Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) returns to UFC Apex in Las Vegas, Nevada, this Saturday (Feb. 20, 2021), featuring a quartet of fresh faces with plenty of potential. On this edition of “New Blood,” the series where I get a newfound appreciation for what coaches go through when making gameplans, we look at two “Contender Series” alums, a nasty Philly finisher, and an extremely promising young Flyweight.
Rafael “The Turn” Alves
Weight Class: Featherweight
Notable Victories: Alejandro Flores, Felipe Douglas, Beibit Nazarov
Four fights after suffering three stoppage defeats in four appearances, Alves leveled Felipe Douglas to claim the Titan FC interim Lightweight title. Sixteen months later, “The Turn” entered “Contender Series,” where he dispatched Alejandro Flores with a contract-winning guillotine choke midway through the second round.
I make an active effort to avoid the old “explosive and athletic” cliche, but there’s really no other way to describe Alves. While he’s got a spear of a jab when he bothers to throw it and some heavy low kicks, he largely spends his time waiting for the opportunity to erupt with some wild onslaught. He has a massive arsenal of fancy kicks and other unconventional attacks and everything he throws is obscenely fast and powerful. Plus, despite the clear energy expenditure, he paces himself well enough to be a threat well into the third round.
Unpredictable as he is, he does have a couple of trusty standbys like a hard chambered teep and a skipping low kick to head kick, so keep an eye out for them.
Like fellow Brazilian acrobat Michel Pereira, however, Alves suffers from a lack of set ups. He doesn’t use that jab nearly enough, isn’t always consistent with his pressure, rarely throws more than two strikes at a time, and can throw unsafe techniques like low kicks from too close. The guy clearly hits like a truck, but all the power in the world can’t help you if your opponent sees everything coming.
He brings a similar approach to his wrestling and submission attacks. His best takedown appears to be a sudden whizzer throw from the clinch, though he’s not incapable of shooting from a distance, and there doesn’t seem to be much connection with his striking. He’s capable of some startlingly fast transitions on the ground, as seen in his whiffed left hook to immediate guillotine against Flores, but seems to have issues maintaining top control or getting much done off of his back if the initial scramble fails.
Alves has the physical abilities and technical savvy to be a true menace ... even in a division as crowded as Featherweight. The guy just really needs to calm down and focus more on the fundamentals. If he doesn’t, opponents with the composure to keep him on his back foot and avoid the occasional burst counter are going to take him apart. Luckily, he’s still just 30, so he may have time to make the necessary improvements.
Opponent: He meets fellow regional champion Pat Sabatini in something of a mirror match. Alves has a significant edge in speed and power, while Sabatini is the superior positional grappler by a decent margin. This could really go either way, and will likely come down to Sabatini’s ability to execute his gameplan without running afoul of Alves’ kill shots or lethal guillotine.
Tape: His “Contender Series” bout is on ESPN+, while his Titan FC fights can be found on Fight Pass.
Weight Class: Featherweight
Record: 13-3 (1 KO, 10 SUB)
Notable Victories: Da’Mon Blackshear, Tony Gravely
Sabatini made three successful defenses of the Cage Fury Featherweight title before running into James Gonzalez, who badly damaged his arm with a shoulder lock back in Feb. 2020. Undaunted, he knocked out Jordan Titoni seven months later and subsequently tapped Jesse Stirn for the now-vacant belt.
He steps in for Mike Trizano on little more than one week’s notice.
Offbeat striking and suffocating grappling combine to make Sabatini a unique and dangerous finisher. Funky footwork, upper-body motion, and head movement serve to set up quick single strikes or two-piece combinations on the feet. While there’s some sneaky power there — as seen in the Titoni knockout — his stand up largely serves to set up his takedown attempts. Whether at range or in the clinch, he can follow a punch with a level change at remarkable speeds, and though he can’t always complete the initial shot, he’s so damn persistent and varied with his chained takedown attempts that he’ll usually get it to the ground eventually.
Once there, he passes extremely well and excels at taking the back. He’s not a super destructive ground-and-pounder, but he can dish out some hurt when he puts his mind to it thanks to some really solid balance. On the submission side of things, rear-naked chokes account for the majority of his finishes, though he’s also got a couple of heel hooks under his belt and landed a slick mounted armbar last time out.
He really doesn’t seem to have any standout weaknesses besides his stand up being considerably less threatening than his ground game. If he can tighten it up to the point where opponents have to really respect it, I could easily see him getting a number next to his name in a year or two.
Opponent: See above.
Tape: His CFFC bouts are on Fight Pass.
