Between the last-second fights and the constant need for replacements, this “Fight Island” finale this weekend (July 25, 2020) inside Flash Forum in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, has produced a quintet of newcomers. On this edition of “New Blood,” we check out three standout Brits, a German all-rounder, and a capable Combate Americas veteran.
As an aside, most of the Cage Warriors bouts mentioned can be found on UFC Fight Pass.
Rhys “Skeletor” McKee
Weight Class: Welterweight
Record: 10-2-1 (7 KO, 3 SUB)
Notable Victories: Jai Herbert, Tim Barnett
McKee spent much of his early career in BAMMA, claiming the Lightweight title before losing it in a champion vs. champion match with Welterweight kingpin Terry Brazier. He then took his talents to Cage Warriors, scoring a pair of first-round knockouts and a third-round power guillotine submission of Perry Andre Goodwin.
He joins the card on a week’s notice.
The 6’3” “Skeletor” is an aggressive, busy puncher who works behind ceaseless volleys of jabs. When he decides to commit to power shots, he’ll often shift his way forward with lengthy combinations, though he’ll just as easily fire off a low kick or one-two combination. Despite his skin-and-bones frame, he packs some remarkable power in those hands; indeed, he put Jai Herbert to sleep while chasing him and floored his last opponent with a jab. Though not your prototypical rangy keep-away fighter, you don’t want to get too comfortable trading with him.
That said, he’s got a laundry list of deficiencies in his stand up, chief among them the fact that his defense practically doesn’t exist. He brings his punches, including that constant jab, back low, leaving his chin wide open. Combine this with his tendencies to blitz into the pocket without moving his head and linger there with feet planted after throwing and you’ve got a guy who’s painfully easy to counter. Perry Goodwin — a full five inches shorter than McKee — blasted him over and over and over again as “Skeletor” tried to press the advantage; backing to the fence, planting your feet, and just hurling the left hook every time McKee twitches forward is a genuinely valid strategy.
He’s got a chin and a gas tank, but that’s just not sustainable, especially not now that he’s campaigning 15 pounds higher than before. Also, as added bonuses for opportunistic foes, he doesn’t check leg kicks and has a predictable habit of dipping his head under pressure, leaving him vulnerable to uppercuts and knees.
His grappling is overall middling with a couple of nice tricks. Though not a great takedown artist, he’s got this sneaky little foot sweep after isolating a leg that seems to work well. While vulnerable to takedowns in return due to his aforementioned inability to manage range, he’s generally difficult to hold down and has a dangerous power guillotine that his long arms make particularly effective. His most recent loss did come from getting controlled for three rounds, though, so particularly dedicated wrestlers look like a problem for him.
McKee’s still young and has the physical tools to be a contender. Unfortunately, the current iteration of him is just too easy to hit and control. He might be good for some fun brawls or to take out low-level Welterweights, but I honestly just hope he doesn’t take too much damage.
Opponent: He is going to take quite a lot of damage from Khamzat Chimaev, who hits hard enough to blow McKee away on the feet and wrestles well enough to completely dominate on the mat. McKee’s only hope is that the late-notice cut to 170 pounds taxes “Borz’s” cardio enough for the former to tank an early mauling and come on strong later.
Jai “The Black Country Banger” Herbert
Weight Class: Lightweight
Record: 10-1 (8 KO, 1 SUB)
Notable Victories: Jack Grant, Cain Carrizosa
Herbert bounced back from a knockout loss to Rhys McKee with six consecutive wins, five of them inside the distance. His five Cage Warriors appearances saw him knockout Jack Grant for the promotion’s Lightweight title and lay out UFC veteran Cain Carrizosa in his first defense four months later.
He was expected to debut against fellow BAMMA veteran Marc Diakiese in March before the coronavirus intervened.
Standing remarkably light on his feet, the 6’1” Herbert bounces around the cage landing crisp jabs and nasty straight rights behind them. He puts his boxing combinations together quite nicely, doesn’t neglect the body, and has some truly vicious knees when forced to engage in the pocket. Stout cardio allows him to rack up impressive volume and take increasing control of as the bout progresses.
That footwork can often work against him, however; because he doesn’t have a strong base, his straight punches tend to carry him into his opponents’ punching range and leave him vulnerable to return fire. In addition, he’s prone to backing into the fence when pressured, once again compromising his height and reach.
These flaws likewise compromise his defensive wrestling. Capitalizing on his momentum for a reactive takedown or backing him against the fence before changing levels have both proven historically offensive. Plus, though he’s decent at using his lanky frame to wriggle out of trouble once taken down, he’s been mounted more than once in his recent bouts. His cardio allows him to outlast opponents who can’t keep him on the mat, but top-notch top control artists look poised to have a field day.
Despite his shortcomings, Herbert’s a very capable striker who should do fairly well for himself in the Octagon. There’s still a lot of work to be done before a title run’s in the picture, though.
Opponent: Herbert will have considerable edges in height, reach and technical striking over “Massaranduba” Trinaldo. Unfortunately for him, the Brazilian’s got effective pressure striking and oft-underutilized wrestling with which to capitalize on Herbert’s range issues. He could get the upset, especially if Trinaldo’s age catches up to him, but I see him starting his Octagon career 0-1.
