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UFC Vegas 86 - New Blood: The Contender Quartet (and Robert)

UFC Vegas 86, which takes place inside UFC APEX in Las Vegas, Nevada, this weekend (Sat., Feb. 10, 2024) has taken the sort of beating that reminds us the reason(s) the promotion regularly stacks 14-15 fights on each card, but it’s not short on newcomers. On this edition of “New Blood” — the series where governments deny visas specifically to make my life more difficult — we check out four Contender Series veterans and a Polish slugger.

UFC Fight Night: Aspinall v Tybura

Robert Bryczek

Weight Class: Middleweight
Age: 33
Record: 17-5 (11 KO, 1 SUB)
Notable Victories: Samuel Kristofic, Abdel Rahmane Driai, Virgiliu Frasineac

A 10-2 professional start gave way to a 2-3 skid for Bryczek, including losses to UFC veteran, Leandro Silva, and future Contender Series hopeful, Kaik Brito. Those struggles appear to have lit a fire in him, going onto score five consecutive first round knockouts.

This may shock you to hear after that description, but Bryczek is a power boxer. He’s got gnarly one-shot power in both hands and the technical prowess to deliver it, showcasing very solid footwork, a stiff and persistent jab, and good head movement. He’s no headhunter, either; on the contrary, he’ll target the midsection with jabs, straights or a bomb of a liver hook.

While the victims of his current knockout streak are admittedly of mixed quality, there’s no question that the man can bang.

He is, however, plagued by several issues. We’ll start with the small ones. While he does move his head well, he can also be a bit predictable in dipping to his right, which can leave him open to hooks. He can also loop his right hand more than is necessary and tends to keep his left hand low in the process.

Durability could also be a problem — he got floored by a jab from Brito in 2021, but that was at Welterweight and he seems to take punches just fine at 185 pounds.

The big one is that he cannot deal with low kicks. He started fairly slow against Zdenek Polivka in his most recent defeat, which allowed Polivka to severely damage his lead leg and take most of the sting off of Bryczek’s power shots when the latter finally got into gear. It looks to still be an issue; Diai and Kristofic both landed some solid low kicks, but neither stayed conscious long enough to capitalize.

Though Bryczek manages range well enough that he doesn’t get hit by every low kick that comes his way, it’s a very, very obvious target that UFC-caliber strikers will zero-in on.

It’s hard to make any clear judgment on his grappling when, as far as I can tell, he hasn’t actually had to grapple anyone in at least three years. He stuffed Polivka’s lone takedown and apparently has both a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt and some regional grappling accolades, so all seems well.

Bryczek’s not quite on the level of Roman Kopylov as far as up-and-coming Middleweight sluggers go, but he’s very skilled and very fun to watch. Even if he’s not contender material, he’s good enough to find a place for himself in UFC.

His debut pits him against Ihor Poteira, who drops to Middleweight on a week’s notice after Albert Duraev’s exit. Bryczek had a very good shot of smashing Duraev, a notorious frontrunner, and has an arguably more favorable matchup here thanks to Potieria’s similarly poor cardio and nonexistent wrestling game.

Dana White’s Contender Series – Season 7, Week 4

Carlos “The Nightmare” Prates

Weight Class: Welterweight
Age: 30
Record: 17-6 (12 KO, 3 SUB)
Notable Victories: Mitch Ramirez, Eduardo Ramon

Prates started his mixed martial arts (MMA) career 7-5 before finding his footing with a 9-1 run. His success carried him to Contender Series, where he knocked out Mitch Ramirez to secure a UFC contract.

Standing 6’1” with a downright unfair 78-inch reach and reportedly not cutting much weight to make 170 pounds, Prates is the gangliest UFC striker this side of Sean Woodson. More than 100 Muay Thai bouts have turned him into a nasty sharpshooter with particularly effective straight lefts and left high kicks. Though he’s not one for combinations besides the occasional 1-2, he’s accurate enough to land his power shots without immediate setup.

Dealing with Prates at a distance is — as his nickname suggests — an absolute nightmare. Despite all his striking experience, however, two significant issues remain: a vulnerable lead leg and questionable cagecraft.

The first is a byproduct of his stance. Prates stands side-on and extremely heavy on his lead leg to the point where he hunches a bit. This is, to be clear, a very valid approach. Better striking analysts than I have explained how this gives his opponents a false sense of how close he is, allowing him to lean back out of range and fire back when they commit to offense. Like the Diazes before him, though, he’s very much open to low kicks and can leave his chin exposed to shorter men when committing to offense.

