.

Cruz is just a solid fighter overall, maybe lacking an X-factor to overcome some of the division’s monsters but definitely UFC caliber. I see him winning his debut against the much shorter Spike Carlyle, as “The Alpha Ginger” will struggle mightily to get inside and bring his grappling to bear.

Spike “The Alpha Ginger” Carlyle

Weight Class: Featherweight
Age: 26
Record: 8-1 (4 KO, 3 SUB)
Notable Victories: Fernando Padilla, Matthew Colquhoun

Carlyle spent nearly six years in the amateur ranks, amassing a 9-5 record before turning pro in 2017. He enters the cage this Saturday on a four-fight win streak, including a spinning back fist knockout in his LFA debut.

He is the last of the late replacements, stepping in for Steven Peterson on about three weeks’ notice.

Carlyle is frustratingly short on recent footage that isn’t stuck behind a paywall. What I did find showed a super-aggressive grappler, one boasting a Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt and Judo black belt according to the announcers. He sports some nice kicks on the feet, but is all about getting an early takedown, adapting his shot as necessary in response to his opponent’s defense. His passing and ground-and-pound looked strong in an older fight, and he had the presence of mind to land a spinning back fist after getting sprawled on against Colquhoun.

On the downsides, he had a lot of issues closing the gap against the much taller Calhoun, rushing in behind overhand rights and telegraphing his entries. He’s not a small Featherweight at 5’7,” but he’s definitely going to run into plenty of fighters he can’t easily get a grip on, debut foe Aalon Cruz being one of them.

It’s not much of an analysis, but I didn’t have much to work with.

T.J. “Downtown” Brown

Weight Class: Featherweight
Age: 29
Record: 14-6 (4 KO, 9 SUB)
Notable Victories: Peter Barrett, Dylan Lockard

Brown, who went 6-0 (1 NC) during his amateur days, picked up three consecutive first-round finishes en route to a “Contender Series” appearance opposite Dylan Lockard. Despite dropping from a clean one-two combination in the early going, Brown used strong positional grappling to work his way back into the fight and ultimately earn a contract via third-round arm triangle.

“Downtown” looks to be something of a complete package. On the feet, he’s a quick switch-hitter with a quality jab and robust kicking game. On the wrestling side, he’s got a wide and effective arsenal of takedowns, including a wild rolling leg pick he used to great effect on Lockard. On the ground, he’s got passes, submissions and a steady diet of short elbows to open them up.

Of particular note are his scrambling skills and ability to get off of his back. Lockard had plenty of early wrestling success, but Brown consistently swept and avoided submissions on his way to securing top control. It wasn’t just one or two go-to escapes, either; Brown showed the ability to get out of multiple bad positions with multiple approaches. He’s going to be a nightmare to hold down.

Fragility seems to be what’s holding him back. He has suffered three knockout losses and his most recent submission defeat was a club-and-sub courtesy of a jab. It sucks, because he’s razor-sharp and super entertaining wherever the fight goes, but that jaw will almost certainly determine his ceiling.

It’s also what makes his debut against Jordan Griffin risky. Brown’s the cleaner kickboxer, the more technical wrestler, and has the skill to keep up with “The Native Psycho’s” high-speed scrambling. At the same time, Griffin’s so damn aggressive that any stray shot could potentially spell doom for “Downtown.” I’ve still got Brown winning, but he can’t afford to slip up even once.

Remember that will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC Fight Night 169 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.

To check out the latest and greatest UFC Fight Night 169: “Benavidez vs. Figueiredo” news and notes be sure to hit up our comprehensive event archive right here.

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