UFC 284, which takes place inside RAC Arena in Perth, Australian, tomorrow night (Sat., Feb. 11, 2023) isn’t short on Octagon newcomers ... and not just local talent. On this edition of “New Blood,” the series where I realize that UFC’s 2023 cancelation rate is worryingly high, we check out three Contender Series veterans, and a pair of late-notice replacements.
As usual, all episodes of the most recent Contender Series season are on ESPN+.
Shannon “The Turkish Delight” Ross
Weight Class: Flyweight
Record: 12-6 (6 KO, 1 SUB)
Notable Victories: Donavon Frelow, Charlie Alaniz
Ross bounced back from the loss of his Eternal MMA title with a decision over Contender Series veteran, Donavon Frelow, which ultimately led to his own berth on the show nearly two years later. He entered as a sizable favorite over Vinicius Salvador, but succumbed to the Brazilian’s power late in the second.
A boxer by trade, Ross’s offense is built around his right hand. He’s particularly adept with it on the counter, using it as either a single pull counter or to kick off rapid-fire combinations, but he’s equally happy to rattle off a steady diet of 1-2s to the head and body. Though capable of playing a technical game, one bolstered by solid body kicks, he’s got grit for days and is more than willing to trade heat.
That is also, unfortunately, one of his downfalls. Since I just blathered on about him, let’s look at Jack Jenkins for a comparison. The thing I highlighted about Jenkins was range management, by which I mean he does an excellent job of only being in his opponent’s punching range long enough to do his own damage. He enters and exits the danger zone such that there’s never an opportunity for his opponent to just knuckle down and swing at him.
Ross does not do that. When he attacks, he’ll stop moving his feet and head until he finishes his flurry, meaning he’s there to be hit if you trade with him. Steve Erceg clubbed-and-subbed him by landing a straight right over Ross’s jab and two of Salvador’s knockdowns came from Ross being a stationary target while unloading.
This extends to when he’s retreating. While he has good lateral movement and can pull people onto his counters, he backs himself to the fence too easily and can do so in a straight line, which is how Frelow dropped him and Salvador scored his initial knockdown. Getting floored five times in his last three fights is a pretty clear indication that he’s not durable enough to fight like that.
He does have some decent grappling though. He hit a few clutch takedowns on Frelow, though he could never keep him down. Off of his back, he showed a pair of well-executed triangle and armbar attempts, then immediately scrambled to his feet when Frelow got out. It’s a solid approach, one notably endorsed by Michael Bisping.
Ross is just too easy to hurt to make much of a dent in UFC’s Flyweight division, though I trust him to go out on his shield against debut foe Kleydson Rodrigues, who has the edge in most areas of the game.
Weight Class: Lightweight
Record: 11-0 (5 KO, 6 SUB)
Notable Victories: Jose Barrios Vargas
Prado racked up four quick wins in his native Argentina before taking his talents to Brazil in 2021. He’s spent his last six bouts in the Samurai Fight House promotion, winning and defending its Lightweight title in the span of two months.
Stylistically, though not in terms of overall effectiveness, you could think of Prado as a smaller Glover Teixeira with kicks. On the feet, he loves throwing Texeira’s favorite overhand right to left hook combo, mixing in heavy kicks and good knees along the way. He chains those kicks with other strikes fairly well; I’ve seen him toss out an overhand right to switch head kick, left high kick to spinning back fist, and other such sequences.
When it’s time to take it south, he uses a double-leg to try and land in side control, then move to mount or the back to chase either ground-and-pound or a choke.
He’s clearly a solid athlete, and the way he pasted Jose Barrios Vargas last time out suggests he’s got real power in his hands. He’s definitely still green, however. Diego Basualdo took him down fairly easily and held him down for several minutes, and more than one opponent has cottoned onto the fact that he doesn’t deal with low kicks well. He can also get a bit too invested in brawls.
Still, for a 20-year-old, there’s a lot to like. I’d have to see how his grappling holds up against higher-level opposition before making a firm statement on his ceiling; he’s beaten a couple decent guys, but the one he pounded out two fights back was trying to guillotine him while mounted.
While I’m optimistic about his chances to develop into a solid UFC fighter, he’s probably bitten off more than he can chew against Jamie Mullarkey. Mullarkey is one of the toughest men in the sport, more than happy to slug it out with Prado and a decent wrestler in his own right. Beating him would be an extraordinary feather in Prado’s cap and speak to an extremely bright future.
Jack “Phar” Jenkins
Weight Class: Featherweight
Record: 10-2 (5 KO, 3 SUB)
Notable Victories: Freddy Emiliano Linares, Rod Costa
Jenkins claimed the Eternal MMA Featherweight title with a knockout of Jesse Medina, then dominated Rod Costa exactly one year later in his first and only defense. Then came a trip to Contender Series, where he demolished Freddy Emiliano Linares with ground-and-pound to claim a UFC contract.
