The Ultimate Fighter Latim America 3 Finale is just around the corner and . . . wow. Let's just call it UFC: Mouthful. As Rafael Dos Anjos and Tony Ferguson prepare to fight for a shot at the lightweight title--the same belt that Dos Anjos seemed certain to keep just a few months ago--the entire event seems overshadowed by the tentpole extravaganza around the corner: UFC 205. With a stacked undercard, three title fights, and the charismatic anchor of Conor McGregor at its head, it's no wonder that this weekend's card is flying a little bit under the radar.
That goes double for the men and women on the undercard. Dos Anjos and Ferguson are elite lightweights with reputations for exciting fights. They won't draw the same crowds as McGregor and crew, but people will show up to see them. The undercard fighters are much more likely to get lost in the shuffle, and with a slew of other UFC events right around the corner, it's not hard to imagine the average MMA fan feeling a little bit lost.
That is the reason for this piece. With this Fight Monitor, we will look at some of the overshadowed fighters on this weekend's undercard, because there is truly no shortage of exciting, promising, and very skilled talent. If you're a fight fan in need of guidance, consider this your programme. These are the fighters you need to keep an eye on.
Rafael Dos Anjos and Tony Ferguson may be the main event of UFC Mexico, but they are not the only attraction. Photo by Joshua Dahl, USA Today Sports.
Women's Strawweight (115 lbs)
Pro Experience: 4 years (December, 2012 debut)
Record: 8-0, 4 (T)KO
If you pay attention to one undercard fighter at the TUF Finale, make it Alexa Grasso. The women's strawweight division is stacked as it is. Next weekend Joanna Jedrzejczyk will defend her title against Karolina Kowalkiewicz, but they merely straddle the shark tank that is the 115-pound weight class. Jessica Aguilar, Rose Namajunas, Paige VanZant, Joanne Calderwood, Jessica Andrade, Tecia Torres . . . of the two women's divisions in the UFC, strawweight is by far the most comparable to the best of the men, with a deep talent pool, a dominant champion, and a whole host of prospects and up-and-comers.
Of that latter group, Alexa Grasso is one of the most exciting. At just 23 years of age with only four years under her belt, she is unbelievably poised in the cage. She presents a calm exterior to all of her opponents, even as she picks them apart with surgical precision.
What she has: In a division full of dangerous strikers, Grasso stands to become one of the very best. Her game is built around those most trustworthy tools of the expert boxer, the jab and the straight right hand. No surprise there, as Grasso comes from a boxing family. Her father, Francisco Grasso, was a professional boxer in his time. And though the words "Mexican style" have come to mean "brawler" in the modern boxing world, Grasso's calculated style is more in line with the likes of Vicente Saldivar and Marco Antonio Barrera. She can scrap, sure. But her true talent lies in her ability to utterly control her opponent before taking them apart, piece by piece.
Take Grasso's last performance as evidence of not only her potential, but the deep well of skill of which she is already possessed. Jodie Esquibel challenged Grasso at Invicta 18, and despite no small amount of talent and the cornering of one of the best gyms in the world, she was virtually powerless to stop the Mexican pugilist from having her way. Grasso did not take control of the fight by force, but by finesse. She stung Esquibel with the jab. She crumpled her with a kick to the liver, and followed up with vicious knees in the clinch. She split Esquibel's nose with a right hand, and nearly finished her in the third round.
And all of this while wearing a face to rival that of Fedor Emelianenko, although--and I don't think the Last Emperor would mind my saying so--a good deal prettier.
What she needs: More than anything, Grasso would benefit from a little ringcraft--or cagecraft, if you prefer. As of her last fight, she is far too willing to allow herself to be backed up into the fence. Grasso has the footwork to avoid this: she takes small steps, comfortably moving in every direction, and pivots well. The problem seems to be one of urgency. Grasso is so comfortable being backed up and cornered that she allows it to happen. Perhaps her all-important patience and composure are to blame. In the end, though, whether or not a fighter is comfortable in a position does not affect the quality of that position. So far, no one has really been able to punish Grasso's bad habits, but as soon as she faces a talented pressure fighter, that mindset will need an adjustment.
Who she's fighting: Grasso is scheduled to meet Heather Jo Clark in her UFC debut. It is a perfect matchup for the young prospect. Clark is tough and reasonably athletic, a real gamer who will make anyone but the very best work to beat her, without representing much of a threat to Grasso's career. Grasso should have no problem dealing with Clark's one-shot striking and underdeveloped wrestling game.
RASHID "Gorets" MAGOMEDOV
Lightweight (155 lbs)
Pro Experience: 8 years (June, 2008 debut)
Record: 19-1, 9 (T)KO, 1 SUB
If you follow my breakdowns, you probably already know who Rashid Magomedov is. If not, what better time for an introduction? The man called "Gorets" ("Highlander" in Russian) is among the most patient and technical strikers at lightweight. He has been sidelined with injury for the last year, but he is undefeated in the UFC, and hasn't suffered a loss since April of 2010.
