Contender Series continues to churn out young, promising prospects, whose debut challenges appear to vary wildly in difficulty. On this edition of “New Blood,” the series where I become increasingly convinced that Sean Shelby and Mick Maynard are phoning it in at this point, we check out two undefeated Contender Series graduates with 20 wins and 19 finishes between them.
Azamat Murzakanov is also making the walk for the first time, but he got his writeup before one of his prior debuts that fell through ...
AJ “The Ghost” Fletcher
Weight Class: Welterweight
Record: 9-0 (4 KO, 4 SUB)
Notable Victories: Leonardo Damiani
Fletcher — representing the same Lafayette-based Gladiators Academy that first produced Dustin Poirier — went 7-2 as an amateur before turning professional in 2019. After several wins on the regional circuit, he tried his hand on Contender Series, where he kicked off the 2021 season by blasting Leonardo Damiani with a flying knee.
“The Ghost” utilizes a basic, fundamentally sound gameplan bolstered by obvious athleticism. If his opponent is willing to give ground, he’ll fire large numbers of kicks and the occasional lead right with impressive speed while constantly switching stances. As soon as they try to force him back, he’ll change levels for an ultra-fast double-leg takedown.
Once done, he’s heavy and patient from the top, waiting for his man to leave an opening before capitalizing on it with that same level of swiftness. He can pass guard and/or take the back in an instant, and he’s got some nice chokes with which to polish things off.
Despite making his amateur debut more than five years ago, however, Fletcher’s still fairly green on the feet. There doesn’t seem to be much to his boxing outside of that lead right and he tends to back straight up when pressured, relying on that reactive shot to keep himself off the fence. He also seems to try a bit too hard to be fancy without the fundamentals to back it up; in one memorable instance, he tried a sneaky stance shift within punching range that allowed Damiani to crack him with a clean right. He needs to expand his arsenal beyond low kicks, right hands, and flying/spinning things or more composed strikers are going to plug him for it.
Still, he’s got a ton of potential in terms of both technical and physical ability. I’m looking forward to seeing how he develops in the Octagon.
Opponent: I’m not saying UFC brass should match its prospect softly, but I cannot fathom the reason matchmakers decided to pit Fletcher against Matthew Semelsberger in his Octagon debut. “Semi the Jedi” is exponentially more dangerous than anyone Fletcher’s faced in his career, and Fletcher’s bad defensive habits are more than a little worrying when Semelsberger responds to naked low kicks by punching his opponent’s face into the third row. Fletcher had better hope that Semelsberger’s largely untested takedown defense fails him, because he’s getting starched otherwise.
Tape: His iKon and AKA bouts are on Fight Pass.
Javid “The Snow Leopard” Basharat
Weight Class: Bantamweight
Record: 11-0 (5 KO, 6 SUB)
Notable Victories: Oron Kahlon
London Shootfighters’ Basharat cut his teeth on the English scene en route to a 2021 Contender Series opportunity. Though he missed out on a clash with Saimon Oliveira due to visa issues, he made up for lost time by dismantling Oron Kahlon to claim a UFC contract.
Quality footwork and distance management presumably the product of his taekwondo background form the backbone of Basharat’s stand up. He’s largely content to glide around the cage while tattooing his opponent’s lead leg and midsection with strong kicks. He does an excellent job of moving laterally rather than backing up until he hits the fence, making it extremely difficult to hit his head, and he’s shown a solid jab of late to support his lower-body attack.
As elusive as he is in what you might call the “neutral,” he’s vulnerable when he decides to dictate the action. He tends to advance in a straight line with his chin high when throwing punching combinations, his hands just as low as they are when he’s circling, and can telegraph the step-in for his kicks and knees. That said, he does seem to do a good job of only going on the attack like that when his opponent is vulnerable, so it’s not a crippling weakness.
He’s just as nasty on the ground, especially with his punches and elbows. He particularly excels at using them to set up his guard passing; he’ll posture up or stand to drop heavy shots, then use his opponent’s attempts to defend himself to sneak into half guard or side control. Besides the heavy ground-and-pound, he’s got some dangerous front chokes, including the topside guillotine he used to finish Kahlon.
Wrestling-wise, he’s shown off a good double-leg and solid takedown defense.
I really like what I’ve seen out of Basharat so far. He’s already good enough to hold his own in the lower end of the ultra-stacked UFC Bantamweight division, and I can see him reaching the Top 25 in time.
Opponent: He meets the dangerous, but inconsistent, Trevin Jones. If Basharat focuses on keeping the shorter Jones at a distance, he should pick him apart without too much trouble. If he gets too eager, however, Jones’ brutal right hand is a real threat. Still, I like “The Snow Leopard” to piece up Jones and shut down his wrestling for a solid debut win.
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