The second is what could doom his Octagon run. Prates will oftentimes back straight to the fence when pressured, giving determined pursuers a clean shot at his hips. Combined with his tendency to lead with long-range kicks, he’s very vulnerable to takedowns, a fact he himself has acknowledged.

To his credit, he’s got some tools to work around this issue. Though Ramirez hit an early double-leg, Prates did a good job of framing and pivoting out on subsequent attempts. It’s still a significant red flag for someone so reliant on keeping his distance.

On the grappling side, he boasts a jiu-jitsu black belt and did hit a quick sweep on Ramirez after the aforementioned takedown. Unfortunately, he did not pass his last serious wrestling test, spending around 12 minutes of his 15-minute 2019 loss to Gadjimurad Abdulaev on his back. The prognosis against high-level Welterweight wrestlers, who are admittedly not that prominent in the current meta, isn’t great.

As far as, “tall Welterweight strikers with middling ground games” go, he’s certainly above the likes of Ricky Rainey and Curtis Millender. I can see him peaking somewhere around the Top 20 or 25 provided he doesn’t run into someone like Abubakar Nurmagomedov or Jeremiah Wells. I definitely have him beating Trevin Giles, who’s been extremely underwhelming for the past five years.

His LFA bouts are on Fight Pass.

Dana White’s Contender Series – Season 7, Week 4

Bolaji “The Zulu Warrior” Oki

Weight Class: Lightweight
Age: 28
Record: 8-1 (5 KO, 1 SUB)
Notable Victories: Dylan Salvador, Nair Melikyan

Oki — unbeaten since his professional debut — split his early career between The Netherlands and his native Belgium. In Aug. 2023, he shipped off to Contender Series, where he knocked out decorated kickboxing Dylan Salvador to secure a contract.

Excellent fundamentals and incredible awareness make Oki a terror on the feet. He stalks opponents from a low, flat-footed stance, tattooing them with powerful jabs and short combinations until the opportunity arises to go for the kill. That aggression doesn’t stop him from minding P’s and Q’s, though; he’ll get inside, do damage, and be back outside of range before his opponent has a chance to fire back.

As impressive as his offense is — especially his nasty body attack — it’s his vision that really stands out. His reaction time is downright incredible; no matter how out-of-position he is, he’ll have his guard up or sprawl ready the instant his opponent tries to capitalize. I’ve seen him commit to an attack, then stop himself mid-swing and retreat before his opponent has even finished throwing the counter.

Being so wired-in has its drawbacks, however, chief among them cardio. Three fights back, Oki took on Armenian can crusher Nair Melikyan, who pushed an unreasonably high pace from the word go and somehow absorbed every pinpoint counter Oki slammed into his face. Oki ran out of steam partway through the second, and though it’s unlikely that most opponents will commit to that sort of berserker aggression, it does raise the question of whether his fast-twitch approach is sustainable.

That fight also showed another key weakness, namely that Oki tends to drop his left hand and lean away from incoming fire while backpedaling. His counters are generally sufficient to keep people from chasing him down, but Melkyan repeatedly cracked Oki with right hands as “Zulu Warrior” left the clinch. Oki also continued to drop his hand and rely on his legs when his gas tank emptied, which is just asking for a heroic comeback knockout.

Luckily for Oki, he had some decent wrestling to fall back on. He shoots a solid double-leg and can be very persistent with it, driving through even if opponents initially pop back to their feet. On the defensive side, the aforementioned awareness makes him quick to get underhooks and sprawl as soon as opponents shoot. Though not much of a threat from the top, he’s very adept at getting right back to his feet if his initial takedown defense fails.

Oki — already one of the better strikers in UFC’s Lightweight division — has a ton of potential and not a lot of rough edges. If he continues to develop, which admittedly isn’t a given if he stays in Belgium, he’s got what it takes to be a contender. He’s certainly way too much for eleventh-hour replacement Cuamba, whose defensive issues present a tempting target.

Dana White’s Contender Series – Season 7, Week 4

Timothy “Twilight” Cuamba

Weight Class: Featherweight/Lightweight
Age: 24
Record: 8-1 (4 KO)
Notable Victories: Michael Stack, Mateo Vogel

Cuamba — who went 5-1 as an amateur and sports a knockout win in professional boxing — edged out Mateo Vogel on Contender Series, but failed to secure a UFC contract. He then took his talents to Tuff-N-Uff, where he flattened Michael Stack with a head kick to score his fifth consecutive win.

