Injury is a great creator of opportunity in the UFC. For fighters already signed to the promotion, it's a chance to jump in and get a big fight that might not have otherwise made sense on records alone (Chael Sonnen is basically a master at this). And for unsigned talents, a chance injury is often the opening of the door to the ranks of the UFC. One fighter goes down and the UFC often ends up stuck for talent who can fight at the right weight class in the right part of the world on short notice. That's where Niklas Backstrom enters. After an injury sidelined Thiago Tavares from his featherweight debut in Berlin, Backstrom has been picked off the regional ranks to face Finland's Tom Niinimaki on May 31st. The announcement was made by mmanytt.se on Thursday.
Who is Niklas Backstrom?
There's no denying it. If you had to craft a career for a young, developing MMA talent, Niklas Backstrom would be your ideal result. A national champion submission grappler, hailing from the Allstars Gym (home of Alexander Gustafsson) Backstrom will enter the UFC with an essentially unblemished 7-0 record, with 1 no contest. He's fought an increasingly difficult level of opposition with Sergej Grecicho and Max Coga representing the high water marks of his resume. And while he may be a grappler first and foremost, four of his wins have come via TKO.
Not only does he work alongside on of the best light heavyweights on the planet, but with training partners like Magnus Cedenblad, Papy Abedi, Reza Madadi, and Nicholas Musoke, he's surrounded by fighters with UFC experience. Without a doubt, Tom Niinimaki will be his toughest opponent to date, but it's not a challenge he should be unprepared for.
What you should expect:
I wish I could do more than crib Patrick Wyman when he highlighted Backstrom as part of his Search for Future Champions series. But, he really hit most of the strong points. Backstrom has a nicely developed kicking arsenal which is a somewhat typical secondary skill for grapplers looking to dictate range. Where he seperates himself is in his variety of kicks and the confidence with which he throws them. Given his tall frame, he seems exceptionally adept at judging the distance from which he can strike and not get hit in return. Adding to the skill with which he uses his legs at range, is the skill with which he uses them in the clinch. His knees are vicious and his application of the clinch game liberal.
Once the fight hits the ground, Backstrom uses strong posture and positional control to emphasize his ground and pound. For a fighter with his competitive grappling chops, submissions seem to be an entirely tertiary concern (behind control and damage). This is honestly a pretty good sign for his UFC career, as it means he won't be overly reliant on getting submissions against top quality grapplers.
What this means for his debut:
This is where things get a little more difficult. Backstrom is getting a short notice callup to face a fighter who can very likely match him, or come close in every area of the fight (and even beat him in a few areas). Niinimaki moved to the Blackzilian camp not long ago, and his striking seems to have become a much more complete skill since that move. He couples that skill with decent wrestling and a great submission arsenal. He's also proven himself to be a more than capable UFC level featherweight with a win over Rani Yahya that I would argue was not nearly as close as the split decision indicates. Backstrom is several inches taller, and he may be the more "natural" athletic talent, but a win over Niinimaki would be seen as a pretty decent upset.
To get us better acquainted, here's his last fight against Max Coga (you should also check out some more of his old fights in Wyman's excellent article):