Chris Honeycutt

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One of the most intriguing bouts on the wider Bellator 182 card features two-time NCAA Division I All American wrestler Chris Honeycutt against Rickson Gracie-trained Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black belt and UFC veteran Kevin ‘King’ Casey. While 36 year old Casey makes only his second outing under the Bellator banner, Honeycutt has been with the company since late 2014, and will be seeking to improve on an already impressive 5-1 (1 NC) mark.

The MMA Vanguard sat down for an exclusive interview with the Edinboro University alumni, who currently rides a three-fight win streak that has accounted for Matt Secor, Mikkel Parlo and Ben Reiter, to gather his thoughts on facing a ten-year veteran of the sport.

“My preparation for Kevin Casey is going well, my weight [has been] coming down nicely and my energy workout has increased immensely,” Chris told us in, adding: “Just a matter of waiting to fight now.”

One of Bellator’s most prized collegiate wrestling stand outs, Honeycutt has fought regular as clockwork for the promotion in recent years, with 2016 seeing ‘The Cutt’ make no fewer than four appearances. The last eight months, however, have been less kind. A fight slated against Kendall Grove in March of this year failed to materialize after Honeycutt suffered an unfortunate injury, and a resulting five month lay off will finally come to a close tomorrow night.

“Yes, [missing the Grove fight] was very difficult to deal with,” Chris admitted. “I trained very hard for that fight, and I was very excited to fight such a veteran of the sport. But now it’s Kevin and that’s all that matters now.”

While injuries are part and parcel of the fight game, coming so close to a bout with a man with as much history in the sport as Kendall Grove can never be an enjoyable experience. But now, Bellator matchmakers will pit Honeycutt against an opponent who himself lays claim to a decade of experience fighting in K-1, Strikeforce, and UFC (including a particularly active stint on The Ultimate Fighter). So what are Honeycutt’s thoughts on facing the Black House stand out, who also happens to be the son-in-law of arguably the greatest boxer in history, the late Muhammad Ali?

“I believe his Jiu Jitsu is very good, and he is very athletic,” Chris told us. “However I feel that he lacks cardio, and with that alone I feel like I would win the fight. When you add in my ability to box, kickbox and my ground and pound, he is in for a serious test.”

Chris doesn’t leave it there. When pressed on how he sees the fight going, his vision moves beyond the ‘test’ stage, and into more concrete territory: “There is no question in my mind that this fight will not go the distance. He will be knocked out, or he will be covering up leading to a TKO.”

After three straight unanimous decision wins, a sixth career finish will no doubt feel like one of the sweetest, should Honeycutt pull it off. For Casey’s part, a four-fight winless run is not nearly as damning as it might seem. A pair of draws against Bosnian Elvis Mutapcic back at UFC 199, and a majority decision stalemate against Keith Berry in his Bellator debut have ensured the Hawthorne, California native has avoided back-to-back pro defeats at any point in his career. That will be small consolation, however, if he feels to overcome Honeycutt and record a first win since July 2015.

Honeycutt, meanwhile, has lost just once in his career; a 40 second TKO at the hands of another hugely experienced opponent in Paul Bradley back in January 2016 set him back, and that’s a result that still rankles with the ultra-competitive Chris. We asked him if he would be interested in a rematch (which would mark the third time the two would have met, given the no contest ruling the previous year):

“Yes, of course, I would like to avenge any loss I have ever taken in my life, may that be in wrestling or a chess game as a kid,” he said. “I am driven to success, and failure only pisses me off and makes me want it even more. Before losing to Paul we already fought a few months before with an outcome of a no-contest due to clash of heads. I was winning that fight because I was following the game plan. Going into it the second fight I did not [follow the plan].”

As for Honeycutt’s ambitions should he be victorious tomorrow night, Chris keeps it straight forward: “I want the belt, so I would like to fight whomever has it when the time comes for me to take it. Otherwise I would like to stay as busy as possible,” adding that: “This is my first fight of the year, and if possible I would like to be busy for the rest of it.”

So what has been the secret to Chris’ success in MMA? Has ihis wrestling background helped stand him in good stead? He believes so:

“Being a wrestler all my life, I have found that the sport itself may seem complex but competing against the highest level, the sport becomes very simple… just very extraordinarily hard to execute!” He explains. “MMA makes things more different, it’s like being able to bring multiple weapons to the table rather than just having one!”

So what’s the final word from Chris heading in to the fight with Casey? What’s the next step?

“Getting this win,” he states casually. “And hopefully getting right back on the books for another. I’d like to fight with Phil Davis and my teammate Ed Ruth back in Pennsylvania. I went to school at Edinboro, and I think that would be great.”

Should that happen, few cards in history would be able to boast the same level of collegiate-drawn star power! The MMA Vanguard, for one, would very much approve!

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Kristi Lopez

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When the cage locks behind Kristi Lopez at Bellator 182, and aggressive Arkansas native Jessica Sotack stands across the cage from her this Friday night, you can bet it won’t just be her home state of California cheering her on – the island nation of Puerto Rico, similarly, will be fully behind this exciting new talent in women’s MMA. And, as Kristi pointed out in an exclusive interview with The MMA Vanguard, Puerto Rico have some of the most passionate fight fans in the world!

“They love their fighters like I’ve never seen anybody love fighters before, they’re very, very supportive of all their fighters!” Kristi told us, “When [professional boxer Miguel] Cotto would fight, it was not a matter of if you were watching it, but where you were watching it. There’s a lot of warrior spirit in Puerto Rico, that was a really cool place for me to start, [and] to feel what runs in my blood, you know, that warrior spirit, it’s a part of who I am.”

As alluded to in that statement, Kristi did indeed start her MMA journey in the Caribbean nation – and it’s something she’s extremely proud of. “Training in Puerto Rico was by far the coolest thing I’ve ever done,” Kristi told us. “I actually started training MMA in Puerto Rico eight years ago I believe, [or] seven years ago. I was in Puerto Rico going to school for nursing and I found an MMA gym there and just started training. When I moved back to the States I pursued it, got my first fight, and I’ve just been scrapping ever since!”

Perhaps it was fated; for while Kristi seemed to have found a career path that suited her, the fight game has been a part of her life the whole time. She explained to us how it all began, giving a serious nod to her family: “I had all brothers growing up, so that pretty much was the start of my mixed martial arts career! I was always fighting with them and stuff, my dad was a professional boxer, my brothers boxed, I always loved it, but I played other sports, I swam, I played water polo, I thought about boxing and then I saw MMA on TV. I was like “Damn!”, I was like “They can do whatever they want, they’re in a cage, that’s exactly what I want to do!”