“King” Casey O’Neill
Weight Class: Flyweight
Record: 5-0 (1 KO, 1 SUB)
Notable Victories: Miki Motono
Though she lost her first two amateur bouts, O’Neill ultimately capped off her time in the unpaid ranks with a five-fight win streak. She’s enjoyed similar success as a professional, including a ground-and-pound finish in the burgeoning UAE Warriors promotion in Sept. 2020.
Last month, I called Manon Fiorot, “one of the most promising fighters to join UFC’s women’s Flyweight division in quite some time,” and I’m willing to make the same statement about O’Neill. She’s incredibly polished for her age and is already showing world-class skills on the ground, particularly her preternatural ability to take the back. She’s so dexterous and flexible with her legs that she can insert her hooks from practically any position, and even if you do manage to dislodge her as she’s softening you up and hunting for the rear-naked choke, she chains submissions and sweeps together brilliantly. Engaging with her on the ground is a bad idea regardless of position.
Despite those ground skills, she’s usually happy to trade hands unless she’s at a clear disadvantage, leaning on constant pressure, sharp flurries of jabs and crosses, and the occasional kick. Though effective, she’s also at her most vulnerable here, as her lack of head movement and limited strike selection leave her vulnerable to counters. That said, she’s extremely durable and persistent, does do a good job of immediately answering with bigger shots of her own, and showed a bit more creativity once she’d taken full control of the stand up against Caitlin McEwen two fights back.
On the wrestling side, she does her best work when opponents initiate tie-ups, using the opportunity to counter with a back take or submission. When the striking wasn’t going her way in her most recent effort, however, she demonstrated some effective clinch takedowns, so she can certainly lead the dance if the situation calls for it.
O’Neill really only needs to vary up her striking and tighten up her defense to be a Flyweight contender. I have extremely high hopes for her, and once you see that she’s far more entertaining than her lack of finishes suggests, I bet you will, too.
Opponents: She meets Shana Dobson, who went from a three-fight losing streak to scoring one of the biggest upsets in Octagon history against Mariya Agapova last year. O’Neill is good enough on the feet to hold her own in Dobson’s wheelhouse and has her hopelessly outmatched on the ground, so expect a dominant debut victory.
Tape: Her Eternal MMA bouts are on Fight Pass.
Jared “The Mountain” Vanderaa
Weight Class: Heavyweight
Record: 11-4 (7 KO, 3 SUB)
Notable Victories: Ruan Potts, Harry Hunsucker
Vanderaa’s second bid at EFC Heavyweight gold proved to be the trick, knocking out Octagon veteran Ruan Potts for the belt. Four fights later, he faced late replacement Harry Hunsucker on “Contender Series,” surviving some early striking troubles to pound him out late in the first and secure a UFC contract.
Michael Bisping had it exactly right when he said that Vanderaa’s stand up boils down to three techniques: the jab, left hook and low kick. They’re the backbone (and nearly the entirety) of his offense when he’s on the advance, while the check hook serves as his universal response to any attempts to get in his face. He also has this little flicking lead-leg front kick, but that’s more to stay busy than to do any real damage.
It’s a pretty ungainly style, but it’s thankfully not the centerpiece of his attack. That would be his trips and ground-and-pound.
The 6’4,” 260-pound Vanderaa, a protege of Dan Henderson, loves grabbing a body lock and chasing the outside trip. Once he gets people down, he uses his weight and length to just mash people into submission. If given the opportunity, he’ll stand over them and rain down bombs as they try to get back to their feet. He’s definitely the sort who only needs one good takedown to end the fight.
Unfortunately for “Mountain,” he’s just too damn slow, ungainly and easy to hit. The 6’10” Renan Ferreira leveled him on the feet and even the 6’1” Hunsucker got in plenty of good licks before ending up on his back. While he’s got a stout chin and remarkably good endurance, there’s plenty of guys in UFC’s Heavyweight division he absolutely does not want to absorb punches from.
Basically, he’ll be alright against anyone he can reliably take down. Otherwise, he’s in trouble.
Opponent: Serghei Spivac is a solid kickboxer, but his reliance on wrestling gives Vanderaa a shot at the upset ... especially since “The Mountain” figures to be at least 20 pounds heavier. I can definitely see Vanderaa ground-and-pounding his way to a debut victory.
Tape: His “Contender Series” bout is on ESPN+.
Remember that MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC Vegas 19 fight card this weekend, starting with the ESPN+ “Prelims” matches, which are scheduled to begin at 5 p.m. ET, then the remaining main card balance on ESPN+ at 8 p.m. ET.
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