For many MMA fans, this the episode of the Contender Series that they have circled ever since they announced this lineup as the most captivating fighter to potentially enter the UFC in years finally gets his shot at the big time.
Also this week, we get a battle of two of the youngest fighters ever to fight to get into the UFC, a heavyweight battle, and the debut of a very intriguing featherweight.
Here We Go.
Chase Hooper (5-0) versus Canaan Kawaihae (4-0)
The first bout this week is a for sure first in the Contender Series, and maybe the UFC as a whole, as for the first time, the combined age of the fighters in this fight is thirty-eight years old. You read that right.
We have to start with Hooper, who comes to the cage at the tender age of eighteen years old, although he is a few months older than Dan Lauzon was when he fought Spencer Fisher at UFC 64.
Hooper is a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu purple belt who went 5-0 as amateur before turning pro last October — one month after his eighteenth birthday. He is fighting all of his fights in Washington, which is not the most competitive place in the world, but he has finished all five of his fights, four by submission. It’s a remarkable amount of experience for a fighter so young.
His opponent this week is Kawaihae, who is the seventy-fourth fighter this season to come from Hawaii. It’s really ridiculous at this point. He’s the old man in this fight at twenty years old. He’s a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black belt and three of his four wins come by submission. He also has a plethora of great people to train with, such as UFC featherweight champion Max Holloway, and probably has had tougher battles in the gym than he has in live fights. It’s a hella interesting matchup.
We have seen many matchups where two grapplers have canceled each other out and it becomes a battle on the feet, and if it comes to that, Kawaihae is probably the better striker. But these two dudes are so young that they might know better, and just start shooting for takedowns. I can live with that. But more than anything, this will come down to which of these young men can handle this moment better. It’s gonna be crazy to watch.
Jeff Hughes (9-1) versus Josh Appelt (15-6)
We head to the opposite end of the spectrum as we go from two young lightweights to two seasoned and experienced heavyweights, one who is old enough to be the two young men in the first fight’s fathers.
We start out with the younger Hughes, the LFA heavyweight champion who is on a three-fight winning streak. He’s really come into his own since his only loss, a fifth-round knockout loss to Contender Series veteran Daniel Spohn. He beat the bigger Richard Odoms to win the title last November and successfully defended the title this March. He is a grinder who seems to get stronger as the fight goes on.
His opponent, Appelt, is a Bellator veteran who will be giving up size and age going into this fight, but he has shown significant power throughout his career. Eleven of his fifteen wins come by knockout and last year saw him put away all three of his opponents by way of knockout in the very first round. In his most high-profile fight however, Appelt was destroyed by the much bigger and more powerful Bobby Lashley. While Hughes doesn’t have that type of size, he will also be bigger and more powerful.
If this was a five-round title fight, Hughes was would be huge favorite. But the Contender Series does favor Hughes’ style. He will need to come on and be out of character and go after Appelt This may give Appelt the kind of opportunity he needs to land those big strikes. It creates an interesting matchup, especially in the heavyweight division, where one strike can end everything.
Mike Davis (5-0) vs Sodque Yusuff (6-1)
Throughout the season we have seen a certain type of fighter that is made for the Contender Series — young, big personality, good skills, usually undefeated, and a penchant for the finish. Mike Davis hits all of those points. He’s undefeated, well-rounded, and the perfect age at twenty-five years old. He has prepared himself well for the moment, as he’s 3-0 as a pro boxer and also performed very well in grappling competitions on the blue and purple belt levels. In MMA, most of his fights have taken place in Roy Jones’ Island Fights promotion, where he has fought mostly at lightweight. He’s fighting a division south of this, but seems to be doing well with the weight cut.
He has a very solid opponent in front of him in Yusuff, a Nigerian born fighter who comes out the Team Lloyd Irvin camp in Maryland. Yusuff has fought in some really solid promotions such as Victory FC, the CFFC, and Titan FC. He was finished in his only loss to Contender Series alum Luis Gomez last December but bounced back with a forty-six second knockout in March. He moves well, has good power, and given where he comes from, his grappling should be strong.
Davis should be the favorite in this matchup, but I do think Yusuff has a path to victory. He needs get inside and put pressure and do it fast. He will be giving three or four inches in height to the 6’ Davis, so this is essential. He can’t afford to stand on the outside and trade, and Davis may be too good of a grappler to take down. It’s a tough road for Yusuff for sure, but he should not be counted out…
Light Heavyweight Bout
Jimmy Crute (7-0) versus Chris Birchler (7-3)
In what feels like a rare appearance for the 205-pound division on this show, Australia’s Crute lands the American shores for the very first time. A pro for only two and a half years, Crute is undefeated in his pro career, but like a lot of fighters from outside of the Americas and Japan, its hard to say how good the opposition he’s faced is. Also troubling that his finishes have become less frequent since he moved up in competition. As HFS light heavyweight champion, he has gone five rounds his last two fights, and this series hasn’t always been kind to those type of fighters.
While Birchler comes into the Contender Series coming off a loss to UFC veteran Matt Hamill, he comes into this fight believing that he has more experience and has fought better opposition. The New Jersey native has fought in tough promotions such as Ring of Combat and the CFFC, and he’s going to believe his tougher and badder. To me, this is going to lead him to go and make the fight. Whether this is good for him remains to be seen.
But I believe he is going to come out and try to test Crute early. Even though neither of these men are known as a finisher, someone could go down early in this fight just based on styles. This could come down to how well Crute handles the big stage, being in America for the first time. Birchler thinks he’s ready for the moment, and that may make the difference.
Nick Newell (14-1) versus Alex Munoz (4-0)
If you could only label one fight of this entire season as must-see TV, it is this one. While the Greg Hardy fights have drawn their lion’s share of publicity, it may pale in comparison compared to this fight.
It’s very reasonable to believe that Nick Newell should already be in the UFC, when you consider his background as amateur wrestler and a grappler, his record outside of the UFC, and his popularity. He may very well be one of the most popular fighters never to fight in the UFC. But what has made his career so remarkable so far is the same reason he wasn’t in the big show years ago.
Nick Newell only has one arm. His left to be exact, with a congenital birth defect leaving his right arm cut off at the forearm. A clip from long ago shows Dana White saying he’ll never fight in the UFC because of the limitation, and in some ways, it’s hard to argue. But the truth of the matter is that Newell wins fights. He won the first eleven of his career, including a lightweight title in the now defunct XFC (think of it as the Legacy of the Southeast) and he also did super well in the WSOF. His only loss was a WSOF lightweight title fight to Justin Gaethje, which is no shame given how many two-arm people that man has beaten down. After the loss to Gaethje, Newell won two fights and briefly retired, but came back with a first round submission win this February. This shit is long overdue.
Newell’s opponent is a very interesting choice. Alex Munoz has much less experience in the cage than Newell, but he is an elite wrestler who started at Oklahoma State, one of the best programs in the country. After starting his career with the now defunct Team Takedown, Munoz moved last year to Team Alpha Male, where he has been the wrestling coach ever since. Given Newell’s strong grappling, which includes nine wins by submission, Munoz may be able to neutralize all of that. Yet Munoz also hasn’t fought in a year. It’s a hella interesting matchup.
It has often been the case that two grapplers cancel each other out and we get a punching battle. But Newell is very confident off of his back and a very good scrambler. I don’t think Munoz can force him to be one-dimensional. Munoz is going to have set up his shots smart, keep Newell down, and be very careful on top. It’s such a captivating fight, and you just should not miss it.
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