It’s not often you get an Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) newcomer with the world’s eyes on them, but that’s exactly the case at UFC 285 this Saturday (March 4, 2023) inside T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada. On this edition of “New Blood,” the series where my work is never over, we check out one of the sport’s most hyped prospects alongside two other Contender Series graduates and a two-time Professional Fighters League (PFL) finalist.
As always, all episodes of the most recent Contender Series season are on ESPN+.
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HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPION SUPER FIGHT! Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) returns to T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada, on Sat., March 4, 2023, with one of the biggest fights in its history as No. 1-ranked Heavyweight contender, Ciryl Gane, and former Light Heavyweight champion, Jon Jones, collide in a “super” fight for the vacant undisputed Heavyweight title. In UFC 285’s pay-per-view (PPV) co-main event, women’s Flyweight roost-ruler, Valentina Shevchenko — UFC’s current longest-reigning champion — defends her 125-pound title against Mexico’s Alexa Grasso.
Weight Class: Middleweight
Record: 3-0 (1 KO, 2 SUB)
Notable Victories: Donovan Beard, Zack Borrego
One of the most decorated collegiate wrestlers to ever transition to mixed martial arts (MMA), Nickal hit the ground running with quick finishes in his two amateur bouts. He’s been brutally efficient as a professional, dispatching three opponents in a combined 2:27.
There’s only so much analysis I can do of a guy whose entire professional career can be viewed in the time it takes to microwave a can of beans, but I’ll try. His striking revolves largely around his straight left and some functional kicks. There’s clearly some real power there, as seen when he rattled debut foe John Noland with that left hand and put him to sleep with a flurry, but what really stands out is the way he’s already figured out how to blend it with his striking. He had Donovan Beard, a 7-1 CFFC champ, biting on every feinted level change to set up a brutally quick overhand left to knee tap transition.
Once it hits the mat, his modus operandi seems to be to swarm with heavy punches to provoke a panicked scramble, then snatch the front headlock as soon as he can. From there, he can look for the back or attack the guillotine to either score a finish or open up further opportunities. His transitions are incredibly smooth — he’s clearly taken to jiu-jitsu seamlessly.
As far as red flags, there’s nothing that I wouldn’t expect from someone this early in his career. He tends to keep his right hand low when hurling the straight left and has yet to blend his kicks into the rest of his offense, both very fixable issues.
My verdict? Get hyped. He’s going to absolutely demolish Jamie Pickett and I’ll be stunned if he doesn’t end up with a number by his name within the next couple years.
Farid “Ferocious” Basharat
Weight Class: Bantamweight
Record: 9-0 (1 KO, 5 SUB)
Notable Victories: Allan Begosso
An undefeated (4-0) amateur run and perfect (8-0) professional start earned Basharat the opportunity to join brother Javid as a Contender Series graduate. He proved up to the task, dominating Allan Begosso to claim a unanimous decision victory and UFC contract.
Stylistically, Basharat greatly resembles his brother, mixing high-level footwork, solid kicks, and a top-notch ground game into a seamless and endless storm of offense. While the synergy is what really makes it stand out, we’ll look at his striking and grappling separately for clarity’s sake.
He’s incredibly light on his feet, staying just at the edge of his kicking range while picking away at his opponent’s legs, body, and head. If an opponent gets too eager to try and back him up, he’ll lean on a rapid jab to keep them at bay or look for a bigger step-back counter. When he’s fully in gear, popping opponents with quick strikes and then punishing them as soon as they try to fire back, he’s something to behold.
What really stands out is the way he’ll constantly feint level changes to keep opponents guessing, which allows him to step in and rip body shots against the fence when he’s no longer content playing keep-away or snatch up single-legs without resistance.
He’s an incredibly quick, skilled and effective striker, but there are a couple of lingering issues, chief among them his general lack of upper-body movement and tendency to keep his left hand low when leaning away from danger. His legs are his defense, which generally works extremely well for him thanks to his speed and fluidity, but he’s proven vulnerable to getting caught when he lingers on the inside. That left hand in particular allowed Raul Guzman to badly rock him two fights back with a counter overhand right, and it’s an open question whether he backsteps fast enough to keep higher-level strikers from clipping him as he retreats.
Besides that, he could probably stand to round out his boxing a bit more. To be clear, he’s still a damn good striker, just one with room for improvement
His ground game is just as impressive. He’s got an incredibly quick level change that he can parlay into double-legs or the easy single legs he racked up on Begosso. He passes well and has five rear naked chokes that speak to his submission skills, but I’m honestly most impressed by his ground-and-pound. He’s inhumanly accurate with his punches and elbows while staying patient enough to pick his shots and avoid losing position. He sneaks in strikes at any opportunity, their power not sacrificed for precision.