Rashid Magomedov's kicking game is a powerful complement to his dangerous counter punching. Photo by Jason Silva, USA Today Sports
What he has: In his homeland, Magomedov earned the honors of Master of Sports in boxing, Master of Sports in hand-to-hand combat, and National Master of Sports in Combat Sambo. These titles denote not only experience, but skill, proven in competition. In other words, a Master of Sports is a champion in his chosen discipline, which means that Magomedov has proven himself elite in three different combat sports. With that background, he seems well equipped to do the same in MMA.
Magomedov thrives at long range, and he has developed a set of skills which serve to enforce that range. Like Grasso, Magomedov has an excellent jab, which he uses not only to disrupt his opponent's rhythm, but to measure and obfuscate, setting up his power shots. Magomedov has an excellent counter right hand, which he will throw both straight and wide, as the situation requires. And though it does not always come into play at long range, Magomedov's left hook is deadly as well.
Kicks are Rashid's secret weapons. So concerned are his opponent's with his stinging, snappy punches that they frequently leave themselves open to his kicks. Though he can kick with both legs, the left is his best, and the sneakiest. Magomedov throws his lead leg very comfortably without switching, making it about as fast and indetectable as a kick can be. He uses these weapons to follow up on his punches, smashing ribs and clipping chins as his foes flee punching range, and to chip away from long distance. The result is that Magomedov's opponents, feeling themselves losing on points, have no choice but to rush in and make things ugly--at which point those counter punches really come in handy.
What he needs: Killer instinct. Magomedov is an out-fighter with the temperament of a counter puncher. He doesn't just feel the need to wait--he likes to wait. Magomedov wants his opponent to make the first mistake, and that makes him very difficult to beat. However, for some fans, it also makes him difficult to watch. I'm no fool. I know that the average fan doesn't tune into an MMA fight expecting a chess match, and yet that is exactly what Magomedov seeks to produce.
From a promotional perspective, this hurts the Dagestani's brand. Not only does it ensure that most fans won't want to watch him, but it means that opponents have no incentive to fight him. Bellator commentator and former fighter Jimmy Smith once described to me what he called the worst combination in sports: dangerous, and unpopular. Prospective opponents know that not only will Magomedov beat them, but that he will not put on a show in the process. This is a combination that neither fighters nor promoters tend to enjoy.
Then there is the added benefit of safety. A slugfest is dangerous for both parties involved, but there is security in a finish. The less time you spend in the cage with your opponent, the less time he has to find a chink in your armor and hurt you. And it's not like Magomedov is incapable of getting the finish. He has 10 to his name already, and he has hurt or dropped his opponent--it seems almost accidentally--in every one of his UFC bouts. He is a supremely skilled fighter, with timing so precise that he barely has to try to stagger a professional fighter. If he can prune that ability into a show-stealing style, he'll be a shoe-in for the top ten.
Who he's fighting: Beneil Dariush seeks to put a dent in Magomedov's UFC record. A student of Chute Boxe legend Rafael Cordeiro, Dariush has something of what Magomedov needs--a technical, intelligent style, blended with the guts of a puncher. He cannot match Magomedov's timing and speed at range, but he may be gritty enough to push Gorets' limits. Magomedov should pull through, but this is a make-or-break moment for his career, and the perfect opportunity to prove himself as a serious contender.
ENRIQUE "El Fuerte" BARZOLA
Featherweight (145 lbs)
Pro Experience: 4 years (December, 2012 debut)
Record: 11-3-1, 4 (T)KO, 4 SUB
Given the two fighters we've looked at so far, the following statement might sound strange, but out of them all, I think Enrique Barzola is my personal favorite. Disclaimer: I have a weird thing for weird fighters, and Barzola certainly fits that bill. He is a 27 year-old who looks like he's creeping toward his 40s. He has an awkward rhythm and a piecemeal, eclectic style. Perhaps one of the most endearing things about this fighter is that he hails from Peru, with most of his record having been compiled there. And he's really very good, considering that Peru does not have much of an MMA scene to speak of. Barzola built most of his resume in a promotion called--I kid you not--"300 Sparta." Yeah. He's awesome.
Enrique Barzola evaded and countered Kyle Bochniak all night long. Photo by Anne-Marie Sorvin, USA Today Sports
What he's got: As noted above, Barzola's style is . . . awkward. His movements are janky and jumpy, but not at all in a bad way. In fact, the awkwardness works to his favor. Barzola tends to confound opponents with his rhythm, which is especially helpful given that he is an out-fighter. Barzola likes to move around on the outside and force his foe to chase him, allowing him to time them on the way in with hard kicks, short punches, and reactive takedowns. Barzola is not a flawless wrestler, but in MMA timing matters more than technique. The ability to transition from striking to wrestling at will is a great ace up the Peruvian's sleeve. On the ground, Barzola is an old school ground-and-pound artist, often choosing to posture up and rain down punches in his opponent's guard.