And that’s exactly what she did do. Pursuing her new dream, and loving every moment of it, Kristi tested the waters of the amateur MMA scene for the Tuff-N-Uff promotion out of Nevada, before turning pro for Gladiator Challenge back in 2014. Her first opponent, a six fight veteran in Tyra Parker, pushed Kristi into deep waters. When the two could not be separated by virtue of a finish, the judges were asked to render a verdict. Though split in their opinions, two of the three panel members sided with Lopez, and that win would give the momentum to run through debutant Katie Castro in her very next fight. It lasted just 26 seconds, and was far from the kind of challenge Lopez was probably ready for.

Still, a record of 2-0 by July 2014 suggested Lopez had something to offer the fight community, but fate would not be so kind. After a pair of cancellations on a MAXX FC card in December of that year, a fight with debuting starlet Aspen Ladd in Invicta FC was lined up for February the following year. Unfortunately that fight did not take place either, and it would be a full eleven months before Lopez would taste action again.

The Ultimate Fighter Season 23: Team Joanna vs Team Claudia would see Lopez pitted against current UFC stand out JJ Aldrich with a place in the house and stake, and unfortunately for Kristi, Aldrich would go on to pick up a unanimous decision victory after two rounds of action. It was back to the drawing board for the Kings MMA exponent, and while three full years of setbacks could have seen off a fighter with inferior fortitude, Lopez’ dedication was eventually rewarded with a contract with Bellator.

“I’m incredibly excited and grateful, any time you have an absence from something you either miss it, or respect it, or a combination of things,” Kristi told us. “For me, I’ve become so grateful for this opportunity. I’m very excited to perform, to get back in there and show what I’m made of and capable of. There’s nothing like being humbled and being able to come back, for me that’s what makes a true fighter – I’m just ready to show everybody I’m a true fighter, no matter how many times I get knocked down, I’m ready to come back.”

So was her time spent out of action for so long a frustrating period for her? “Yeah, it definitely was frustrating because when you’re training you want to be able to show what you’re doing and working on,” she explains, before adding: “For me, part of being a martial artist is coping with when things aren’t going your way. It’s really easy to be happy when things are going good and to work towards a goal when things are going great, but a true fighter and having a true tough spirit is when you’re trying to push forward when things are bad and no one believes in you. That’s how you know you’re really a fighter is when no matter how many injuries you have, you just keep pushing forward and that’s what I’ve done.”

“Things can always be worse in life, and there’s so many people so much worse off than us, so I just keep reminding myself how grateful I am that this is my life, this is my opportunity, I’m very excited and grateful to get to this point in the journey and finally get ready to show it.”

It’s no surprise, then, given Lopez’ dedication to pursuing her dreams in MMA, that the Bellator deal emerged when it did. With her name already associated with promotions like Invicta and UFC, Kristi has hardly an unknown quantity; in addition, Kristi’s management team were able to push her forwards, and ensure excellent opportunities continued to present themselves.

Kristi’s story is not all about others, however. A talented striker with a penchant for exciting bouts, we asked Kristi to define herself ahead of her with Jessica Sotack, and what fans might be able to expect: “I think I’m a pretty good, well-rounded fighter, I’m capable wherever the fight goes. I like to hit hard, the fans can expect and hope for that. I think it’s going to be a really good scrap, [Jessica] is a good fighter, she’s tough, she likes to fight too, you know. I think fans have a lot to look forward to, and [they can] expect that from this fight definitely.”

So does Kristi rate Sotack as a tough opponent? “Absolutely, we both have a couple of TKO’s on our record, we both like to fight and finish it. I’m expecting a lot from her and I think we’re really going to push each other; it’s going to be a really good fight.”

As for how her training has gone ahead of the bout, Kristi told The MMA Vanguard that: “It’s been the best training camp I’ve ever had. I train with Kings MMA in Huntington Beach under master Rafael Cordeiro, I also have a head coach from Kings in Adrian who’s been helping me work on all my specifics. I train with Tenth Planet Jiu Jitsu in Pasadena with Eric Cruz, black belt, [and my] strength and conditioning with Nick Curson, I’ve had the most phenomenal training camp, training two or three times a day, this is the best I’ve ever felt, so I’m really excited to unleash the beast when I get in there!”

What, then, were the focusses of this camp? How big a factor was Jessica, for example, given some fighters tend to focus purely on their own abilities, and enforcing their own game plans? “Obviously you focus on your opponent that you’re going to fight, always,” Kristi told us. “But a lot of it has been focussing on what I’m good at, and what I’m capable of. That’s what you want, you want to focus on being prepared for your opponent, but then preparing your strengths and coming up with a good game plan and putting it all together.”

On Sotack herself, Kristi gave us a low-down on what she’s expecting: “She really likes to fight, she likes to come forward, I know she’s going to bring it. I’m open to and ready for all the possibilities of where [the fight is] going to go, but I know she likes to throw. I’m ready for that, I like to throw too. I think it’s going to be a very explosive fight, we’re both going to look for finishes and it’s going to be exciting. I’m excited to watch it and feel it unfold as it does.”

If the fight does go to plan then, and Lopez is able to pull of the victory in a well-matched, entertaining bout, there’s question she’s in the right place at the right time regards being on the Bellator roster. We asked her what she thought of how Bellator are promoting women’s MMA in particular:

“Incredible,” she told us. “This card is going to be a ground-breaking card because it has five female MMA fights on it, I think that’s the most ever [in promotional history]. That for itself is cool, and there seems to be a lot of promotion for the female fighters [too]. For me it’s like, what a cool time to be a female fighter. You’re respected, you’re promoted, [Bellator] are giving us such a cool platform not only as fighters but as people and personalities. It’s a really cool time to be a female fighter, and I think Bellator has done one of the best jobs of showing the female fighters’ personalities as well.”

“I’m so excited for the future, I think there’s a lot of amazing opportunities in Bellator. They just signed so many good flyweights, high level flyweights, and I’m going to do this until the wheels fall off. I’m going to keep going and going until I accomplish what I want to accomplish, and follow my dreams. I would love to fight for the belt, I think that’s a great goal and dream to have, and Bellator’s making that happen with this division!”

But for The MMA Vanguard, there was just one other thing we were wondering… given the excellence of Bellator’s promotion of women’s MMA, and what a great platform Kristi and her fellow fighters had under the Scott Coker-led regime, what did she think about the possibility of Bellator perhaps debuting in Puerto Rico?

“Oh my God that would be amazing!” Kristi exclaimed. “I think they would love it, Bellator and Puerto Rico, there’s a lot of fight fans over there, they love fighting over there, in the street, in the cage, in the ring, they love fighting! I think that would be so rad, that’s one of my dreams to fight in Puerto Rico! So let’s push for that! I love that idea!”

At The MMA Vanguard, we feel that! First, however, is the small task of Lopez establishing herself as one of Bellator’s most promising prospects. A win over Sotack this Friday will go some way to achieving that ambition, and maybe, just maybe, drawing the sport one step closer to the Caribbean island…

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Andrey Koreshkov

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There will be fireworks at Bellator 182.

