COVID-19 has already taken a chunk out of UFC’s 20201 schedule, opening the door for quite a few Octagon hopefuls. On this edition of “New Blood,” the series where there’s just never enough tape, we look at seven promising newcomers.
Gaetano “El Tigre” Pirrello
Weight Class: Bantamweight
Record: 15-5-1 (11 KO, 3 SUB)
Notable Victories: Joziro Boye
Belgium’s Pirrello enters UFC’s cage having won five of his last six, four of them via first-round finish. His last two fights have lasted a combined 5:24, as he stopped Percy Herrera on a cut and crushed Enzo Maria Iezzi with a knee to the body one year later.
He steps in for Brian Kelleher, who tested positive for COVID-19, on less than two weeks’ notice for his first fight since Oct. 2019.
Pirrello is your prototypical Thai-style striker. He flat-footedly advances in a square stance, hands held high, and looks to punch his way into the clinch with one-two combinations. Once there, it’s a storm of knees and level elbows until his opponent manages to escape, after which it’s back to the one-two combinations, Superman punches and solid leg kicks. If he finds an opening for a specific technique, he’ll happily throw it several times in a row, and there’s some real danger in all eight limbs.
Where Pirrello struggles is when his opponent refuses to give ground. In their rematch, Joziro Boye discovered and mercilessly exploited the fact that Pirrello is extremely vulnerable to return fire after throwing his right hand. Boye caught him over and over with catch-and-pitch left hooks, ultimately knocking him out in the second round. “El Tigre” is exponentially less dangerous when he can’t impose his will.
Though he sports some submission losses, his takedown defense is stouter than it appeared on first glance. He’s got very good timing when dealing with level changes, either stiff-arming them away or responding with hard knees. His own takedowns aren’t too shabby, either, giving him an out if things go pear-shaped on the feet.
His actual ground game isn’t quite as stout. He struggled badly to do much off of his back when Boye timed a shot under Pirrello’s spinning elbow, and when he ends up on top himself, he doesn’t seem to have any real plan besides standing over his opponent until he decides to let them up. There’s a reason his only submission in the last nine years came over a guy who’s now 0-7.
Pirrello’s a fun, powerful striker with the misfortune of being in an incredibly deep division. I see him maintaining around a .500 record near the middle of the pack.
Opponent: He meets the lethal, but chinny, Ricky Simon. Pirrello has more than enough firepower to put Simon to sleep, but the latter’s insane takedown onslaught and strong ground game look like more than Pirrello can handle.
Francisco “Sniper” Figueiredo
Weight Class: Bantamweight
Record: 11-3-1 (3 KO, 7 SUB)
Notable Victories: Manoel dos Santos, Fabricio Sarraff
Figueiredo, elder brother of UFC Flyweight kingpin Deiveson Figueiredo, ran into future UFC contender John Lineker and Bellator standout Luis “Betao” Nogueira within his first eight fights. He’s 5-1-1 in the eight years since, winning the interim Jungle Fight title in 2018 and drawing with former vanquisher Eduardo Souza his next time out.
Full disclosure: among his recent bouts, I only found footage of the Souza rematch, so I’ll be basing all of my analysis on that.
The brothers’ different nicknames reflect the differences in their fight styles; where “Deus da Guerra” is a whirlwind of wild violence, “Sniper” is a more patient sort. With hands low and torso upright, he steadily stalks his opposition from either stance, landing potshots where he can and slipping just out of reach of return fire with quick back steps. From Southpaw, his body kick and Brazilian kick are particularly effective, while his best orthodox weapons are his jab and his lead hook to the body.
Where he and Deiveson do overlap is in the defensive issues. Figueiredo always keeps his hands low, even when fatigue robs him of the footwork needed to avoid punches. Souza managed to land a worrying number of power shots on him in the second round, leaving Figueiredo to just zombie-walk his way forward in pursuit of his own offense. Worse, he’s highly vulnerable to low kicks, which can make him an even easier target.
