UFC 268, which takes place this weekend (Sat., Nov. 6, 2021) inside Madison Square Garden in New York, N.Y., is absolutely loaded with talent ... and that includes the newcomers. On this edition of “New Blood,” the series where I really wish I could embed Fight Pass videos, we check out one of the best strikers in the world, champions from Cage Warriors and LFA, and a pair of “Contender Series” standouts.
Alex “Poatan” Pereira
Weight Class: Middleweight
Record: 3-1 (3 KO) MMA, 33-7 (21 KO) Kickboxing
Notable Victories: None in MMA, Artem Vakhitov, Simon Marcus, Israel Adesanya in Kickboxing
Pereira followed his brief foray into mixed martial arts (MMA) with a return to kickboxing, where he established himself as one of the best in the world by winning Glory’s Middleweight and Light Heavyweight titles. Those runs included a pit stop in the cage in Nov. 2020, when he knocked out Thomas Powell with a vicious left hook.
The towering Pereira utilizes a blend of sharp, deceptively heavy boxing combos and vicious knees to take apart opponents from any distance. He does an excellent job of mixing his head and body shots, moves very well despite his long frame, and can deliver some nasty kicks to set up the rest of his offense. Particular note goes to his left hook, which is among the scariest strikes in all of combat sports. It doesn’t look like much, but the timing and power behind it are off the charts. It’s the only blow to ever knock out Israel Adesanya and consistently leaves opponents straight-up unconscious.
That upright stance and low hands can get him in trouble, though. Artem Vakhitov found success chipping away at his lead leg and putting together combinations on the inside when Pereira failed to dissuade him with his knees. Vakhitov’s one of the best in the world, of course, so the average MMA striker may not be skilled enough to exploit that weakness, but it’s worth keeping an eye on.
There’s admittedly not much data on his all-important takedown defense. I will say that he’s a long-time training partner of Glover Teixeira and did an excellent job of both denying Powell’s shots and framing him to punish with knees when he tried to clinch, so the prognosis seems good. No telling whether he can handle UFC-level wrestlers, but I like what I’ve seen so far.
Pereira’s age will probably keep him from making a true title run unless he’s fast-tracked, but I’m very much looking forward to seeing what he can accomplish in the Octagon. Anyone willing or unwillingly forced to strike with him is in for a bad time.
Opponent: Andreas Michailidis figures to be one of those. The Greek slugger is extremely limited on the feet, isn’t much of a wrestler, and tends to gas as fights go by. If Pereira has any kind of future in this sport, he’ll eat “The Spartan” alive.
Tape: His LFA and Glory bouts are on Fight Pass.
Ian “The Future” Garry
Weight Class: Welterweight
Record: 7-0 (4 KO, 1 SUB)
Notable Victories: Jack Grant, Rostem Akman
“The Future” has spent the entirety of his 2.5-year professional career under the Cage Warriors banner, where he scored stoppages in five consecutive fights. His success earned him a title shot against Jack Grant, whom he thoroughly out-classed to claim gold in June 2021.
Unlike some lanky Cage Warriors standouts I could name (cough cough Rhys McKee cough), the 6’3” Garry uses his length to excellent effect. He’s got an absolute piston of a jab, a sneaky right cross behind it, and deceptively fast head kicks like the one he used to destroy Rostem Akman. His low kicks and snap kicks are similarly effective, but what really stands out is his gas tank, which allows him to comfortably play keep-away for 25 minutes.
Those long limbs also allow him to dish out some truly nasty ground-and-pound, particularly with his elbows and postured-up punches. He’s no slouch at getting it to the mat, either, thanks to remarkable strength in the clinch and a solid double-leg. Good scrambling, good takedown/submission defense, and a dangerous front headlock series make him a threat on the defensive side as well.
Honestly, he’s remarkably seasoned and complete for such a young fighter; in fact, I can’t spot any fundamental flaws in his game. He just has a few kinks to iron out, namely his tendency to either dip forward under pressure or try to lean away from shots with his hands down, which allowed Grant to land a few really solid left hooks as Garry hit the cage. With a strong camp in Sanford MMA behind him, I can see him going pretty damn far.