Barzola is improving as well. He clearly won, but had a bit of difficulty in his UFC debut against Horacia Gutierrez, seeming to tucker out as the fight wore on. His most recent bout, on the other hand, gave him the chance to show off some seriously improved footwork, boxing, and kicking, with no signs of fatigue. He lost that fight, but undeservedly so. Per MMADecisions.com, 14 of 14 MMA media members thought Barzola deserved the decision, with over half of them awarding him all three rounds. And his opponent, Kyle Bochniak, is a talented prospect of some note, and a more reputable adversary than Gutierrez.
What he needs: Barzola really just needs time. He is already an impressive fighter given his amount and level of experience, and his game is developing nicely. Give him a few more years and some well-matched opponents, and he should continue to improve. In future, I'll be looking for more jabs and feints to play off of that broken rhythm, and a more nuanced ground game to complement the counter wrestling.
Who he's fighting: Chris Avila. A member of Stockton's scrap pack, Avila is something like an underdeveloped version of teammate Nate Diaz. That isn't surprising, and it's not necessarily a bad thing, as Avila has only been active for two years. Like Barzola, he is in need of more time in which to grow--only more of it. Barzola should be able to outwrestle, outkick, and outbox Avila without too much trouble, earning back a bit of the momentum that was unfairly taken from him by the Bochniak loss.
MARCO POLO "El Toro" REYES
Lightweight (155 lbs)
Pro Experience: 7 years (June, 2009 debut; layoff between debut and August, 2012)
Record: 6-3, 5 (T)KO, 1 SUB
Another TUF Latin America product, Marco Polo Reyes is likely the most exciting fighter on this list. He thrilled in his debut against Cesar Arzamendia, and then threw down in an absolutely tremendous brawl against "Maestro" Dong Hyun Kim. Though the fact that Kim hurt him several times is not the best news, the fact that Reyes repeatedly returned the favor before knocking Kim out in the third is. That he managed to pull this off without seeming to tire at all is extremely impressive, and if nothing else the intensity of the fight gave him the chance to prove his durability, both mental and physical.
Marco Polo Reyes proved his grit in a hard-fought knockout win over Dong Hyun Kim. Photo by Jake Roth, USA Today Sports.
What he's got: After his stint on TUF, Reyes made the wise decision to move to Alliance MMA. I have criticized Alliance in the past, inferring that many of the fighters who went there were struggling to learn a style of fighting that didn't suit them. That problem seems to have been resolved, or perhaps I was overblowing it in the first place. Whatever the case, Reyes is an excellent example of what Alliance head Eric Del Fierro does well. Since his time on the show, Reyes has developed his head movement and footwork, such that he is very comfortable in exchanges, and much harder to hit while throwing punches.
That is great news, as power is Reyes' best natural attribute. All but one of his wins have come by knockout, and he has always had a knack for combination punching. Reyes knows how to feint and move to set these combinations up. In his last fight, Reyes also showed some improved wrestling, even using his opponent's clinch and takedown attempts against him, taking advantage of the close proximity to land hard elbows and knees.
What all of this says about Reyes--and this is perhaps the best sign for his future--is that he is coachable. He seems to learn quickly, and listen to corner advice: when Del Fierro demanded body shots to slow "Maestro" Kim's pace after the blistering first round, Reyes delivered with aplomb. By the time Reyes was ready to deliver the knockout blow, Kim was stumbling and gasping for breath, waiting to be finished off.
What he needs: Patience. Reyes would benefit most by simply refusing to engage as much as he does. That he can do so without exhausting himself is impressive, but there was no reason for him to continue trading with Kim when the Korean fighter was so clearly determined to create exchanges whether or not Reyes was landing. Rather than bounce punches off of Kim's granite chin--putting himself in the line of fire in the process--Reyes would have been well served to work behind his jab, keep Kim at bay, and get started on those body shots a little bit sooner.
This is certainly not an unfixable problem. In time, especially with such a strong hand in the corner, Reyes will almost certainly calm down. He is not particularly young, but in essence he only has four years of steady experience under his belt. One of those years was spent losing three times in a row to so-so competition. The good news for Polo Reyes is that, were he matched with, say, Erick Montano a second time now, with his more structured training and obvious improvements, I would definitely favor him to win.
Who he's fighting: Jason Novelli is a tough customer, but not too tough for Reyes at this point in his career. Truth be told, I am a big fan of this matchup. For Novelli, it represents a chance to prove that he is not a sitting duck for every power puncher he comes across, though he certainly looked that way against David Teymur in his promotional debut. For Reyes, it is an opportunity to test himself against a talented submission wrestler with a solid kicking game. In other words, a man who specializes in the phases and ranges which Reyes most wants to avoid. In the end, I have to go with Marco Polo. He is not as crafty as Teymur, but he is even more powerful, and seems to be walking a promising path. I think he'll knock Novelli out.
So, that'll do it. For those of you already interested in these fighters, I hope this write-up gave you a few new insights into their strengths and weaknesses. For those of you overwhelmed by the usually relentless UFC schedule, I hope this gave you a few things--and fighters--to care about that you might have otherwise missed. Fights are always better when you have some sense of understanding of the techniques and strategies at work in the cage. They get even better when you feel you know the fighters. Root for them, or root against them, these are some of the most interesting characters in MMA.
Enjoy the fights.