César Almeida (Brazil) v Lucas Fernando (Brazil) (Middleweight)
A decorated kickboxer, Paulista César Almeida boasts a 47-7-1 professional kickboxing record that includes the 2018 WGP Kickboxing Middleweight Championship, 2016 World Kickboxing Network International Middleweight Championship, 2014 World Association of Kickboxing Organizations Pro Brazilian Middleweight Championship, and 2013 Brazil National Championship. During his kickboxing tenure, Almeida notably completed a trilogy of bouts with former UFC Middleweight Champion Alex Pereira; whilst Pereira holds two victories over Almeida, Almeida did defeat Pereira once, via decision. Training out of Corinthians MMA in his home-state of São Paulo, Almeida enters Contender Series with a 3-0 professional MMA record, with all three bouts ending in the first-round.
A product of Rio de Janeiro’s Refit Pro Fighters, 9-1 Lucas Fernando made his LFA debut at the US promotion’s first international event; LFA 111 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Amassing a 4-0 LFA record, Fernando most recently secured the LFA Middleweight Championship with victory over Contender Series 2021 alumnus Jansey Silva. During his LFA tenure, Fernando competed exclusively in Brazil – his Contender Series matchup with César Almeida will be his first professional bout outside Brazil.
Tom Nolan (Australia) v Bogdan Grad (Austria) (Lightweight)
An imposing 6’ 2” lightweight, 5-0 Tom Nolan is the only athlete to stop City Kickboxing’s Adam Cook (then 7-1) in a professional bout; that was despite having a leg operation two weeks prior to the matchup at Eternal MMA 72. Originally from Toowoomba in Queensland, Australia, Nolan trains out of Team Compton in the state’s capital; Brisbane. Nolan’s Contender Series matchup with Bogdan Grad will be his first professional bout outside Australia.
Bogdan Grad previously competed in Las Vegas in his amateur years, whilst participating in the 2015 and 2016 editions of the IMMAF World Championships. Originally born in Romania, Bogdan represents Austria, and won European Bronze at the 2018 IMMAF European Championships. With his 11-1 professional record, 10 of Grad’s 12 professional bouts were competed in Austria; the remaining two bouts were competed in Romania. Grad enters Contender Series currently riding a five-bout win-streak.
Caio Machado (Brazil) v Kevin Szaflarski (Poland) (Heavyweight)
Previously set to compete on Contender Series in 2022, Caio Machado’s August 9th 2022 matchup against Paulo Renato Jr was cancelled after Machado was denied a work visa; subsequently, Machado changed management from MTK Global to First Round Management. A stalwart of Canadian-promotion BFL, “Bigfoot” is a five-time BFL Heavyweight Champion, and enters Contender Series riding a six-bout win-streak. Training out of Franco Kickboxing Pankration, 7-1-1 Machado’s lone professional loss is to Contender Series 2019 alumnus Dustin Joynson; Joynson’s Contender Series bout followed that victory over Machado.
Like Machado, 11-1 Kevin Szaflarski was previously set to compete on Contender Series in 2022. However, his September 6th 2022 matchup against Jimmy Lawson was cancelled after Szaflarski withdrew due to injury. Szaflarski has not returned to professional competition since withdrawing from that bout; his Contender Series 2023 matchup with Machado falls 445 days since his last professional bout. Notably, Szaflarski previously competed in Las Vegas, during the 2015 IMMA World Championships; there, he became the 2015 IMMAF World Champion at Super Heavyweight.
Payton Talbott (USA) v Reyes Cortez Jr (USA) (Bantamweight)
A product of Reno Academy of Combat, 5-0 Payton Talbott secured the Urijah Faber’s A1 Combat Bantamweight Championship on his promotional debut; he later successfully defended the bantamweight championship twice. A University of Nevada, Reno Psychology graduate, Talbott is an avid lover of music, and plays numerous instruments; an article by Brianna Beesley from 2018 revealed Talbott also supported nonprofits that help keep music in education. For those curious, Talbott’s walkout music for his three Urijah Faber’s A1 Combat championship bouts was Deftones’ Be Quiet and Drive (Far Away).
Whilst Machado and Szaflarski were previously linked to Contender Series, 7-2 Reyes Cortez Jr is the only athlete in Week 1 of Contender Series 2023 who has previously competed on Contender Series. The Fight Ready MMA & Fitness product competed against Christian Rodriguez in the 2021 edition, losing via unanimous decision. With his respective victories at Cage Warriors and Fury FC since, Cortez Jr enters his return to Contender Series on a two-bout win-streak. Reyes Jr is the older brother of Contender Series 2019 contract winner, and current UFC athlete, Tracy Cortez.
Victor Dias (Brazil) v Kevin Borjas (Peru) (Flyweight)
With Borjas’ original Contender Series opponent Joshua Van signing outright for the UFC, and his replacement Rickson Zenidim forced out due to visa issues, 11-2 Victor Dias enters Contender Series as Borjas’ second change of opponent. The Tata Fight Team product, who also trains at American Top Team, both secured and defended the Flyweight Championship of Floridian-promotion Titan FC in 2021. Dias currently rides a 5-bout win-streak, with his last three victories all ending via submission.
Kevin Borjas enters Contender Series boasting an 8-1 professional record. Training out of Pitbull Martial Arts Center in Lima, Peru, Borjas is a stalwart of Peruvian promotion Inka FC, the CEO of which is Borjas’ head coach, Ivan Ibérico. With his dominant victory over Brazilian Joseph Vieira at Inka FC 34, followed by his Inka FC Flyweight Championship victory over Brazilian Tião Calixto at Inka FC 35, Borjas faces a third consecutive Brazilian opponent in Victor Dias on Contender Series. Borjas’ lone professional loss was at a 139lbs catchweight in 2019, to Renzo Mendez; the same Renzo Mendez is also fellow Contender Series 2023 Week 1 athlete Bogdan Grad’s most recent opponent.
(Image courtesy of @AlexBehunin on Twitter)