Another season of The Ultimate Fighter reality show starts on Aug. 31. Flyweight contenders Joseph Benevidez and Henry Cejudo will square off as coaches of 16 flyweights who will be on the hunt for a UFC title shot against champion Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson.
The show premieres in a couple weeks, so it’s time to look at the cast. The UFC gathered champions from around the globe to compete for the right to challenge Mighty Mouse for the crown, but which of these champions can emerge from the gauntlet with their hand raised as the new top contender?
Tim Elliott: Elliott has already fought in the UFC, going 2-4 with both wins coming via decision. During his almost three-year run with the promotion, he fought three opponents — John Doson, Ali Bagautinov and Joseph Benavidez — who would go on to fight for the title. That’s quite the resume for someone in the TUF house. Overall, his record of 13-6 isn’t bad. More than half of his wins have come via knockout or submission, while half of his losses have been decisions. The Titan FC flyweight champion’s experience at the highest level makes him a huge favorite.
Damacio Page: Page is another serious contender in the competition. He has a record of 19-10, where 18 of those wins have come by way of TKO or submission. However, eight of his 10 losses have been submission defeats. He’s also fought in multiple top-tier organizations, including the UFC, WEC, Pancrase, King of the Cage, K-1 and Legacy FC. He was the Legacy FC flyweight champion. Page trains out of Jackson-Winkeljohn MMA, which is one of the best gyms in the world. Even though he’s a little bit past his prime, Page still has a good shot to make a run at the title.
Alexandre Pantoja: Pantoja is a very impressive talent. He’s only 26 years old and trains out of Nova União, which houses some of the best Brazilian fighters around, including guys like José Aldo, Renan Barão, Eduardo Dantas, Claudia Gadelha, Leonardo Santos, Jussier “Formiga” da Silva, Junior dos Santos, Thales Leites and Hacran Dias. In 18 professional fights, he has six knockout victories, six submissions and four decisions. His only two losses came via decision. It should be noted that Pantoja has also trained with the Black House gym with the likes of legends Anderson Silva, Lyoto Machida and the Nogueira Brothers. Pantoja also defeated Damacio Page, who’s one of the other presumed favorites in this competition. That was the last bout for both fighters, too, so the rivalry should be fresh in their minds. In his prior fight, the Brazilian captured RFA flyweight gold with a victory over Matt Manzanares.
The Dark Horses
Terrence Mitchell: Mitchell is essentially very unknown within the mainstream MMA community, but he has accumulated an impressive career in the sport. All of his fights have taken place in the state of Alaska. While many would assume that a fighter who’s only fought in one state doesn’t face a lot of tough competition, it’s important to note that UFC President Dana White recently spent his own own reality show, Dana White: Lookin’ For a Fight recruiting fighters from the state of Alaska, so there might be some diamonds in the rough up there. In his 13-fight career, Mitchell has 11 wins, all coming via stoppage, with only two losses, one of which was a knockout.
Brandon Moreno: Moreno is a fighter coming out of the newly MMA-obsessed country of Mexico. He has gone 11-3 as a pro, with his only losses coming via decision. The majority of his wins have been finishes — one knockout and eight submissions. The youngster — Moreno is only 22 — can be pegged as a submission specialist. “The Assassin” is the World Fighting Federation’s flyweight champ.
Adam Antolin: Antolin is an experienced fighter training out of the world-renowned American Kickboxing Academy, the same camp that houses Daniel Cormier, Cain Velasquez, Khabib Nurmagomedov, Luke Rockhold and Kyoji Horiguchi. These are all either former champions, current champs or top contenders in the UFC. Antolin, 34, is up there in age, but with age comes experience. In 14 career fights, Antolin has 10 finishes, with thee via knockout and seven by way of submission. He suffered back-to-back submission losses in 2011 as part of a span in which he lost three of four fights, with a long layoff in between those bouts. “Captain Chaos” is a Strikeforce veteran who recently captured the Tachi Palace Fights flyweight crown with a victory over Alex Perez.
Ronaldo Candido: Candido will most likely be one of the fighters the other guys will have to worry about. Not only is he fighting out of Nova União, but his submission game might be the best in the entire competition. Even though he’s only had six fights, all six ended in submission wins for the Brazilian. He finished four opponents by way of rear-naked choke. His opponents better watch out that he doesn’t get their back or else they could be in a world of trouble. His wins have come in the first round, including two that checked in just past the one-minute mark. What else would you expect from a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt? Five of his six fights have been in Shooto Brazil, where he recently became the flyweight champion.
Matt Schnell: Schnell is not one of the fighters in this competition that will jump off the page at anybody, but he does train out of American Top Team, which has always been one of the premier fight camps in the world, attracting all kinds of greater fighters, including Robbie Lawler, Tyron Woodley, Thiago Alves, Will Brooks, Colby Covington, Melvin Guillard, Muhammed Lawal, Jorge Masvidal, Cole Miller, Amanda Nunes and Dustin Poirier, among others. Schnell’s record is pretty good at 9-2. He has seven finishes, with the majority coming via submission. “Danger” became the interim Legacy flyweight champion in March.
