(Stefan Struve: Tall, young, and Dutch as fuck.)
From short-notice replacements, to submission specialists, to big-ass heavyweights, the UFC will be rolling the dice on a lot of new talent this Saturday at UFC 95, as six of the 20 fighters on the card have never fought in the Octagon before. So which ones will rise to the occasion and which ones are three days away from the most high-profile losses of their careers? Check out the brass-tacks briefing below and draw your own conclusions…
PAULO THIAGO (WW)
?Experience: 10-0 record (7 wins by submission) in Brazilian leagues including Jungle Fight and Storm Samurai.
Will be facing: Josh Koscheck (12-3, 10-3 UFC)
?Lowdown: Well, he’s a brave son-of-a-bitch, for one thing. Thiago is a member of BOPE (Special Police Operations Battalion), a Brazilian SWAT-style unit known for fighting the heavily armed drug gangs of Rio de Janeiro. Amnesty International has repeatedly accused the outfit of excessive force in their operations — and Paulo will need some of it when he goes up against one of the UFC’s top five welterweights in his Octagon debut. Thiago is undefeated, and looks great against scrubs, but the jump in competition here is massive. Still, it’s MMA, and a Dos Santos/Werdum-caliber upset is always a possibility.
STEFAN STRUVE (HW)
?Experience: 16-2 record (12 wins by submission), fighting all over Europe. Holds submission wins over UFC vets Colin Robinson and Mario Neto, and has never gone past the second round in any fight.
Will be facing: Junior Dos Santos (7-1, 1-0 UFC)
?Lowdown: Nicknamed "The Skyscraper," Struve stands 6’8" and weighs just 220 pounds. As if his beanpole frame doesn’t make him enough of an anomaly in the UFC’s heavyweight class, he’s also a submission whiz, which will put him at odds with the division’s big wrestlers and strikers. The 21-year-old (as of today) Holland native has been competing professionally since he was 17, and now calls Team Schrijber his home. As Struve told Fighters Only: "I think I can beat most of the guys [in the UFC]. They have five or six really good heavyweights. The other guys…not so good, I think."
BRIAN COBB (LW)
?Experience: 15-4 record (10 wins by submission), with multiple appearances in Gladiator Challenge and Palace Fighting Championship.
Will be facing: Terry Etim (11-2, 2-2 UFC)
?Lowdown: PFC’s reigning lightweight champion stepped in on one week’s notice to replace Justin Buchholz, who had to pull out of the fight with Etim after picking up a nasty staph infection on his arm. Cobb was a standout wrestler at Cal State Bakersfield, was introduced to MMA by Urijah Faber, and is now riding a nine-fight win streak. His new four-fight contract with the UFC forced him to withdraw from Saturday’s M-1 Challenge season opener, where he was scheduled to represent Team USA West against Brazil’s Flavio Roberto Alvaro. If you’re really curious, you can check out a 2006 video interview with Cobb here.
MIKE CIESNOLEVICZ (HW)
?Experience: 16-3 record, with multiple appearances in the IFL (where he competed as a light-heavyweight) and smaller midwestern promotions like Extreme Challenge. Has only lost once in his last ten fights.
Will be facing: Neil Grove (7-1, 0-0 UFC)
?Lowdown: Mike C. comes in to replace Justin McCully, who suffered a facial laceration during a training session earlier this month, and was forced to pull out of his fight against Grove. Hailing from the renowned Miletich Fighting Systems camp in Bettendorf, Iowa, Ciesnolevicz was a 205-pound standout in the IFL, where he picked up wins against guys like Alex Schoenauer (twice) and Aaron Stark. Entering the UFC in an unfamiliar weight class would be daunting for some, but Ciesnolevicz says he’s used to the big bodies from training regularly with Tim Sylvia, Ben Rothwell, and Brad Imes. Considering his opponent Neil Grove cuts weight to make 265, that experience should be helpful.
NEIL GROVE (HW)
?Experience: 7-1 record (all wins by KO/TKO) with multiple appearances in Cage Rage, where he was the #1 heavyweight contender at one point. Holds wins over James Thompson (via 10-second KO) and Robert "Buzz" Berry (twice).
Will be facing: Mike Ciesnolevicz
?Lowdown: A classic heavy-handed British slugger, Goliath may not be the most graceful big man, but between his size and knockout power he could give the much smaller Mike C. major problems on Saturday. The 6’6" heavyweight is a black belt in G?j?-ry? karate, and in this video promo, Gary Shaw says he could be a "stratospheric star." Hopefully that’s not a kiss of death…
EVAN DUNHAM (LW)
?Experience: 7-0 record (five wins by submission) in various regional promotions like Rise Fighting Championships and Desert Brawl.
Will be facing: Per Eklund (14-3-1, 1-1 UFC)
?Lowdown: Even though he fought just a month ago, picking up a submission win over Dustin Akbari at PFC 12, Dunham agreed to step in on two weeks notice and replace David Baron, who had to pull out of his fight against Eklund due to injury. Though he lives in Oregon, Dunham has been training at Xtreme Couture lately, and he’s really psyched for the opportunity, which came as a surprise to him. As he told MMA Junkie, "To me, a loss is devastating. I don’t want to lose. To me, it’s imperative that I win this fight. If you watch my fight, you’re guaranteed to see a fighter go in and put his heart and soul and everything he’s got out there and leave it all out on the mat…I just hope to gain fans that way and be known as a fighter who gives it his all and will never stop."