Though not as fearsome on the ground as his finishes would suggest, as those submissions came against bottom-of-the-barrel opposition, he looks like a solid grappler. In addition to generally strong takedown defense and the ability to get off his back, he’s good at catching kicks and turning them into his own takedowns. Unfortunately, he didn’t do much on top against Souza, so it’s hard to get a firm idea of how good he is from there.
I don’t expect Figueiredo to make anywhere near the sort of run his brother pulled off — he doesn’t hit hard enough to make up for his enormous defensive liabilities and the fact that he gassed halfway through a fairly medium-paced fight last time out bodes ill. He’ll most likely snag himself a bonus or two before long, at least.
Opponent: Figueiredo meets the towering Jerome Rivera, who narrowly scraped past Luis Rodriguez on “Contender Series” before falling to Tyson Nam in his debut. The bookies have it essentially 50/50, which looks about right. That because Figueiredo’s the bigger hitter and likely the better wrestler, but Rivera’s volume and low kicks could very easily spoil the Brazilian’s debut. Either way, it should be plenty of fun.
Victoria “Fury” Leonardo
Weight Class: Flyweight
Record: 8-2 (1 KO, 4 SUB)
Notable Victories: Chelsea Hackett, Stephanie Geltmacher
Leonardo entered Invicta’s second Phoenix Series tournament on a four-fight win streak, only to fall to Miranda Maverick in the opening round and suffer a head kick knockout to Erin Blanchfield in her next official fight. After bouncing back with a decision over Liz Tracy, she met Aussie striking ace Chelsea Hackett on “Contender Series,” surviving a few rough patches to pound her out and claim a contract in the process.
Leonardo could best be described as a rugged generalist. On the feet, she’d usually content to circle nicely and work behind her jab, occasionally following up with a loaded-up right hand or awkward side kick. She also boasts a solid check hook and can do well with her more traditional kicks. Unfortunately, her stand up is hampered by a serious flaw: hand positioning.
When “Fury” throws a punch, her other hand will be at her ribs or lower, and she brings the attacking hand back low. Blanchfield exploited this habit to brutal effect, cracking her at least three times with the same left high kick. You can see her trying to do a better job of keeping her hands high in recent efforts, but the habit crops up when she starts to unload.
Not a great issue to have, especially when her head movement isn’t particularly sharp.
Luckily for her, her grappling lacks any such handicap. Both her offensive and defensive wrestling are solid, the latter maybe a bit more than the former, and has shown good timing when changing levels or stopping level changes. Though not an overpowering control artist, the Hackett fight showed the sort of damage she can do from the top. Should she end up on her back, she’s capable with both sweeps and submissions.
I don’t see Leonardo cracking the elite, but I can definitely see her finding a place for herself just outside the Featherweight Top 15.
Opponent: She was going to face Brazilian debutante Natalia Silva, but instead faces French standout Manon Fiorot. Fiorot just seems to out-class Leonardo on the feet and is more than capable enough in the wrestling to keep it there. Expect Fiorot to take her apart from long range.
Tape: Her Invicta fights are on Fight Pass, her “Contender Series” appearance on ESPN+.
Manon “The Beast” Fiorot
Weight Class: Flyweight
Record: 5-1 (4 KO)
Notable Victories: Corinne Laframboise, Amanda Lino
After dropping a narrow decision to Leah McCourt in her professional debut, Fiorot took her talents to South Africa, where she won EFC’s reality show “The Fighter” before beating Amanda Lino for their Flyweight title. She then transferred to UAE Warriors, scoring three consecutive knockouts and securing its title as well in the process.
She steps in for Natalia Silva on just under a month’s notice.
Fiorot is one of the most promising fighters to join UFC’s women’s Flyweight division in quite some time, being a decorated and lethal striker with remarkably strong wrestling. Her standup calls to mind Holly Holm or Valentina Shevchenko; she’s extremely mobile, utilizing constant side kicks to keep opponents at bay until the opportunity arises to land a counter straight left/check hook, fire a heavy rear-leg kick, or step in with straight punches.