Weight Class: Heavyweight
Record: 7-2 (5 KO, 2 SUB)
Notable Victories: None
Aspinall left mixed martial arts (MMA) in 2016 to try his hand at professional boxing, where he picked up a knockout victory. He made his return to the cage last year with two (technical) knockout victories in a combined 2:17.
He was originally slated to debut in March, but you can guess what happened there.
At 6’5” and weighing in at more than 240 pounds, Aspinall is certainly a natural Heavyweight. He’s far from just a physical threat, however; the big man is a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt with plenty of competitive grappling experience and serves as the BJJ instructor at Team Kaobon Liverpool, which has produced the likes of Darren Till and Mike Grundy. Though his takedown defense failed him in a 2015 loss to EFC mainstay Stuart Austin, he’s dangerous off of his back and showed a good sprawl in more recent matches with lesser competition.
He’s no less a threat on the feet, even if you can safely disregard his boxing victory due to it coming against a guy with a 12-20-1 record. Powerful low kicks and surprisingly fast hands make him a legitimate finisher. It’s not the most complex kickboxing offense, relying on basic jab/cross/hook combinations, but the technique and power behind them are extremely effective.
Though his most recent victories were too quick to glean any useful information from, Aspinall is easily the most promising British Heavyweight to join UFC since Alistair Overeem. Indeed, well-rounded skills and serious physical gifts make him one to watch.
Opponent: Aspinall welcomes Jake Collier back to the Octagon for the first time since 2017. “The Prototype” was a middling Middleweight who became a middling Light Heavyweight in his last two fights; if Aspinall is even half of what I think he is, he should absolutely demolish Collier.
Niklas “Green Mask” Stolze
Weight Class: Welterweight
Record: 12-3 (4 KO, 5 SUB)
Notable Victories: Omar Jesus Santana
Stolze has spent the entirety of his six-year professional career on the European circuit, largely fighting in his native Germany. He’s 4-0 with four finishes since an 0-2 run in BAMMA, scoring three of those wins by stoppage.
He replaces would-be debutant Shavkat Rakhmonov on short notice.
I’m not sure if Stolze has a karate background, but that’s the impression I get from his stand up, which comprises largely straight punches and versatile kicks. His right hand looks to be his most potent weapon, though he’s capable of striking from either stance. Also of note is his ability to strike his way into takedown attempts, particularly with that fast and powerful lead right.
On the offensive wrestling side, he’s shown a nice outside reap alongside the aforementioned double-leg. Defensively, he’s fairly solid, though he did struggle against BAMMA standout Terry Brazier and appeared to fade late under the constant takedown onslaught. His overall submission skills likewise look decent, primarily the rear naked choke that’s accounted for his last three tapout wins. He did seem a little overeager to try to heel hook his way out of danger against Brazier, though.
Overall, he’s somewhat unspectacular but hasn’t shown a major weakness. I can definitely see him hanging around the middle of the Welterweight pack alongside the likes of Alex Morono or Nicolas Dalby.
Opponent: Stolze’s generalist style may not do him many favors against Ramazan Emeev, who despite a limited striking arsenal and lack of speed is an extremely effective grinder. Stolze’s fine if he can keep it standing, but that seems like too tall a task.
John “Sexi Mexi” Castaneda
Weight Class: Bantamweight
Record: 17-4 (6 KO, 6 SUB)
Notable Victories: Gustavo Lopez, Chris Beal, Cheyden Leialoha
Castaneda turned in a strong effort on “Contender Series,” but failed to find a finish or secure a UFC contract against Cheyden Leialoha. He picked up two more wins in Combate Americas before dropping two straight, but managed to return to the win column with a submission of Marcelo Rojo in April 2019.
He replaces Umar Nurmagomedov on short notice.
Castaneda blends a top-notch wrestling pedigree with an aggressive, shift-heavy striking style. Though he generally stands southpaw, he constantly switches stance as he presses forward with combinations, often leading with the straight left before firing a straight right with his left foot now in the lead. His right hook looks particularly effective, but both hands are capable of dishing out damage.
While his wrestling is more traditional, it’s also quite effective and fun to watch. Whether reactive or set up with his swarming offense, his takedowns are technically sound and lead to a solid passing, striking, and submission game from the top. Plus, if he ends up on his back, he’s constantly looking to stand up rather than waste time chasing submissions.
With all these skills, Castaneda seems like a shoo-in to become a legitimate contender. Sadly, he completely falls apart when forced to retreat. He backs straight up with his hands down, leaving him wide open to committed pursuers throwing lengthy combinations. He seems particularly vulnerable to body shots, and giving ground the way he does also makes it more difficult to deal with takedowns once he hits the fence.
He’s not free of problems on the front foot, either. In his most recent loss — a questionable split decision against Jose Alday — he had trouble keeping his lead right foot on the outside of the orthodox Alday’s left foot, limiting his ability to land the straight left.
Castaneda’s UFC success will come down to matchmaking, and I’m not talking about fighting “good” or “bad” opponents. Fighters with the wherewithal and skill to keep him on the back foot will find considerable success, while the ones willing to give ground will struggle. We’ll see how the matchmakers handle him.
Opponent: He’s definitely not getting a gimme to start things off. Nathaniel Wood has the power and wrestling to seriously trouble Castaneda, and while “The Prospect” has proven a tad chinny, he should be able to bully the “Sexi Mexi” for a comfortable decision win.
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