Fighters from around the globe dream of the day they’ll step into the UFC octagon for the first time. For five athletes, Saturday’s UFC UFC 261 event marked that special moment in their career.

Check out this week’s rookie report to see what kind of first impression those fighters made on the sport’s biggest stage from VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Fla.

Liang Na

Apr 24, 2021; Jacksonville, Florida, USA; Liang Na (Red Gloves) warms up before fighting Ariane Carnelossi (Blue Gloves) during UFC 261 at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Division: Strawweight
Result: Ariane Carnelossi def. Liang Na via TKO (punches) – Round 2, 1:28
Record: (15-5 MMA, 0-1 UFC)
Grade: C

Like several of her Chinese counterparts traveling from the UFC Performance Institute in Shanghai, Liang Na was forced to navigate her UFC debut without the help of her full coaching staff, with visa issues proving problematic for arrival from the country. That certainly couldn’t have helped Na as she opened up the night’s card. Add in the unparalleled atmosphere in terms of fan madness on this special night, and it would have been impossible for pretty much any fighter to not experience an adrenalin dump of epic proportions.

Against Ariane Carnelossi, Na had an incredible start, dropping her opponent with a big right hand and then scoring a takedown shortly after. Her fundamentals were solid, using shoulder pressure to hod top position and showing excellent balance as Carnelossi used butterfly guard to rock Na back and forth. But there was always an element of wildness to Na’s movements, operating a but out of control at moments and exposing herself to damage in both the Thai clinch and traditional variety while hoping for a takedown.

It made for great fun, and the crowd certainly appreciated the efforts, but I think Na is going to need some refinement moving forward. She flashed power while trying to slam out of double wrist control, submission abilities during a few slick armbar attempts, and admirable heart after answering the bell for the second round while clearly both rocked and fatigued. In short, there seems to be solid raw materials here, and the circumstances of her debut may be very much to blame for some of the shortfalls, but I’ll be looking to see a more refined product moving forward if Na is hoping for longterm UFC success.

Jeff Molina and Aori Qileng

Apr 24, 2021; Jacksonville, Florida, USA; Aoriqileng (Red Gloves) fights Jeff Molina (Blue Gloves) during UFC 261 at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Division: Flyweight
Result: Jeff Molina def. Aori Qileng via unanimous decision (29-28, 29-28, 29-27)

Record: Jeff Molina (9-2 MMA, 1-0 UFC)
Grade: B+

Record: Aori Qileng (18-7 MMA, 0-1 UFC)
Grade: B+

When an early prelim between a pair of promotional newcomers is awarded the “Fight of the Night” in a UFC event – much less a card as insane as UFC 261 – you know you’ve got a couple of talents worth watching moving forward. Jeff Molina and Aori Qileng certainly fit that bill.

While both men showed bits and pieces of their grappling skills, this was largely a striking contest. Qileng controlled the center of the cage for much of the bout, and his forward pressure, coupled with his lengthy frame, proved dangerous throughout. Qilieng’s jab was precise, and his straight right was impressive, as well. Of course, so was the guy on the other side of the cage.

Molina was retreating for the majority of the bout, but his counterstriking was impressive. Both his timing and accuracy proved valuable, and Molina was always looking to land. In fact, a crisp right hand in the final ticks of the second round was likely what earned him the frame on the judges’ cards after dropping the opening stanza.

The Chinese prospect’s energy never faded despite a relentless pace, but Molina also seemed to gain steam as time wore on, staying relaxed and just touching up Qileng during the third frame, his best of the fight. Of course, Qileng nearly did the unthinkable in the waning moments of the final frame, nearly pulling off an incredible comeback victory. In short, both of these fighters look to be tough outs moving forward, though each of them will certainly want to accept less damage moving forward. But in terms of making a great first impression, you can’t do much better than what these two did in a 15-minute brawl.

Rong Zhu

Apr 24, 2021; Jacksonville, Florida, USA; Kazula Vargas (Red Gloves) fights Rongzhu (Blue Gloves) during UFC 261 at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Division: Lightweight
Result: Kazula Vargas def. Rong Zhu via unanimous decision (30-26, 29-28, 29-28)
Record: Rong Zhu (17-4 MMA, 0-1 UFC)
Grade: B-

At just 21 years old – and barely that – Rong Zhu incredibly already has five years of professional experience. In short, he has truly grown up in the sport, spending his formative years in combat, creating a type of comfort not often seen in a UFC debut.

Immediately prior to entering the cage, Zhu had the unfortunate disadvantage of watching two of his fellow Chinese debutants fall short in their first octagon visits, and that certainly must have played with his emotions in those key moments. Still, he appeared to be composed, relaxed and even enjoying the moment, as he offered the occasional style.

The flip side of comfort and relaxation is that it can result in a bit of complacency, as well. While he never seemed to really be in trouble, I feel a lack of volume proved costly early, allowing Vargas to bank the opening round with relative ease. Ditto for his work while trapped in a guillotine choke in the second round – while he looked comfortable in the hold, he wasn’t as focused on removing the choke as I’d like to see, and I think it would cost him against a more accomplished submission practitioner.

Zhu’s best round was the third, which I always take as a positive sign. He had the energy to perform in the late stages of the contest and truly seemed to be gaining the comfort that perhaps he lacked in the opening moments. Zhu landed several powerful punches, and he did it with some swagger, as well. Getting that dirt off your shoulder in the third round of a firefight? Sign me up.

When Vargas was awarded a decision win, the capacity crowd booed, but that’s a pretty typical phenomenon seen in MMA – when the fighter who clearly won the third round loses a decision, the crowd will almost always boo. That said, the decision was fair, with Vargas banking the first two rounds to take the win (though the 30-26 card for Vargas did seem pretty indefensible).

But if the Zhu of the third round can show up for the first in his next appearance, this youngster may be one to watch.

Pat Sabatini

Apr 24, 2021; Jacksonville, Florida, USA; Pat Sabatini (Red Gloves) fights Tristan Connelly (Blue Gloves) during UFC 261 at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Division: Featherweight
Result: Pat Sabatini def. Tristan Connelly via unanimous decision (30-27, 29-28, 29-28)
Record: (14-3 MMA, 1-0 UFC)
Grade: B+

As a former Cage Fury Fighting Championships titleholder whose career I’ve been fortunate to follow closely over the past few years, I’ll admit I was personally invested in this debut. I think against Tristan Connelly, Pat Sabatini did show a lot of the skills that earned him the label of top prospect, though there are still lessons for him to take from the experience moving forward.

Against an opponent who was dropping down two weight classes, Sabatini was clearly the smaller man. However, he showed patience on the feet early, as well as power in his hands. He also showed much of his vaunted grappling game, a dangerous combination of elite wrestling and top-level Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Were it not for Connelly’s own grappling chops, Sabatini might’ve found himself with a submission win, chaining attacks together from position to position.

If there was criticism to be levied, it would be Sabatini’s rather passive third round, which allowed his opponent to capture one frame on two of the judges’ cards. Sabatini later admitted the adrenaline dump that came by fighting in front of the largest crowd of his career was much stronger than he initially anticipated, and it forced him to operate in a safer manner than he might have hoped.

Managing those energy levels comes with experience, and it will be worth watching to see what adjustments he makes moving forward. But in a long-awaited UFC debut, and one that came after his first octagon appearance was canceled on the day of weigh-ins, Sabatini was able to what’s most important: win.