Contender Series has had a wilder year than usual.
After being postponed due to COVID-19 and logistical problems, the series has had a robust amount of fighters who are ready, or close to ready, enter the not-quite-UFC cage.
The recruitment vehicle—disguised as midweek entertainment for fight fans that can’t get enough—is an undeniable success, and we officially passed the midway point for the year last week. As usual, some fighters have been criminally overlooked. And others may never be ready for a shot under the big lights in the UFC cage. This isn’t said to disparage anyone, but that’s simply the way things are.
So this week, we have some very good fighters. Most are only names that hardcore or regional fans will recognize, and that’s perfectly fine. Light heavyweight continues to receive a steady influx of talent for a long-suffering division, and middleweight continues to get even more new prospective additions with two 185lb fights on the card.
So this should be good!
Light Heavyweight: Tafon Nchukwi vs Al Matavao
Nchukwi is getting fast-tracked here, much like Cyril Gane. Undefeated at 3-0 as both an amateur and a pro, all wins coming by finish. He’s even got a win over absolute specimen William Knight, who we saw emerge victorious last week. A Team Lloyd Irvin fighter, there’s not much footage on him. He’s a bruiser that loves to work the body and just crush their hopes and dreams.
Matavao (8-2) has fought at middleweight and heavyweight before, but mostly has remained at 205. He’s also not really fought anyone of note other than Jake Heun, to whom he lost by submission back in 2016. Matavao is strong and sturdy, but he’s only 5’8 compared to Nchukwi’s 6’0 height. He’ll be at a height, reach, and weight disadvantage and he’s already susceptible to being bullied around by larger opponents. He’s great at pouring it on as soon as he’s able to get loose with his strikes, and his right uppercut is absolutely delicious to watch land. It’s just going to be a tremendous uphill battle for him in this one.
Lightweight: Cameron Church vs Sherrard Blackledge
Church (4-0) is another fighter that went undefeated in both his pro and amateur fights. The lone blemish I can see so far is his win over another fighter that so many Contender Series contestants seem to have in common, Daniel McWilliams. McWilliams was 18-44 when they fought almost exactly a year ago. Other than that, he’s got fine takedown defense with slick 1-2s as part of his hard-nosed boxing approach. It served him well en route to this nice submission victory he earned in Combate Americas last December.
Blackledge (4-0) has more amateur fights (7-1, 1 draw as an amateur) and trains out of Syndicate MMA in Vegas. His boxing is also crisp with good use of range, it just takes him a while to gauge distance appropriately and work from there. Takedowns are there for him, and he does very, very good work controlling others on the ground. This may end up being more of a standup battle, and it’ll be a treat if that’s the case.
Middleweight: Phil Hawes vs Khadzhimurat Bestaev
Hawes (7-2) was a hotshot prospect a while ago, having worked at AKA, Jackson/Winklejohn, and Henri Hooft at Hard Knocks.
After a few amateur bouts he jumped to the pro ranks and made it to The Ultimate Fighter. Unfortunately, things didn’t go the way he hoped due to a decision loss to Andrew Sanchez. After that he went 1-1 in WSOF (with a loss to future PFL champ Louis Taylor) and had a devastating loss in the 2017 edition of Contender Series against Julian Marquez. Three wins later, he’s back for another shot at the big show, as he brings his wrestling, hard punches and dynamism to the table and hopes to fulfill some of the expectations that had been placed on him when he was starting out.
Bestaev (10-3) started his pro career at 4-0 outside of the U.S. before coming over and racking up wins, but they were only in Gladiator Challenge. As longtime readers should know by now, this is another massive red flag. The only U.S. fights he’s had outside of that were in LFA, where he lost due to an eye injury against Alonzo Menifield but got absolutely trucked and beat up by Blake Troop. Bestaev can hit hard and work submissions aggressively, but how do you get a good read on a fighter that’s had bouts against an opponent that was 3-9 and whose last win came against someone that was 1-8? Yet another bout that raises various suspicions about the process by which participants are selected as well as the reasons behind these choices.
Bantamweight: Mana Martinez vs Drako Rodriguez
Martinez (6-1) is another young dynamo out of Texas that has won all of his fights via strikes and whose only loss was by decision. A calm and composed striker that can really work off his back foot, he’s got some great precision and packs some serious power. His right hand is money, but his left hand is also brutal.
Rodriguez (also 6-1, no relation) also has a series of amateur bouts and went undefeated in the amateur ranks. Unfortunately, he was part of an ugly spat when King of the Cage apparently refused to release him to have him sign with the UFC, but he’s here now. Another somewhat slow starter, Drako isn’t very high-output but prefers substance over style and deals very, very well with being taken down then working to get top position or to his feet. A strong, scrambly fighter that loves to throw hands is always fun, and this could be fight of the night right here.
Middleweight: Aliaskhab Khizriev vs Henrique Shiguemoto
Khizriev (12-0) is an odd but fun case, as he’s coming off a two and a half year break from his last fight. His last two wins were over former UFC boogeyman Rousimar Palhares and mainstay of the Russian scene Yasubey Enomoto. His takedowns and ground striking are his bread and butter, and the way he snagged a single with a change in direction during this fight was lovely. It takes a while for him to find his rhythm with his standup, often winging overhands from way outside. He’ll set up some low kicks, but it’s all in service of eventually finding a way to a takedown. He’s pretty talented and can pair up well against a good amount of UFC middleweights.
It’s a shame then that he’s got to fight Shiguemoto (13-3, 1 draw). Both are very interesting additions to a long-suffering division, but Shiguemoto has been a very, very exciting fighter to watch. Working mostly in Japan’s HEAT organization, he’s got a dynamite right hand that spun a dude on his heel and put on this beauty of a performance in his last bout over in ROAD FC. The biggest concern here is how he’ll deal with such a sturdy wrestler to begin with. The only notable opponents he’s faced are Amilcar Alves and Hisaki Kato, and he ruined both of them. Fights start standing, but they don’t last long there against Khizriev. It’s a shame they have to fight each other, because it would be great to have them both.