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UFC 251 - New Blood: Here come the (other) champions

UFC 251’s trio of title fights won’t be the only fights to feature champion-quality fighters. On this edition of “New Blood”, the series where I only just now realized that M-1 has a video archive on its site, we look at three champions from well-regarded organizations and a veteran on a terrific run.

Jiri “Denisa” Prochazka

Weight Class: Light Heavyweight
Age: 27
Record: 26-3-1 (23 KO, 2 SUB)
Notable Victories: Darko Stosic, Vadim Nemkov, Karl Albrektsson, Muhammad Lawal

Prochazka enters the Octagon on a 20-1-1 stretch, including 18 knockout victories and one submission. He avenged the only loss of that run last year with a knockout of “King Mo” Lawal, then scored sub-two-minute knockouts of UFC veterans Fabio Maldonado and C.B. Dollaway soon after.

Prochazka’s claim to fame is a truly ludicrous gas tank, one that I do not hesitate to name among the most impressive the division has ever seen. His 2015 victory over future Bellator top contender Vadim Nemkov was essentially a 10-minute scramble so exhausting that Nemkov bowed out in the corner, and Prochazka still had enough energy to throw down with Lawal later that night.

His striking style is built to take advantage of that cardio, and his hands-low blend of shifting, swarming punches and spontaneous jumping knees remain as explosively dangerous at the final bell as when the opening one tolls. His rematch with Lawal was perhaps his most complete performance. Indeed, he showed an effective jab, quality head movement, and an impressive ability to sneak hooks and uppercuts through the guard. Critically, he maintained this pressure-heavy attack without overextending and leaving his hips vulnerable to takedowns the way he has in the past.

Those takedowns have proven a key weakness in the past, so it’s good to see him ostensibly addressing the issue.

His key weakness — besides a seeming vulnerability to low kicks that may or may not have something to do with the fact that the people who bothered him with them were wearing shoes at the time — is that he can be too loose and flowing for his own good. That freewheeling aggression got him taken down over and over during much of his Rizin run, and though he ultimately managed to scramble free and outlast most of those opponents, that’s not a sustainable strategy in three-round fights with top opposition. His low hands also lead to a horrific one-punch knockout loss to Lawal in their first meeting as Prochazka casually walked forward, and he nearly succumbed to a rear-naked choke from Brandon Halsey after leaving his neck open while mean-mugging

If he can manage the sort of calculated chaos he utilized in the Lawal rematch, he’s a potential title contender just on the strength of that cardio. It remains to be seen how he handles top-level strikers and wrestlers, but this is a debut worth getting excited about. His kill-or-be-killed style should make for some terrific scraps no matter how things go for him.

Opponent: Prochazka has an excellent litmus test in Volkan Oezdemir, a capable and composed striker who’s been known to wrestle a bit when the situation calls for it. If Prochazka’s frantic offense proves effective against a durable, powerful, and versatile fighter like “No Time,” he’ll be an instant contender.


Roman Bogatov

Weight Class: Lightweight
Age: 29
Record: 10-0 (1 KO, 5 SUB)
Notable Victories: Raul Tutarauli, Rubenilton Pereira, Mickael Lebout

A second-round finish of former title challenger Raul Tutarauli gave Bogatov a crack at the vacant M-1 Lightweight belt Damir Ismagulov left behind on his way to the Octagon, and the Russian capitalized with a grueling decision over Rubenilton Pereira. An arm-triangle finish of Rubenilton Pereira accounted for his first defense, an injury finish of UFC veteran Mickael Lebout the second.

Suffocating grappling is the name of the game for Bogatov. Whether it’s a blast double, slick single, or relentless chain wrestling, he’s got loads of ways to drag people into his world. Once he’s gotten in on your hips, dislodging him is often a long-term effort, as he’s generally reluctant to abandon a promising shot even in the face of good initial defense.

He’s similarly skilled and effective once he completes his takedowns, boasting strong passing and an array of lethal chokes alongside his submission defense. His heavy control is particularly noteworthy, as is his knack for pulling people’s feet out from under them when they try to use the cage to stand. He’s not lost off of his back, either, and while he’s not one to posture up for monster ground-and-pound, he can be effective with short shots.

His stand up, meanwhile, is in a somewhat … interesting place. It seems as though he’s still trying to find his identity as a striker. He was a fairly conventional orthodox boxer with solid body shots, a crisp one-two combination, and a proclivity for spinning back fists up until his last fight, where he began bouncing more and constantly switching stance. It looks like he’s making it work, as his straight left proved effective, but some of his bad habits remain, most notably his defense. He doesn’t check low kicks, isn’t hard to hit, and has a bad habit of leaning too far forward that gets more pronounced as he begins to tire. In the fifth round of the Pereira fight, he was essentially just leaning forward and zombie-walking into takedown attempts; luckily for him, the Brazilian was too exhausted to take advantage.

He also lost position looking for a d’arce against Lebout, so that could be worth keeping an eye on.

Overall, Bogatov looks like a solid acquisition, even if he might struggle to make an impression in the crowded UFC Lightweight division. A bit more polish to his striking and he could be a solid Top 20/25 sort of fighter.

Opponent: He gets a rather unique challenge in Brazil’s Leonardo Santos, who makes his second appearance since 2016. While the Brazilian has had rough times with wrestlers before, he’s got one of the stronger Brazilian jiu-jitsu pedigrees in UFC and has floored his last two foes with one-punch knockouts. Bogatov’s willingness to engage on the ground and oftentimes leaky striking defense look like a bad combination, but he could theoretically exhaust the 40-year-old Brazilian if he can stay out of trouble. Either way, tough debut.


