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Dana White’s Contender Series 2021 - Week 1 preview, weigh-in results

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Another influx of fighters is taking place, and this is where it starts.

Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series: Mayes v Crowder
Dana White’s Contender Series returns.
Photo by Brandon Magnus/DWTNCS

Now that The Ultimate Fighter is over, it’s time for another crop of fighters to make their way into the UFC.

And for the premiere episode, they’ve got some great talent lined up. They made sure to start out with some impressive talents to get things going. Top billing goes to the light heavyweights, a long-suffering division that often has been tough to scout for when looking for the best talent out there.

But they nabbed a good one here. Azamat Muzakanov (9-0) is one of the most exciting prospects to be featured here in quite some time. He has spent a chunk of his training time over at the K-Dojo Tribe in New Jersey and fought for Ring of Combat, Fight Nights Global, ACB and BRAVE FC. That’s a excellent set of places to cut your teeth, top to bottom. While some of his opponents were certainly not on level (one was 0-3 when they fought, the other 3-11), his last few wins include Fortis MMA’s Mohammad Fakhreddine, wizened veteran Guto Inocente and current UFC fighter Andre Muniz. Yes, he shut the lights off the guy that just submitted Jacaré. He was also scheduled to face Joachim Christensen and Konstantin Erokhin in bouts that did not materialize.

He’ll be standing across the cage from Matheus Scheffel (14-6), a Brazilian heavy-hitter that packs a lot of damage with his short hooks, loves to blitz opponents and has a very aggressive finishing instinct. Add some crisp counters, a great sprawl and a very hard overhand right, and he’s got the foundation to do a lot of damage in short order and cause a lot of headaches for a lot of guys in his division. But will that be a problem for Murzakanov? Because Scheffel’s takedown defense may work well on the Brazilian regional scene, but he hasn’t faced any dedicated and well-disciplined wrestlers. Nor has he been tested against a guy that can fire back when he attempts to bully them instead. He’s fought a very varied field of opponents out on local shows, and only one with a truly terrible record of 13-30. Other than that, it’s been mostly steady but not on the level of opposition that Murakanov has dealt with.

None of this guarantees anything, it may all simply come down to who is better prepared for this particular fight. Both have some great upside and make for a very exciting and somewhat unpredictable combo.

Only real knock on this fight is that once again, either of these guys could be signed outright without having to be on the show. At least it’s a plus for the series that we get to see them collide here.

But before that, featherweight gets some love when Diego Lopes (19-3) meets Joanderson Brito (11-2, 1 draw). Lopes has been making his name on the Mexican circuit as of late, shining over at LUX Fight League and earning wins over Masio Fullen, Rony Jason (remember him?) and Marco Beltran. The Beltran win was especially impressive, with Lopes dealing well with pressure and working a marvelous submission for the championship belt.

Lopes uses his feints effectively and does well in escalating situations during fights. He scrambles well and keeps calm with measured striking. But he’s up against a very hard hitter in Brito, who last fought in 2019 for LFA making his stateside debut in a wild finish. Brito’s game isn’t as polished, but he packs major power and swarms guys easily. The best part of his game is that if it doesn’t work at one point, he’ll wait until he gets another opportunity later on to make it work. That’s how six of his eleven wins were in the first round, but he’s got two second round finishes and a third round stoppage as well. He’s persistent, wears damage well and bobs and weaves to land big bombs. This is excellent matchmaking, but it’s sad that only one is likely to get the call up with a win.

It’s safe to say now that flyweight is off the chopping block for good, and Victor Altamirano (9-1) hopes to be one of the new guys to stand out and make it to the big leagues. Another LFA prospect that has sharpened his skills against comparable talent, he’s managed to shine largely due to his submission game and wily scrambles along with his potshotting strikes. His opponent this time around is Carlos Candelario (8-0), a product of the very tough CES circuit in the northeast and a former Contender Series competitor himself. Despite defeating Ronaldo Candido in 2017, he never got signed. He never fought again until just a scant few weeks ago with a decision win over Miguel Restrepo back on August 6th.

Altamirano’s original opponent Vinicius Salvador had visa troubles, and Candelario had no problem making the quick turnaround to try to earn himself a shot into the UFC. Candelario’s also got a great set of training partners including Matt Bessette, and mixes up his strikes including a strong clinch game against the fence or in open space.

Finally we have welterweight action as Italy’s Leonardo Damiani (10-2, 1 draw) faces AJ Fletcher (8-0). Damiani loves to throw sharp 1-2 combos and utlize underhooks for standing upper body control. He’ll wear opponents down and then swing punches off the break to get in their face again. He’s extra strong, but his cardio may be hit or miss. He might struggle a bit and get punished for throwing hard shots from way, way outside, but he’s got enough power to be a threat off the back foot if an opponent charges in during that window.

Fletcher is a product of Crazy Tim Credeur’s gym in Lafayette, Louisiana. You may remember that place as the land that saw Dustin Poirier surge and become a stellar prospect. Fletcher’s only got one decision win on his professional record, and that’s for good reason. He loves his textbook blast doubles, is relentless with strikes on the ground once he gets control, and loves to work a choke in if his opponent decides to get careless about positioning as Fletcher hits them. His wrestling may give Damiani fits, but Damiani’s size and strength may serve him in defending the takedowns early. Fletcher is going to have to take him into deep water late and avoid the big shots early. Damiani needs to have his submission defense on point and work extra hard to get off his back if he ends up there. It’s a great matchup as well.

You can check out the weigh-ins here:

Matheus Scheffel (205.5) vs. Azamat Murzakanov (205.5) - Light heavyweight

Joanderson Brito (145.5) vs. Diego Lopes (145.5) - Featherweight

Victor Altamirano (125.5) vs. Carlos Candelario (126) - Flyweight

Leonardo Damiani (171) vs. A.J. Fletcher (171) - Welterweight

Dana White’s Contender Series returns this Tuesday night starting at 8:00pm EST, and it streams exclusively on ESPN+.