On The Prelims is a column that focuses on standout performances from the undercard of a top MMA event every week.
If you have followed this series in recent weeks, you might have noticed I have a certain appreciation for veterans getting their big break. There’s something about that type of story that feels so intriguing to me. It goes against a system that we all recognize builds up and tears down fighters.
We’re so used to seeing fighters climb up the ranks and hit their eventual ceiling. They reach a certain level, then remain there until their eventual regression and end of career. Not to over simplify things, but that’s how most MMA careers go. I don’t want you to take that as some pessimistic opinion – this doesn’t mean that careers can’t still be interesting, exciting or even beautiful. But when a fighter goes against the grain and breaks that trend by continuing to grow late in their career, it really gets me interested.
The term “veteran newcomer” is an oxymoron. Yet, it’s a word we aren’t new to using around here. As UFC 268 last year, two names could have had that term applied to them – Chris Curtis and Alex Pereira. At UFC 270, the oh-so experienced Victor Henry had an impressive entrance into the promotion against Raoni Barcelos. And on Saturday night, another name got added to that list.
On Saturday night’s prelims, Chidi Njokuani was competing for the 28th time as a pro. However, it was only his first UFC bout. His landing in the promotion came after a long career that has a lot of high points to it.
Unlike all of the previously mentioned “veteran newcomers,” Njokuani didn’t just randomly sign to the UFC one day. Instead, he earned his UFC contract on the most recent season of “Dana White’s Contender Series.” This was especially odd, as that show is recognized as one that mostly hosts prospects – fighters who have seen breakthrough success as a pro, but just through the first few fights of their career.
Njokuani’s shot on the “Contender Series” came after he had already fought for over a decade as a pro. This included a decent-length Bellator run that had fights against notable names like Andrey Koreshkov, Melvin Guillard and John Salter. He had even fought in the main event of Bellator cards.
While a UFC debut is a big deal for a fighter, Saturday night’s appearance for Njokuani arguably wasn’t the biggest fight of his career so far.
This weekend, Njokuani was matched against Marc-Andre Barriault. Heading into this fight, Barriault was in a good position. While his UFC career started with a rough three consecutive losses, he entered Saturday with two victories from 2021.
Njokuani had the performance that almost every fighter dreams of. Taking no damage, Njokuani stopped Barriault in just 16 seconds by landing a combination of a jab and an overhand right. That’s a strong statement to make in your debut.
Let’s face some facts. Njokuani is deep into his career. At 33 years old and 28 fights deep, he’s likely closer to the end of his career than he is the start. But, does that mean that he can’t have a strong UFC run and make a name for himself? Nonsense. There’s a lot of time left for him to leave his mark on the promotion.
Njokuani’s UFC run started with a victory against a fighter on a winning streak, and it came via finish. If he can keep doing that, he will have made a name for himself in the UFC in no time at all. Now, let’s see if that can happen.