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UFC 288 - New Blood: The Contenders, The Machine and The Beautiful Monster

UFC 288 Press Conference Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) cards have been taking an absolute pounding of late from eleventh-hour injuries and other issues, and UFC 288, which takes place inside Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., this weekend (Sat., May 6, 2023), is no exception.

On this edition of “New Blood,” the series where fight week cancelations crush my soul with heartbreaking regularity, we look at three Contender Series veterans, a new Chute Boxe product, and a power-punching Heavyweight who’s yet to see the second round.

LIVE! Watch UFC 288 PPV On ESPN+ Here!

BLOCKBUSTER BANTAMWEIGHT BATTLE! Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) returns to Newark, N.J., for the first time in more than three years on Sat., May 6, 2023, with a blockbuster Bantamweight collision inside Prudential Center that will see Aljamain Sterling attempt another successful title defense against returning two-division titleholder and former gold medal-winning Olympic wrestler, Henry Cejudo. In UFC 288’s last-minute pay-per-view (PPV) co-main event, former Welterweight title challenger, Gilbert Burns, locks horns with No. 4-seeded contender, Belal Muhammad, in a five-round, 170-pound No. 1 contender eliminator match.

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

Diego Lopes

Weight Class: Featherweight
Age: 28
Record: 21-5 (8 KO, 11 SUB)
Notable Victories: Masio Fullen, Marco Beltran, Rony Jason

Lopes entered Contender Series in the midst of a 16-1 run, only to fall to Joanderson Brito and subsequently drop a split decision to Nate Richardson in his Fury FC debut. He’s since bounced back with two straight wins, one in Fury and the other in his familiar stomping grounds of Lux Fight League.

He steps in for the injured Bryce Mitchell on just four days’ notice.

Lopes is as well-rounded as his ratio of finishes would imply. On the feet, his boxing-heavy offense revolves around a weirdly powerful jab. Visually, it’s got next to no snap on it — it looks like he just leans forward and thrusts his arm out without any sort of weight transfer. Somehow, though, it rocked Richardson on three separate occasions. With how often he throws it, it can become a problem very quickly, especially when used in conjunction with his powerful left hook and solid counter-punching.

If things aren’t working out in the striking, he’s got a solid double-leg and arsenal of clinch takedowns. He can scythe through a guard with impressive speed, dropping heavy shots until he’s in position to threaten submissions from mount or the back. Should he get swept, he’s quick to threaten with triangles and the armbar that’s secured five of his submission wins.

As far as weaknesses go, it’s less any huge, glaring shortcoming and more a collection of niggling issues. Though he has impressive punching power and can really pour on the hurt when he smells blood, his head movement is limited, he can load up on the left hook at times, and he’s vulnerable to low kicks. His cardio is also suspect; he seemingly went into torpor for long stretches of his fight with Richardson, only to roar back for a couple minutes of vicious success before once again allowing Richardson to eat him up with jabs and leg kicks.

Grappling-wise, he struggled with the relentless offense and heavy top control of Joanderson Brito, though he did threaten his neck and leg at times.

Even with a shaky recent record, I’m glad to see Lopes in the Octagon. He’s skilled everywhere and an incredibly consistent finisher. That said, I’m not sure his strengths are overwhelming enough to carry him into contention, and they’re definitely not enough to topple a wrestling standout like Movsar Evloev with no prep time.

UFC 288 Official Weigh-in Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Rolando “The Machine” Bedoya

Weight Class: Welterweight
Age: 26
Record: 14-1 (4 KO, 3 SUB)
Notable Victories: Pablo Dhorta

Bedoya — the latest Chute Boxe Diego Lima-trained product to join the world’s largest mixed martial arts (MMA) promotion — hasn’t tasted defeat since his fourth professional fight in 2015. His current streak saw him emerge as the face of Fusion FC in his native Peru and claim its interim Welterweight title in March 2022.

As far as Charles Oliveira training partners go, Bedoya’s approach seems most similar to that of Daniel “Willycat” Santos, namely high-octane slugging and a steady diet of heavy low kicks. He’s particularly fond of one-two combinations and three-two combinations, throwing his right hand with such force that he often ends up with his head on the outside of his left leg. Though he doesn’t possess a ton of power, as you’d probably guessed from his record, he’s got a great motor and can put on the hurt with seemingly endless flurries against the fence.

Like “Willycat,” though, he doesn’t do nearly enough to protect himself. He brings his hands back low when punching and, when pressured, will either plant his feet to exchange or back straight up. He doesn’t move his head when exchanging and only occasionally does it when retreating, but in the latter case, he’ll dip way to his right and almost look away from his opponent as he eats punches. Mauricio Otalora nearly knocked him out with an overhand right two fights back and Pablo Dhorta consistently caught him with combinations as Bedoya retreated with his hands out of position.