He replaces Damir Hadzovic on four days’ notice for his second fight in eight days.

Fleet feet and fast hands are Cuamba’s tools of the trade. He’s most comfortable at range, darting from side to side while popping opponents with quick two-punch combos. He punishes the body particularly well and has a real knack for timing head kicks when his opponent least suspects it; he caught Stack with one while exiting the clinch a la Peter Aerts, then flattened him with one off his back foot that flummoxed even the commentators.

I also want to point out his penchant for catching body kicks.

Cuamba does possess one weird weakness, though: if you can get past his footwork and into punching range, he doesn’t protect his face. There were multiple incidents in the Vogel fight, at least in the early going before Cuamba really got on his bike, where Vogel landed virtually every punch he threw when Cuamba ran out of real estate near the fence.

He did a better job against Stack of firing punches and angling out whenever Stack committed to attacking, but he still left his head unprotected. Definitely something to work on alongside an apparent weakness to inside low kicks.

On the offensive grappling side, he’s got a functional double-leg and will hit a takedown off a caught kick if it’s there. His ground-and-pound is steady and effective, though he couldn’t hold Stack down for long. Defensively, he seems like he has the same issue as his striking where the initial layer of defense is strong, but also all he has. He shut down Vogel’s takedowns for much of their fight, but couldn’t do much but defend when Vogel finally got him down and worked his way into back mount.

Cuamba certainly has a very bright future, especially if he can get a bit more thud behind his punches and continue to work on avoiding the fence. That said, Bolaji Oki’s going to beat the tar out of him — “Zulu Warrior” is bigger, stronger, and has the pinpoint accuracy to smash through Cuamba’s defensive shortcomings.

His Tuff-N-Uff and iKon bouts are on Fight Pass.

Dana White’s Contender Series – Amil v Sonmez

Hyder “The Hurricane” Amil

Weight Class: Featherweight
Age: 33
Record: 8-0 (4 KO, 1 SUB)
Notable Victories: Emrah Sonmez, Chase Gibson

Amil — a protege of former Strikeforce champ Gilbert Melendez — went undefeated (3-0) in Bellator and perfect (3-0) in Legacy Fighting Alliance (LFA) before joining Contender Series in 2023. There, he survived a double-digit takedown onslaught from Emrah Sonmez to claim both a unanimous decision and UFC contract.

Amil was fortunate enough to receive a nickname both alliterative and descriptive. His mission is to storm forward and hurl punches and head kicks until his opponent falls over. It’s not quite Trevor Peek levels of insane aggression and he does have some decent tricks, such as the aforementioned head kicks and a sneaky uppercut he’ll set up with an overhand right, but he’s very much a seek-and-destroy slugger.

That aggression is the key to his success, but it’s also a huge liability. Amil moves exclusively in straight lines and never takes his head off the centerline except as a byproduct of throwing his right hand too hard. I’ve watched him walk straight into more counters than I can count; Devante Sewell realized in the third round of their 2022 fight that he could just stick his elbow out and Amil would smash his face into it every single time.

It likewise undercuts his takedown defense. While he’s a very good scrambler and is adept at defending against the fence, anyone with decent timing can lock their hands around his hips by shooting as soon as he steps forward. Cody Gibson came within inches of choking him out two fights again after downing him with a reactive level change and Sonmez, though unsuccessful with the majority of his shots, still forced Amil into multiple lengthy scrambles despite gassing halfway through the second round.

As much fun as he is to watch, Amil’s ceiling looks fairly low. I doubt he’d have received a contract in an earlier Contender Series season where standards still existed. He did have some strokes of luck, however; original foe, Shayilan Nuerdanbieke, would have dinged him up and controlled him on the mat and replacement foe, Melsik Baghdasaryan, would have rearranged his face, but instead he gets to fight the undersized and underwhelming Fernie Garcia. Garcia’s got some boxing chops, but he also starts slow and lacks power, so expect Amil to bank the first two rounds and survive down the stretch.

His LFA bouts are on Fight Pass.

Remember that will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC Vegas 86 fight card right here, starting with the ESPN+ “Prelims” matches, which are scheduled to begin at 4 p.m. ET, then the remaining main card balance (also on ESPN+) at 7 p.m. ET.

To check out the latest and greatest UFC Vegas 86: “Pyfer vs. Hermansson” news and notes be sure to hit up our comprehensive event archive right here.

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