A closer look at the triumphal march that brought a welterweight “Ghost” to the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
On Aug. 31, A.J. Fletcher (9-0) had the honor of inaugurating the fifth season of Dana White's Contender Series as he clashed with Leonardo Damiani, a tough Italian who had made a name for himself on the European regional scene. It was a quick night at the office for “The Ghost” who landed a flying knee out of nowhere and rendered Damiani unconscious right in the opening stanza. It took only 2:24 for the fighter from Louisiana to land a contract to the big league.
The result was even more impressive considering that the 24-year-old only made his professional debut in May 2019, and he took up mixed martial arts without having wrestled in high school or had any background in a combat sport. Fletcher grew up playing football, soccer and baseball with his two brothers under the watchful eye of their father, Paul, who introduced his youngest son to MMA almost casually when he pulled over the family car to watch a UFC fight — in a vlog, he mentions former 205-pound kingpin Chuck Liddell — together with his family.
After graduating high school and experiencing a lack of attractive offers to play college football, Fletcher dedicated his mind and soul to MMA. He enrolled at Louisiana's Gladiator Academy, where he trained with “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 7 alum Tim Credeur. In his professional debut, Fletcher took on Dan Street at Friction Fighting Championship 4. At the time, Fletcher lacked a decent guard, as Street's punches found their way to the inexperienced fighter's face with ease, bloodying his nose. He also needed to work on his takedown defense as he was dragged to the mat with the simplest of double-leg takedowns. In adversity, however, Fletcher showed heart, which, combined with furious ground-and-pound, allowed him to take home his first victory despite losing the first couple of frames. Walking out of his corner for Round 3, he felt the urgency to make a statement, and dropped Street with a right hook. Fletcher then jumped on his opponent and suffocated him with relentless ground strikes until the referee called the match at 3 minutes, 33 seconds.
Since that debut, Fletcher amassed an eye-catching record by finishing all but one of his fights inside the distance. However, his opponents barely qualified as obstacles, more often than not. Out of his nine career foes, only four had a record of .500 or better when he faced them. They hold a combined 49-65-1 record, 39-62 if we take Damiani — Fletcher's most significant victory by far — out of consideration. In the 24-year-old’s defense, he never shied away from taking on competitors with much more experience than him. At iKon Fighting Federation 5, he smoked American Top Team's Wesley Golden with a first-round arm-triangle choke submission even though his opponent had four times as much fighting experience.
Fletcher also worked hard to improve his fighting skills. By the time he faced Ariel Juarez at Rite of Passage 14, he had implemented calf kicks in his arsenal, showcasing better head movement and keeping his opponent guessing by feinting level changes. Juarez struggled to land to the face, and when Fletcher found himself with his back against the fence, he duped his opponent into a false sense of security, allowing him to swing before shooting for a successful double-leg — a move that he used on DWCS as well. On the canvas, Fletcher passed from his opponent’s full guard to half guard with ease. Once free to move, Fletcher overwhelmed Juarez until he jumped on his opponent's back, put in the hooks and went for a rear-naked choke. The tap came at the 3:13 mark of the first stanza.
The 170-pound division is one of the toughest in the UFC. Fletcher sports an impressive physique for a welterweight, but he pays something in height to his opponents. It's hard to say at the moment where his path will lead him in the Nevada-based promotion or if he's top-15 material, considering the lack of testing challenges. “The Ghost” boasts heart, willingness to improve, and a certain killer instinct, three elements can definitely bring a fighter far. For now, allow me to say, “Welcome to the big league, A.J.”