Zhalgas “Zhako” Zhumagulov

Weight Class: Flyweight
Age: 31
Record: 13-3 (6 KO, 1 SUB)
Notable Victories: Tyson Nam, Tagir Ulanbekov, Ali Bagautinov

Zhumagulov — the top Flyweight out of Kazakhstan — put together a 7-1 run in the highly regarded Fight Nights Global promotion. His last three fights saw him defeat a trio of future/former UFC competitors, winning the 125-pound title against Tyson Nam and defending it with narrow decisions over Tagir Ulanbekov and Ali Bagautinov.

“Zhako” is a 5’5” fireplug of a striker who leans on rapid bursts of haymakers, punctuated by heavy low kicks, to compensate for his lack of height and reach. Though he does have a jab, he often prefers to lead with heavy left hooks, straight/overhand rights, or uppercuts, relying on his speed and solid head movement to avoid return fire. He tends to swing all of these from the hip, especially when he has someone hurt, and has the gas tank to maintain a high output despite how hard he commits to everything.

He also knows to work the body, which I always love to see.

His wrestling, while impressive overall, is something of a mixed bag. He’ll occasionally use a double-leg when the opportunity presents itself or when he wants to seal a round, and he’s got a lovely hip throw he uses when he’s got a whizzer and opponents are too eager to drive, but he generally uses it defensively.

If someone shoots on him in center cage, he can generally deal with it unless he’s thrown himself off-balance with a wound-up punch. Issues arise on the fence, and considering his footwork weakness of backing straight up until his back hits said fence when pressured, that’s a problem. Ulanbekov found consistent success changing levels and dragging him to the mat from there despite Zhumagulov frantically hurling Travis Browne-style elbows and scooting onto his rear.

To his credit, neither Ulanbekov nor Bagautinov managed to really accomplish much from top position against him, and he seems to have a guillotine in his back pocket for extra defense. I still feel like that’s going to be a major issue for him against savvy wrestlers.

There are a lot of little things that Zhumagulov does well, like double up with his lead hand and blend punches with low kicks, but he’s held back by the footwork issues and his constant habit of overcommitting to his punches. He is, however, extremely aggressive and damn fun to watch, so I’m happy to have him around even if he never cracks the single digits.

Opponent: Zhumagulov definitely has an uphill battle against Brazilian bruiser Raulian Paiva. With a significant height advantage and the ability to keep up with Zhumagulov’s output, Paiva figures to control the striking battle, and his terrific takedown defense takes Zhumagulov’s wrestling out of the equation. Zhumagulov could outwork him, but it’ll be mighty difficult.


Maxim “Maximus” Grishin

Weight Class: Light Heavyweight/Heavyweight
Age: 36
Record: 30-7-2 (15 KO, 6 SUB)
Notable Victories: Joachim Christensen, Rodney Wallace, Jordan Johnson, Mikhail Mokhnatkin

Grishin was thrown right into the deep end in his pro career, losing five of his first 12 against the likes of Joaquim Ferreira, Shane Del Rosario, and Guram Gugenshvili. He’s an impressive 18-1-2 since falling to Kenny Garner in 2011, including a 4-0-2 stint in PFL.

He steps in for Moldovan behemoth Alexander Romanov on a week’s notice.

“Maximus” is a kickboxer with a strong 1-2, a dexterous and powerful lead leg, and some pop in his rear leg as well. It’s not the most complicated style, but it’s damn effective; the only person to beat him in nearly nine years is Magomed Ankalaev, who has a strong claim of being the top Light Heavyweight prospect in the UFC. Grishin’s hands, low kicks, and head kicks are all capable of doing real damage, and he throws his favored straight right with lovely crispness.

Like Zhumagulov above, though, Grishin tends to back straight up until his back hits the fence. He’s dangerous off the front foot, but the footwork problems compound his natural stylistic issues with pressure and present a clear avenue towards dealing with his striking. He also tends to throw his kicks from punching range, opening him up to counters.

His wrestling appears to be stout. He largely held his own in that department against Johnson, who never managed to get anything during his brief stints on top. He took Ankalaev down from a caught kick and landed a double-leg takedown in the footage I saw, so he definitely has some backup options if the kickboxing isn’t doing it for him. I haven’t seen much of his ground game, but he did score a nice RNC against Rakim Cleveland during his time in PFL.

Grishin’s power and quality fundamentals should let him get reasonably far at 205, though it’s unclear how long he has to make a run considering his age and mileage. He’s unquestionably UFC caliber at the very least.

Opponent: He’ll be stepping up to Heavyweight for a late-notice meeting with Marcin Tybura. The two have fairly similar skillsets, though Tybura has a greater focus on his wrestling, and as such I anticipate a fairly even match. I favor Tybura by a hair; Grishin has the speed and power edge, but Tybura’s size and grappling should be enough to earn him the win.

Tape: will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC 251 fight card RIGHT HERE, starting with the ESPN+/ESPN “Prelims” matches online, which are scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. ET, then the remaining undercard balance on ESPN+/ESPN at 8 p.m. ET, before the PPV main card start time at 10 p.m. ET on ESPN+.

To see the latest UFC 251: “Usman vs Masvidal” fight card click here.

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