Opponent: He takes on “Contender Series” veteran Jordan Williams. Though “Bomaye’s” debut loss to Nassourdine Imavov has aged well, he badly underperformed against Mickey Gall, who dropped him early and subsequently choked him out. Garry’s pot-shotting offense should let him control things fairly comfortably on the feet, and if it does hit the mat, I favor Garry there as well.
Tape: His Cage Warriors bouts are on Fight Pass.
Weight Class: Flyweight
Record: 9-2 (6 KO)
Notable Victories: Bruno Korea, Jacob Silva
Despite a wild knockout victory over UFC veteran Jacob Silva to claim the Fury FC Flyweight title, Vergara entered his UFC “Contender Series” bout with Bruno Korea as a decent-sized underdog. He needed just 46 seconds to flip the script and floor the The Ultimate Fighter (TUF): “Brazil” veteran with a vicious knee to the body.
Vergara is a switch-hitting striker by trade, generally patient but willing to knuckle down and slug if necessary. He’s fond of leading with his left hook, though he can straighten his shots out nicely when he feels like it, and has some strong round kicks from either stance. Though not super-dynamic on its face, his arsenal does feature some fancy techniques, like the wheel kick to flying knee that obliterated Shawn Solis three fights back.
Where he really shines is on the inside, where he can unleash nasty elbows and truly murderous clinch knees. The body knee he finished Korea with was no fluke; he can get some ridiculous power and leverage behind those point-blank shots.
Working from the clinch also serves to minimize his biggest weakness: he stands extremely square, keeps his hands low, and doesn’t move his head enough, making him far too easy to hit. He’s particularly vulnerable when stepping in with punches, as seen when Silva dropped him. In addition, he can back straight up when tagged; this allowed SIlva to straight-up run after him and land every subsequent punch in the flurry.
He also doesn’t check leg kicks.
Grappling-wise, he did a solid job of staying on his feet against Silva, though “Lil’ Animal” is notoriously bad at completing takedowns. Going to need more data before making a definitive judgment on that front.
Though the increased aggression he showed in the Korea fight could serve to offset his defensive issues, Vergara still strikes me as too vulnerable to survive the Flyweight shark tank, especially when a limited striker in Silva managed to drop him more than once. He’s good for a bonus or two, but don’t expect him to get far.
Opponent: He squares off with Ode Osbourne, another dangerous finisher. “The Jamaican Sensation” has had some troubles in UFC, but he punches fast and hard enough to crack Vergara’s exposed chin and has some solid wrestling to boot. I like him to catch Vergara before the latter can get started.
Tape: His Fury FC bouts are on Fight Pass, while his “Contender Series” bout is on ESPN+.
Chris “The Action Man” Curtis
Weight Class: Middleweight
Record: 26-8 (12 KO, 3 SUB)
Notable Victories: Kenny Robertson, Matt Dwyer, Sean Lally
Though his “Contender Series” knockout of Sean Lally failed to produce a contract, Curtis took it in stride, and now sits at 13 wins in his last 16 bouts. His current five-fight winning streak includes four stoppages, among them a technical knockout finish of two-time UFC veteran Kyle Stewart.
While he beat Lally via hook kick, Curtis largely relies on an aggressive southpaw boxing attack, mixing head and body punches with impunity mid-combo. He’ll lead with either hand at either target with equal effectiveness, and though he’s not a huge one-punch guy, those body blows can really suck the life out of opponents in a hurry. Between his solid cardio and a chin that’s failed him just once in 34 fights, he’s a nightmare once he gets some momentum going.
That hook kick wasn’t a one-off, either, as he’s got a sneaky kick arsenal he can bust out when opponents get too comfortable.
His biggest weakness, at least as far as I can tell, is a tendency to linger in the pocket after he throws. His head movement’s generally good, but not once he starts punching, which leaves him vulnerable to counters. Ray Cooper III knocked him stiff with a right hand because of this habit and even Stewart managed to briefly rock him with that same punch. He also tends to back straight up under fire, meaning he needs to have his opponent’s respect to stay safe.
