Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) has been leaning heavily on newcomers to fill cards thus far in 2023, though never as much as the promotion’s return to UFC APEX in Las Vegas, Nevada, this weekend (Sat., Feb. 4, 2023). On this edition of “New Blood,” the series I occasionally regret ever suggesting, we check out the eight “Road to UFC” finalists and a pair of Contender Series veterans.
All “Road to UFC” bouts can be found on Fight Pass, while the most recent season of Contender Series is on ESPN+.
As for tape, I’ll leave you with UFC’s posted highlights for the series if prior footage isn’t immediately available ...
Weight Class: Welterweight
Record: 6-1 (4 KO, 2 SUB)
Notable Victories: Jose Henrique Souza
Before you do anything else, watch the video I linked below of Kinoshita’s loss to Ryuichiro Sumimura. It’s one of the gnarliest stomp finishes ever and it is objectively hilarious that Kinoshita got disqualified not for mashing Sumimura’s face into pasta dough, but for grabbing the fence while doing it.
When he’s not performing Irish dance on human skulls, Kinoshita’s a shift-happy Southpaw with vicious punching power and some heavy low kicks to keep opponents from moving laterally. One of his favorite tricks is to fire the straight left, bring his left leg behind it, and follow up with combinations from orthodox. He’s a scary counter-puncher as well, as seen when he blew up Jose Henrique with a picture-perfect pull counter on Contender Series.
His problem is that he fights almost exclusively in straight lines and can perform naked shifts with striking distance. To be clear, I adore fighters who switch stance mid-combination, and I have a years-long Andy Ristie fandom to prove it. If you don’t disguise them or set them up, though, you’re extremely vulnerable to getting hit before you can reset and get the rest of your offense going, especially if you lead with the shift.
He also has a habit of dipping to his right that I’m afraid will earn him a shin to the dome at some point, an issue compounded by a habit of keeping his right hand too low.
To avoid getting to negative about a fighter I’m very high on, I want to point out his excellent defensive grappling. He does a great job of breaking the clinch and is adept at getting right back to the feet. Against the much more experienced Sumimura, Kinoshita fairly easily broke his body triangle and reset at range, showing that he has the ground skills to compensate for a style that naturally exposes him to reactive takedowns.
Kinoshita looks excellent at just 22 years old — the foundation is there for an effective and crowd-pleasing style, one whose flaws are plenty fixable. He’s far more dangerous than debut foe Adam Fugitt on the feat, and though Fugitt does have some strong wrestling, Kinoshita’s demonstrated enough skill in keeping it standing that I favor him to score the knockout.
Anshul “King of Lions” Jubli
Weight Class: Lightweight
Record: 6-0 (1 KO, 1 SUB)
Notable Victories: Kyung Pyo Kim
Jubli is what you might call a meat-and-potatoes boxer. Though lacking in eye-catching speed, power or general dynamism, he’s a solid one- or two-at-a-time striker with an admirable propensity for attacking the body. His jab, cross and left hook are all generally sound, but his big issue is lingering in the pocket and admiring his work. His square, upright stance and overall stiffness already aren’t great for defense, and a habit of leaning way in when hitting the body and leaving his chin in the firing line for that extra split second allowed Kim to land a number of great counters.
Beyond that, he doesn’t seem to deal with low kicks or body shots all that well and was clearly spent before the end of the second round last time out.
Grappling-wise, he’s very adept at scrambling to his feet, though that square stance and tendency to put too much behind his overhand right can leave him open to being taken down.
Jubli’s a perfectly sound fighter, but there’s nothing in his game that pops out enough to call him a real threat in the Octagon. He’ll also likely struggle in his debut against Jeka Saragih, a much faster and more powerful striker with the body and low kicks to ruin Jubli’s day.
Jeka “Si Tendangan Maut” Saragih
Weight Class: Lightweight
Record: 13-2 (8 KO, 4 SUB)
Notable Victories: Won Bin Ki, Pawan Maan Singh
Wound-up bombs and sneaky, powerful kicks comprise the bulk of Saragih’s offense. He’s all about leg kicks and big, explosive flurries punctuated with out-of-nowhere body kicks, fitting his nickname “The Death Kick.” His game clearly needs a lot more tightening, particularly in the way he telegraphs his punches and leaves his chin out, but he’s quick enough and does enough damage that he can get away with it.
He’s shown off solid takedown defense and some good lifts from the body lock to get it to the mat himself. On top, he’s super aggressive and remarkably accurate with his ground-and-pound, especially as opponents try to make space.
