The flood of Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) newcomers continues unabated when the mixed martial arts (MMA) promotion returns to UFC APEX in Las Vegas, Nevada, for UFC Vegas 70 this Saturday night (Feb. 25, 2023). On this edition of “New Blood,” the series where I’m convinced future cards will be composed exclusively of Contender Series alumni, we check out five Contender Series veterans and a standout Brazilian striker.
As always, all episodes of the most recent Contender Series season are on ESPN+ …
Weight Class: Lightweight
Record: 7-0 (7 KO)
Notable Victories: Malik Lewis, Khama Worthy
Peek capped off his three-fight stint in Aries Fight Series by knockout out UFC veteran Khama Worthy in the final seconds of the first round. Just a month later, he stepped up to face Malik Lewis on Contender Series, surviving a disastrous first round to put him away midway through the second.
Peek is not one to indulge such petty concepts as “setups” or “subtlety.” His preferred approach is to throw a huge number of kicks as telegraphed as they are heavy, then lunge forward with looping haymakers pulled straight from a freestyle swimming manual. Most of his entries are preceded by big, dramatic crow-hops that usually put him within punching range, particularly when throwing the switch kicks he’s fond of, and he pushes forward so aggressively when he punches that he consistently winds up in the clinch.
I think I saw him throw one proper straight right to the head in all the footage I watched, and considering it knocked his opponent into the next zip code, it might be worth revisiting.
To his credit, he does have some surprisingly technical aspects to his game. Besides the fact that he’ll throw straight shots to the body, he’s got excellent takedown defense, springing back to his feet the instant he hits the mat, and has shown off some decent wrestling offense as well. His ground-and-pound is as nasty as you’d expect, though he does seem to have an issue holding opponents down.
Plus, he’s proven that he can move his head alright when trying to weather an opponent’s flurry. I imagine he’d be quite fearsome if he even attempted to do the same while throwing.
Peek’s tough, he’s game, he hits hard, and he’s tons of fun to watch. He’s also way, way too technically limited to be any sort of UFC contender. Throw him in against other strikers and enjoy the car crash.
As for his debut, he was originally going to welcome Alex Reyes back after nearly five years, but instead he faces Erick Gonzalez. “The Ghost Pepper” is incredibly easy to hit and not particularly durable, so it should be another highlight-reel finish for Peek.
Gabriella “Gabi” Fernandes
Weight Class: Flyweight
Record: 8-1 (3 KO, 2 SUB)
Notable Victories: Karoline Martins, Queila Braga, Iasmin Lucindo
Unbeaten since her second pro fight, Fernandes jumped from the Brazilian circuit to the U.S. scene with a pair of wins under the LFA banner. This set up a shot at their interim Flyweight title, which she won by choking out Karoline Martinez in September 2022.
“Gabi” is reportedly a boxing coach in her native Brazil, and watching her tee off makes it easy to believe. She hits hard, mixes in body shots quite well, and is particularly potent with her straight left. Arguably more impressive, however, are her punishing roundhouse kicks to the legs, body, and head. These aren’t separate weapons, either; she fluidly blends her punches and kicks into an unpredictable and dangerous offense.
She’s definitely a bit linear in how she approaches and retreats, though. Plus, while she usually minds her P’s and Q’s when punching, she’ll occasionally jump in so aggressively with her right hook that she’s vulnerable to counter lefts. That overextension also extends to her straight left, which she can load up on at times.
Overall, though, definitely a UFC-worthy striking offense.
Though possessed of a scary guillotine that she used to club-and-sub Martinez, her grappling looks a step behind her standup. The 10-9 Edna Oliveira managed to take her down when Fernandes tried to capitalize on a slip, and Fernandes wasn’t able to get much done off of her back until she finally forced Oliveira to bail with a deep half guard to leglock sequence. When Fernandes had the opportunity to take top position, she was content to circle her and try the occasional punch or leg kick for minutes at a time, only committing to ground-and-pound when she had Oliveira hurt.
The jury’s out as to whether she can handle a top-notch wrestler, but she’s going to be a problem for Flyweights who trade with her. I can see her getting a number beside her name at some point, and she has a clear gameplan for how to beat debut foe Jasmine Jasudavicius, who got torn apart by another slick kickboxer in Natalia Silva last time out.
Victor “The Brick” Martinez
Weight Class: Lightweight
Record: 13-4 (8 KO)
Notable Victories: Jacob Rosales
Martinez put a 6-4 pro start to win six straight and earn himself a spot on Contender Series. After withdrawing from a planned clash with Tucker Lutz, he took on Jacob Rosales, surviving a first-round knockdown to take over down the stretch and earn a decision.
