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UFC Vegas 74 - New Blood: Tajikistan to the rescue

UFC Fighter Portraits Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC

The myriad Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) fighter mills means there’s always someone willing to answer the phone no matter how late the notice. On this edition of New Blood, the series where it feels like Contender Series losers will soon out-number the winners in the Octagon, we look at two last-minute Tajik debutants and a Legacy Fighting Alliance (LFA) champion.

As always, you can find Contender Series episodes on ESPN+.

LIVE! Stream UFC Vegas 79 On ESPN+

HIGH STAKES LIGHTWEIGHT MATCHUP! Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) returns to UFC APEX on Sat., Sept. 23, 2023, with a high stakes 155-pound showdown as No. 6-ranked contender, Rafael Fiziev, takes on No. 7-seeded Mateusz Gamrot. In UFC Vegas 79’s co-main event, No. 12-ranked Featherweight contender, Bryce Mitchell, steps back into the Octagon against No. 13-seeded Dan Ige.

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

Muhammadjon “Hillman” Naimov

Weight Class: Featherweight/Lightweight
Age: 28
Record: 8-2 (4 KO, 2 SUB)
Notable Victories: Sitik Muduev

Naimov went 6-1 as an amateur and 5-0 as a professional before dropping back-to-back decisions to Collin Anglin and Olivier Murad, the former on Contender Series. He’s since won three straight, most recently stopping Dylan Schulte with a 34-second head kick in March 2023.

He steps in for Guram Kutateladze on five days’ notice.

Power striking is Naimov’s calling card. He fights out of a high, tight stance, hurling vicious right hands and low kicks from a distance alongside gnarly clinch knees. He’s got speed, power and timing to spare, especially when throwing that right hand as a counter. His Tae Kwon Do background also manifests in a willingness to throw spinning techniques, though he finds more success when sticking to fundamentals.

He has most of the tools needed to be a handful on the feet, save one: the ability to properly pace himself. Indeed, Naimov enjoyed explosive starts against both Anglin and Murad, but fell apart after the second round each time. Since his striking defense is built around footwork and speed to compensate for a largely stationary chin, Anglin and Murad were able to deal huge damage despite being far lesser technicians.

Though he didn’t gas in last year’s questionable split decision over Sitik Muduev and, in fact, had his best round in the third, he also pushed a significantly slower pace and looked far less destructive. Despite employing a jab for once, reining in his explosiveness allowed Muduev to constantly split his guard with straight punches, one of which put the ordinarily ironclad Naimov on Queer Street.

It doesn’t help that he tends to back straight up, so it’s not hard to chase him down once his gas tank gives out.

As for his grappling, his takedown defense is fairly average, and though he’s quick enough to land an opportunistic takedown if it’s handed to him on a silver platter, his offensive wrestling is generally limited. He’s very passive from the top and hasn’t shown much off of his back other than scooting to the fence to stand and, in one case, using a kimura to sweep a rocked Murad.

If Naimov could get all his gears to mesh, he’d be a middle-of-the-pack guy, held back by his limited ground game, but capable of ruining a lot of fighters’ days on the feet. As is, I don’t see him going terribly far in the Octagon, and I especially don’t see him surviving the much bigger, much more proven, and extraordinarily durable Jamie Mullarkey.

Ketlen “Esquentadinha” Souza

Weight Class: Flyweight
Age: 27
Record: 13-3 (8 KO, 1 SUB)
Notable Victories: Kristina Williams, Gisele Moreira

Souza opened her career perfect (6-0) before hitting a 2-3 skid. After bouncing back with three wins on the Brazilian circuit, she made the move to LFA, beating Maiju Suotama in her debut before claiming the vacant Flyweight title with a decision over Kristina Williams.

“Equentadinha” (“Little Hothead”) is a bouncy, mobile, switch-hitting striker by trade, hurling a high volume of kicks from a longer distance than her 5’3” frame would suggest. Low kicks, front kicks and body kicks appear to be her favorite, though she can also bust out remarkably quick spinning techniques at a moment’s notice. She’s equally fond of other classic “explosive” techniques like flying knees and Superman punches alongside her more traditional looping punches.

