Last week marked the return of Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series, and it’s refreshing to have the series back. Free from the week-to-week dramatic trappings and editing mishaps of The Ultimate Fighter, this just focuses briefly on the fighters and their backgrounds, and gets right to the action.
Without the constraints that require drama and the same stale formula, last week gave us a pleasant reminder of how much better this approach can be. Snag guys from regional organizations working to make it to the UFC? Just bring them in for a fight and see how they do. It’s not perfect, but fans have warmed up to it quite nicely.
So now that we got the premiere out of the way, season 2 continues with some well-matched prospects that could easily be signed to the UFC outright. But first, they have to win to get in.
First up is Tyler Hill (8-1), a Mississippi native who trains under Alan Belcher and has only one win by decision. His lone loss was at Bellator 162 in 2016. He’s wily and can get very out of control very quick with his strikes, but absolutely brutalizes opponents in the clinch and has a crafty submission game. He’s got a date with Dwight Grant (7-1), a fighter that’s spent time at San Jose’s American Kickboxing Academy and cut his teeth on the notoriously tough New Jersey circuit. Grant went 3-1 as an amateur, and had an odd fight schedule. Grant had six cancelled fights over a two-year period, and hasn’t fought since Bellator 165, which was in November of 2016. He brings a lot of physicality, slick and composed boxing with a lot of power to go with his handspeed. He’s also got some very good defensive fundamentals off his back to get back to his feet. Either fighter getting a contract is a plus for the UFC’s aging welterweight division.
But if there’s a division that needs an injection of talent, it’s light heavyweight. Knowing this, the UFC has brought in Argentinean talent Emiliano Sordi (16-6), a heavy hitter that’s trained at Alliance MMA in San Diego. His most notable win was in Bellator over former UFC fighter Bubba McDaniel in 2014. Sordi can be hit, and has a few TKO losses, but has demonstrated some good instincts and has learned to avoid more damage than in his earlier days. His opponent will be Ryan Spann (13-5), who lost by knockout to eventual UFC signee Karl Roberson in the very first round last year. Spann did what any professional would do - put his nose back to the grindstone and racked up some wins by putting on violent displays in LFA against legit and tough opposition, capping it off with a lovely win over former UFC fighter Alex Nicholson this past January.
Former Ultimate Fighter Contestant Austin Springer (10-3) might not have had things go his way on that show, but hopes to make good on it this time around. After starting his pro career at 8-0 (with only two decision wins), he lost to Chris Gruetzemacher during TUF, and suffered a loss against Steven Siler in Titan FC immediately after. He’s got great wrestling, good submission defense, good boxing and busts out the occasional leg kick. Problem is, his opponent is absolutely lethal. Giga Chikadze has been making his opponents’ bodies quit for years now. Giga has been a joy to watch in his kickboxing career, and he already has an MMA record to build on.
Now, the problem with that is the quality of the record itself. His pro debut was against Xtreme Couture coach Gil Guardado at World Series of Fighting 26 back in 2015. That resulted in a decision loss. Since then, Chikadze’s been undefeated. Great, right? Well, no. The rest of his MMA career has taken place solely in Gladiator Challenge. That means he was fighting opposition that would be a mismatch in any jurisdiction with virtually no oversight. His second opponent was Joe Bear, then making his pro debut and never fighting again. After that were Anthony Ross (then 1-10), Julian Hernandez (then 0-13) and Kevin Gratts (then 0-2).
None of them ever fought again.
I don’t know what any of this means, other than the fact that a world-class kickboxer was fed subpar opposition as target practice, opponents that any regular regional fighter would obliterate. His last fight was in April against Kevin Ceron, also making his pro debut at the time in Gladiator Challenge. It’s impossible to get a reliable and accurate read on someone’s progression when they’re dealing with this kind of competition. He’d be a fun addition to the UFC’s featherweight division, but there’s a lot of question marks surrounding him.
Middleweights collide when Anthony Hernandez (6-0) faces Jordan Wright (9-0). Wright’s a Jackson/Winklejohn fighter that also started on the renegade Southern California circuit. Unfortunately, that means he also fought some opponents that had no place being in the cage during his time in Xplode Fight Series (yeah, those guys) and Gladiator Challenge. That includes three fighters making their pro debuts, as well as Edward Darby (then 0-21) and Julian Hernandez (then 0-10).
Yes, that’s the same guy that Giga Chikadze sent to the land of wind and ghosts.
However, he’s been training in Albuquerque from a young age and made his way to LFA, where he submitted Craig Wilkerson last August. He’s got a Muay Thai base and has worked on his wrestling consistently. His opponent sharpens his tools at MMA Gold Fight Team with the like of UFC fighters Max Griffin and Aspen Ladd, as well as Danny Ramirez and Lewis Gonzalez. Sitting pretty with an undefeated record, his only decision win was in his last fight this past January against Brendan Allen in LFA, which got him the LFA middleweight title. Most of his wins are by submission, and he’s not afraid to take a few lumps to get inside and grab ahold of someone’s neck.
Finally, Yazan Hajeh (6-0) faces his toughest opponent yet when he steps in against Alliance MMA’s Matt Sayles (6-1). Sayles is mostly known for being Dominick Cruz’ training partner, and has been carefully groomed to get to where he is now. He’s absolutely relentless with his pressure, and has cardio for days to drown his opponent and keep working.
Hajeh’s a midwestern transplant to Vegas that fights out of 10th Planet Las Vegas, and he’s good at establishing his power early with kicks and rangy strikes. He’s got excellent submission defense and very heavy hands. This makes sense as being the top fight on the card, as it looks to be the one with highest expectations for action.
Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series 2018, week 2 begins at 8:00pm EST, and will be streaming live exclusively via UFC Fight Pass.