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UFC Vegas 35 - New Blood: ‘Lil’ Monster’ and ‘Manaboi’

Dana White’s Contender Series - Demopoulos v McKenna Photo by Chris Unger/DWCS LLC/Zuffa LLC

Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) fight cards virtually never make it to the finish line intact, and while that’s never a good thing, it does create the possibility of something interesting and new emerging. On this edition of “New Blood,” the series where I look at the kintsugi holding busted cards together, we look at a submission ace and a truly monstrous puncher.

As a side note, I established early on in this series that I wouldn’t do The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) guys, as that would have meant eight different previews for this card.

LIVE! Stream UFC San Antonio On ESPN+

BLOCKBUSTER BANTAMWEIGHT CONTENDERS’ BOUT! Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) departs APEX for a special “Fight Night” extravaganza at AT&T Center in San Antonio, Texas, on Sat., March 25, 2023, featuring a pair of thrilling 135-pound bouts. Surging No. 4-ranked contender Marlon Vera goes for his fifth consecutive win when he takes on exciting finisher and No. 5-seeded Cory Sandhagen. In UFC San Antonio’s ESPN+-streamed co-main event, former women’s 135-pound champion and current No. 3-ranked Holly Holm battles Yana Santos (No. 4).

Don’t miss a single second of face-punching action!

Vanessa “Lil’ Monster” Demopoulos

Weight Class: Strawweight/Flyweight
Age: 32
Record: 6-3 (1 KO, 3 SUB)
Notable Victories: Sam Hughes

Demopoulos claimed the inaugural LFA Strawweight title with a comeback submission of Sam Hughes, setting up a “Contender Series” bid against Cory McKenna. She wound up dropping decisions to both McKenna and subsequent foe Lupita Godinez, but returned to the win column in March 2021 with a knockout of Cynthia Arceo.

She replaces the injured Tracy Cortez on a week’s notice.

The Black House-trained product mixes high-level Brazilian jiu-jitsu with truly insane levels of grit and determination. Her usual gameplan sees her march forward, throwing jabs and right hands from the hip alongside heavy single kicks until the opportunity arises to tie up and jump guard. Once she’s used her solid positional game to get to full guard from wherever she landed, she likes chasing submissions from a high rubber guard that makes full use of her impressive flexibility.

Unlike a lot of grapplers who try to work from their back, Demopoulos is dangerous from bell to bell; in fact, she caught Hughes with an inverted triangle in the fourth round and very nearly snatched up an armbar in the final minute of the third against McKenna. She won’t fade in the face of adversity and has extremely impressive cardio, which combines with her unreal durability and understated power to make her a nightmare in deep waters.

Especially when she starts chipping away with her sneaky clinch striking.

As laudable as those aspects of her game are, however, they’re hampered by nonexistent striking defense and underdeveloped wrestling. She was essentially a heavy bag in her first two rounds against Godinez, who teed off on her stationary head with a downright worrying number of power punches, and only really got back into the fight when Godinez’s output started to wane down the stretch. In addition, she’s not quite lethal enough with her submissions or sweeps to sacrifice top position the way she does. She seems to be making an effort to round out her wrestling, as seen in the late reactive takedown she hit on “Loopy,” but she was largely ineffective while the Mexican slugger was still fresh.

Demopoulos is fun to watch and extremely easy to root for; however, she’s just too fundamentally flawed to become a real contender. She’ll need careful matchmaking for a long run, but it’ll be a run to enjoy.

Opponent: She squares off with veteran striker J.J. Aldrich, who was last seen beating Cortney Casey via split decision in March 2021. While Demopoulos has the edge on the ground and could make things interesting through sheer persistence, her poor defense should make her an easy target for Aldrich’s sharpshooting, especially since she’s moving up in weight.

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

Mana “Manaboi” Martinez

Weight Class: Bantamweight
Age: 25
Record: 8-2 (8 KO)
Notable Victories: Jose Johnson, Ricky Turcios

After dropping a split decision to future TUF competitor Dulani Perry in his second professional fight, Martinez rattled off five consecutive wins to earn a spot on “Contender Series,” where he tapped to a Drako Rodriguez triangle choke. He has since scored a pair of knockout wins in a combined 1:32, including a rapid finish of fellow “Contender Series” alum Jose Johnson in May 2021.

My knee-jerk response to seeing a regional guy with a load of ultra-fast knockouts under his belt is skepticism, but Martinez legitimately has a goddamn Dim Mak death touch. Everything he throws hurts people, and these aren’t just scrubs he’s smashing. Ricky Turcios is tough as nails and took everything a big hitter in Boston Salmon could dish out, but Martinez knocked him stiff. Johnson hadn’t been stopped with strikes since a 2014 amateur bout, but lasted all of 32 seconds before a counter left hook folded him.

Do not get hit by this guy, is what I’m saying.

As far as how he delivers that power, he’s a fairly slick switch-hitting boxer with fluid stance-switches and some nasty timing on his counters. He’s not huge into kicking, though he does like to lead with naked low kicks. While this got him in trouble against Rodriguez, who landed counters and ultimately caught a kick to set up the fight-ending grappling sequence, he seems to have learned to weaponize it. He twice caught Johnson by throwing leg kicks, letting him throw back, and then sneaking in a vicious left hook.

His grappling is a bit of a mixed bag. Though he’s got stout takedown defense, he spent several minutes stuck on his back against David Rivera after an ill-advised guillotine attempt. He looked sharper off his back against Rodriguez, threatening an armbar and an omoplata sweep, but got caught in a triangle and sealed his doom by trying to slam his way out. I’m not sure I’d trust him against a top-tier submission specialist at this point.

Martinez’s raw power makes him an instantly intriguing addition to the Bantamweight ranks, and if he can continue to develop his technique, he’s one to keep an eye on.

Opponent: He squares off with Combate veteran Jesse Strader. I’ve described Strader as “bootleg John Lineker” in the past, and if he had the chin and cardio of “Hands of Stone,” he’d be a real problem for Martinez. As is, his admirably self-destructive devotion to all-out offense should allow Martinez to plunk him with a counter sometime in the first few minutes.

Tape: His “Contender Series” bout is on Fight Pass.

Remember that will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC Vegas 35 fight card right here, starting with the ESPN+ “Prelims” matches, which are scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. ET, then the remaining main card balance on ESPN/ESPN+ at 10 p.m. ET.

To check out the latest and greatest UFC Vegas 35: “Barboza vs. Chikadze” news and notes be sure to hit up our comprehensive event archive right here.

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