She’ll occasionally sacrifice setup and rely on her impressive speed to land her more dramatic moves, but there are a few nice wrinkles, like her willingness to tear up the body as frequently as she does the head. She also does a good job of following her punches with kicks.

She is, however, much better off the front foot than the back. She’ll retreat in a straight line, and once she hit the fence, she seems to always drop her hands, try to navigate the incoming flurry with pure head movement, and then hurl an overhand right as hard as she can. On top of that, she’s markedly less effective when she has to pace herself, as she did in that five-rounder against Williams. Until Souza got comfortable enough with the pace to start bouncing like usual, she got caught several times, both with punches and with low kicks on her trailing lead leg.

Overall, though, her speed, output and versatility make her a real handful on the feet. While her knockouts came against awful competition, she’s definitely got a bit of pop.

Her takedown defense is solid, but not spectacular. Though she completely shut down the wrestling attack of 40-year-old Suotama, she ended up on her back a few times against Williams due to a flubbed spin, a caught kick, and a traditional takedown. Off her back, she regains guard decently well and is quick to throw up an armbar or omoplata.

Offensively, she’s shown off a couple decent clinch takedowns and a reactive shot. She can do some damage from the top, like the elbow that split Williams wide open, but also seems willing to disengage rather than pass guard if she doesn’t land at least in half-guard.

As far as hyper-mobile Brazilian strikers go, she’s no Natalia Silva, but she’s a solid addition to the roster. If she can handle a dedicated pressure fighter, she’s Top 15 material. Debut opponent, Karine Silva, figures to test her in that category, especially with her wrestling.

Muin “Tajik” Gafurov

Weight Class: Bantamweight
Age: 27
Record: 18-4 (10 KO, 7 SUB)
Notable Victories: Herbeth Souza, Leandro Issa

After a lengthy stint on the Eastern European circuit and shaky run in ONE, Gafurov tried his hand on Contender Series, where he dropped a split decision to underdog Chad Anheliger and subsequently failed a drug test. A move to LFA quickly righted the ship, resulting in two brutal knockouts in back-to-back efforts.

He steps in for Mateus Mendonca on less than two weeks’ notice.

Gafurov is a combat Sambo world champion from Eastern Europe, so it shouldn’t surprise you to learn that he’s a suffocating grappler with a pressure- and haymaker-heavy striking attack. His striking is built around a brutally powerful right hand, supported by a similarly strong left hook, cracking low kicks, and the occasional spinning technique.

Though rough and overly dependent on his speed and power, there’s some depth to it. His counters are solid, especially when punishing naked kicks, and the spinning moves aren’t just for show; he absolutely folded Diego Silva with a spinning back kick to the body last time out. He does, however, really need to just tone it down a bit. He’s lackadaisical with his foot placement, often throwing the overhand right so hard that it drags his right leg to the front, and doesn’t utilize a jab.

Don’t get me wrong, he’s still a beast on the feet, but some more setups and better control of his momentum would both make it easier for him to land the big shots and harder for his opponents to counter. Just look at the Anheliger fight, where he dominated a chunk of the first round with his grappling before running headlong into a knee.

There are no such caveats about his wrestling. He’s got an extremely powerful double-leg, scrambles well, and does a good job of both staying upright and doing damage when defending takedowns. Even if he does end up on his back, he’s quick to get to his feet and/or turn it into a shot of his own. Though not a top-tier guard passer, he can do some solid damage with punches and elbows from guard.

Submission-wise, he hasn’t actually tapped anyone since 2016 and has a bad habit of losing back mount by only putting in one hook. Not a huge liability, but definitely something to work on.

I genuinely think something was wrong with Gafurov when he gassed against Anheliger, as he’s looked terrific since then. He’s likely Top 15 material even in a hugely crowded division and — so long as there aren’t any more weight cut issues — has the skills to slug and wrestle his way past debut foe John Castaneda.

Remember that will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC Vegas 74 fight card right here, starting with the ESPN+ “Prelims” matches, which are scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. ET, then the remaining main card balance (also on ESPN+) at 9 p.m. ET.

To check out the latest and greatest UFC Vegas 74: “Kara-France vs. Albazi” news and notes be sure to hit up our comprehensive event archive right here.

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