Former Bellator Welterweight champion and two-time Bellator tournament winner Andrey Koreshkov won’t settle for anything less.

A bullish ‘Spartan’ spoke to The MMA Vanguard in an exclusive interview late last week, and made his intentions crystal clear regarding his upcoming main event fight from Verona, New York: “I just want to stand and bang with him. I’m going to stand and bang, and whoever takes the first punch, loses,” he said, allowing himself a sort of steely laugh at the prospect. Gallows humour, perhaps?

A two-time world champion in Pankration, the Storm Fight School exponent’s words will not be taken lightly by the folks over at Saekson Janjira Muay Thai, the team charged with preparing Chidi Njokuani for the biggest fight of his career.

A ten-year veteran, Njokuani is a fearsome Muay Thai practitioner boasting eleven finishes from seventeen career wins. Ten have come by TKO. That Koreshkov shows no hint of navigating an alternate course against such a proven foe in what should be a fascinating stand up battle says a lot about the measure of the Russian fighter. A four-fight tear through the Bellator 170 pound division, with names like Ricky Rainey, Thiago Goncalves, Andre Fialho, and Melvin Guillard all accounted for, is evidently not enough to dissuade Koreshkov from doing what Koreshkov does so well. Striking.

“The whole fight will be a stand up fight, it will be a stand up war,” Andrey declared. “And of course I’m ready to fight for all three rounds, I’m ready for that, but we’ll see how it goes.”

If that is the case, and these two do come out looking to abstract one another rather brutally from their senses, it would be far from a surprise if the fight ended inside the allotted time. That, too, would no doubt be fine with Koreshkov. Having said all that, Andrey is not one to make boastful predictions. No Mystic Mac-impersonation here. “It’s really difficult for me to make such predictions,” Andrey explained. “Every time I’m asked such questions [about how the fight will go], I really can’t say because it’s a fight, anything can happen.”

Koreshkov’s record backs up such statements. While he has secured no fewer than four first round TKO’s during his Bellator tenure, one of the promotion’s most successful welterweights is no stranger to coming up trumps on the judges scorecards either. With a record of six decision wins to zero losses, there has been only one way to thwart the surging Omsk native. Tantalizingly, perhaps, both Andrey’s losses under the Bellator banner have come by way of TKO…

That is no doubt the carrot that has been waved in front of Chidi Njokuani these past few weeks. If he can do what only Ben Askren and Douglas Lima have done before him, he’ll etch his name into the uppermost echelons of arguably Bellator’s most stacked division. And even if he can’t quite match that feat, a strong showing here will go some way to cementing his position as a key figure in the annals of that weight class.

Speaking of the aforementioned Douglas Lima, who captured the Bellator Welterweight title from Koreshkov in Israel in November of last year, the Brazilian remains somewhere near the top of the Russian’s hit list. We asked if that’s a fight he wanted should he successfully dispatch Njokuani. He responded: “Of course, I lost my last fight to Lima, and I want to avenge that. I need my belt back, so one hundred percent.”

What were Andrey’s learnings, then, from the defeat against Lima, a result that tied the pair at one victory apiece? Was something different from his win back in July 2015, did something affect the outcome this time round? “I don’t think that much changed between the first and the second fight,” Andrey says, rejecting that particular line of enquiry. “The main change was [that] in the second fight with Lima I allowed my emotions to take over, and I stopped following the game plan. I became way too creative inside the cage, and I was not supposed to do so. Before the moment where I took the punch, I was winning the fight because I was doing everything according to the plan. I should have stuck to the game plan, and I’d have won the second fight as well. But I didn’t do that, and that was my main mistake. Because of that, I didn’t see the punch coming and I lost that fight, and I lost my belt.”

Alongside the promise to ‘stand and bang’ with Chidi Njokuani, then, fans can expect Koreshkov to deliver the kind of performance his coaches, particularly fellow Bellator veteran Alexander Shlemenko, will have invested so much time preparing him for. After all, Chidi is far from an unknown quantity to the Russian and his team. “I [have] truly followed him,” Andrey told us, “I have attended Bellator events and I have seen three of his fights live. One was against Fialho, and [against Guillard] in his last fight, so of course I’ve known who he is, and I have followed him. I know what kind of fighter he is.”

Speaking of his camp back in his home city of Omsk at The Storm School, then, Koreshkov told The MMA Vanguard that: “Everything went really well, I feel great, and now me and my coach will return to the States to acclimate, and get used to the time difference.”

As for how involved Alexander was in his preparations, Koreshkov makes it clear that: “Shlemenko is my coach, he always helps me prepare for my fights. There were some other students from The Storm School and the gym that I belong to who helped me to prepare for this fight [as well].”

It is those figures, and that team, that Andrey holds in such high regard. They are the people that have got him to this point, to where he can count among his highest accolades a Bellator world championship belt and two successive tournament victories from the pre-Scott Coker days. Now, he seeks a second world title, and Chidi Njokuani is in his way. With the help of his coach, his manager, and his whole team, who he attributes his success to in what he describes as a “team sport,” Andrey Koreshkov is confident not only of a victory, but of an all-out war.

Do not miss it this Friday night at Bellator 182.

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Luis Antonio Pena

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There is a strong sense of momentum surrounding St Charles MMA exponent Luis Antonio Pena, a 6’3, 4-0 lightweight with a striking look and a superbly diverse skill set. It doesn’t hurt that Pena knows how to market himself. Follow him on Twitter (@YoungMetro501) and the first thing you’ll see is a .gif of a spectacular double flying knee KO from his kickboxing debut back January of this year, as well as an increasing number of interviews and articles from an incredibly articulate young fighter with a huge upside.

At 24 years old, Pena looks to have everything required from a future star; and yet, speaking to Luis it’s clear that the reason everything appears to be coming together so nicely is because of two simple attributes: sheer hard work, and an indomitable strength of will.

Pena’s first taste of success in combat sports came during his high school years. “I was a State Champion and All-American wrestler in my senior year at high school in 2012, as well as being All-State every year I wrestled. I did wrestle for a year in college, but just wasn’t feeling school anymore,” Pena told The MMA Vanguard in an exclusive interview. “Since then, I’ve gained a 7-1 amateur boxing record (including a St Louis Golden Gloves Middleweight title), and have gone 2-0 in amateur kickboxing. I’m also 1-0 as a pro kickboxer, and an 0-2 pro boxing record against opposition with a combined record of 15-0.”

Further to those credentials, Pena has also earned himself a 5-2 amateur MMA record, clear evidence of his desire to improve each aspect of his game organically. What better way to learn to fight than by fighting?