Light-footed boxing is Martinez’s primary weapon, supported by a steady diet of oblique kicks. He glides around the cage while pumping a steady jab alongside equally sharp straight rights and left hooks, plus the occasional corkscrew or rear-hand uppercut. He can be workmanlike at times, but he really shines when slipping punches and coming back with heavy counters. He’s particularly fond of punishing jabs with right hands over the top, a trick he used to batter Luis Luna two fights back.
There aren’t any huge technical shortcomings to his standup, but it’s an open question whether he can deal with physically superior opponents. While he’s capable of some impressive bursts of speed, he is, as I said, often fairly deliberate with his offense. The taller, faster, rangier Rosales basically took him apart for the first five minutes, constantly catching Martinez with left hooks and straight rights and putting him on the canvas with a 1-2. Even when Rosales injured his right hand, he managed to go blow-for-blow with Martinez for a decent chunk of the third round. Martinez did show off some of those slips to attack the body with left hooks, but it wasn’t the sort of performance to make me think he can handle the athletic freaks in the UFC Lightweight division.
His defensive grappling as a whole is solid, but his wrestling might still be a liability. He surrendered three takedowns to Nico Echeverry three fights back, sweeping his way out of a couple of bad spots, while Rosales struggled to hold him down at all. It’s worth noting that he still showed a tendency to give up his back when using the fence to stand, so not all the bad habits have been ironed out.
“Solid but unspectacular” would be my verdict. Martinez is a skilled, well-schooled striker whose strengths aren’t enough to make up for his lack of eye-catching physical gifts and his wrestling issues. The latter in particular looks like it’ll doom him against Jordan Leavitt, who was originally set to welcome him to the Octagon in April 2022.
Carl “CD3” Deaton III
Weight Class: Lightweight
Record: 17-5 (3 KO, 9 SUB)
Notable Victories: Justin Jaynes
Deaton fell just short in his bid to join a PFL tournament, dropping a narrow split decision to Alejandro Flores for his second straight defeat. He returned to the win column with a decision over UFC vet Justin Jaynes, which he followed by choking out Antoine Blassingame in October 2022.
He takes this fight on just over a week’s notice.
Deaton primarily utilizes a mix of quick punching combos and solid top control. His hands look heavier than his finishing rate would suggest, he doesn’t neglect the body, and he’s capable of some impressively quick counters. If he can wrangle his opponents to the mat, he’ll deliver sporadic but effective ground-and-pound and threaten with front chokes, which make up four of his nine professional submissions.
The rest came via rear-naked choke.
That’s the good. There are some layers to the bad, chief among them that he doesn’t really deal with distance well. He’s squat for the division at 5’6”, and when trying to catch the elusive Flores, he tried to cover the distance by leaping, running, or crow-hopping into range as opposed to using cage cutting or head movement. On top of that, he doesn’t move his head much, doesn’t check low kicks, and isn’t all that fleet-of-foot.
He’s tough enough to stay in the pocket and trade, but he’s there to be hit. He didn’t set up his takedown entries against Jaynes all that well, either, which plays back into the distance thing.
While he’s got some skills, I’d definitely rate Deaton below the Lightweight mean. There’s nothing super eye-catching about his game outside of decent grappling and the ability to scrap on the inside. Odds are that he’ll struggle immensely with debut foe Joe Solecki, who was originally scheduled to meet Benoit Saint-Denis last weekend.
Nurullo “Tajik Eagle” Aliev
Weight Class: Lightweight
Record: 8-0 (2 KO)
Notable Victories: Josh Wick
After dispatching Kirill Kyukov, Aliev signed on to face Thiago Oliveira in his Legacy debut, only to jump ship to Contender Series instead. There, he dispatched Josh Wick with ground-and-pound to claim a UFC contract.
In a word: smesh. Aliev’s goal in any given matchup is to pressure his opponent to the fence, drag them to the mat, and then beat the snot out of them from guard. His takedown of choice seems to be a high crotch to inside trip, though he’s also shown off a standard double-leg and body lock finish. He’s nigh-on impossible to dislodge once he gets on top; should opponents get any kind of space to stand, he’ll immediately shoot back in and patiently drag them back to the ground, where he’ll resume chipping away with elbows and punches.
One particularly nice trick I want to point out is how he’ll rotate his opponents such that they can’t get their backs against the fence and work their way to their feet. Since he does his best work against the side of the cage, it goes a long way towards letting him maintain control.
On top of that, his submission defense seems solid, as he survived a super-deep triangle from Kyukov.
