Contender Series 2023 Tidbits: Week 6

Malik Lewis (USA) v James Llontop (Peru) (Lightweight)

Having captured the Lightweight Championship of Arkansas-promotion Peak Fighting at Peak Fighting 19, Malik Lewis was signed to Contender Series in 2022. Despite an impressive first round in his Contender Series matchup with Trevor Peek, a fatigued Lewis ultimately suffered his first professional defeat in the second round; during a recent interview with All Access MMA, Lewis revealed the limited preparation time he had for Contender Series, saying “I didn’t even have 3 weeks when I got the call”. Following that loss, Lewis returned to Peak Fighting to defend his Lightweight Championship, defeating Brazilian Paulo Silva via third-round TKO at Peak Fighting 26 to remain the promotions lightweight champion. A product of Genesis Jiu Jitsu in River Oaks, Texas, Lewis returns to Contender Series – this time with nine weeks notice – holding a 6-1 professional record in which all six victories have ended via stoppage (5 KO/TKO, 1 submission).

Since 25th August 2022, James Llontop has competed at three different weights with Peruvian-promotion Fusion Fighting Championship. At FFC 52, Llontop competed at lightweight, stopping Venezuelan Kevin Pastran with a thunderous third-round TKO (Llontop remains the only athlete to defeat Pastran – currently 8-1 – professionally). At FFC 54, Llontop competed at welterweight, securing the FFC Welterweight Championship with his unanimous decision victory over Brazilian Dimitry Zebroski. At FFC 57, Llontop competed at 74kg, defeating Brazilian Ranieri Zenidim via first-round TKO, before returning to welterweight at FFC 60 to successfully defend his welterweight championship against Brazilian Nilson Oliveira. Training out of FFC Team in Lima, Peru – the same gym as Week 3 contract winner Luis Pajuelo – Llontop currently holds a 13-2 professional record that includes a 10-0 promotional record with FFC. Llontop is undefeated professionally against non-Peruvian opposition (10-0); whilst at FFC, the 24-year-old also avenged a previous loss to Gian Franco Cortez, which was his only bout against a Peruvian during his FFC tenure.

Eduardo Neves (Brazil) v Jhonata Diniz (Brazil) (Heavyweight)

Just 54 days after his Contender Series 2022 loss to Michael Parkin, Eduardo Neves returned with a second-round TKO victory over Jackson Gonçalves, at Qualify Combat 12; a free event hosted in the central square of Bela Vista Shopping centre, in Salvador, Bahia. 21 weeks later, “Bbzão” returned to LFA, his third bout with the promotion, in the co-main event of LFA 154 in Cajamar, São Paulo – a card which also featured fellow Contender Series 2023 Week 6 athlete Jean Matsumoto. With his first-round stoppage of previously undefeated Hyago Silva, Neves secured the LFA Heavyweight Championship, at just 22 years old. Training out of Eduardo Machado Team in João Pessoa, Paraíba, Neves returns to Contender Series holding a 7-1 professional record, with all seven victories ending via KO/TKO. Every time Neves has competed for LFA, he has shared the card with Contender Series 2023 Week 1 athlete Lucas Fernando, and Week 9 athlete Rodolfo Bellato (LFA 111, LFA 126, and LFA 154).

Making his professional MMA debut in May 2022, Jhonata Diniz built his 5-0 professional record in just 303 days, with all five bouts ending in the first-round. With two bouts for Paranaense-promotion Imortal Fight Championship, Diniz notably defeated Guilherme Lazzarini at Imortal FC 11 with a devastating highlight knockout; Diniz remains the only athlete to defeat Lazzarini in a professional bout. A former GLORY kickboxer, Diniz has a decorated kickboxing tenure that includes winning the Absolute Championship Berkut Kickboxing Heavyweight Championship in 2016, and the 2021 +80kg Tatneft Cup. A product of Santa Fé Team, Diniz competes out of Curitiba, Paraná; Diniz previously trained out of the renowned Hemmers Gym – in Breda, Netherlands – in 2016.

AJ Cunningham (USA) v Steven Nguyen (USA) (Featherweight)

Hailing from Batesville, Arkansas, AJ Cunningham trains out of Law School MMA in Memphis, Tennessee. Cunningham’s three most recent bouts have been sequentially lighter in weight. At Attitude MMA Fights 22, Cunningham competed at lightweight, securing the Tennessean-promotion’s Lightweight Championship with a split decision victory over Jonathan Jackson. At LFA 138, Cunningham competed at a 148lbs catchweight, defeating Shea Conley via unanimous decision. In his most recent bout at Fury FC 79, Cunningham competed at featherweight, defeating Jason Mullen via third-round submission. Contrary to popular belief, Cunningham is not the cousin of Bryce Mitchell. Per an article by Walker van Wey on, Mitchell and Cunningham aren’t related at all; rather, it was a joke that started at their gym due to their perceived resemblance – Mitchell is, however, Cunningham’s grappling coach. Holding a 10-2 professional record, Cunningham has never been stopped as a professional.