Wrestling-wise, he’s got strong takedown defense in general. Cooper got him down with single-legs and worked his way to mount in 2019, but Robertson, a stout wrestler, had zero success dragging him to the mat. Stewart did manage to put him on the fence quite a bit, though, so a sufficiently strong grinder may be able to neutralize “The Action Man” there.
I don’t think he’ll hit the Top 15, but I can see Curtis’ striking skills carrying him to around the Top 25 or so. Regardless of his success or lack thereof, he should give us some great fights.
Opponent: He squares off with Phil Hawes, the enormously talented but occasionally underachieving prospect. If both men were the same size, Curtis would have a solid chance of sprawling-and-brawling to victory, especially since Hawes’ cardio has failed him in the past. Seeing as Curtis regularly fights at Welterweight, though, Hawes should have the size and strength to either grind his way to victory or land that same murderous right hand that’s vexed Curtis in the past.
Bruno “The Tiger” Souza
Weight Class: Featherweight
Record: 10-1 (1 KO, 2 SUB)
Notable Victories: Javier Garcia, Elijah Johns, Kamuela Kirk
Souza — undefeated since his 2016 professional debut — put together a four-fight win streak in LFA to earn a crack at the title, beating future UFC competitor Kamuela Kirk along the way. He had to survive an early knockdown to do it, but he ultimately outlasted Javier Garcia to claim Featherweight gold.
He steps in for T.J. Laramie on a week’s notice.
“The Tiger” is an acolyte of Lyoto Machida, which should be apparent within about two seconds of watching him fight. He’s your prototypical karate specialist, utilizing low hands, a long stance, bouncy footwork, and a preference for straight punches and sharp counters. If you’re not keen on leading, he’ll harass you with quick one-two combinations, knees and a versatile arsenal of kicks until you oblige him, at which point he’ll look to catch you coming in with a punch right down the pipe. Though not a huge hitter, his speed, timing, and solid gas tank make him a threat for all 25 minutes.
He is, however, missing one key thing that made Machida so effective: range management. Rather than the quick, touching kicks that Machida and Stephen Thompson utilize, Souza will lead with more Thai-style low and body kicks, often from too close. Two of his last three opponents have managed to drop him with counters off of those naked kicks, which his perpetually low hands turn into an even bigger liability.
This issue extends to his counters. While he’ll sometimes backstep before coming back with a pull counter, oftentimes he’ll stand perfectly still and fire as his opponents step in. Not only does this leave him vulnerable to aggressive strikers unafraid of return fire, it leaves his hips wide open to takedowns. He’s got very strong takedown defense when he’s prepared, but it’s not sufficient to keep him upright when he hands opponents opportunities on a golden platter.
To his credit, he both recovers extremely well and has shown an increased ability to get off his back in recent efforts, at one point surviving a locked-in anaconda choke and earlier threatening with ninja chokes. It’s still an issue, though, especially since he can be backed to the fence too easily.
Souza can probably do alright for himself, but aggressive, durable kickboxers are going to be his bane unless he either manages distance better or develops enough power to make opponents wary; as is, his only (technical) knockout was a standing finish of a totally exhausted opponent Souza couldn’t even drop. Expect him to hover around the middle of the pack without significant improvements.
Opponent: “Aggressive, durable kickboxer” sure as hell describes Melsik Baghdasaryan, last seen beating Collin Anglin to a pulp. Souza will need to survive the first round and hope that Baghdasaryan’s cardio issues flare up again, but odds are that “The Gun” cracks him well before that becomes an issue.
Tape: His LFA bouts are on Fight Pass.
Remember that MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC 268 fight card right here, starting with the early ESPN+ “Prelims” matches online, which are scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. ET, then the remaining undercard balance on ESPNEWS/ESPN+ at 8 p.m. ET, before the PPV main card start time at 10 p.m. ET on ESPN+ PPV.
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