Dana White’s Contender Series 38: Grading the winners
Week 2 of Dana White’s Contender Series (2021) took place on Tuesday in Las Vegas, and we’re grading the winners from the four-fight card, which streamed on ESPN+ from the UFC Apex.
With a simple but digestible format that has had the MMA fanbase responding, this series has shown to have legs in multiple ways while serving as a crockpot for contenders whom the UFC matchmakers can use for future events. So, with that trend in mind, I will once again be taking a look at the winning fighters regardless of whether or not they won a UFC contract, grading their performances in regards to their probability of returning to a UFC stage.
LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - SEPTEMBER 07: (R-L) Chad Anheliger punches Muin Gafurov in a bantamweight fight during Dana White's Contender Series season five week two at UFC APEX on September 07, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)
Weight class: Bantamweight Result: Chad Anheliger def. Muin Gafarov via split decision (29-28, 28-29, 29-28) Grade: B Summary: After coming through in a gritty performance as the biggest underdog on the card, I found it hard to give [autotag]Chad Anhelinger[/autotag] anything short of a B for beating Muin Gafarov in the opening bout. Gafarov, who has experience fighting in tough organizations that range from ACA to ONE Championship, was able to show off some of his wrestling and sambo skills early to secure some dominant positions on Anhelinger. That said, the Canadian fighter kept his cool when Gafarov went for submissions, as Anhelinger was able to smartly pick his spots to create scrambles and swim for single-leg reversals (a technique and instinct that scores highly with me). The fighters quickly returned to their feet, where Anhelinger ended up dropping Gafarov with a knee to tilt the first round in his favor on two of the three judge's scorecards. Round 2 looked to be following a similar flow with regard to Anhelinger taking over after a strong start from Gafarov, but the native of Tajikistan was able to take the round back over after a brief respite from a foul that he committed. Gafarov did his best to get the fight back to the floor in the final frame, but Anhelinger demonstrated solid defense against the fence and was also the clearly sharper striker on the feet as well. I can't express how much respect I have for fighters who can overcome rough starts like Anhelinger has, as I wasn't mad to see him rewarded with a UFC contract in spite of the Oprah-like vibes that this show has been putting off with regard to the way it unabashedly recruits talent to help fill a contractually-obligated ESPN schedule. But I digress. Should Anhelinger return later this year, then I would like to see him matched up with fighters like Vinc Morales or Kris Moutinho – though I suspect that the UFC may pair him up with someone from the latest season of "The Ultimate Fighter."
LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - SEPTEMBER 07: (R-L) CJ Vergara punches Bruno Korea in a flyweight fight during Dana White's Contender Series season five week two at UFC APEX on September 07, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)
Weight class: Flyweight Result: CJ Vergara def. Bruno Korea via Knockout (knee, punches) – round 1, 0:41 Grade: A Summary: Although some of us were excited to see Bruno Korea return to a UFC stage, [autotag]CJ Vergara[/autotag] made sure those thoughts were short-lived as he earns an easy A for his quick destruction of "The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil" alumni. Vergara, who was locked in and looking confident from Jump Street, came out and smartly pressured the kick-heavy style of Korea (as the Texan typically likes to fight off the counter). Vergara has sharp eyes in exchanges as he seemed to see everything Korea was throwing, whether it was the Brazilians turning sidekicks or the spinning backfists that followed in a counter-balancing fashion. After hurting Korea in an exchange of hooks, Vergara showed solid shot defense as he displayed some savvy threats and frames en route to landing a vicious knee to his Brazilian foe's body off of the break for a first-round finish. Couple all that with Vergara's infectious personality, and it was a no-brainer in regards to predicting a contract for the American. Should Vergara make a quick turnaround off this short night of work, then I say pair him up with Malcolm Gordon for a fun and doable fight between two North American competitors.
LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - SEPTEMBER 07: (L-R) Saimon Oliveira kicks Jose Alday in a bantamweight fight during Dana White's Contender Series season five week two at UFC APEX on September 07, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)
Weight class: Bantamweight Result: Saimon Oliveira def. Jose Alday via split decision (29-28, 28-29, 29-28) Grade: B Summary: Although [autotag]Saimon Oliveira[/autotag] will have to settle for a solid B, I almost feel like both he and Jose Alday deserve A's in spirit for actually checking calf kicks as their contest carried on (something that makes me very happy to see from the younger generation). The fight, overall, was a well-matched and entertaining affair for the most part. Oliveira, whose trunk color and muay Thai swagger was reminiscent of the character Paco in Bloodsport, bravely marched forward behind a high guard in an effort to unleash hard kicks at multiple levels. Oliveira has a nice check hook that he keeps in his back pocket, but the 30-year-old seems to spin a bit too much for my liking. The Astra Fight Team product can also take a fight to the floor when he needs to, though some of his takedown attempts came off as either desperate or poorly timed (especially when he had Alday hurt in the final frame). Nevertheless, I suspect that Oliveira's athleticism and striking style will make for some fun fights in the UFC, as I wouldn't mind seeing him in another international pairing with do-or-die bantamweights like Cameron Else or Mark Striegl.
LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - SEPTEMBER 07: (L-R) Chidi Njokuani punches Mario Sousa in a middleweight fight during Dana White's Contender Series season five week two at UFC APEX on September 07, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)
Weight class: Middleweight Result: Chidi Njokuani def. Mario Sousa via TKO (elbows) – round 3, 1:35 Grade: A+ Summary: Perhaps it's because [autotag]Chidi Njokuani[/autotag] is outright over-qualified for the position, but the American-born Nigerian earns the ever-elusive A+ for demonstrating skills in almost every area in spite of suffering multiple fouls in the first round. Njokuani, who is primarily known for his muay Thai striking, was also able to show off his improved grappling by reminding the masses that he has a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt under Sergio Pena. Fortunately for Njokuani, Sousa seemingly hasn't improved his wrestling at all since his last showing on the Contender Series, which allowed the American to secure topside on multiple occasions – even landing some sweet ground-and-pound from a leg drag variation in the second round. Like many good muay Thai strikers, Njokuani has no issue when it comes to attacking the body or kicking arms with impunity, as the 32-year-old was able to hurt Sousa a few times before finding a solid knee to spark off the finish in the final frame. It's weird to see more experienced names pop up on a show that's propped up to be a springboard for young fighters, but I'd much rather see proven veterans get their shots than rushing raw talent to the main stage (though part of me fears these Contender Series contracts will still remain the same, pay-wise). I suspect we'll see Njokuani before year's end given that he operates out of the UFC's backyard of Las Vegas, as I wouldn't mind seeing him matched up in an all-action affair with either Abdul Razak Alhassan or Brendan Allen.
LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - SEPTEMBER 07: (L-R) Josh Quinlan punches Logan Urban in a welterweight fight during Dana White's Contender Series season five week two at UFC APEX on September 07, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)
Weight class: Welterweight Result: Josh Quinlan def. Logan Urban via knockout (punches) – round 3, 0:47 Grade: A Summary: Even though it was another quick night at the office for [autotag]Josh Quinlan[/autotag], I found it hard to deny him an A grading for treating short-notice replacement, Logan Urban, accordingly. Quinlan, who is a fighter I've had my eye on since cornering against him on the regional scene, is a standout athlete who has shown some serious skills in the mixed martial arts game. From his fleet-footed stylings to the speed and accuracy of his strikes, Quinlan could be a real force who produces fun action for years to come. Although we didn't get to any of Quinlan's ground game this time out, the Hawaiian-born fighter seems to have a solid base when operating from topside, appearing to be more than competent when it comes to floating positions and looking for strikes or submissions. I'm not sure what Louis or Orion Cosce are up to, but I believe that either brother would make for a solid matchup with Quinlan for all parties involved given the action and answers that could come from those stylistic affairs.