The newest season of Dana White’s Contender Series kicked off in the new UFC Apex, and after four hard-fought bouts, two contracts where handed out to newly minted UFC athletes.
Entering the Octagon as a big underdog in the first fight in the new building, Yorgan de Castro showed he was much more of a challenge than Alton Meeks might’ve expected. After defending the first takedown well, De Castro landed a flying knee and several heavy leg kicks. Despite Meeks’ wrestling pedigree, De Castro never seemed in danger on his feet, and earned the lone finish of the night while picking up a UFC contract.
“That was a dream come true,” De Castro said. “I always dreamed of the moment I got a call from the UFC, and now, it was amazing. I can’t even explain. I still am going to take a couple days to (let it) sink in.”
In a division always open to talented bodies, De Castro could find himself in the mix quickly if he continues to show off his diverse array of skills. De Castro’s fluidity at his size makes him an enticing entry into the heavyweight division, a journey that took him from his home country of Cape Verde, then to Portugal at 18 years old, and finally into the UFC.
“This is big,” he said. “I believe that tomorrow, (this) is going to be all over the news (in Cape Verde). This is big. This is amazing.”
In the main event, undefeated Punahele Soriano searched for another first round finish early and often in the fight, but the length of Jamie Pickett kept the Hawaiian at bay. Soriano kept his composure despite swinging wildly, and as the fight slowed down on the feet, he picked up a couple crucial takedowns to maintain control of the fight. However, when the bell rung and the judges scored each round for Soriano, the 26-year-old Soriano couldn’t help but feel disappointed.
“I felt like I was fighting a guy with broomsticks, with extra long arms,” Soriano said of his matchup. “It was good. I got to overcome some adversity. I don’t always get to do that.”
Despite reaching the final bell for the first time in his UFC career, Soriano showed enough heart, tenacity and potential to earn a UFC contract, much to his own relief. Soriano’s MMA journey started when he decided to follow UFC featherweight Dan Ige to the gym, and then to Las Vegas, and now, “Puna” joins Ige as a UFC athlete.
“It was less of a rush,” Soriano said. “It was more of a release. Everything was on me, and I just felt a flush. Everything is out of the way. I feel completely relaxed. I feel so happy. I’m so grateful for this opportunity. I’m not going to let (Dana White) down. I’m not going to let anyone down.”
Zac Paceb is a writer and producer for UFC.com. You can follow him on Twitter @ZacPacleb.