This present journey began “about four years ago,” when Luis opted out of his schooling in order to take a year off, get a job, and start coaching wrestling at his old high school. “I was just trying to figure out what I was gonna do with my life, and about that time one of my biggest rivals from my high school wrestling days hit me up and told me he’d been training at this MMA gym, and that his buddy had a fight lined up against a wrestler. He thought I’d be perfect to help him get ready for it so I went to go check it out, and that’s how it’s been ever since!”

“After some personal differences with my first gym I moved to another gym in Little Rock for a short time, before my old high school wrestling coach, Shawn Hickey, told me he saw potential in me. He said that if I was going to really fulfil that potential I had to go somewhere to find better opportunities, and he told me about his friend Mike Rogers the head coach at Saint Charles MMA. We went down there with the intent of staying for, like, two weeks to see if I liked it and how everyone else liked me being there, and we just hit it off so well I went back home, packed everything I owned into a car and moved into the gym at Saint Charles! I lived there for about a year and a half, scraping my way to going pro.”

Not an easy journey, then, for a fighter literally chasing his dreams – but now those nomadic days look like paying off for an athlete who cites the likes of Anderson Silva, Jon Jones and Nick Diaz as his personal favourites. Watching Pena compete in MMA, there’s definitely some semblance of similarity between those aforementioned fighters and Pena’s own aggressive, often times unorthodox style. While Pena admits he wasn’t sure at first if he was “cut out of for it”, his time spent at St Charles MMA has evidently made those ambitions concrete.

As with the most committed students of the game, Pena’s amateur career has really paved the way for his future. We asked Luis about his memories from his pre-professional tenure: “Man there’s so many,” he says. “I spent two years as an amateur fighter amassing close to thirty fights across three different styles [MMA, boxing and kickboxing]. I’d have to say my biggest memories are collective; the ones I have from my time spent living in the gym there at Saint Charles. Like Jose Aldo, I was literally living in the gym I trained at. I’d wake up at 5am to lift, then go back to bed, wake up for morning Jiu Jitsu, then get ready for all the afternoon and night classes. Then there were days where I would go and bust my ass and work a hard labor job all day, then get back home to the gym and get straight into five hours of hard training, or the days where I woke up and my goal for the day was to just find enough to eat to make it through training. Those are the memories that I’ll keep dear to me when I’m finally at the top.”

It’s not the highlight reel finishes, then, that mean the most to Luis Antonio Pena. As alluded to towards the beginning of this article, Pena’s successes have been born of sheer hard work and willpower. It takes a different kind of dedication to live where you work and train; it takes even more to live there when you’re not getting paid a professional wage to be there! But these were obstacles and events Pena has taken in his stride, and that he has allowed to shape who he is. When he eventually turned pro, it was a big, big deal.

“It was everything I’d been working for and then some!” Luis told The MMA Vanguard. “Towards the end of your amateur run it starts to get hard to see that light at the end of the tunnel, but man, if you stick with it, it all pays off!” Pena adds: “I can’t explain the feeling of separating a man from his consciousness in front of a thousand people and then going and collecting a check for troubles!”

For all the hard work and dedication, then, Pena’s story is also one of gratification. Speaking to Luis, watching him at weigh ins and face offs, and listening to his interviews, it’s clear that Pena revels in succeeding in the prize fighting game. In Missouri, even his staredowns have proven noteworthy. The kind of fighter that believes the job begins the second he signs a contract, Pena has been known to be on-point every step of the way. If there’s an opening for a mental advantage, this guy will take it, whether it’s fight night, or a week ahead of time. If there’s the opportunity to make a statement and look awesome doing it, in or out of the cage, well, he’ll take that too.

The finish to his professional debut, a first round knock out win over Chris Petty, was a moment Pena clearly savoured; and with good reason. Petty, for his part, had stunned Luis Antonio Pena a 24 second submission in the amateur ranks back in December 2015. After a pair of wins over James Cowen and Evan Elder, and that momentous decision to finally turn pro, Pena found himself re-matched with the now 1-1 pro fighter. Not only was this an opportunity to avenge that prior defeat, the fact that chance would come in Luis’ long-awaited pro debut made it imperative that he succeed.

He did. Beautifully.

A one-two combination, a straight left following up from a right jab, landed square on the button. Petty crumbled, while Pena completed his first outing with a walk away KO at 4:22. Arms out wide, Pena embraced the adulation of the Family Arena in St Charles, Missouri, laying down a strong marker that night, September 09, 2016.

Three months later, Pena would get a call from Shamrock FC, and Illinois native Brandon Schehl, a powerful former high school wrestler, would await him. Pena, his face a perfect picture of malign intent, strode forward, landed a good early combination, and showed off both his confidence and propensity for the unorthodox with an early flying knee. Schehl, to his credit, caught the knee, and immediately looked for a single leg takedown. With active takedown defence, Pena positioned himself so the pair landed in a keylock position, his body beyond the immediate control of Schehl and temporarily out of danger. An ensuing scramble saw both men flirt with the opportunity to gain dominant positions, but the set piece ultimately ended as something of a stalemate. Back to the feet, Schehl did want to give the much taller, rangier fighter space, diving on a single leg attempt the moment he lost a front facelock.

Pena, again fighting the takedown and landing good elbows against the cage, would find himself tripped, but again able to position himself away from immediate danger. Measured and controlled, Pena defended superbly, managed to get his back to the fence, and hurt Schehl with an elbow as he fished for a double leg. A couple more elbows later, and having dropped his level even further to avoid them, Schehl completed the takedown. Again, though, Pena was shifting his body position the entire time, and this time completed the transition he had been threatening throughout; he manoeuvred his body to the side, seamlessly folded Schehl up and took his back. Completing the move with an arm-in body triangle, Pena was able to threaten with a rear naked choke, before landing some good ground and pound. It was a bad position for Schehl, but in Pena’s haste to isolate an arm and move to yet another submission attempt, Schehl was about to scoot out and get back to his feet.

It was a great grappling exchange, and proved Pena had little to fear from his opponent on the mat. Mental advantage: Pena. On the feet, Pena was at his dynamic, unpredictable best. A spinning back fist narrowly missed against the cage, before Schehl looked to take things back to ground, only to wind up caught in a web of limbs and getting busted open more of those nasty elbows from Pena. Schehl, however, would not give up, achieved another largely fruitless takedown, before Pena showed again showed his excellent counter wrestling. With thirty seconds or so left on the clock in round one, Pena turned the tables, landed a knee coming out of a separation, and continued to apply pressure until the horn.

It was all action stuff, and as Schehl was visibly tired in his corner as a result, Pena was pacing back and forth and ready to go! Smelling blood and wanting to work from range early, Pena immediately advanced at the start of round two, got in Schehl’s face, threw long punches and a front kick to the chest, and even a cleverly disguised switch kick as he sought to make the most of the situation. Schehl, to his credit, was having none of it. Sticking to his tactics, Schehl attempted to gain the advantage via another takedown, though ultimately it would prove a mistake. Pena out-grappled Schehl, manufactured a full mount, landed good ground and pound, accepted an invitation to take the back, and eventually finished via rear naked choke.