Where she differs from those two is in her stopping power. Fiorot hits hard; though not a murderous one-shot artist, she laid absolute beatings on her last three opponents, badly bloodying the first two and dropping the third with a point-blank right hand. She’s also a more active striker than those two, pushing the issue even if her opponents don’t walk into her counters.
While wrestling issues led to her only pro defeat, both that and her scrambling looked sharp even in her debut. Beyond her excellent takedown defense, she’s more than capable of taking it to the ground herself, and she does a great job of improving position when opponents try to bridge. For being so young in her MMA career, she’s incredibly seasoned in that area.
If it wasn’t obvious, I’m extremely high on Fiorot. Basically the only issue I can find is that she’s vulnerable to return fire when leading with punches. Even with that weakness, expect her to crack the Top 15 before long.
Opponent: See above.
Mason “The Dragon” Jones
Weight Class: Lightweight
Record: 10-0 (4 KO, 3 SUB)
Notable Victories: Adam Proctor, Joe McColgan
Jones — the latest Welsh standout to join UFC — claimed the Cage Warriors Lightweight titles last March, knocking out Joe McColgan in the first round. Six months later, he moved up to 170 pounds to challenge Adam Proctor for the vacant title, ultimately stopping him in similar fashion in a back-and-forth war.
Like countrymen Brett Johns and Jack Shore, Jones can hold his own wherever the fight ends up. He’s a busy combination striker on the feet, utilizing effective footwork, a sharp jab, and a solid ability to mix his strikes to the head, body, and legs. When he’s dialed in, there’s a lot to like about his standup; alongside his overall solid offense, for instance, he’s got this nice trick where he’ll jab, lean away from the counter, and follow up with a counter to the counter.
To his own detriment, however, he’s happy to engage in a firefight, where some of his bad habits crop up. He’s quite fond of throwing front kicks and spinning back kicks to the body, which he’ll occasionally launch from too close and get clipped in the process. In addition, while he uses his footwork to take some nice angles, his head movement isn’t as sharp, leaving him vulnerable to getting caught as he throws.
He’s admittedly got a chin on him, as shown when he bounced back from some heavy blows to knock out the much larger Proctor, but it’s worth keeping an eye on that.
As far as grappling, I’d rate that his strongest skill. He’s got black belts in both judo and Brazilian jiu-jitsu, making him extremely difficult to take down over overpower on the mat. In addition, he does a great job of setting up his shots with strikes and, and though his top control isn’t ironclad, his trick of re-shooting as soon as his opponent makes it to his feet makes it hard to get rid of him.
Once on the ground, he likes chasing kimuras and takes the back quite well, contributing to his three pro wins by rear naked choke.
Jones is a very good young fighter, but now enters a UFC Lightweight division that demands he be exceptional. Expect him to do well in the Octagon, even if he never manages to get past a double-digit ranking.
Opponent: He fights the very capable and similarly rounded Mike Davis, who twice pulled out of planned fights with Giga Chikadze last year. While this is definitely a closer match up than the odds suggest, I do think Davis’ power and Jones’ aforementioned defensive issues will result in a “Beast Boy” victory.
Tape: His Cage Warriors bouts are on Fight Pass.
Weight Class: Bantamweight
Record: 12-0 (1 KO, 5 SUB)
Notable Victories: Braian Gonzalez, Sidemar Honorio
Nurmagomedov — cousin of the legendary Khabib Nurmagomedov — went 2-0 in Professional Fighters League (PFL) alongside his impressive run on the Asian circuit. This will be his fourth attempt at an Octagon debut, as fights with Hunter Azure, Nathaniel Wood, and upcoming foe Sergey Morozov all fell through in 2020.
Despite the last name, Nurmagomedov much more closely resembles Said than Khabib. Fast, dexterous and powerful kicks form the basis of his offense, all of which he can throw effectively from either stance. Side kicks, front kicks, rear-leg kicks, lead-leg kicks — you name it, he’s got it. He’s nicely tricky with them, too, doubling up on the same side or following up with kicks from the opposite leg, staggering the timing as needed.