Overall, he’s entertaining, physically gifted, and has some solid instincts. He just needs a ton of polish if he wants to be a player at 155 pounds, though what he has should be sufficient to carry him past Anshul Jubli.
Weight Class: Featherweight
Record: 21-3 (5 KO, 11 SUB)
Notable Victories: Koyomi Matsushima, Keisuke Sasu
“Dogged” is the word I’d use to describe Yi. On the feet, he constantly pushes forward with quick punches, body kicks, and some well-timed knees either on the advance or on the counter. He commits fully to his takedown attempts and can be impossible to dislodge once he’s got his hands locked. If he ends up on his back, he’s chasing sweeps, submissions and scrambles from the get-go.
That doesn’t always work to his benefit, however.
Yi has a habit of stepping in too dramatically when he punches, which both telegraphs them and leaves his hips wide open to takedown attempts. Matsushima used these openings to outwrestle Yi for a solid chunk of the fight, so he’ll have to tone it down a bit if he wants to deal with high-level grapplers.
He also doesn’t seem to deal with leg kicks well, which I am contractually obligated to point out.
Yi could benefit from a bit more defensive awareness and a bit less commitment on the feet, but there’s definitely a lot of promise there for someone in his mid-20s. I could see him turning the corner like teammate Sumudaerji did with a bit of seasoning. I do, however, think he’s going to get his face caved in by one of Jeong Yeong Lee’s counter rights.
Jeong Yeong “The Korean Tiger” Lee
Weight Class: Featherweight
Record: 9-1 (4 KO, 3 SUB)
Notable Victories: Lu Kai, Xie Bin, Hae Jin Park
You’d have to go back to 2018 to see a Lee fight that lasted longer than one minute, and it’s not hard to see why. He’s got a terrific straight right that works equally well as a lead, a counter, or a follow-up to a jab. Impressive speed and timing let him land that punch with worrying regularity, and should opponents try to bring it south, he showed off a lovely armbar on Xie Bin within seconds of hitting the mat.
Back in 2018, though, he showed off some very exploitable defense due to a tendency to plant his feet in the pocket and throw back rather than get out of the way. He also appeared to struggle with low kicks and his opponent’s southpaw stance. His more recent fights weren’t long enough to determine whether he’d fixed those issues, so it’s something to keep an eye on.
There are lingering questions about Lee’s hittability and ground skills, but his hands are nasty enough that I’m excited to see his debut. I think his counters will be the key here; Yi is there to be hit as he steps in, and a counter right can end things in one shot if Lee times it right.
Rinya “Hybrid” Nakamura
Weight Class: Bantamweight
Record: 6-0 (4 KO, 1 SUB)
Notable Victories: Shohei Nose, Gugun Gusman
Nakamura’s incredible wrestling credentials include a gold medal in the world under-23 championships, and his adeptness in the sport is obvious. Despite shooting from long range, he manhandled Gusman with ease, then controlled him for a long stretch from the rear crucifix. After tearing him up with elbows and punches, he got stood up for hitting the back of the head, at which point he just took him down again and put him away with an americana.
His striking is still developing, and he definitely needs to both better blend it with his takedowns and protect his chin more as he stalks into range. Offensively, though, he’s shown some impressive power and increasing nuance, including well-timed knees, a sharp straight left, and the “punch with the same hand you just kicked with” trick I love so much.
Nakamura’s pedigree and physicality alone make him a prospect worth watching, though a couple more years of polish may be necessary before he thinks about contention. I do, however, think he’ll bulldoze finale foe Toshiomi Kazama, who’s also short on defense and relies heavily on takedowns.
Weight Class: Bantamweight
Record: 10-2 (3 KO, 5 SUB)
Notable Victories: Maimaitituoheti Keremuaili
Kazama, a decorated grappler with a judo and jiu-jitsu background, has one of the more unique approaches to applying Brazilian jiu-jitsu in mixed martial arts (MMA) that I’ve seen in some time. If he can’t hit a standard takedown, he’ll march relentlessly forward until he can get in the clinch and start fighting for grips, then chase trips and takedowns as if it were a pure BJJ match. If you try to back out, he’ll step right back in and grab your wrists to resume the process. It’s surprisingly effective, and even if he ends up on his back, he’s remarkably good at X-guard, deep half guard and various other sweeping positions to unbalance his opponent and take a dominant position.