It was a superb display of virtually all facets of the game, with Pena excelling in all of them. A further four months later, and the 2-0 Pena would be pitted against 3-0 Bosnian stand out Damir Ferhatbegovic. Nicknamed the ‘Bosnian Barn Cat’, Damir had amassed seven successive wins across both the amateur and pro ranks, and was a staple of the Valor Fights promotion in which he had never lost.

Step forward Luis Antonio Pena. Coming in with his usual aggressive style, Pena looked for everything from one-two combinations to flying knees early on, only for a slip to temporarily derail his momentum. A scramble allowed Damir the chance to threaten with a guillotine, but when it became clear Pena wasn’t going to tap, he let it go. With separation, Pena did what Pena does best; bamboozled Damir from ever-evolving angles and awkward timing, using his height and reach to great effect, and limiting the Bosnian to one off wild haymakers. Damir, however, would grow into the fight and begin to land some combinations of his own. Gaining success as he began to calculate the best ways to close the distance, Damir appeared to have Pena in trouble towards the end of round one, as some good punching combinations against the cage looked to snap Pena’s head back a couple of times. Still, if it hurt Pena, it didn’t show. Pena stayed right where he was: staring right down the barrel at his opponent.

Round two started in much the same way, a fresh-looking Pena right in the face of Damir, absorbing the power packed in the strikes of his opponent, and beginning to put together more and better combinations of his own. Changing levels, Pena completed a takedown, but with Damir defending well, the pair achieved separation. This time, Damir would look for a takedown, and while the two would hit the mat, Pena was, once again, proving too difficult to control. Reversing positions, Pena took the back of Damir and landed some good shots, before embroiling him even deeper in his impressive ground game. Good elbows from top position softened Damir up, and a beautiful transition from mount to a triangle finished the deal. Damir tapped at 4:47 of round two, and Pena had further illustrated what was becoming more and more clear with every fight; Luis Pena is an outstanding athlete with legitimate skills, and he finishes fights.

Kobe Wall, a 4-0 German with four successive submission victories to his credit, was equally unable to solve the Luis Pena riddle live on FloCombat. A Valor Fighting Lightweight Championship bout, Wall was able to take Pena into deeper waters than ever before in his pro career, lasting out until 1:40 of round three, before pulling off the win via kimura submission. It was, by all accounts, an outstanding performance from Pena, who looked dominant throughout and was able to display, once again, the true extent of his range of skills. What’s more, he achieved the finish despite suffering a concussion late in round two!

Again, talking to Luis Antonio Pena, though, it isn’t his skills that he earmarks as being his most important attribute. Just as he gave a nod to his sheer work ethic in getting to where he is today, he points to his poise when asked about his key to success: “Just my overall composure from fight to fight,” Luis told The MMA Vanguard. “You’ve seen the same stone cold killer enter the cage every time, he’s just added some new tools to his bag every time also.”

So what does Luis think of the momentum he’s gaining, and some of the praise that has gone his way? “It means a lot to be honest, I’ve been putting in nothing but hard work since I started, I’ve had the ability to test myself and prove to myself that I can hang with the best, and I deserve to be among the best. Now that I’m finally starting to get everybody else on board and talking it feels great, to be honest, it feels like a recognition of the sacrifices I’ve made to get where I’m at and where I want to go. I feel I can go as far as I want to in this sport, and I want the number one spot. I want to do things nobody’s ever thought about, and I will, it’s just a matter of time.”

What’s next for Luis Antonio Pena? Oh, you know, just “The world and everything in it.”

From what The MMA Vanguard has seen so far, that could very well be the outcome. If you haven’t heard of Pena before this article, we recommend checking him out right now; he has a big, big future, and should continue to put on outstanding performances!

Hakeem Dawodu

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Hakeem Dawodu is one of the most fearsome strikers to be found in the featherweight division anywhere in the world, and at 26 years old, he has the record(s) to prove it. 42-5 as an amateur kickboxer, Hakeem made a seamless transition to the professional ranks, where he has racked up an outstanding 9-0 mark. In MMA, Dawodu holds an undefeated 7-0-1 record having fought exclusively for World Series of Fighting. Now, however, Hakeem stands at a crossroads.

“Right now I am a free agent,” Hakeem confirmed to The MMA Vanguard in an exclusive interview. “We have been talking to the UFC and most likely will go there, I thinks it’s were I belong, and they are only going to take my career to the next level,” he intimated, before adding, “But for now anything is possible. I just might go back to the Professional Fighters League [PFL, formerly WSOF].”

With such an outstanding prize fighting background, it’s hardly surprising Dawodu has attracted interest at the highest level; it’s also no surprise that Hakeem refuses to rule out a deal with his most recent employers. Fighters like Hakeem are worth their weight in gold if marketed correctly, and his blistering tear through WSOF’s 145 lb division speaks for itself.

“[Regarding] my run in World Series of Fighting, what it means to me is I have proven I’m definitely the best featherweight fighter out of Canada, and it proves I’ll fight anyone. I don’t baby-pick my fights and I can go in there with wrestlers, jiu jitsu guys, strikers it don’t matter.”

True to his word, Hakeem has fought a wide variety of opponents presenting vastly different threats. From his most recent opponent, 45-fight and former UFC veteran Steven Siler, to Makhachkala-based wrestler Marat Magomedov, to Nigerian knock out artist Chuka Willis, Dawodu has underlined what fight fans in Calgary, Alberta have known for some time; Hakeem Dawodu is legit, and he isn’t here to pad his record or make up numbers. He’s here to prove he’s one of the best in the world.

The fact is, however, Dawodu’s start in martial arts was largely unplanned. The result of having to meet certain conditions after making a deal with his probation officer following spells in a juvenile detention centre, Dawodu’s full-time training schedule, as it worked out, served as an alternative to attending anger management courses. Looking back, it was also infinitely more productive.

Growing up as Hakeem Dawodu, though, wasn’t easy: “I was born Calgary Alberta, raised by a single Mom who had me at 14, my dad got deported when I was 6 years old, and I grew up with not a lot of money,” Hakeem told The MMA Vanguard. “I was a hungry kid, and you can see it transfer over to my fights.”

No doubt. With the kind of drive that, if misused, could prove a destructive force in Hakeem’s life, it was fortunate that martial arts focused Dawodu on a more positive path. “MMA has changed my life,” Hakeem states. “It got me off the streets and doing something productive, and now what drives me is [striving] to be the pound for pound best featherweight of all time.”

A lofty goal, but one that, on the evidence so far, could become a distinct possibility.