Again, I know I can be too harsh on guys for having the temerity to not avoid every single punch coming their way, but Bedoya genuinely has terrible defensive instincts. He needs to move his head, jab more, keep his hands up, and incorporate some kind of lateral movement, as he lacks the firepower to win a slugfest against a UFC-caliber power puncher.

To his credit, he can take it to the ground if needed. It’s not particularly eye-catching wrestling, but it’s worked for him so far. On top, he’s a decent guard passer and a very good ground-and-pounder. As you might imagine from someone who works with “Do Bronx,” he’s fond of working from the front headlock, and a d’arce accounts for his only submission finish in the last six years.

His defensive wrestling seems decent, though I must stress that his strength of schedule has been fairly limited.

I’d say Bedoya has more talent than training partner Elves Brenner, but he’s got a lot of work to do if he wants to be more than an action fighter. His debut seems like borderline sadistic matchmaking, as UFC brass have elected to pit him against Khaos Williams. Poor defense is the absolute last thing you want against “The Oxfighter,” so expect what could charitably be described as a learning experience for Bedoya.

UFC 288 Official Weigh-in Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Ikram Aliskerov

Weight Class: Middleweight
Age: 30
Record: 13-1 (4 KO, 5 SUB)
Notable Victories: Mario Sousa, Nah-shon Burrell, Denis Tiuliulin

Aliskerov battled his way to a perfect professional start (8-0) before running afoul of Khamzat Chimaev in April 2019. He’s since returned to form with five straight wins, including a kimura finish of Mario Sousa on Contender Series.

A decorated Sambo player, Aliskerov predictably boasts excellent wrestling and top control. He’s particularly fond of hurling people to the mat from the body lock, but he’s also happy to fire off reactive double-legs whenever opponents get too eager with their punches. He’s extremely adept at riding from the top, casually flowing from position to position as his opponent tries to force his way to the feet. His ground-and-pound is steady, heavy and effective, but his favorite attack is the kimura from side control that earned three of his last four victories.

It’s not as brutally eye-catching as, say, Khabib Nurmagomedov’s “smesh,” but his grappling is technically excellent and profoundly effective.

That casualness I mentioned extends to his stand up. He’ll steadily pressure from a tall, relaxed stance, pumping out a steady diet of switch kicks and front kicks to the body. His boxing is decent, not exactly technically perfect but not as loopy as you might expect from a ground specialist. He’s also prone to busting out surprisingly fast flying knees, one of which landed perfectly on Nah-Shon Burrell and which he does a good job of using to set up his preferred body lock. Nothing particularly stands out as a weakness aside from not being able to withstand a flush Khamzat uppercut to the face, though he did back straight up when Sousa pressured him.

Again, while he may not have the wow factor of Khabib, he’s a damn good fighter who could easily work his way to UFC’s Top 15. The oddsmakers are certainly believers, installing him as a -210 favorite over Philip Hawes at time of writing. Honestly, while Hawes does find ways to lose in awful fashion, I see this as closer to 50/50 thanks to “Megatron’s” superior striking.

UFC Fighter Portraits Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC

Braxton “The Beautiful Monster” Smith

Weight Class: Heavyweight
Age: 33
Record: 5-1 (5 KO)
Notable Victories: None

Smith originally debuted in 2014 against Chase Sherman, who stopped “The Beautiful Monster” two minutes into the first round. An eight-year layoff followed, since which he’s made up for lost time with five knockouts in less than a half-round apiece.

Smith is about what you’d expect out of a 5’11,” >250-pound, built-like-a-fridge-on-legs Heavyweight with a bunch of quick knockouts. He’s all about hurling his right hand as hard as possible, often with the sort of hopping windup you’d expect out of a left fielder trying to pick off a guy rounding third. He’ll occasionally follow it with a left hook, which earned his first of two sub-minute knockouts over Jakori Savage, but tends to flail when trying to put multiple punches together. Ugly and telegraphed as they are, his shots do admittedly pack quite a wallop.

As far as other wrinkles, he’s a surprisingly dextrous kicker, especially with his lead left leg. He’ll also bust out a Superman punch at times, which set up a finishing flurry against Cameron Chism-Brungard two fights back.

Nobody’s tested his grappling yet outside of Cody Beck trying to mug him against the fence, so no word on that front.

While fun to watch, the man is not a UFC-worthy fighter, even in a division that just saw Sergei Pavlovich (as Jack Slack put it) unga-bunga his way into contention. He’s good for some brawls, but not much else. He’ll at least get the standup battle he wants against Parker Porter, though the latter’s grit, experience, and willingness to wrestle give him a clear edge.

Remember that will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC 288 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.

To check out the latest and greatest UFC 288: “Sterling vs. Cejudo” news and notes be sure to hit up our comprehensive event archive right here.

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