Though he didn’t show it on Contender Series, Jenkins is one of the most fluid and satisfying-to-watch strikers this side of Jack Della Maddalena. He’s got some genuinely beautiful combination punching bolstered by crippling calf kicks that have claimed a stoppage on their own. His jab is vicious, he mixes in body shots with incredible crispness, he switches stance with remarkable ease and subtlety, and he knows the value of throwing off-speed shots to disrupt the rhythm.
I really can’t say enough about his offense, from the way he seamlessly blends his punches with his kicks to the incredible range management that lets him get in, do damage, and get out before anything comes back his way.
He does, however, have a handful of issues that showed themselves against Linares. He’s very flat-footed and reliant on controlling distance instead of moving his head, which leaves him vulnerable to straight punches. He also backs straight up, which feeds into my diagnosis that he’s the sort of fighter who does his best work when he can settle in and plant his feet. He put on an absolute clinic against Costa, who allowed Jenkins to get comfortable, but seemed to have issues with Linares’ length and aggression forcing him to constantly retreat.
He’s got a backup plan, though, and that’s a very solid wrestling attack. He times his reactive takedowns well and has a variety of trip finishes after locking up, allowing him to play a tight top game with a steady diet of punches and elbows. He showed off some nice guard passing against Linares as well, ultimately bludgeoning him into submission after taking mount and punishing the latter’s attempt to get to his feet.
While he did suffer a pair of early-career submission losses, he shut down Costa’s takedowns with ease, so he looks solid on the defensive side of things.
Jenkins is a damn good fighter and an immediate threat to break into Featherweight contention, held back only by those defensive habits and a potential lack of killer instinct. He should run roughshod over Don Shainis, whom he outclasses on the feet and should be able to match in the grappling.
Tape: His Eternal MMA bouts are on Fight Pass.
Blake “El Animal” Bilder
Weight Class: Featherweight
Record: 7-0-1, (1 KO, 4 SUB)
Notable Victories: Alex Morgan, Frank Buenafuente
A come-from-behind submission of Frank Buenafuente earned Bilder the CFFC Featherweight title, which he defended with a knockout over Regivaldo Carvalho. His efforts sent him to Contender Series, where he tapped the favored Alex Morgan in the first round to secure a UFC contract.
Power punches and switch kicks are Bilder’s weapons of choice on the feet. Whether gliding on the outside or marching relentlessly forward, he picks away at his opponents’ lead legs while firing heavy combinations behind his jab. He puts his shots together nicely and, despite the dearth of knockout on his record, he does possess some thump, as seen when he finished Carvalho and stunned Morgan to set up a fight-ending rear naked choke.
His big problem is that he’s just not that durable and doesn’t have the technical defense to compensate. Buenafuente knocked him loopy with a point-blank right hook and Carvalho floored him more than once with punches that weren’t particularly clean. While he does a lot of bending at the knees and waist while pushing forward, he still gets hit too often by punches down the pipe.
Though a middling wrestler, he’s incredibly smooth on the mat. His flexibility and leg dexterity are something to behold, and both were on full display when he hit a triangle on Buenafuente while shoved into the base of the fence. His transitions are plenty quick as well, particularly when taking the back.
Bilder is fun to watch, but his inability to take punches or impose his genuinely excellent ground game, I don’t see him finding a ton of success in the world’s largest fight promotion without some major adjustments.
Tape: His CFFC bouts are on Fight Pass.
Weight Class: Featherweight
Record: 13-3 (1 KO, 11 SUB)
Notable Victories: None
Brenner, the latest Chute Boxe Diego Lima product to join the world’s largest fight promotion, started his career 11-1 before hitting a two-fight skid. He’s since bounced back with a pair of first-round submission wins, the most recent of them in March 2022.
He steps in for Joel Alvarez, who ran into visa issues, on less than a month’s notice.
Despite that shiny submission record, Brenner does his best work with ground-and-pound. Rather than play a tight top game, he seems to prefer posturing a bit to do as much damage as he can and provoke opponents into giving him an easy route through their guard. That’s not to say he can’t be technical, of course; he’s a solid scrambler who passes well, and he’s confident enough in his submissions to go for a heel hook from guard.
As for his wrestling, it seems functional. He struggled with the takedowns of Gabriel Santos in his last defeat, but that was 2020, and he hit a fairly easy double-leg against a much more limited opponent last time out. I do want to note that he hit a very nice foot sweep from the Thai clinch on Santos, though, as that’s a promising sign.
His striking is…weird. Going back to his first loss in 2019, he was a perfectly serviceable “throw stuff at the wall and see what sticks” Muay Thai artist, hurling punch flurries, spinning techniques, knees, and elbows with equal enthusiasm. Fast-forward to that Santos fight a year later, though, and he moved like he was filled with cement. That most recent victory didn’t last long enough to give a clear idea of which was his natural state, but if he’s that slow and vulnerable to right hands in an average fight, he’s not going to last long in the Octagon.
Brenner’s only 25 and fighting out of a good camp, so I’m not prepared to write him off yet. Hell, Deiveson Figueiredo arguably looked worse than Brenner did before joining UFC. Still, it’s hard to get too excited, especially when he’s going to get brutalized by the power and wrestling of Zubaira Tukhugov.
Remember that MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC 284 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 on ESPN/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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