In professional MMA terms, and with his outstanding track record in kickboxing enticing the World Series of Fighting to pick him up pre-debut, it all started in February 2014. At a WSOF event in Edmonton, Alberta, Dawodu debuted against then 5-3 Behrang Yousefi, a competitor who began his MMA career on a 4-0 tear, with all four fights finished inside the distance. Despite a pair of losses heading into the Dawodu fight, Yousefi hadn’t suffered a stoppage defeat in either bout, losing both times on the scorecards.

Against Dawodu, the officials would not come close to being troubled, however; responding to an early Yousefi leg kick with a much harder one of his own, Dawodu was out to prove his striking was on another level to the local fighter. Avoiding a head kick from Yousefi, Hakeem did just that with a left hook-right cross combo that put his opponent flat on his back, his leg bent awkwardly underneath him. An academic follow up punch was all the referee would tolerate. Debut statement made; ‘Mean’ Hakeem was here to make waves.

Four months later, WSOF were back in Edmonton, and so was Hakeem Dawodu. This time, 3-0 Jake MacDonald, a man with three straight TKO wins to his credit, stood across the cage, equally ready to make an impact. Unfortunately for Jake, he would not prove to be competing on the same level as Dawodu. After a dominant first round that left MacDonald bloodied and flailing for a way out of dodge, Dawodu finished the job with a terrifying succession of precision elbows, followed by a pair of huge right hands on the ground that sealed the deal via an emphatic KO.

Dawodu was for real, and the WSOF featherweight division was collectively on notice.

Mike Malott would fare no better at WSOF 14. Despite an impressive 4-0 mark, the man from Halifax, Nova Scotia found himself the victim of more active, higher volume approach from the surging Hakeem Dawodu. Responding to every individual shot with a combo of his own, Hakeem mixed his punches with leg kicks to ensure Malott was left guessing where the next attack would come from. Despite a successful takedown and a brief rear naked choke attempt, Malott found Dawodu impossible to keep grounded. A right-left combo followed by a big right hand stunned Malott, sending him to the cage where a swarm of punches elbows to the head and body left him unable to intelligently defend; still stood, Malott saw the fight mercifully waved off for the first time in his career.

Now 3-0, Hakeem was ready for a step up in competition, and got it in the form of 14-fight veteran, the experienced Nova Scotia native Tristan Johnson at WSOF 1 in February 2015. Hakeem would not be intimidated. Showing his now trademark lightning fast hands and stellar technique, Hakeem quickly made a statement catching a body kick of Johnson and dumping him on his backside with a beautiful Muay Thai sweep. Despite the quality of his opposition, it was Dawodu who was out to prove that his speed and technique were unmatched in the WSOF featherweight division. After getting the better of several exchanges and buckling the knee of an unprepared Tristan Johnson, Dawodu landed a superb counter left that wobbled Johnson, but failed to leave him defenceless. Johnson, in effect, woke up to the scale of the challenge facing him.

A left hook from Johnson with half of the first round remaining then gave Hakeem some food for thought, but it was Dawodu who continued to get the better of the striking. Despite a significant height and reach advantage for Johnson, Hakeem’s speed and timing were continually on point, and Johnson found himself rocked not for the last time with around 90 seconds to go. As Dawodu continued to land hard shots, Johnson had no choice but to change levels. With Dawodu focussing his efforts on the front foot, Tristan dropped for a double leg, completing the takedown. He would not, however, be able to maintain the position.

Showing excellent counter wrestling in addition to his undeniably high level striking, Dawodu was quickly back to the feet to see out the rest of round one. Round two would see Dawodu trade kicks with Johnson, utilize the Muay Thai clinch much more, ravaging the body of Tristan with hard knees. In what was becoming a one-sided affair, Dawodu continued the onslaught into the third and final round, where he a succession of hard elbows flattened Johnson, with Tristan toughing it out momentarily. A couple of level changes later, and Dawodu did what Dawodu does best; an endless, high pressure onslaught of right hands eventually took their toll, a third round KO declared with just under two minutes on the clock.

It was a beautiful performance in the biggest fight of Hakeem’s young MMA career, and would be followed up with an impressive second round TKO of fellow 4-0 prospect, Nigeria’s Chuka Willis at WSOF 21.

Having clearly done his homework, Willis scored a takedown in the opening exchange, and tried to work the back. With Dawodu once again showing excellent counter wrestling, however, even a second Chuka Willis takedown couldn’t ground the outstanding kickboxer. Landing shots and defending takedowns from that point on, Dawodu hurt Chuka with good clinch control and a seemingly endless, ever-evolving sequence of knees to the body to see out the first round.

The second round saw Willis’ will to win begin to wilt. Hurting Chuka early, Dawodu momentarily had the back of his opponent, but that wouldn’t prove the way to win. Denying Willis any kind of physical control, Dawodu continued to rough up his opponent before Willis succumbed to a series of knees and elbows against the cage.

It was another devastating performance, and one that would bag him a ticket to Las Vegas, Nevada, site of WSOF 26. With the Canadian MMA scene holding little left to offer, WSOF looked to Russia and undefeated Marat Magomedov (7-0).

“My toughest opponent was probably when I fought Marat Magomedov,” Hakeem told us. “He was a really good wrestler, and I could tell he worked with Khabib Nurmagomedov,” he says. That toughness bore itself out in a career-first draw for both men.

Controlled throughout most of the first and second rounds by well-timed takedowns from the Russian featherweight, Dawodu could have been forgiven for losing heart while unable to utilize his outstanding skill set and inevitably trailing on the scorecards. He did not, however, give up. Shutting down almost all of Magomedov’s takedown attempts, it was Dawodu’s conditioning and superior striking that turned the tables quite drastically in his favour. Landing punches at will on the feet, stuffing takedowns with comparative ease, Hakeem defied the previous ten minutes of the fight with an outstanding final stanza that turned a sure defeat into an extremely creditable draw. While not quite able to finish the Dagestani native, Hakeem did enough to convince two of the three judges to score the round a 10-8.

Not happy to accept that outcome, both fighters would meet again at WSOF 32 some 8 months later. This time, while the first round went largely in Magomedov’s favour, Hakeem was able to achieve verticality late in the first round, and continued the theme of roughing up the Russian in the stand up. Needing just 40 seconds to bloody Magomedov, Dawodu took his momentum into the second stanza hurting his opponent with a wide variety of strikes. Combos, knees, stuffed takedowns, and uppercuts left Magomedov an increasingly bloody mess, before Hakeem finished the job once and for all with 2:03 on the clock.

It was a gruelling two-fight series that saw Dawodu overcome the toughest challenge of his career – but things would not get any easier as Steven Siler (29-15) stepped in at WSOF 35.

