Dana White’s Contender Series: Two KO artists lead way as five fighters earn UFC contracts

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LAS VEGAS — UFC president Dana White will inevitably be faced with some difficult decisions this year on Contender Series. But the first fight of the season sure didn’t present him with one.

Light heavyweight prospect A.J. Fletcher (9-0) made White’s job easy on Tuesday, as he knocked out Leonardo Damiani (10-3) in devastating fashion in the opening round. Fletcher, of Lafayette, Louisiana, finished the fight at the 2:24 mark with a flying knee. The matchup kicked off the fifth season of the domestic Contender Series in style, inside the UFC’s Apex facility.

Fletcher, who has trained with UFC lightweight Dustin Poirier, showed a good variety of strikes and mixed in some wrestling before the knockout. It was the fifth flying-knee knockout in the history of the show, and it earned Fletcher a UFC contract.

“A.J. Fletcher, is there any doubt? Is there any suspense? Is there any drama? No, there’s not,” said White, as he announced that Fletcher was being offered a contract. “If this isn’t No. 1 tomorrow on ESPN’s top plays, something is wrong over at ESPN.”

The other three fights on Tuesday’s card resulted in more difficult decisions for White, but ultimately the UFC awarded contacts to all four of the night’s winners — as well as one loser.

Light heavyweight Azamat Murzakanov (10-0), featherweight Joanderson Brito (12-2-1) and flyweights Victor Altamirano (10-1) and Carlos Candelario (8-1) all signed contracts with the UFC.

Candelario, of Connecticut, became the first to ever do so following a loss, as he dropped a split decision to Altamirano in a hard-fought three-rounder.

Candelario, who took the fight on short notice, did the majority of his work with ground and pound in the opening two rounds, but fatigue appeared to set in during the final round. Altamirano laid it on in the last five minutes, but couldn’t secure a finish. White said afterward he felt Candelario had done enough to win, but he was nevertheless impressed by both.

“This was a tough one for me,” White said. “Carlos, I gave him Rounds 1 and 2. Victor dominated Round 3. Carlos took this fight on two weeks’ notice, and I respect that. I also respect Victor — he did what you do when a guy comes in on two weeks’ notice and put on unstoppable pressure.

“I think both guys did everything you do. It was a dogfight, and I’m gonna take both.”

Murzakanov, of Russia, arguably stood out the most, other than Fletcher’s performance. He expertly navigated challenging height and reach disadvantages against Brazil’s Matheus Scheffel. After walking him back into the fence with punches, Murzakanov unloaded a lightning right cross that knocked Scheffel down and cut him under his left eye.

White mentioned that due to Murzakanov’s size, he could compete at either middleweight or light heavyweight.

The most surprising pick was probably Brito, who fights out of Brazil. His featherweight bout ended in the third round when his opponent, Diego Lopes, couldn’t continue after an accidental eye poke. Brito was warned prior to the foul, and surrendered a point for it. The fight went to a technical decision, which Brito won unanimously via scores of 29-28.

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