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UFC Vegas 40 - New Blood: ‘The Ghost Pepper’ and a new Nunes

UFC Fighter Portraits Photo by Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Some debuts are years in the making, while others come out of nowhere. And UFC Vegas 40 this weekend (Sat., Oct. 16, 2021) inside UFC APEX in Las Vegas, Nevada, features one of each. On this edition of “New Blood,” the series where I willingly re-open Facebook for your sakes, we check out a brawler out of Combate and a Muay Thai expert from ONE.

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PIVOTAL BANTAMWEIGHT CLASH! Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) returns to San Diego, Calif., on Sat., Aug. 13, 2022, for the first time since 2015 with a pivotal battle between top-ranked Bantamweight contenders that will see No. 5-ranked Marlon Vera take on former champion and No. 8-seeded Dominick Cruz. In San Diego’s co-main event, Nate Landwehr and David Onama will collide in a Featherweight showdown between dynamic 145-pound hopefuls.

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Erick “The Ghost Pepper” Gonzalez

Weight Class: Lightweight
Age: 29
Record: 14-5 (8 KO, 1 SUB)
Notable Victories: Won Sik Park, Marco Antonio Elpidio

California’s Gonzalez cut his teeth in Combate, sharing the cage with promotional mainstays like Andres Quintana and Rafa Garcia. Though he missed all of 2020, he’s made up for lost time in 2021 with a pair of victories under the Naciones MMA and LXF banners.

Standing 5’11” and boasting a 74.5-inch reach, Gonzalez is an all-action aggressor with an ironclad chin. He constantly switches stances while probing with long kicks or bursting forward with lengthy flurries, often shifting from Southpaw to Orthodox and back mid-combination. Of particular note are his short-range knees to the head and body and the elbows which his length allows him to slip into traditional boxing combinations.

It’s more than a bit ungainly, but he generally makes it work.

As fun and dangerous as he is, he suffers from some serious technical shortcomings I’m not certain he’s fixed. Beyond a general lack of polish in his combinations, he tends to throw his punches so hard that his whole body follows, leaving his chin exposed to counters and his hips exposed to takedowns as he rushes in; in fact, Garcia took full advantage of this in their title fight, landing brutal right hand after brutal right hand, while hitting double-leg takedowns effectively at will once Gonzalez began to tire.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with having an offbeat striking style, but you need strong fundamentals to make it work consistently. Gonzalez may or may not have those at this point.

My unsurety stems from one of his more recent efforts, a win over the limited Oziel Rodriguez in March 2021. Gonzalez looked a lot more patient and willing to keep his hands up, but he also executed such a wrestling-heavy gameplan that it’s hard to make a definitive statement on his stand up.

Speaking of that ground game, it’s a similar mix of impressive and lacking. He’s positionally excellent, sweeping his way out of all of Garcia’s early takedowns and shredding Rodriguez’s guard, but his takedown offense and defense haven’t quite caught up. It’s a shame, because he’s a lethal ground-and-pounder with those elbows when he gets on top.

All of this combines to form a highly entertaining fighter with a ceiling well below the elite. I’d be very surprised if he doesn’t give us at least one war to remember during his Octagon tenure.

Opponent: He squares off with the eternally game, but clearly fading, Jim Miller. Miller figures to dominate with his wrestling so long as his cardio holds up. Therefore, it falls to Gonzalez to survive some bad positions, force “A-10” to work, and take over late through raw aggression. Not the most outlandish scenario, just one a bit less likely than Miller either tapping him early or grinding out a win.


Istela Nunes

Weight Class: Strawweight
Age: 29
Record: 7-1 (2 KO)
Notable Victories: Gina Iniong, Mei Yamaguchi

Nunes’ first appearance under the ONE banner saw her beat veteran Mei Yamaguchi by decision, setting up a Strawweight title fight against Angela Lee. Though she fell short against “Unstoppable,” she returned to the win column one fight later with a victory over Gina Iniong.

This marks her first fight in more than three years, as she withdrew from planned debuts against Angela Hill and Jinh Yu Frey.

Nunes boasts a strong Muay Thai pedigree that immediately shows itself in her upright, stalking stance. She prefers slowly advancing with hard low kicks and admittedly over-commited punches, occasionally sneaking a sharp snap kick to the body or the nasty switch head kick that scored one of her two professional stoppages. She also does an excellent job of quickly grabbing the Thai plum and slamming home a knee whenever her opponents are in the right position, plus elbows when the situation arises.

Her offense, bolstered by impressive speed and power, is clearly impressive. Her first two ONE bouts, however, showcased some clear shortcomings. Those naked low kicks got her taken down on multiple occasions, and while her willingness to stand her ground and throw back rather than retreat under fire is entertaining, it compromises her length. It’s also worth noting that she tends to loop her right hand and really struggles off of her back, surrendering dominant positions to both Yamaguchi and Lee without offering much in return.

Speaking of the Lee fight, Nunes looked markedly less effective off the back foot when standing.

All that said, she showed a lot of improvement in her win over Iniong — more feints, better takedown defense and the wherewithal to back away before coming back with counters. She still overthrew her right hand and failed to set up her low kicks, which got her dropped by a counter at the end of the first round, but she looked like she’d learned a lot of necessary lessons from her first defeat.

Nunes circa 2018 does fairly well for herself in the Octagon. If she’s continued to improve in that span, she could potentially sniff contention.

Opponent: Nunes takes on another Brazilian striker in the ultra-entertaining Ariane Carnelossi. Carnelossi’s aggression and punching power look poised to exploit Nunes’ pre-existing flaws, and while Nunes’ trajectory of improvement is promising, it’s hard to see her executing properly after 39 months away. It should be fun, at least.


Remember that will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC Vegas 40 fight card right here, 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 40: “Ladd vs. Dumont” news and notes be sure to hit up our comprehensive event archive right here.