His right Brazilian kick from southpaw looks like the nastiest of the bunch. It’s razor-sharp and fast enough to be used as a counter to a leg kick. Check out his fight with Sidemar Honorio to see how effective it can be.
Somewhat surprisingly, he’s a fairly sharp boxer as well, focusing on fluidity and combination work over one-shot power. Those hands of his blend nicely with his kicks, and though he throws far more leg attacks than punches, they’re a nice complement.
Nurmagomedov has two problems fairly endemic to his style of fighter: he backs straight up and he doesn’t check leg kicks. This is fine if he can take the initiative and keep opponents honest with his kicks, but someone willing to weather the storm and force him backward could very well find his chin.
They’ll have to get through his wrestling first, though, and the fact that it’s not his primary weapon doesn’t make it any less effective. Whether reactive or on the attack, he’s a dangerous takedown artist with heavy ground-and-pound, strong passing, and a lethal rear-naked choke. The balance that makes his kicking game possible also serves him well in the grappling, making him extremely difficult to take down.
I can definitely see Nurmagomedov cracking the Top 10, or perhaps going even higher if he can shore up his issues with fighting off the back foot. He’s already contender material; right now, it just remains to be seen whether he can handle some of the sharks waiting for him at the top.
Opponent: He meets highly seasoned M-1 champ Sergey Morozov. Morozov’s got the edge in power, but struggles to deal with kicks and fights poorly in the face of volume, which play right into Nurmagomedov’s hands. In shirt, expect a comfortable victory for the Dagestani.
Weight Class: Bantamweight
Record: 16-3 (8 KO, 3 SUB)
Notable Victories: Aleksandr Osetrov, Josh Rettinghouse
One year after falling to future UFC contender Movsar Evloev in his first bid for M-1 gold, Morozov knocked out the unbeaten Aleksandr Osetrov for the now-vacant belt. Then came a rematch with Josh Rettinghouse, which saw Morozov avenge a 2016 knockout loss with a dominant decision victory.
Morozov is a well-rounded, heavy-handed bruiser with strong wrestling to complement his powerful striking offense. On the feet, he’s particularly fond of the straight right and right uppercut, which he’s gotten better at not overcommitting to, and puts together solid combinations. His jab is sharp when he remembers to throw it, he’s got nasty body kicks from both sides, and has very good timing with his counters, particularly the check hook.
There’s also the occasional spinning stuff, because why not.
He’s a very different fighter when pressured, however, and not in a good way. Osetrov managed to bank three rounds against him with steady volume, particularly his low kicks and steady knees, and it wasn’t until the fourth round that Morozov managed to finally time that check hook for a comeback knockout. Rettinghouse’s corner was begging him to stay in Morozov’s face, and the brief moments where he listened were his most successful. While he counters well, his overall lack of output on the back foot makes him markedly less effective.
He did a far better job of setting the pace against Rettinghouse than he did against Osetrov, but that also revealed another issue: he became visibly labored heading into the championship rounds, which initially manifested in the sort of wound-up bombs he’d unsuccessfully utilized in the former fight. To his credit, he managed to put together nice combinations and wrestle well once he’d calmed down, so it’s not a game-breaking flaw.
It’s just something to keep an eye on.
On the wrestling front, he boasts an effective double-leg that he times well and generally sets up with his punches. He’s similarly good on the defensive front, utilizing a strong sprawl.
If the opponent’s back is there, he’ll look for it; if not, he can deal serious damage from guard, especially if he manages to stand over his opponent. He knocked out 2018 foe Bakhytbek Duishobaev cold with a diving right hand, which he also managed to land on Rettinghouse. His submission defense is quite stout, even if he did give up his back more than once in the Rettinghouse fight, but he’s not much of an offensive threat on that front; his last tapout victory came in 2015 against a winless (0-2) opponent.
Morozov is a very good fighter that could potentially crack the Top 15 with the proper matchmaking. Unfortunately, the ease with which he can be bullied will keep him from reaching the upper echelon.
Opponent: See above.
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