It came seemingly out of the blue last summer. Fights at the Ultimate Fighter Gym on a Tuesday? Snoop Dogg on commentary? WTF?
But by the middle of the run, MMA fans discovered that we had a whole new way of discovering new UFC talent and a new venue for exciting fights. By the end of the summer we had new fighters up and down the scale, with exciting prospects such as Julian Marquez, Phil Roberson, Lauren Mueller, Geoff Neal, Julio Arce, and most famously, Sugar Sean O’ Malley.
Now we are back for a whole new season, forty fights over eight weeks, showcasing some of brightest prospects in all of MMA. The stakes are raised even higher and should make for even more drama, as these fighters now know the kind of performances they will need in order to make a big impression and get that UFC contract.
And the UFC is wasting no time. They are starting hot when it comes to the fights, and to the controversy, as Week 1 showcases a battle of experienced welterweights, one of the most hated men in all of sports, and a one of MMA’s best unsigned talents in the main event.
1) Will Santiago (9-4) vs Kevin Holland (11-3) — Welterweights
The season kicks off with a battle of experienced, well-schooled welterweights as New England’s Santiago clashes with Holland, who comes from my neck of the woods in Fort Worth, Texas. Given the kind of experience both men have, combined with the fact that these two men have only two wins by decision between, we are starting off real hot!
You have to start off with Santiago, who has the kind of Hollywoodesque story that series showed an affinity for from the beginning. Santiago was youngest of fifteen children of a crime riddle family. A gang related manslaughter led him to be imprisoned from age 17 to 26. Upon leaving prison, he went into MMA, starting off his career at 3-3. Wanting to step up his training, he headed out West to the famed Jackson Winklejohn Camp in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The results were immediate as he riddled of four straight stoppages to earn a shot at the CES MMA welterweight title, but he was stopped in the second round by champ (and co-feature fighter) Chris Curtis. But he has rebounded since with two first round stoppages.
Meanwhile, Holland has a very solid record of fighting top-flight opposition, showcasing his skills in Legacy, King of the Cage, and even Bellator. He has three wins in a row, beat a former contract winner in Geoff Neal in an excellent fight in January 2017, and his last two losses were against Bellator BJJ ace Rafael Lovato Jr and hot UFC prospect Curtis Millender, who destroyed Thiago Alves in February. He has a lot of very high-quality experience.
That experience should make Holland the favorite in this fight. Also, coming into play is that Holland is very tall for the weight class at 6’3, while Santiago is 5’10. He gets a lot of power launching off of his toes, which shows in his eight knockout wins, but Holland is very good using his length and kicks to keep distance. He’s also a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black belt, so he has no fear of going to the ground and has a tendency to put a lot of pressure on his opponents. It’s a lot for Santiago to overcome.
Also, putting a convicted felon in the first fight — if anyone is glad that other guy is on this show — it’s Santiago…
2) Montel Jackson (5-0) vs Rico DiSciullo (8-1) — Bantamweights
Two bantamweights who are very tall for the weight class are up next, as another New England fighter in DiSciullo takes on Milwaukee’s Jackson, a late starter to the game who is looking to make up for lost time.
The 5’8 DiSciullo has fought entire pro career in two promotions – Bellator and Classic Entertainment and Sports, with the latter becoming his home promotion since 2015. He started his career off with his six straight wins before being upset by submission in the first round by a fighter named David Garcia. He has rebounded with three straight wins, including one by Peruvian Necktie of all things. The craziest thing about that is that is his only submission win as a pro. Coming from Boston’s famed Team Sithdyong, DiSciullo is a guy who prefers to fight on his feet.
Meanwhile, Jackson has been training MMA for only about four years. Coming out of Milwaukee’s growing MMA culture, Jackson turned pro in 2017 and his run through five opponents in a row, four by stoppage. While he started out as a grappler, he has emerged a quick striker who likes to cut his opponents to ribbons with combinations. We most likely have two guys looking to stand and bang on her hands, which is never a bad thing.
