UFC Fight Night 49 received a transfusion of new blood four days ago when prospect Joby Sanchez stepped in for an injured Tim Elliott to face Wilson Reis on the evening's undercard.
Sanchez, 23 years old and 6-0 as a pro, is substantially younger and less experienced than the 27-year-old, 10-5-1 Elliott, but this matchup loses little steam as a result. In fact, given Sanchez's debut and the fact that Reis will make his first appearance at flyweight, it's entirely possible this matchup could establish the newest big thing in the UFC's smallest men's division.
Congrats @Jobysanchez he is on his way to big things— Mike Winkeljohn (@mmacoachwink) August 8, 2014
It's certainly a huge opportunity for Sanchez, but he seems ready for it. No question he has a properly experienced team behind him in Jackson-Winkeljohn, and he should be the latest competitor to blow apart the notion that Albuquerque is an assembly line of conservative fighters. All six of Sanchez's wins came by stoppage—three each by knockout and submission—and only one reached the final round.
Despite the balanced finishing resume, Sanchez is undoubtedly a striker first. As you can see in the above video—a TKO win over longtime veteran Antonio Banuelos that came less than a month ago in the Tachi Palace Fights promotion—he likes to pick guys apart, attacking from long range with a variety of kicks and, eventually, punches.
Both his feet and hands are precise; they land exactly where he wants them to land, and they seem to hurt on impact. He can throw a stiff hook with his left or his right, and he has good footwork and head movement, which makes it hard for opponents to get a bead on him.
As for the mat game, that's going to be an area of evolution for Sanchez. Though he has decent takedown defense and submission prowess, the former is not airtight, and the latter most often happens opportunistically, at the end of a scramble or knockdown.
The grappling phase is probably the reason he'll be a substantial underdog on Saturday despite his top-prospect status. A winner in five of his past six, Reis has quietly become one of the better lighter-weight grapplers in MMA. He is impossible to submit and incredibly powerful. He could be a bona fide hulk at flyweight; think Yoel Romero after a shrink-ray misadventure.
Reis is still only 29, but after 22 pro fights and stints in Bellator and EliteXC before the UFC, he can't rightly be called a prospect. But if his power travels with him down to the flyweight division, he could be a wrecking ball against those thin ranks. If he can catch a Sanchez kick and plant the young man on the mat, it would be a long night for Joby.
Still, this is a great opportunity for a finely tuned young athlete to show what he has on the biggest stage. And he has some good stuff to show. Will it be enough against Reis, a bad matchup if there ever was one for Sanchez? The smart money says no. If the smart money is right, one has to hope a respectable showing from Sanchez will earn him another, more favorable matchup next time, which would thus offer a fairer measure of his talent in a UFC context.
Or, who knows? Maybe Joby Sanchez has it now. Maybe he has the speed and quickness in his limbs to stick and move with Reis, to scramble out of exchanges, slow him down with kicks and stagger the big man down. If that can happen, why, we've got a white-hot prospect indeed. And if it doesn't, well, he'll still be a red-hot commodity. Probably more of a brick-red. But that's still pretty good. Nothing wrong with that.
In any event, we'll know Saturday.
Scott Harris oversees The Beaten Path, a regular series covering the MMA prospect scene for Bleacher Report. Read our previous piece here. For more on the sport's rising prospects and a bunch of other MMA stuff, follow Scott on Twitter.