Three weeks in and 10 contracts have been handed out, but the biggest talking point so far this season has been one winner that didn’t get a contract… yet.
Last week, three-time NCAA Division I National Champion Bo Nickal ran through Zachary Borrego, but rather than sign him on the spot, UFC President Dana White said he’d like to see one more fight later this season before pulling the trigger to bring the former Dan Hodge Trophy winner into the UFC.
If Nickal wins, he’ll get a contract, and I feel pretty confident in saying he will win, he will get a contract, and everyone that was up in arms about his arrival being delayed will be able to exhale.
While I’m confident the ultra-talented Nickal will get the job done in a few weeks, who will get their hand raised on Tuesday night and potentially join the UFC roster is still to be determined.
Here’s a look at what’s on tap for Week 4 of Dana White’s Contender Series.
Lightweights close out the show for the second time in three weeks as Thomas Paull takes on Esteban Ribovics.
Sporting an 11-3 record and riding a three-fight winning streak, Paull is the reigning Golden Ticket lightweight champ and a deaf athlete. He’s earned all of his wins inside the distance and has never been to the scorecards in 14 professional fights, and has spent the time since his last fight traveling to Allstars Training Center in Stockholm and Bangtao Muay Thai in Thailand to sharpen his skills.
Ribovics enters with a perfect 10-0 mark, having also never been the distance in his career. The 26-year-old Argentinian has been down in South Florida training with the Kill Cliff FC (formerly Sanford MMA) crew, supplementing his work at home by mixing in alongside far more experienced competitors.
Each of these men clearly understand the need to elevate their games, as witnessed by their training trips, and have resumes that establish them as the type of all-action fighters UFC President Dana White is looking to see on Tuesday nights. Now the only question is which one of them will emerge victorious and impress the boss?
Ivan Valenzuela vs Claudio Ribeiro
The fourth middleweight pairing of the season pits Mexico’s Ivan Valenzuela against Brazil’s Claudio Riberiro on Tuesday evening.
Standing 8-1 in his career and riding a five-fight winning streak, the 29-year-old Valenzuela claimed the Lux Fight League middleweight title in his most recent effort at the end of last year. “Bam Bam” has spent his entire career fighting for the Mexican promotion, collecting seven finishes, with his only loss coming nearly three years ago on the scorecards.
The 30-year-old Ribeiro also claimed gold on the regional scene in his last outing, taking the Future MMA middleweight strap with a fifth-round stoppage win back in September. A training partner of former UFC competitor Elias Silverio, Ribeiro has won five straight and nine of his last 10 after losing the first fight of his career.
Much like the main event, these two are evenly matched in terms of their experience and pedigree, which means it will all come down to who is able to execute the best and deliver when the bright lights come on.
Jack Cartwright vs Jose Johnson
Bantamweights occupy the middle of the card as British standout Jack Cartwright welcomes Jose Johnson back to Dana White’s Contender Series for a second time.
The reigning Cage Warriors titleholder in the 135-pound ranks, Cartwright won the title in the autumn of 2019 and successfully defended it three times. He was up against it in his last outing against Sylwester Miller before the challenger was disqualified in the fourth round for landing repeated headbutts, moving the SBG Manchester fighter to 10-0 for his career.
Johnson previously appeared on Season 4, dropping a unanimous decision to Ronnie Lawrence. He got a second chance to fight in front of the UFC President the following year, losing to Mana Martinez, but has since rebounded with consecutive wins over UFC adjacent competitors Mo Miller (DWCS Season 5) and Dulani Perry (TUF 27), earning him a call back to Las Vegas and another opportunity to try and land a spot on the UFC roster.
Will Cartwright become the latest Cage Warriors champion to matriculate to the Octagon? Will Perry finally punch his ticket? Tune in Tuesday night to find out.
Hailey Cowan vs Claudia Leite
Emerging bantamweights Hailey Cowan and Claudia Leite square off in the second bout featuring women this season in the second bout of this week’s five-fight card.
A fixture under the LFA banner since turning pro in 2018, Cowan arrives at the UFC APEX coming off a second-round submission win in January at Invicta FC 45 and sporting a 6-2 record overall. The 30-year-old has added work in Denver with the assembled female talents in the area to her usual training routine, and looks to “Hulk Smash” her way to the UFC with a win over Leite.
Leite has won four straight and seven of nine appearances overall, but hasn’t fought since last October after being forced to withdraw from a scheduled date opposite Sarah kaufman in January. The 25-year-old has earned finishes in three of her last four and trains alongside UFC fighter Josiane Nunes, which should help ensure she’s ready for whatever comes her way in Las Vegas.
This has the makings of a physical battle and should be entertaining from start to finish.
Nazim Sadykhov vs Ahmad Hassanzada
A pair of lightweights with only a single blemish on their respective resumes face off to begin the Week 4 action as Nazim Sadykhov takes on Ahmad Hassanzada.
The third member of the Serra-Longo Fight Team to compete this season, Sadykhov enters with a 6-1 record and six consecutive victories, the last three of which have come by stoppage under the Fury FC banner. The 28-year-old will look to do what teammates Dennis Buzukja and Charlie Campbell could not in the first two weeks — leave Vegas with a victory and a UFC contract.
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Hassanzada touches down at the UFC APEX with an 8-1 record, looking to build on his three-fight winning streak. The 26-year-old represents Team Alpha MMA (formerly Team Alpha Male) and last time out, the “Lion of the Ring” earned the biggest win of his career, defeating the previously unbeaten James Wilson.
Both men have watched teammates come up short in their quest to join the UFC roster already this season, so it will be interesting to see if their struggles can turn into motivation and the kind of effort it takes for either of these two to ascend to the biggest stage in the sport on Tuesday night.