The rate at which contracts have been handed out on Dana White’s Contender Series dropped ever so slightly last week, with the UFC President bringing only three victorious fighters to the UFC roster, while offering three additional competitors the opportunity to make a return appearance on the upcoming cycle of the show.
Returning developmental contract winner William Knight punched his ticket to the UFC light heavyweight division with a first-round stoppage victory, while veteran Jimmy Flick wrapped up an invite to the Octagon with a third-round finish of Nate Smith and bantamweight underdog Ronnie Lawrence turned a multitude of takedowns into an opportunity to compete on the biggest stage in the sport. Additionally, the two other victors from Week 5, Tucker Lutz and Melsik Baghdasaryan, earned high praise and an invite back to the UFC Apex again later this year, as did Smith, who showed tremendous submission defense and tenacity in his battle with Flick.
For the season, a total of 19 athletes have graduated from the Contender Series to the main roster and this week, another collection of hopefuls heads into the Octagon hoping to do the same.
Here’s a closer look at this week’s matchups.
TAFON NCHUKWI VS. AL MATAVAO
Light heavyweights take center stage in the main event of Week 6 on the Contender Series as unbeaten Cameroonian finisher Tafon Nchukwi takes on streaking Alaska-based upstart Al Matavao.
Nchukwi has fought six times in his career, making three starts as both an amateur and a professional. He’s yet to see the third round and has only been to the second round once, and that came in his professional debut. The 25-year-old Maryland-based prospect really started to garner attention towards the end of last year, when he scored a first-round stoppage win over William Knight, who had scored a developmental contract through the Contender Series earlier in the summer.
Nicknamed “Sweetness,” Matavao enters Tuesday’s main event pairing with Nchukwi on a four-fight winning streak that dates back to September 2017. After returning from an 18-month hiatus with a decision win at the start of last year, Matavao has posted back-to-back first-round stoppage victories, needing just 16 seconds to dispatch Collin Mansanas last time out.
This is a terrific matchup as Nchukwi shares the cage with a seasoned, dangerous fighter with significantly more experience, while Matavao gets the opportunity to potential knock off an intriguing prospect who has thus far looked like an unstoppable juggernaut.
Given their shared propensity for finishing fights in a hurry, this feels like one of those instances where “Don’t Blink” feels like a valid recommendation.
CAMERON CHURCH VS. SHERRARD BLACKLEDGE
Undefeated lightweights with matching 4-0 marks clash in this one as Cameron Church squares off with Sherrard Blackledge.
Originally slated to face Luke Flores on the opening week of the season, Church was forced out of the bout due to an injury, but is back five weeks later, ready to throw down. The 29-year-old has followed up his unbeaten amateur career with four straight victories since turning pro last April, most recently earning a second-round submission win over Alex Sanchez at the end of last year.
This is a home game of sorts for the 27-year-old Blackledge, who trains at Syndicate MMA in Las Vegas. After venturing to welterweight for his most recent appearance, “The Thriller” moves back down to lightweight, where he’s earned back-to-back stoppage wins.
Still very early in their respective careers, this will be an excellent measuring stick opportunity for both Church and Blackledge, who have thus far faced limited competition. It’s often difficult to get an accurate read on prospects as they march through the regional ranks, so Tuesday’s contest should highlight where each of these up-and-coming hopefuls stand in their development and if either or both have the potential to be valuable additions to the UFC roster in the future.
The Ultimate Job Interview: Dana White's Contender Series is Back
The Ultimate Job Interview: Dana White's Contender Series is Back
PHILIP HAWES VS. KHADZHI BESTAEV
Middleweights hoping to take the next step forward in their respective careers collide in the middle of this week’s card as Philip Hawes returns to Las Vegas to take on Khadzhi Bestaev.
Long considered one of the top prospects in the sport, the now 31-year-old Hawes came up short in his attempt to make the cast of Season 23 of The Ultimate Fighter, losing to eventual winner Andrew Sanchez in the elimination round. He lost to veteran Louis Taylor under the WSOF banner in 2016, then got stopped by Julian Marquez on the first season of the Contender Series, but since then, the powerfully built wrestler has rattled off three straight stoppage victories to secure a third trip to Las Vegas with UFC dreams hanging in the balance.
Like Hawes, Bestaev endured a two-fight skid a couple years back, with the first of those setbacks coming against current UFC light heavyweight Alonzo Menifield. He rebounded with consecutive submission victories in the latter half of 2018 but has been out of action since.
Where Church and Blackledge have limited experience and their bout will offer a window into their potential futures, this feels like it could be a final opportunity for both Hawes and Bestaev, who have been fighting professionally since 2014 and 2013, respectively. Each would be an intriguing addition to the middleweight ranks with a strong performance here, given their experience, so it will be interesting to see which one will be able to capitalize on the opportunity in front of them Tuesday evening at the Apex.
MANA MARTINEZ VS. DRAKO RODRIGUEZ
Promising bantamweights Mana Martinez and Drako Rodriguez have built solid reputations on the regional circuit. Now, they meet in Las Vegas in hopes of matriculating to the major leagues.
The 24-year-old Martinez owns a 6-1 record that includes a first-round stoppage win over Contender Series alum “Pretty” Ricky Turcios and a split decision loss to TUF 27 contestant Dulani Perry. A winner of five straight heading into this one, Martinez has excellent size for the division and a resume filled with stoppage victories, which means you can expect him to come out looking to finish on Tuesday evening.
A standout under the King of the Cage banner, Rodriguez’ lone loss came against current UFC competitor Tony Gravely, and he’s since bounced back with a pair of victories over out-gunned opposition. His name was in the news last summer when a short notice opportunity against Marlon Vera failed to come together, but now the 24-year-old Iowa product gets a chance to show why he was tapped to make the jump to the UFC roster 12 months ago.
Both of these fighters are still relatively young in their respective careers, but they’ve shown flashes of potential and are precisely the type of talented, emerging competitors the Contender Series is designed to unearth and showcase.
ALIASKHAB KHIZRIEV VS. HENRIQUE SHIGUEMOTO
Middleweight veterans get the action started this week as Aliaskhab Khizriev faces off with Henrique Shiguemoto in the opening bout of the evening.
Perfect through the first dozen fights of his career, Khizriev hasn’t fought in over two years heading into this one. The 30-year-old, who stopped UFC veteran Rousimar Palhares in 58 seconds in his last outing, has trained with a host of top talents from Dagestan and Russia throughout his career and has been awaiting the opportunity to compete in the Octagon for some time.
The 31-year-old Shiguemoto has won eight straight heading into Tuesday’s opener, most recently scoring a 28-second stoppage win last November at Road FC 56. He’s earned finishes in all 13 of his professional victories, brandishing quality power and the kind of experience that should serve him well as he welcomes Khizriev back to the cage this week in Las Vegas.
Both of these men profile as fighters deserving of a chance to compete in the Octagon, but given that they’re matched up against one another and a losing fighter has yet to be awarded a contract over the first three-plus years of the Contender Series, it’s pretty safe to say that the opportunity to grace the UFC cage is on the line here, which means this should get the show off to an electric start on Tuesday night.