This was on full display two fights back against Janne Elonen-Kulmala. Elonen-Kulmala initially managed to sweep Basharat when he got overeager in pursuit of mount, but as the fight progressed, Basharat constantly got into dominant position. He’d attack the back, slam home a heavy shot as soon as Elonen-Kulmala spun to mount, then go back to chasing the choke without ever losing his balance.
In case it’s not clear enough, I’m extremely high on Basharat. He’s as good as (if not better than) his brother, a guy who will almost certainly find his way into contention as soon as the opportunity arises. He should run roughshod over Da’Mon Blackshear in his debut.
Loik “Jaguar Paw” Radzhabov
Weight Class: Lightweight
Record: 16-4-1 (7 KO, 5 SUB)
Notable Victories: Alex Martinez, Akhmed Aliev, Chris Wade
Tajikistan’s Radzhabov made two bids for PFL tournament gold, reaching the finals twice but falling to Natan Schulte and Raush Manfio. He last saw action in Jan. 2022, when he choked out Zach Zane in his Eagle FC debut.
He steps in for Kamuela Kirk on around one week’s notice.
Pressure and physicality are “Jaguar Paw’s” weapons of choice. He stalks forward with low kicks, front kicks to the body, and heavy right hands to try and force his way into the clinch. It’s not the flashiest approach, but his persistence and extraordinary toughness make it hard to keep him off of you for long. He’s also got some punching power, as Aliev learned to his detriment, and kicks hard enough to take people off their feet.
He’s got a few different takedowns in his arsenal once he manages to tie up, from foot sweeps to dramatic lifts. Though he’s not always the best at maintaining top control, he scrambles well and is quick to get back to his feet should he end up in an unfavorable situation.
Some noteworthy issues have kept him from getting over the hump, however, most notably a questionable gas tank that left him a sitting duck for Manfio once they entered the championship rounds. On top of that and a tendency to lean away from right hands rather than block them, he doesn’t respond well to low kicks and tends to throw his own without setup, which allowed Manfio to counter him with worrying regularity.
He honestly reminds me a lot of Omari Akhmedov, though much more durable. Physically impressive and nightmarish to deal with when he’s fresh, but not quite devastating enough to make up for his technical shortcomings against higher-level opposition, especially once he starts to flag and the takedowns stop coming. Though I do think he’ll beat debut foe Esteban Ribovics, who’s yet to face a takedown artist of his caliber, he’ll peak below UFC’s Top 15.
Esteban “El Gringo” Ribovics
Weight Class: Lightweight
Record: 11-0 (6 KO, 5 SUB)
Notable Victories: Thomas Paull
Fourteen months after winning the Fusion FC interim Lightweight title, Ribovics ended his layoff with a 27-second knockout win in Samurai Fight House. He then tried his hand at Contender Series six months later, smashing Thomas Paull in 1:30 to claim a UFC contract.
Back in March 2020 against Jose Zauraz — the last time Ribovics saw a fight go past the 90-second mark — “El Gringo” was an almost improvisationally wild knockout artist. He’d bounce around the cage, switching stance at a whim, before running in with hard punches and elbows. He had a particular fondness for those standing elbows both as leads and in combination, plus a willingness to throw uppercuts from any distance.
It could be ungainly at times, but the sheer power and aggression at his disposal made it highly effective, especially when he did throw proper combinations.
As you might imagine, defense was not a priority. He’d telegraph his attacks by rushing in, regularly fail to set up some of his more dangerous shots like that uppercut, and put on his earmuffs under fire. Fairly standard regional knockout artist foibles, not the sort that doom a career but which absolutely need to be fixed before fighting someone who can take Ribovics’ best shot and answer in kind.
He’s fought for less than two minutes in the last two years, so it’s hard to say whether he’s made the necessary adjustments. He did look a bit more composed and willing to jab against Paull after an early exchange and showed off a nice counter to put him away, though.
His approach to defensive grappling seems to be immediately latching onto the kimura as both an attack and means to sweep. It worked well for the most part against Zauraz, who capitalized on Ribovics’ aggression more than once to take him down but never managed to get much done on top. It didn’t seem like the sort of thing that would hold up against top-level grapplers, but who knows how it’s developed in the last three years.
Ribovics definitely has the athleticism and aggression to be a threat, though he needs a good bit of seasoning to handle the UFC Lightweight shark tank. Luckily, he’s young enough to learn on the job. Hopefully, he does so in what’s likely to be a losing effort against the much more proven Loik Radzhabov.
Remember that MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC 285 fight card right here, starting with the early ESPN+ “Prelims” matches online, which are scheduled to begin at 6:15 p.m. ET, then the remaining undercard on ESPN/ESPN+ at 8 p.m. ET, before the PPV main card start time at 10 p.m. ET on ESPN+ PPV.
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