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UFC Vegas 28 - New Blood: ‘Robocop,’ ‘The Jawaiian’ and ‘Baby Shark’

UFC Fight Night: Rozenstruik v Sakai Weigh-in Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC

It’s not often you get multiple blue-chip prospects on a single card, but the upcoming Ultimate Fighting Championship show tomorrow (Sat., June 5, 2021) offers just that. On this edition of “New Blood,” the series where I continue to appreciate Fight Pass’s LFA archive, we check out a trio of hugely promising newcomers.

Gregory “Robocop” Rodrigues

Weight Class: Middleweight
Age: 29
Record: 9-3 (4 KO, 4 SUB)
Notable Victories: Josh Fremd, Al Matavao, Edilberto de Oliveira

Brazil’s Rodrigues put a 1-2 professional start behind him to win six straight, setting up a “Contender Series” clash with Jordan Williams. Though he succumbed to the latter’s punching power, he righted the ship with two brutal knockouts under the LFA banner.

He steps in for the injured Maki Pitolo on short notice to complete a two-week turnaround.

“Robocop” is a 6’3” monster of a Middleweight, and while he leaned on his extensive Brazilian jiu-jitsu pedigree early in his career, recent fights have seen him unleash the considerable power his frame offers. The man has a genuine bomb of a right cross, which he bolsters with an increasingly technical kickboxing game and a dangerous clinch. He relied almost exclusively on the right hand against Williams, mixing in leads to the body and head and landing it on the counter, but showed off a strong jab and a nasty left hook against Al Matavao and Josh Fremd.

It’s his defensive improvements that have me most interested, however. Williams leveled him as he made a lazy exit out of the clinch, but his head movement was on point in his last fight. And considering how good his timing is with his counters, trying to keep him on the back foot is developing greater risk and lesser rewards at a worrying pace. Though he still has a couple of issues — namely a disinterest in checking low kicks and some potential chin issues considering the Williams loss and a 2017 knockdown against Umar Gaisumov — he’s very much a terror on the feet.

Fun as it has been to watch, that change in focus has left recent footage rather short on his ground game. He managed to toss Matavao around, but struggled to maintain position despite an obvious size and strength advantage. That said, he does boast several accomplishments in wrestling and jiu-jitsu, so that doesn’t figure to be a weakness.

Between his power, physical strength, increasingly potent striking technique and grappling background, Rodrigues looks like a problem for any UFC Middleweight without a number next to his name. In other words, keep an eye on him.

Opponent: He takes on fellow “Contender Series” alumnus Dusko Todorovic. Rodrigues seemingly has the physical and technical gifts to exploit Todorovic’s defensive issues like Punahele Soriano did, but there’s a question as to whether he can wring himself down to 185 pounds again on short notice (he did make weight). Indeed, he’s missed weight before and is clearly gigantic for the division. If he comes out sharp, though, expect him to starch Todorovic early.

Tape: His “Contender Series” bout is on ESPN+, while his LFA fights are on Fight Pass.

Kamuela “The Jawaiian” Kirk

Weight Class: Featherweight
Age: 27
Record: 11-4 (5 KO, 6 SUB)
Notable Victories: Daniel Swain, Kevin Croom

Despite a dominant start against Billy Quarantillo on “Contender Series,” Kirk ultimately succumbed to his opponent’s pace, then dropped a narrow decision to Bruno Souza upon his return to LFA. He’s since scored impressive finishes of Guilherme Santos and Daniel Swain, the latter of whom he finished just last month.

He replaces Nate Landwehr on little more than one-week notice.

Kirk’s top-notch jiu-jitsu and solid punching power led to a lot of quick finishes early in his mixed martial arts (MMA) career, but he really seems to have taken that Quarantillo loss to heart, developing a truly grueling offense that can sap the life from a fighter well into the deep waters. He primarily utilizes pressure boxing on the feet, backing opponents up with combination punching and slamming home knees to the body once their backs hit the fence. While his whole boxing arsenal is effective, particularly his body shots, he’s especially fond of the left hook, regularly throwing it two or three times in sequence.