An early spinning back kick saw Dawodu drop Siler, and though Siler would score points courtesy of takedowns and ground control, it was Dawodu who scored virtually all strikes of note, including right hands that rocked Siler late in round one. Round two and three saw Siler fade as the damage dealt by Dawodu accumulated, though for the first time in his MMA career, a dominant performance was not rewarded with a finish. Siler, exhausted, battered, but unbroken, saw out the final frame. It was clear, however, that Hakeem had put in the superior performance.

Following the elementary decision victory, Hakeem now stands at an exceptional 7-0-1 mark, and he is far from done. “The future holds a lot more knockouts, more belts, and a still unbeaten record,” Hakeem told The MMA Vanguard. On how he can continue to achieve his goals, Hakeem told us that: “I’m always pushing the action and going for the knockout, and honestly you never want to miss any of my fights. I am the best fighter at featherweight, and I’ll prove that.”

“My next fight will be announced soon, make sure to follow my Instagram @MeanHakeem, my Facebook fan page @MeanHakeem, and my Twitter @MeanHakeemKO!”

Here at The MMA Vanguard, we only have this left to say: do it!

Katharina Lehner

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Introducing Katharina Lehner, one of the bantamweight division’s top prospects with a perfect 5-0 record. Having beaten the best the German MMA scene has to offer since her pro MMA debut in September 2014, Lehner now looks set to embark upon a global adventure courtesy of an as yet unannounced deal with a major international promotion.

“I’ve signed a contract with a well-known organization,” Katharina told The MMA Vanguard in an exclusive interview. “That’s all I can say right now,” but she was able to clarify that the organization was based in the United States. The chances of Katharina being offered bouts in pastures new, then, are extremely high.

Amid the guessing game revolving around Lehner’s potential suitors, The MMA Vanguard took a closer look at Katharina’s history as a martial artist. It all started as a young woman in the nation’s capital. “I started boxing while I was studying in Munich,” Katharina told us. “So when I moved to Cologne I was looking for a new gym and found a place where I tried MMA.”

The gym Lehner found was Combat Club Cologne, and it was here that Lehner quickly learned she had all the skills to become a dominant force in mixed martial arts. Already in possession of excellent striking thanks to her pugilistic background, Katharina has adapted well to a whole new concept of fighting. While finishes have been lacking in her perfect run in MMA, her record remains highly impressive, and we cannot wait to see what’s next.

“I started with boxing after years of weight lifting,” Lehner says, her resulting power just one of many attributes that have made her so hard for opponents to overcome. “Since then I have won two titles from well-known German MMA organizations, and I am still undefeated.”

It all started against 4-fight veteran Anne Merkt, though Merkt proved to be a stern test for the 24 year old debutant. Happy to stand toe-to-toe with Lehner in the opening exchanges, Merkt waded forward as both women traded punches, before scoring a somewhat rudimentary headlock takedown. Keeping Lehner down, however, proved initially too difficult. Lehner muscled her way back to her feet, defended well as Merkt through up her legs to pull guard, and was able to achieve separation early on.

So far, so good for the talented boxer. Merkt, though, would not be cowed, and kept up her aggressive start. While Lehner’s right hand found a mark with impressive regularity, Merkt’s varied strikes kept the fight competitive, and she was able to deal some good straight rights of her own that were readily absorbed by the tough Lehner. It could have been part of Lehner’s strategy to eat a shot to deliver one.

Getting the worst of the early exchanges, it was no surprise when Merkt attempted a leg sweep takedown, though the stocky Lehner was able to defend well, reverse her opponent’s momentum, and wind up on top in full guard. Keeping her legs high on the back of Lehner, Merkt initially did a good job of stifling Lehner’s offence from the top with good body and wrist control. A failed armbar attempt, however, gave Lehner the opening she was looking for – her heavy ground and pound looked an instant threat, though Merkt was able to recover well and resume her impressive ground defence.

Much of the rest of the round was spent with Merkt tying up Lehner, until with just over a minute left, the referee stepped in for a stand up. Here, Lehner and Merkt would trade in aggressive exchanges, with both fighters able to land shots.

Round two started in similar fashion. With neither woman prepared to stand down, the battle continued, again with women landing decent punches, though nothing overly telling. When Lehner, perhaps surprisingly, scored a takedown with a minute and a half to go, she surely secured herself a gruelling first win as a professional mixed martial artist against a very durable, very game opponent. While one official dissented, Lehner nonetheless had her hand raised in MMA for the very first time, the verdict a split decision victory.

To this day, Lehner counts her bout with Merkt as one of her main highlights as a mixed martial artist: “I loved the feeling before my first fight,” she told The MMA Vanguard. “I started out as a professional directly, and competed in my first MMA fight in front of almost 2000 people!”

In February 2015, five months later, Lehner would build on that win by scoring a more decisive victory over Czech debutant Barbora Polakova. A victory over unbeaten Danish exponent Camilla Hinze followed, and established Lehner as one of the top female prospects in all of Europe.

One individual who would contest that standing in November 2015 was experienced 8-4 compatriot Alexandra Buch. Undefeated in Japanese promotion RINGS, and with experience competing for both K-1 and Respect FC, Buch was looking to rebound from consecutive losses, and with a penchant for submission finishes, she presented a real risk to the 3-0 Lehner.

In what she counts as her favourite performance to date, Lehner showed greater caution in her approach, patiently seeking to establish range in the opening exchanges. While Buch was able to make use of her reach advantage, touching Lehner twice within the first thirty seconds, the shots were far from telling. Lehner strode forward, landed a good overhand, and timed several punches very well. Buch’s jab, meanwhile, began to tell, the damage accumulating in the shape of reddening about the face and a cut on the bridge of Lehner’s nose.

Then, a mistake; a leg kick attempt from Buch was caught, and Lehner forced her foe to the mat. Buch showed good defence early, but the sheer power of Lehner was overwhelming as she manufactured a way to side control, before forcing her way to a full mount attempt. Excellent ground and pound forced Buch to give up her back, where the fight seemed all but over; to Buch’s immense credit, though, she re-established her defences, and survived the rest of the round while escaping a rear naked choke attempt.

Round two really saw Lehner open up, looking to land big punches in the early exchanges, and inviting Buch on. With her opponent roughed up and her timing becoming increasingly on point, Lehner was able to bully Buch and land many of the best punches.

The theme was continued in the final frame, Lehner’s impressive athleticism and aggressive stylistics securing her a fourth straight win, and undoubtedly the biggest victory of her young MMA career.

“Nobody expected me to win this fight but I knew I was ready for the German number one,” Lehner told us about the Buch fight. “I wasn’t afraid because I believed I had a proper chance.” She wasn’t wrong…

Since then, things haven’t gone quite as planned for Lehner, however; with willing opponents few and far between on the European scene, Lehner’s schedule has also been blighted by injuries and event cancellations. While twice scheduled to face 6-1 Czech star Lucie Pudilova, as well as a recent would-be bout with 1-0 Australian Gemma ‘The Bull’ Pike, Lehner has had to settle for just one of four proposed fights, a tussle with Judith Ruis in December of last year.