His striking is mostly aggression at this point. He’s got a solid right hand, but he often seems content to just walk through fire until he can tie up.
I feel like Kazama will struggle with more mobile opponents, especially ones who can strike off the back foot to catch him coming in. He’ll be a ton of fun against opponents willing to play his game, though, and I hope to see him stick around after he falls to Nakamura.
Hyun Sung “Peace of Mind” Park
Weight Class: Flyweight
Record: 7-0 (3 KO, 3 SUB)
Notable Victories: Topnoi Kiwram, Jeremia Siregar
Park fits an archetype we don’t see all too often: the catch-and-pitch counter striker. He seems to prefer leading with low kicks to try and bait his opponent into throwing, at which point he’ll catch the punches on his guard and come back with cleaner combinations. He’s got a solid jab, puts his strikes together nicely, and showed some good timing in catching kicks sent his way.
It does, however, seem like he can get rattled by faster kickboxers. Topnoi Kiwram dropped him with a three-piece combo that broke Park’s composure enough that he started lunging in and getting countered instead of playing his usual game. It’s worth keeping an eye on, especially since he relies more on his feet and his arms for defense rather than head movement.
His ground game appears strong overall. He wrenched Jeremia Siregar to the mat from the rear body lock, flattened him out, and pounded him out in a manner of seconds. He showed an equally nice back take against Kiwram, whom he finished via rear-naked choke.
Park’s got some nice skills overall, just nothing spectacular as of yet. I like his chances against the less-polished Seung Guk Choi, who looks vulnerable to Park’s boxing.
Seung Guk Choi
Weight Class: Flyweight
Record: 6-1 (1 KO, 1 SUB)
Notable Victories: Qiulun, Rama Supandhi
Choi, an acolyte of The Korean Zombie, is far more kick-focused than his mentor. Whether it was due to his two Road to UFC opponents being southpaws or just how he fights in general, he seems to prefer feinting with his hands to set up power kicks over committing to boxing exchanges. To his credit, he can tear up a calf in no time flat and is decent on the counter.
The problem is that it’s not a sufficiently dangerous offense to make up for his lack of defense. A punch straight down the pipe will hit him more often than not, as he’s yet to master Jung’s knack for subtle head movement and counters. Rama Supandhi landed some lovely punches on him before Choi’s calf kicks compromised him, and you can be sure UFC-caliber strikers can do the same.
On the grappling side, he has generally solid takedown defense and can hit a double-leg in close, but struggles to set up his shots against longer opponents. He prefers chipping away with punches from the top, which is probably for the best; whenever he tried taking Qiulun’s back or attacking the crucifix, his sloppy positioning allowed Qiulun to escape.
I know he’s relatively young, but for someone who made his amateur debut in 2015 and his pro debut in 2018, I feel like Choi should have more to his game. Maybe he’s a lot better against orthodox opponents; he’ll have to be to get past Hyun Sung Park.
Weight Class: Flyweight
Record: 8-1 (6 SUB)
Notable Victories: Erisson Ferreira
Aguilar is a 5’4” bowling ball of a Flyweight — a hectic, muscle-bound slugger who makes up for his lack of size with sheer enthusiasm. Though he can put together some slick combinations on the inside and has shown off a heavy check hook, he’s more than happy to just swing for the fences until an opportunity arises to fire a power double and work from the top. He seems to have a handful of preferred entries, namely the inside low kick and a quick hand feint that Daniel Cormier made note of in his fight with Erisson Ferreira on Contender Series.
Despite being halfway through his eighth year as a pro, though, the technique hasn’t caught up with the aggression. He pulled Ferreira on top of him more than once by making basic errors on trip attempts and was loath to use the jab despite previously demonstrating the ability to do so. Relying on your athleticism to just sprint into range with big swings is not sustainable; see Sicilia, Sam. Aguilar does at least have some kicks to make up for it, but he’s short to begin with and his wingspan is even shorter. He needs a jab, more head movement, and less-telegraphed setups to his double-leg.
The other piece of his game worth noting is the guillotine. He’s incredibly trigger-happy with it and knows how to use it as a threat and setup when the finish isn’t there. Judging by Ferreira’s face when he got caught in it, the squeeze is as nasty as you’d imagine. Still think he goes to it way too often, though, especially when his takedown defense isn’t the best.
Aguilar’s fun, but that’s about where he’ll peak without a lot of fine-tuning. He’s definitely in for it against Tatsuro Taira, who has the technical edge everywhere alongside three inches of height and more than a half-foot of reach.
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