Three weeks into the UFC’s newest experiment, while DWTNCS continues to be a continually annoying hashtag, the series has turned out to be very entertaining, certainly having its share of knockouts, controversy, and drama. Last week’s show produced two quick first round knockouts that led to short notice replacement Geoff Neal and former Glory kickboxer Karl Roberson earn UFC contracts.
Despite a dominating performance over the powerful young Cuban Luis Gomez and submitting him in the third round, Hawaiian featherweight Dan Ige was denied a contract, while light heavyweight Alonzo Meinfield and welterweight Kyle Stewart were victims of circumstance, both winning by injury stoppages, unable to show the fullness of their skills.
This week’s lineup of fights may be showcasing the best slate of fighters yet on DWTNCS, with more than one bout worthy of being featured as the main event featuring training partners of the Elite, well-known faces of smaller promotions, and a former TUF coach…
1) John Castaneda (13-2) vs. Chayden Leialoha (6-0) – Bantamweights
Known as “Sexi Mexi,” Castaneda will come into the show riding an eight-fight winning streak and with four fights in 2015, three the next year, and one so far this year, Castaneda will not only be the most active fighter we see on the show, he may very well be the most well-known.
Castaneda gained invaluable experience in the Los Angeles based Combate Americas promotion, which had generated quite a bit of buzz in the past few years, especially in Latin America. Castaneda, fighting six times in the promotion, became something of the face of the company, including defeating Gustavo Lopez to become their first bantamweight champion last October by fourth round TKO, then retained the belt by second round TKO over former UFC fighter Chris Beal in May. Castaneda may very well be the most battled tested fighter we see this week.
Meanwhile, his opponent comes into the show with his own buzz. Leiahola is third fighter on the show from that MMA hotbed of Hawaii, and he is a training partner of UFC Featherweight Champion Max Holloway. Leialoha will be celebrating his two-year anniversary of his pro debut in this fight, having gone undefeated in first six fights, winning three by rear naked choke.
While Castaneda has challenged his quality of opposition, Leialoha proved his willingness to go wherever he needs to fight, going to freaking Alaska for his last fight. Castaneda will certainly his biggest challenge to date and whether his youth and strength can overcome his opponent’s championship experience make this one of the very best matchups of the series so far, and one that could easily be the main event.
2) Austin Arnett (15-2) vs. Brandon Davis (7-2) – Lightweights
The next clash is a lightweight bout between two fighters, who on paper, have a lot of similarities. First up is Arnett, the most experienced and well-traveled fighter on the card who after going 5-1 as amateur, got off to a rough 2-2 start to his career. Since then Arnett has gone a tear, amassing a three-year, thirteen fight winning streak, with ten wins coming by way of stoppage. Most of his fights happened in his home area of the Pacific Northwest, and his competition hasn’t been the best. But he has amassed a lot of experience and confidence, which should help him going into this all-important bout.
His opponent, Davis, also got off to a rough start in his pro career, starting out 1-2 after a 4-3 amateur career. Since then, Davis has gone on a tear of his own, winning six straight fights over the last two years, four of them by stoppage. While most of Davis’ fights have come from the Summit Fighting Championship promotion in Mississippi, Davis had gained a notoriety training with surging UFC featherweight Jason Knight, with the top prospect using a post-fight interview to urge the UFC for his training partner to get a chance. Davis has his chance here, and something in the gut of this writer says that we could have a really good scrap at the UFC Gym this Tuesday…
3) Ronaldo Candido (6-0) vs. Carlos Candelario (6-0) – Flyweight
The second of three feature bout level fights, this clash of undefeated flyweights features Candido, no doubt the best Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioner we have seen on the show so far and a multiple time world champion, first came to the attention of the UFC when he served as Claudia Gahedela’s assistant coach on Season 23 of TUF. After his stint as a coach, Candido returned to the next season as a fighter, representing Brazil’s Shooto promotion as their flyweight champion.
A member of the famed Nova Uniao team, Candido dominated Shooto, winning all six of his fights by submission, all by using various chokes. After choking out Florida’s Jaime Alvarez in the first round of the TUF 24 Flyweight Tourney, he was outstruck and upset by Eric Shelton in the second round. But he has been idle since then, waiting for another shot at the big show. He certainly does not have a gimme in his quest to get it.
The challenge upsetting the former BJJ World Champion goes to the undefeated Candelario, who has finished five of six pro fights. A training partner of Episode 1 main event Matt Bessette, Candelario has three wins by knockout and two by submission. While he is a strong grappler, he shouldn’t want to go to the ground with Candido, but as Eric Shelton showed on TUF, Candido can get outstruck. This will be what the New England product will attempt to do in what should be a thrilling matchup.
4) James Gray Jr. (4-1) vs. Kyler Phillips (4-0) – Bantamweights
Gray enters the series with one of the more tragic and interesting stories that we will hear all season. He lost his mother when he was five years old and lost a girlfriend to suicide when he was sixteen years old. It was in mourning that loss that he found jiu-jitsu, but only received a few months of training before becoming self-taught, learning off videos online. But nonetheless, he was successful, winning many local tournaments and embarking on an extended amateur career that lasted from 2007 to 2012.
After going 10-0 as an unpaid fighter, Gray finally turned pro in 2013 and won his first four fights by first round submission, including two wins in a bantamweight tournament in Brazil. Sadly, he was knocked out in the first round of the final of that tournament and had been idle for the last two years. But the man once known as the “Phenom” will attempt to restore his path to glory in the UFC, but he won’t have an easy time with it.
Known as “The Matrix,” his opponent Kyler Phillips is only twenty-two years old. A Brazilian Jiu Jitsu brown belt who now trains out of the MMA Lab in Arizona (which also produced contract winner Sean O’Malley), Phillips is undefeated as a pro. His first three fights came in the California Xtreme Fighting promotion, all wins by stoppage in the first round, including one by the rare calf slicer. He moved up to the LFA in his last fight in June, going the distance for the first time in his career. The Matrix is hoping that experience will help him against the older fighter here. It will be interesting to see if Phillips chooses to grapple or stand with Gray, and could determine the outcome of the fight.
5) Phil Hawes (4-1) vs. Julian Marquez (5-1) – Middleweight
The main event pits two of the more interesting prospects in the sport up against one another. First up is Hawes, a former collegiate wrestler out of the vaunted Iowa State wrestling program who went to Jackson Wink MMA to start his pro career.
With 3-0 record and touted by Dana White as “Jon Jones Main Sparring Partner,” Hawes was pitted against the more experienced Andrew Sanchez. The more experienced fighter and eventual TUF 23 winner controlled him the entire fight. So Hawes pivoted and joined WSOF, winning his first fight by first round KO in June 2016. Hawes then tried to make a quick turnaround the next month, but was stopped in the second round by the vastly more experienced Louis Taylor. But now Hawes has a second chance with the MMA Leader, but he will have a significant mountain to climb.
Known as “The Cuban Missile Crisis,” Marquez won all three of his amateur fights in the first round, as well as his first two pro fights by first round TKO. Then he lost a decision in his third fight to the more experienced Chris Harris (won’t be surprised if we see him on this series soon) Marquez responded by going on a tear. He went to Combate Americas and in October, needed just 82 seconds to knock out UFC veteran Matt Hamill, then stopped Roufusport product Cameron Olson in 66 seconds at LFA 12 in May.
Marquez has all the makings of a great prospect except for one thing-he’s thirty-seven years old. That age may come into factor unless he is anything but spectacular against Hawes. It’s a damn interesting main event.
Frank’s Picks: Castaneda, Davis, Candido, Phillips, and Marquez, with Castaneda and Candido getting contracts.