Several unfortunate events left this UFC Vegas 21, which takes place tomorrow night (March 6, 2021) inside UFC Apex in Las Vegas, Nevada, with three newcomers where once there was only one. On this edition of “New Blood,” the series where the decentralized nature of archival mixed martial arts (MMA) footage gives me no end of grief, we look at a trio of entertaining finishers.
Marcelo “El Pitbull” Rojo
Weight Class: Featherweight/Bantamweight
Record: 16-6 (8 KO, 6 SUB)
Notable Victories: Jesse Strader, Gilbert Ordonez
Argentina’s Rojo enters the cage this weekend having won eight of his last 10 bouts, the sole losses coming to Combate standout Levy Saul Marroquin and future UFC competitor John Castaneda. He was last seen knocking out Victor Hugo Madrigal in just 88 seconds back in Sept. 2019.
He steps in for Steve Garcia and was previously slated to debut against Raoni Barcelos at UFC Vegas 20, but that fell through when the Brazilian tested positive for COVID-19.
Though not quite as ballistic as his generic nickname would imply, Rojo is definitely an aggressive striker first and foremost, pressing forward with powerful leg kicks and feinted jabs until the opportunity arises to send out a boxing combination or quick single kick to the head or body. Opponents who get inside can expect a diet of dangerous clinch knees. It’s a fairly rudimentary offense, but power and persistence make it plenty effective. Plus, that Madrigal knockout came about via sneaky shifting right hook, so he’s either adding nuance or better unleashing what was already there.
He’s definitely better as the aggressor than off the back foot, though, backing straight up when pressured and can be overwhelmed if the clinch isn’t there for him. Jesse Strader notably scored a near-finish with this approach. This extends to his takedown defense as well — he had tons of success walking down Castaneda in the first half of their fight. However, once Castaneda managed to seize the initiative, he found increasing success dragging Rojo to the mat.
Speaking of the mat, Rojo’s number of submission wins offers an inflated idea of his actual grappling prowess. While his guard is legitimately dangerous, he was largely ineffectual from his back against Castaneda, struggling from half guard and ultimately succumbing to an arm triangle.
Rojo will undoubtedly produce some quality slugfests against the right opposition. Unfortunately, there’s no shortage of powerhouse grapplers in UFC’s Featherweight division, so don’t expect a title run out of him.
Opponent: While “El Pitbull” would have been absolutely hosed by Barcelos, he’ll probably produce a quality slugfest against Canadian banger Charles “Air” Jourdain, who I’m sure will appreciate Rojo’s willingness to slug it out. I favor Jourdain’s size, power and durability, though Rojo will certainly make him earn it.
Rafa “Gifted” Garcia
Weight Class: Lightweight
Record: 12-0 (1 KO, 7 SUB)
Notable Victories: Humberto Bandenay, Estevan Payan, Chase Gibson
Mexico’s Garcia made a name for himself in Combate, where he amassed a perfect record (8-0) and claimed the Lightweight title with a 2019 decision over Erick Gonzalez. He last fought in Feb. 2020, successfully defending his belt against UFC veteran Humberto Bandenay in Mexicali.
He replaces Don Madge, who ran into visa issues, on around five days’ notice.
The 5’7” “Gifted” — who trains alongside Cub Swanson — boasts an impressively technical and well-rounded offense. He’s primarily a patient, stalking boxer on the feet, favoring hard right hands but capable of throwing some crisp combinations and well-timed counters. In addition to being effective in its own right, it also serves to set up his excellent wrestling game; though he seems to prefer the single-leg, he’s got some versatility in his takedown attack and appears to be similarly stout defensively.
Once on the mat, he passes aggressively and has notched several victories via armbar and rear-naked choke.
While it’s an entertaining and well-constructed mixed martial arts (MMA) game, two weaknesses stand out. For one, he can be too willing to mix it up, relying on his counters to dissuade incoming opponents instead of getting out of the way. This can allow a durable, committed opponent to walk him down and tee off, as Gonzalez did before attrition and wrestling sealed the deal for Garcia. In addition, he doesn’t seem particularly adept at maintaining top control against high-level opposition. Indeed, both Gonzalez and Bandenay managed to get out from underneath him fairly swiftly, though Garcia himself managed to immediately threaten subs or get back to his feet as soon as he ended up in a disadvantageous position.
UFC has managed to acquire some extremely quality talent on last-second notice this past year, including Dricus Du Plessis and Ilia Topuria ... and Garcia is yet another example. He still needs some seasoning, but his nickname is very appropriate, and I’m looking forward to seeing how he develops in the Octagon.
Opponent: Nasrat Haqparast would have been a massive problem for Garcia even with a full training camp. The German slugger has a significant edge in power and hand speed, and Garcia’s wrestling isn’t sufficient to neutralize Haqparast’s explosive striking offense. In other words, expect Haqparast to mercilessly exploit Garcia’s willingness to trade leather for an early stoppage.
Gloria “Glorinha” de Paula
Weight Class: Strawweight
Record: 5-2 (3 KO)
Notable Victories: Pauline Macias
de Paula started her professional career at 3-2, running afoul of future UFC competitors Ariane Carnelossi and Isabela de Padua in her first two years. After rebounding with a knockout on the Brazilian circuit, de Paula punched her ticket to UFC with a dominant decision over Pauline Macias on “Contender Series.”
“Glorinha” fights out of Chute Boxe — Diego Lima and is girlfriends with brutal finisher Mayra Bueno Silva, so her taste for violence shouldn’t surprise you. She’s a stalking striker who prefers to unleash lengthy boxing combinations from mid- to long-range, boasting a particularly crisp and venomous straight right to go along with her solid jab. Trying to muzzle her offense by forcing an in-fight is inadvisable, as her knees and elbows from the Thai clinch are absolutely lethal. If she gets you backing up, you’re in for a bruising.
If you get her backing up, however, your life gets a lot easier. Her loss to de Padua showed that she doesn’t have many answers if her counters don’t dissuade you from walking her down. Once de Padua got into range and started punching, de Paula (confusing, I know) seemed lost about how to actually separate and took a whooping from a technically inferior boxer. She’s capable of landing some real nice shots while she’s backing up, but a sufficiently hard-nosed pressure fighter looks like the bane of her existence at the moment.
Though her grappling is less effective than her striking overall, it’s getting better. Her takedown defense against Macias, a judo black belt, looked stouter than it did against de Padua 1.5 years prior, and she delivered some truly nasty shots during her relatively brief time in top control. She does some solid work on her back as well, constantly looking to improve position or threaten with submissions. While her bottom game wasn’t sufficient to keep de Padua from racking up top control, it did make Macias bail
I really like what I see out of de Paula, who’s still got plenty of time to develop at just 25 years old. She’s powerful, entertaining and has a real knack for violence that I can’t wait to see more of.
Opponent: She meets former Invicta champ Jinh Yu Frey, who seeks her first UFC victory after two previous unsuccessful efforts. Frey’s not nearly aggressive or active enough on the feet to exploit de Paula’s lingering issues, so as long as de Paula can avoid getting grinded out, she should be able to out-work Frey on the feet for a comfortable decision.
Tape: Her “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 21 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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