Of the four Week 6 athletes to have previously competed on Contender Series, Steven Nguyen is the only athlete returning with a previous win on Contender Series. That unanimous decision victory against Theo Rlayang from Contender Series 2021 was Nguyen’s most recent professional bout; when Nguyen makes his third Contender Series appearance Tuesday, it’ll be his first professional bout in 722 days. Nguyen made his Contender Series debut in 2019, in a highly entertaining matchup with Aalon Cruz; Nguyen lost that bout, however, via third-round knockout. Nguyen bounced back from that defeat with a tremendous first-round knockout of Jorge Juarez at LFA 100; that victory came 571 days after his Contender Series 2019 bout. Born in Wichita, Kansas, to Vietnamese parents, Nguyen trains out of Fortis MMA in Dallas, Texas. Holding an 8-1 professional record, Nguyen is undefeated as a professional with Kansan-promotion Evolution Fighting Championship, with whom he holds a 5-0 promotional record that includes an EFC Featherweight Championship, and two championship defences.

Julia Polastri (Brazil) v Patricia Alujas (Paraguay) (Strawweight)

When Julia Polastri lost to Jasmine Jasudavicius via unanimous decision during Week 3 of Contender Series 2021, she was making her flyweight debut. During the coverage, Polastri could be heard saying “I’m better than this” to Dana White, to which White responded “you’re both badass”; indeed, before awarding Jasudavicius a contract, White said of their bout “Awesome fight, I think both these girls fought so hard”. Polastri returned to strawweight following Contender Series, winning a bout with Brazilian-promotion Iron Man MMA before  signing with LFA. Defeating Bianca Sattelmayer on her promotional debut at  LFA 146, Polastri competed in the co-main event of LFA 151 for her sophomore-LFA appearance. There, she secured the LFA Strawweight Championship following a first-round submission of Argentina’s Brenda Gottig; Polastri was the first athlete to defeat Gottig professionally, who currently holds a 7-1 professional record. Hailing from Duque de Caxias, Rio de Janeiro, 25-year-old Polastri trains out of CWB Fighter, and returns to Contender Series holding an 11-3 professional record.

On December 18th 2021, Patricia Alujas won the Strawweight Championship of Paraguayan-promotion Copa Team Force Internacional after going the distance with Brazilian Bruna Vargas. That unanimous decision victory at CTF 5, however, is Alujas’ most recent professional bout; Alujas’ matchup with Julia Polastri marks 634 days since her last competitive bout. Alujas made her professional debut on February 6th 2016, at Kuña Fight Paraguay, a landmark event for Paraguayan MMA; hosted in the Paraguayan capital Asunción, Kuña Fight Paraguay was the first all-female MMA event ever held in Paraguay. Training out of Evolução Thai Paraguay, Alujas will be the first athlete to represent Paraguay on Contender Series. Holding a 9-2 professional record, Alujas’ most recent professional loss was in 2017, to Brazilian Mabelly Lima, who would compete on Contender Series two bouts later, in 2018.

Kasey Tanner (USA) v Jean Matsumoto (Brazil) (Bantamweight)

When Kasey Tanner competes on Contender Series September 12th, it will end a 579-day absence from professional competition. Tanner last competed February 11th 2022, at LFA 124, in a dominant victory over Oregonian Tristan Lindi; winning via first-round TKO in 2 minutes and 16 seconds, Tanner landed 71 of 72 strikes. Training out of Fight Ready in Scottsdale, Arizona, Tanner is undefeated as both a professional and an amateur, amassing 6-0 and 9-0 records respectively. Holding a brown belt in jiu jitsu, Tanner won his second professional bout – against Arturo Guzman at Combate 26 – by a rare Suloev Stretch submission. Tanner has shared his last three cards with Contender Series 2023 athletes; Week 4’s Timothy Cuamba at CFFC 90, Week 2’s Charalampos Grigoriou at CFFC 92, and Week 7’s JaCobi Jones at LFA 124.

On November 4th 2022, Jean Matsumoto made his LFA debut at LFA 146, in a close contest with Inaildo Santos; the 23-year-old Brazilian won via unanimous decision, with all three judges scoring the bout 29-28 in favour of Matsumoto. That matchup, however, was originally scheduled for July 15th 2022 at LFA 136; the bout was cancelled as Santos wasn’t cleared by the medical commission. In the interim, Matsumoto successfully defended his Bantamweight Championship with Paulista-promotion Fight Pro Championship – a championship Matsumoto secured immediately prior to the LFA 136 Santos booking. Hailing from Bragança Paulista in São Paulo, and training out of Inside Muay Thai, Matsumoto most recently competed at LFA 154, where he submitted then undefeated Marlon Basílio to extend his professional record to 13-0. Not only is Matsumoto’s Contender Series bout his first professional bout outside of Brazil; it is Matsumoto’s first professional bout outside of São Paulo state.

(Image courtesy of @AlexBehunin on X, formerly Twitter)

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