Hiromasa Ogikubo: Ogikubo is the only fighter in this competition to come out of Japan. He has fought in the Shooto organization, based in his home country of Japan. In 20 professional fights, Ogikubo has 15 wins, the majority coming via decision, with only three losses — two by knockout and one via submission — and two draws. Two of his losses came at the hands of Eduardo Dantas and Kyoji Horiguchi. He’s also had three fights, all wins, under the Vale Tudo Japan banner. The one downside to Ogikubo, who reigns as Shooto’s 125-pound kingpin, is his tendency to go the distance, but Japanese fighters put on great wars.
The Long Shots
Eric Shelton: Shelton is a fighter coming out of the state of Illinois who’s jumped between a lot of regional circuit promotions and been fairly successful as a low-tier pro. He obviously hasn’t broken out out of the pack yet, which is fine for a guy who is only 25 years of age. In 12 career fights, “Showtime” has 10 wins, seven of which have come via stoppage (two knockouts and five submissions). The RFA veteran and Caged Aggression champ has only two losses, both via decision. Shelton, a product of Core Fitness Systems, doesn’t fight out of a well-known camp, but he’s done a good job of moving through the ranks.
Nkazimulo Zulu: Zulu is a South African fighter who hasn’t fought anybody well known to the American audience, relegating himself to fights in South Africa’s most popular organization, Extreme Fighting Championship Worldwide. In 10 professional bouts, including eight with EFC, he has a record of 7-2-1. Four of Zulu’s wins have come via knockout, two by way of submission and one via decision. His only two losses, including a defeat at the hands of Demarte Pena, have been on the scorecards. His only non-EFC bout was his first fight in 2013, which took place in Cambodia. Zulu has a solid record while competing in a decent organization, where he once held the bantamweight crown and recently captured the flyweight gold. However, he’s only been fighting professionally since 2013, so he’s fairly new to the sport. That could hurt him against the experienced guys in the TUF house.
Matt Rizzo: Rizzo, the Ring of Combat flyweight champion and Global Proving Ground title challenger, is based out of Pennsylvania. He holds a record of 9-2-1, with seven of his wins coming via submission. He’s suffered two knockout losses, unfortunately, which could put his chin into question, especially against talented strikers in the competition. The fact that he’s racked up so many submission wins is impressive, and his grappling game is probably his best attribute. As long as he can avoid getting caught in the stand-up, he’ll be fine and can certainly lock in submission wins. Every one of his submissions has been a rear-naked choke, which means he’ll really have to work to get his opponent’s back. If his double-leg takedown is strong, he can be successful. Unless his striking has improved, though, he will be too one-dimensional.
Kai Kara-France: Kara-France fights out of Auckland, New Zealand. He has a lot of experience and is only 23 years of age, so let’s give him the benefit of the doubt. In 18 professional bouts, the Bragging Rights flyweight kingpin is 12-5-1, with seven knockout wins and two submission finishes. Unfortunately, four of his five losses have been finishes — two by knockout and two via submission. The losses can possibly be attributed to his youth and not being more economical in how he fights, but he still has a chance to prove his worth and show he’s legit. He trains out of Tiger Muay Thai, which means he definitely has a great striking background. Kara-France might be one of the more interesting prospects to watch this season, but expectations shouldn’t be very high.
Yoni Sherbatov: Sherbatov comes out of Quebec with a professional record of 5-0-1. While he’s undefeated as a pro and has four finishes, including three knockouts, the Xcessive Force FC flyweight champion has only been fighting professionally since 2014. He runs his own gym, which most likely means he’s not training with any current top fighters. He could have easily gone to Tristar Gym in Montreal and trained with the likes of Rory MacDonald, Hatsu Hioki, John Makdessi, Francis Carmont, Olivier Aubin-Mercier, Joe Duffy and Joanne Calderwood under the tutelage of trainer Firas Zahabi.
Jaime Alvarez: Alvarez trains with American Top Team, but the 28-year-old’s lack of experience rules him out as a solid contender, regardless of his camp. In seven pro bouts, he is 6-1 with five finishes, including three knockouts and two submissions. He has been knocked out once. Alvarez enters the competition after a reign as the Absolute Fighting Championship flyweight titleholder.
Charlie Alaniz: Alaniz fights out of Melbourne, Australia, where he was the Hex Fight Series flyweight champion. He holds a pro mark of 8-1, with half of his wins coming via knockout or submission. Give him credit for not discriminating in the way he fights, but the low-tier organizations don’t have the toughest of competition, so it’s kind of disappointing to see that half of his wins have gone the distance. Alaniz is most likely one of the lowest-rated fighters in this competition.
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