Tuesday night marked the penultimate week of Season 3 on Dana White’s Contender Series, as another five pairs of hopefuls made the walk to the cage inside the UFC Apex in hopes of joining the record-setting number of graduates from this season to matriculate to the UFC roster.
Headlined by a welterweight clash between Leon Shahbazyan, the older brother of Contender Series alum and rising middleweight star Edmen Shahbazyan, and “The Fresh Prince,” Phil Rowe, this week’s five-fight card was packed with strong performances that once again gave UFC President Dana White plenty to consider when it came time to hand out contracts.
Though he was full of praise for all of Tuesday’s victors, this was one of those rare evenings this season where White was reserved when it came to handing out contracts, recommending that Mallory Martin and Jamal Pogues gain more experience, Ricky Steele show a little more consistency after struggling with injuries and inactivity over the last few years and suggesting that Steve Garcia move up a division after failing to make weight.
That meant that only welterweight Phil Rowe emerged with a contract, joining his teammates “Platinum” Mike Perry, Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza and Rodolfo Vieira on the UFC roster.
Here’s a look at what transpired.
Caracappa’s nickname may be “Hitman,” but on Tuesday night, he was the one getting hit.
Whenever the unbeaten bantamweights were in space, Steele used his karate background to maintain space and find a home for several strikes, including a nice head kick and follow-up left hand early in the second. While Steele was true to his “Karate Kid” moniker throughout, Caracappa only used his striking to close the distance, falling into clinch battles and searching for takedowns whenever he got inside, much to the frustration of his head coach, Dante Rivera.
Though it was Caracappa initiating the action along the fence, it was Steele who routinely got the better of the exchanges, reversing off the fence and attacking with short punches and elbows, shoulder strikes and knees in tight. Late in the third, Caracappa finally let his hands go and seemingly hurt Steele, only to grab an ill-advised guillotine choke and jump guard, failing to complete the submission and ending the fight with his back on the canvas and Steele looking to connect with a few more strikes through the horn.
When the nines and tens were tallied, it was Steele who came away on the happy side of the split decision verdict, maintaining his unbeaten record while handing Caracappa the first loss of his career.
Martin was the biggest betting favorite on Tuesday’s card and she justified the odds, showing superior technique and technical acumen from start to finish.
In the opening round, the 25-year-old American grounded her Italian counterpart for the three minutes in the middle of the frame, alternating between working half guard and side control while attacking with short punches and elbows.
In the second, the women remained standing for the opening three minutes, with Martin landing the cleaner, crisper punches as Di Segni tried to find a home for looping overhand rights. With two minutes left in the stanza, Martin dragged the fight to the floor again, but Di Segni was able to scramble to her feet, only to get knocked to the canvas with a low kick as she threw a sloppy spinning back fist.
It was more of the same in the third, with Martin landing swift, straight punches as Di Segni found a little more success with looser combinations, only to end up pressed into the fence and taken to the ground. Martin couldn’t secure her hooks as she looked to take the back and the 31-year-old from Rome got back to her feet and looked to fire off shots, finding a home with select shots.
But Martin did a good job of slipping out of range and countering with short shots of her own, controlling the action throughout on the way to a clean sweep of the scorecards.
The size difference between these two was apparent from the outset and proved to be a major factor in how the fight played out.
Not only did Garcia miss weight by a considerable margin on Monday, but Torres, who took the fight on short notice, was also moving up from flyweight, and when the two started trading at the outset, the advantages Garcia carried were evident. He was able to land from range and keep Torres on the outside, mixing up his attacks and pressing forward as consistently as he could.
After a fairly level round through the opening three minutes, Garcia found a home for a left uppercut later in the first that backed up Torres, opening the door for the Jackson-Wink MMA product to go on the offensive. While Torres did his best to cover up and hang tough, the onslaught was too much and Garcia was able to pound out the finish.
The light heavyweights came out swinging, with Brigagao and Pogues firing off wide, powerful hooks, each connecting and getting caught with stiff shots in the opening 30 seconds.
After looking like it would end in a hurry on the feet, this one actually turned into a grappling battle for the majority of the first, as Pogues successfully timed a couple different takedowns. Each time, the Brazilian was able to threaten with submissions that forced Pogues to be mindful of his position or create scrambles that allowed him to get back to his feet.
It was more of the same in the second, with Pogues landing the better strikes on the feet early before again timing a takedown, driving through as Brigagao came forward, putting him on his back in the center of the cage. He connected with heavy shots on the ground and a clean head kick as the Brazilian got back to his feet before pressing forward to bring the fight to the floor once more. While Brigagao got back to his feet quickly and pressed forward, Pogues continued to land the cleaner, more impactful shots.
The third followed the same pattern, with Pogues putting Brigagao on the ground and patiently working through the step-by-step instructions being offered by his coach, former TUF winner and UFC title challenger Joe Stevenson. While the pace slowed and the snap on the punches wasn’t as crisp, Pogues continued to control the action right through to the final horn.
For the first 90 seconds of this one, these two long, rangy welterweights circled each other, firing off sporadic strikes as they tried to find their range. But then Shahbazyan found a home for a lead uppercut that took Rowe’s legs out from under him. Shahbazyan went hunting for follow-up blows that could create finishing opportunities, but Rowe was able to keep his distance and avoid anything sharp, regaining clarity late in the frame and responding with some offense of his own.
After a minute of being locked up in the clinch along the fence to start the second, Rowe opened up with his hands, forcing the Glendale Fighting Club representative to shoot for a takedown. It was all Rowe when the fight went to the ground as well, as the Orlando-based welterweight opened up with numerous long strikes, finally making use of his 80-inch reach as he unloaded on Shahbazyan through the horn.
Seconds into the final round, Rowe ended things, opening up with powerful, long punches that backed Shahbazyan up, put him down and eventually prompted referee Herb Dean to step in and halt the action.