Sep 8, 2020
Brett OkamotoESPN Staff Writer
- MMA columnist for ESPN.com
- Analyst for «MMA Live»
- Covered MMA for Las Vegas Sun
The UFC signed another four prospects on Dana White’s Contender Series on Tuesday, including a man who’s been flirting with a UFC appearance for more than four years.
UFC president Dana White awarded contracts to middleweights Phil Hawes (8-2) and Aliaskhab Khizriev (13-0), bantamweight Drako Rodriguez (7-1) and light heavyweight Tafon Nchukwi (4-0) inside the UFC’s Apex facility. Hawes, 31, was particularly of note, as he was once considered one of the top prospects in the sport but has taken some time to develop.
A former collegiate wrestler, Hawes was a contestant on «The Ultimate Fighter» reality series in 2016 but lost his first bout on the show. He appeared on the Contender Series in 2017 but suffered a second-round knockout loss. In addition to those close calls for a UFC contract, he has competed in WSOF and Bellator MMA.
Hawes finally lived up to his potential on Tuesday, as he blasted Khadzhimurat Bestaev with a counter right hand just 78 seconds into the contest.
«Phil Hawes has come back a brand-new man,» White said. «This guy came in the first time with wrestling. This time, he had leg kicks, standup — he looked aggressive, nasty, confident. You’re in. What do you want me to tell you? You’re in [the UFC].»
Hawes wasn’t the only contestant to record a quick finish. Khizriev, of Dagestan, submitted Henrique Shiguemoto via rear-naked choke in a mere 50 seconds, and Rodriguez submitted Mana Martinez with a slick triangle at 2:22 of the opening round. For Khizriev, it was the eighth first-round finish of his career. Rodriguez recorded his sixth career finish in seven pro wins.
Perhaps the most surprising signing of the night was Nchukwi, who made his professional debut in March 2019. Nchukwi’s power is unmistakable, and he showcased it well in the form of a second-round head-kick knockout of Al Matavao — but the 25-year-old is relatively raw to be signing a UFC contract.
White acknowledged as much when announcing his decision but said he couldn’t pass up on Nchukwi’s potential.
«I don’t know what more you could look for in a guy who is going to be a professional fighter,» White said. «This guy is mean, aggressive, [has] unbelievable power and cardio to back it up. The thing that scares me is he’s 4-0; he doesn’t have a lot of experience. He fought a guy tonight who has 10 fights. Normally, I would take a guy like this and put him in a developmental program, but he scared the s— out of me tonight and I’m going to bring him into the UFC.»
Lightweight Sherrard Blackledge (5-0) was the only winner not to receive a contract, and he was the only winner to go the distance. He defeated Cameron Church via unanimous decision in a high-paced fight. White declined to offer the 27-year-old a contract but did offer him a slot to compete on the Contender Series again in November.
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The UFC has now offered 23 total contracts through the first six weeks of this season of the Contender Series.
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