In addition, he’s got a strong front kick that he used to floor Swain and a hard body kick as well, though he has a bad habit of throwing naked low kicks. He can be a bit linear in his attack, as seen when he struggled to cut off the cage against the ultra-mobile Souza, but it’s an impressive and debilitating standup attack overall.

Also, since I always point out when people don’t check leg kicks, I’d like to commend Kirk for actually dealing with them properly.

Whether he elects to initiate the grappling (as he did against Quarantillo) or more often counter his opponent’s attempts to do the same, he’s lethal on the mat. He can absolutely shred guards, swiftly working his way into dominant positions while landing heavy ground-and-pound along the way. His back takes are particularly effective, and he showed off his submission defense by powering through two deep armbars from Swain.

Though it’s hard to get a bead on his overall wrestling skills, he’s demonstrated very good balance on the defensive end and got Quarantillo down with little issue when the pair were fresh.

I’m extremely impressed with Kirk, whose constant improvement is a sight to behold. I can definitely see him making an impact, even in a division as crowded as 145 pounds.

Opponent: He takes on “Mr. Finland” himself, Makwan Amirkhani. I find myself leaning Kirk’s way. That’s because even though he’s a spectacular wrestler with a lethal arsenal of front chokes, Amirkhani’s shaky gas tank usually forces him to gun for an early finish or get overwhelmed late. As Kirk has the jiu-jitsu to avoid a tap and a distinct edge in the striking, he should be able to avoid the quick-kill submission and beat Amirkhani down on the feet as the fight progresses.

Tape: His “Contender Series” and LFA bouts are on Fight Pass.

Tabatha “Baby Shark” Ricci

Weight Class: Strawweight/Flyweight
Age: 26
Record: 5-0 (1 KO, 2 SUB)

After scoring her second professional victory in 2014, Ricci found herself unable to secure MMA fights, leaving her to compete in other disciplines and enjoy an unbeaten run in Japan’s unique Seiza promotion. She returned to the cage in 2020 and quickly made up for lost time with three victories under the LFA banner.

She replaces Maryna Moroz on just three days’ notice.

Ricci — a training partner of Mackenzie Dern who’s fought out of strong gyms like Black House and Knuckleheadz — started judo as a child before amassing a laundry list of accolades in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and Muay Thai. She’s developed into a light-footed combination puncher with some heavy body kicks and deceptive thump in her right hand. Though generally a good mover with sharp, compact strikes, she does suffer from the classic Muay Thai lack of head/upper-body movement, can lose her composure a bit when flurrying for the finish, and does tend to throw naked low kicks.

Those aren’t game-breaking flaws, to be fair, and she can always lean on that grappling pedigree. She’s as strong in the clinch as you’d expect, though also capable of hitting a reactive shot if the situation calls for it. Once on top, she’s a patient and extremely potent guard passer who’ll stay heavy until the opportunity arises for a burst of heavy ground-and-pound. Her transitions are lightning-quick, and the one time she ended up on her back, she immediately kicked her opponent off and stood rather than try to play guard, which I always like to see.

She definitely passes the eye test and has a ton of potential; however, the big concern right now is a lack of seasoning, as she’s yet to face an opponent with a winning record, and a potential lack of size at just 5’1.” Once she gets some more experience under her belt, watch out.

Opponent: Unfortunately for her, she’s jumping right into the deep end, stepping up to Flyweight to fight blue-chip prospect Manon Fiorot. Fiorot’s size, distance management and power figure to totally shut down Ricci’s short-range attack. At least it should be a learning experience.

Tape: Her LFA bouts are on Fight Pass.

Remember that will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC Vegas 28 fight card tonight 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 28: “Rozenstruik vs. Sakai” news and notes be sure to hit up our comprehensive event archive right here.

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