Nick Diaz makes his long-awaited return to the cage at UFC 266 this Saturday (Sept. 25, 2021) ... and he’s not coming alone. On this edition of “New Blood,” the series where the MMA Gods delight in throwing last-minute wrenches into things, we check out two of the former Strikeforce champion’s acolytes and a late-notice “Contender Series” graduate.
Weight Class: Middleweight
Record: 6-0 (2 KO, 5 SUB)
Notable Victories: Oscar Cota
Maximov, a regular on Submission Underground, scored a submission victory in his LFA debut to set up a “Contender Series” opportunity against Oscar Cota. Despite giving up more than 50 pounds to his opponent, Maximov leaned on solid top control to claim a decision victory.
I always like it when fighters make my job easier, and Maximov does this by both ending most of his fights inside the distance and having no striking to speak of. He’ll rarely throw more than one or two strikes between takedown attempts, meaning I can jump right into talking about his grappling.
While Maximov isn’t the fastest or smoothest wrestler, he’s insanely persistent, at one point landing a takedown even after his opponent sprawled and limp-legged out of the first parts of the chain. Since he boasts the quality cardio you’d expect from a Nick Diaz acolyte, he’s free to spam his preferred single-leg or any other form of shot with impunity.
Despite that grappling pedigree, however, I can’t say I’m super impressed with his ground work. He struggled mightily to stay on top against the 1-1 Johnny James Jr. two fights back, and even when he did manage to rack up top control against Cota, he really couldn’t do anything with it besides land some punches from half guard. Yeah, Cota’s a hell of a lot bigger than him, but the guy was also clearly incompetent on the ground.
To his credit, Maximov has shown some nice passing and ability to take dominant positions in scrambles. I just don’t see a submission monster when I watch his MMA tape.
It’s also worth noting that Maximov’s competition has been horrid thus far. The five men he beat before Cota were, in order: 0-2, 0-1, 0-0, 1-10 and 1-1. He’s incredibly untested and hasn’t particularly dazzled in what should have been layups, which raises some red flags. While he’s definitely not another Chris Avila, he’s still got a ton to prove ... and improve.
My gut feeling says he peaks well below Middleweight contention, but there’s a few guys he can probably beat through sheer persistence. However, once he reaches deep waters, expect things to go more poorly.
Opponent: He was slated to meet former kickboxing ace Karl Roberson, whom I’d tabbed to sprawl-and-brawl Maximov into oblivion, but now faces fellow “Contender Series” veteran Cody Brundage instead. Brundage is the stronger wrestler of the two and has at least demonstrated more striking acumen than Maximov, so I’m inclined to lean the former’s way, but Maximov could catch him if Brundage gets complacent.
Tape: His “Contender Series” bout is on Fight Pass, while his Bellator bout is on the promotion’s website.
Weight Class: Middleweight
Record: 6-1 (3 KO, 2 SUB)
Notable Victories: Joseph Kropschot
An undefeated (5-0) professional start carried Brundage to “Contender Series,” where he nearly finished William Knight on the ground before succumbing to some vicious elbows. He then took his talents to LFA, choking out Joseph Kropschot to re-enter the win column.
He steps in for Karl Roberson on just three days’ notice.
Brundage, a standout collegiate wrestler, has not forgotten his roots. Powerful takedowns are his bread and butter, bolstered by some very impressive guard passing and slick back takes. In addition to his strong entries, he does a solid job of setting them up with strikes and is adept at chaining shots together and scrambling, as seen in his lovely early work against Knight. Once he’s got you down, good balance, a vicious squeeze, and some solid strikes make him a nightmare from the top.
Striking unfortunately remains his weak link, but he did show some offensive promise his last time out. Though he’s got the traditional wrestler bugbear of relying too much on his overhand right and can throw uppercuts from too far out, he can put together nice combinations behind his jab when he focuses on staying technical. He also boasts some nasty low kicks and enough cardio to stay active for three rounds. His defense still needs work, though, as he tends to keep his hands low and doesn’t move his upper body all that much. This allowed Kropschot to land some quality straight punches in the second round and force Brundage, who’d been happy to trade hands, to focus on takedowns.
Overall, he’s definitely got the wrestling pedigree and jiu-jitsu chops to make an impact in the UFC. He’ll need to tighten up his striking defense if he wants to get over the hump, though at 27 years old and with a quality camp in Factory X behind him, he’s got plenty of time and opportunity to do so.
Opponent: See above.
Tape: His LFA bout is on Fight Pass, while his “Contender Series” bout is on ESPN+.
Weight Class: Welterweight
Record: 4-2-1 (1 KO, 3 SUB)
Notable Victories: Geoff Neal
Fellow Nick Diaz protege Sano opened his career with four consecutive wins, among them a third-round submission of Geoff Neal. He’s winless since, falling to Dominic Waters and Don Mohammed before fighting Diego Herzog to a draw.
Sano hasn’t won a fight since 2014 and hasn’t fought at all since 2017. The only possible explanation for his being on the card is as a favor to Diaz, who returns against Robbie Lawler later in the evening.
Lord knows he didn’t get in on his merits.
Though tough and game, Sano was nowhere near UFC-ready when he last stepped into the cage. The guy rushes forward and wings punches while sticking his chin out, and whichever hand isn’t punching is usually well out of position to protect him from counters. There’s no real craft to his boxing and he tends to literally run into punches, relying on his gas tank and toughness to carry him through.
Those three submission wins also give an inflated impression of his ground skills. Both Waters and Herzog managed to consistently take him down thanks to that aforementioned rushing, while Sano’s only real offerings off of his back were decent guillotine and kimura attempts. Herzog was so gassed he could barely move in the third round and still managed to drag Sano to the mat, which suggests bad things against UFC-caliber grapplers.
Sano didn’t improve much from 2014 to 2017, so I can’t say I expect him to have fixed everything during his time away. But, who knows? Weirder things have happened. Probably?
Opponent: He takes on power-puncher Matthew Semelsberger, last seen dropping a decision to Khaow Williams. Semelsberger’s power and Sano’s poor striking defense look like a bad combination, so unless he’s made some colossal improvements, don’t expect Sano to last long.
Remember that MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC 266 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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