While his only his four more pro fights, DiSciullo has been training a lot longer and has a lot more experience with top flight fighters. Jackson has also finished most of his opponents in the first round and if this goes to into the third round, he may be in a little bit of trouble. It might be in his best interest to try to get the fight to the ground. Just better avoid that Necktie.
3) Greg Hardy (Pro Debut) vs Austen Lane (4-0) — Heavyweights
Ah, we have arrived. Greg Hardy. The former all pro NFL Defensive End who ruined a potential Hall of Fame career by being an all around deplorable human being. After failing to catch on with a NFL team in 2016, Hardy began to make his move into MMA and soon landed at the famed American Top Team. He made his amateur debut last September and his three fights have lasted a total of 142 seconds. What else is there to say?
But he does not have a gimmie here. Across the cage will be another former NFL player in Lane, a former offensive tackle out of Murray who was picked in the fifth round by the Jacksonville Jaguars. After three years in the league, Lane switched to MMA, going 5-0 as amateur before turning pro in 2017. All four of his pro fights have ended by first round stoppage and if you’re looking for someone to not be beaten before they even step into the cage against a beast of an athlete like Hardy, this is probably your guy.
On paper, Lane should win this fight. He’s the same size as Hardy, a good athlete, has more MMA experience, and shouldn’t be rattled by Hardy’s fame and celebrity. And frankly, the UFC needs him to win. Why they would take this PR risk is beyond all comprehension, but this may also just be a way to get this shit out of the way. If we are lucky, Lane runs through Hardy and he takes his ball and goes home. But this is MMA and anything can happen. This is one case that may prove that it is not always a good thing.
4) Chris Curtis (18-5) vs Sean Lally (7-2) — Welterweights
The most experienced fighter on this week’s episode, Cincinnati’s Curtis, is something of a throwback fighter.
Turning pro back in 2009, Curtis built his name on small shows in the Midwest, winning most of his fights by being good at everything, but necessarily great one thing. But he’s 9-1 in his last ten fights since losing to surging UFC welterweight Belal Muhammad in 2015 and has been especially good since making his way out to California to train with Dan Henderson. That run includes winning the CES MMA welterweight title and defending it twice, including a knockout win over opening fight fighter Will Santiago.
Meanwhile, New Hampshire’s Lally is another Team Sithdyong product who has won five fights in a row. The former United States Army Ranger has mostly plied his trade at middleweight, but will be dropping a weight class to face Curtis. He is a big, strong striker who will be looking to break down the crafty vet, but the sense is that Curtis has faced guys like Lally before.
The one thing that might go against Curtis is that this is Contender Series. Does he gun for a knockout against a bigger, dangerous guy, and put himself in danger, or does he play it safe? That might give Lally the best chance to win.
5) Alonzo Menifield (6-0) vs Dashawn Boatwright (3-0) — Light Heavyweights
We close the first week with a battle between two freak athletes with a penchant for separating people from their senses.
You have to start out with Menifield, one of the biggest prospects in the sport for his division. In an occasion that you will see throughout the Second Season of the show, Menifield was featured last season, facing former UFC light heavyweight Daniel Jolly. Menifield was looking good in the first round, but Jolly retired at the end of the first and Menifield was not given enough time to impress. A bad break.
Since then, Menifield has finished last two opponents and has never been out of the second round. He was a freak athlete with a story that was made for this show as the foster kid turned college graduate turned MMA fighter and the UFC would love to see him win, especially given the lack of depth of talent in the 205-pound weight class. He doesn’t have a gimmie though. Whenever you meet a dude who calls himself a Silverback, you know he scary. And Dashawn Boatwright is scary. You just need to peep the first-round head kick knockout he scored against Jahausa Marsh in his second pro fight.
As raw Menifield still is, he is still the more experienced fighter than Boatright, and with that in mind, Boatwright’s best chance might to blitz Menifield and try to lure him into an early firefight. Menifield has overwhelmed most of his opponents with explosiveness, but he might not be able to do that here. Either way, I am hoping for some early fireworks.