Conversely, his standup isn’t quite there yet. He didn’t seem to have much of an answer for the rangier Kyukov’s kickboxing, instead tossing out looping hooks from way out of range. As Laura Sanko pointed out on DWCS, he’s fine when he can pressure and threaten with takedowns to open up his unseasoned offense, but he doesn’t appear to have the technique or presence of mind to fight off the back foot.
Though his wrestling and top control are strong enough to carry his game on their own, it’s something he’ll need to address if he wants to make a real run.
All in all, though, he’s an extremely promising young man with plenty of time to evolve into a more complete fighter. He has the tools to win his UFC debut, though it will be a test of his maturity. Rafael Alves is a physical marvel with a handful of instant-kill techniques, namely his guillotine, that could ruin Aliev’s day if “Tajik Eagle” doesn’t stay composed.
“All Hail” Hailey Cowan
Weight Class: Bantamweight
Record: 7-2 (2 KO, 2 SUB)
Notable Victories: Claudia Leite
After falling to future UFC competitor Victoria Leonardo in her professional debut, Cowan rattled off five straight wins before suffering an upset loss to Kelly Clayton. She bounced back with a submission win in Invicta en route to Contender Series, where she narrowly defeated Claudia Leite to win a decision and UFC contract.
Cowan has a background in acrobatics and tumbling, and her physical strength and flexibility are obvious. At a distance, she utilizes a combination of straight punches and kicks from her dextrous lead leg. More often than not, however, she prefers muscling her way into the clinch and going to work with knees while chasing trips. Should she manage to drag her opponent to the mat, she does good work with punches and elbows, though she showed that she can snatch up a rear naked choke if the opportunity presents itself.
Her big bugbears seem to be a number of technical shortcomings and an overall lack of dynamism. Outside of the whizzer kick she hit on a charging Leite, her clinch takedowns rely more on strength than precision, and some errors on the mat both allowed Leite to take her back and resulted in Cowan losing back control at a crucial moment in the third round. Her hands also aren’t as crisp as her kicks, and her lack of upper-body and head movement contrast sharply with her generally good footwork.
On top of that, she just isn’t particularly fast, explosive, or heavy-hitting. Aside from sheer strength, she doesn’t really have a killer app with which to deal with higher-level opponents who can technically outclass her. Even in a division this barren, there won’t be a shortage of women who can do that.
She’s a decent fighter who can probably find a couple of winnable matchups in the Octagon, but she won’t be challenging for a title anytime soon. Her debut clash with Ailin Perez figures to be competitive, at least, as both women employ a similar clinch-heavy approach.
Jose “Lobo Solitario” Johnson
Weight Class: Bantamweight
Record: 15-7 (8 KO, 2 SUB)
Notable Victories: Jack Cartwright, Dulani Perry, Mo Miller
Johnson went from dropping a decision to Ronnie Lawrence on Contender Series to getting knocked flat by Mana Martinez two months later. Undaunted, he made his way back to DWCS with finishes of Mo Miller and Dulani Perry, then outlasted Cage Warriors champ Jack Cartwright to claim a UFC contract.
As you might expect from a 6’0” 135er, Johnson does his best work at a distance, picking away with leg kicks and front kicks to keep opponents at bay. When he does lean on his hands, it’s largely jabs and straight rights, the latter of which he can put an eye-catching amount of venom on. His height and reach make his elbows and knees potent weapons as well.
While he generally moves quite well for someone with his proportions, he does have a bad habit of putting on his earmuffs under pressure. This allows smaller opponents, even relatively weak strikers like Cartwright, to get inside and let their hands go. Many a tall striker has been undone by static defense, so fingers crossed he can fix that issue.
His grappling is interesting in that he’s extremely good at getting out of bad positions, but also worryingly prone to winding up in them. The earmuffs open up his hips to takedowns, as does his tendency to put too much behind his straight right. He also gives up his back extremely often, which both Miller and Cartwright capitalized on.
Luckily for him, he’s very adept off of his back. Between his slick armbar/triangle sequences, impressive use of butterfly hooks, and overall scrambling abilities, it’s surprisingly difficult to actually get any offense going once you’ve taken him down. If he gets on top, whether through his own level change or via reversal, his elbows and punches are nasty.
Still, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Relying on your bottom game isn’t sustainable against world-class opposition unless it’s truly world-class.
Johnson is probably too flawed to be a contender, but he should be good enough to hold his own around the middle of the UFC Bantamweight pack. He’s in for what looks like a 50/50 clash with Garrett Armfield, who acquitted himself well in his short-notice UFC debut loss to David Onama.
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