Victory put Lehner on her current 5-0 mark, and hopes are that her new deal will present her with even greater opportunities.

Speaking of the aforementioned cancellations, Lehner confided that “It’s always disappointing and frustrating when you can’t fight and you prepare yourself all the time. You train and invest so much time and then don’t have the chance to show your skills. Otherwise I think every preparation makes you a better fighter, so nothing is ever in vain.”

With a great attitude and a real hunger to test her skills at the highest level, then, The MMA Vanguard cannot wait to see what’s next for the talented 27 year old! Wherever she winds up, we wholeheartedly encourage you to check her fights out!

Thiago Moisés

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22 year old Brazilian Jiu Jitsu ace Thiago Moisés is set to face Robert Watley this weekend, and believes he will be fighting for more than just the vacant Legacy Fighting Alliance Lightweight title. If Moisés is correct, a strong performance against his 7-1 opponent could mean a highly-sought after call from the number one promotion on the planet.

“My next fight is July 21st,” Thiago told The MMA Vanguard in an exclusive interview. “I am really confident, and I am hoping this victory will take me to the next level, the UFC.”

The former Resurrection Fighting Alliance Lightweight champion (a company that was integrated into the LFA late last year), Moisés has long been on the radar of prospect hunters the world over. Now 9-1, the talented Brazilian from Indaiatuba, who now fights out of American Top Team in Coconut Creek, Florida, could be just one spellbinding performance away from taking the next step on the road to achieving his ultimate dream: to become the UFC Lightweight champion.

Standing in his way is Robert Watley, however, a Maryland-based fighter of Puerto Rican origin riding a 7-fight win streak. Able to boast four finishes inside the distance, Watley is a Shogun Fights Lightweight champion, an XCC Lightweight champion, and represents Conquest BJJ and MMA. On top of his impressive 7-1 pro record, the 27 year old also lays claim to a 7-2 amateur record, and holds impressive recent wins over Dan Root, Cole Presley and then-undefeated stand out Josh Visel. Those performances have put Watley on the national stage, ready to stand toe-to-toe with Moisés, a man he acknowledges is his toughest opponent to date thanks to Thiago’s well rounded skill set. Watley, however, does not appear to be shrinking away from the challenge poised by Moisés; instead, he has talked openly about looking forward to testing his skills against one of the best prospects in the world, on the biggest stage of his young professional career.

Still, despite the undeniable talents Thiago has displayed in every aspect of MMA, he remains most strongly associated with his primary love; grappling. In fact, Thiago explained to The MMA Vanguard that he has been training Brazilian Jiu Jitsu since he was just 4 years old, under the tutelage of his father.

“I started training with my father when I was a kid and I loved it,” Thiago intimated. “I kept training every day, and I liked it more and more.” It came as no surprise, then, when Thiago told us that his father was also his biggest inspiration.

In 2012, at the age of just 17, Thiago Moisés turned pro in mixed martial arts. His first victory came, duly, by way of submission; an armbar to be precise, with Wellington Dias playing the role of ‘fall guy’. 5-fight veteran Denis Figueira was next, and this time Moisés showed that he was, already, more than just a submission grappling phenom. A TKO victory advanced Thiago’s career to 2-0, before he completed the set, so to speak, in June 2013 with a Unanimous Decision win over Liga Jiu Jitsu’s José Conceicao.

A month later, Thiago would test himself against debutant Leonardo ‘Dilon’ Guarizzo, in his penultimate fight in his home nation of Brazil. Displaying excellent Muay Thai fundamentals early, Moisés peppered Dilon with leg and body kicks, one so hard on the thigh that Dilon immediately buckled, scrapping around for better fortune on the mat.

Moisés easily took top control, but his interest in a quick finish saw him lose position at about the two minute mark as he fished for a heel hook submission. Dilon defended, pressed forward in a mini-scramble, and wound up in Moisés’ guard. Dilon allowed himself time to catch his breath; too much time, perhaps. Even as the referee asked for action, Moisés striking defence was so watertight the two were soon back on the feet at the official’s behest.

More leg kicks and a threatening and effective Muay Thai stance left Dilon little choice but to try changing levels again, though with thirty seconds left and against an opponent intent on tying him up with smothering BJJ defensive stylistics, he was unable to make the most of his position for a second time.

The second round started with Moisés continuing to chew up the lead leg of Dilon. A hard leg kick buckled Dilon’s knee, and another quickly followed as he recovered. Further followed, before Moisés switched to utilizing his hands, only for Dilon to press forward, a motion that effected a mistake from Moisés. Too eager to commit to a sprawl, Moisés lost control of proceedings, and found his back to the cage in a loose standing front facelock. Dilon fished for a double leg, didn’t get it, and instead Thiago threw his legs up for a spectacular standing triangle attempt that was more flashy than effective. Still, Moisés was able to get back to his feet, where he continued to display utter dominance. A hard spinning back kick found the mark in textbook fashion, clearly hurting Dilon badly, and a couple of follow up punches served to gift Dilon the opportunity to cover up on the mat.

It could have been over; Moisés swarmed, dropped several punches on Dilon, but what it became clear his opponent was defending himself intelligently, Moisés calmly stood, and waved for his opponent to do the same. Leg kicks and body punches continued to light up Dilon, as the crowd chanted in support of ‘Thiago’.

The third round saw Dilon fighting like a man needing a finish; but for all his increased aggression, Thiago was clearly a step ahead. His punches were faster, sharper, crisper. They found their mark with impressive regularity. His striking guard was tight, and Dilon reverted back to type with just over a minute gone, achieving a double leg takedown close to the fence. Dilon tried dropping bombs; it didn’t work, however. With half of round three to go, the referee again stood them up due to inactivity. Dilon achieved another takedown swiftly afterwards, but with it clear Dilon was struggling to make the most of the position and mount offence, Thiago started creating distance from his guard, and swiftly locked on a triangle with around 40 seconds to go! When it become clear Dilon was intent on toughing the round out, Thiago moved to triangle mount, and even fished for an armbar late on. Dilon wouldn’t tap, however, and the fight came to it’s conclusion.

Thiago Moisés was declared the winner by Unanimous Decision for a second fight running, and advanced his record to a perfect 4-0.

In early 2014, a fight with Alex Franco fell through, and Thiago had to wait until May to find his next challenge. It came in the form of fellow 4-0 prospect, Francivaldo ‘Massarinha’ Trinaldo.

In his last fight in Brazil to date, 19 year old Thiago Moisés outlined his outstanding potential against an aggressive opponent with legitimate stand up and grappling credentials. Massarinha seemed to get the better of round one, landing a body kick and a body combination early, before Thiago tied him up and took the fight to the ground. An overzealous kimura attempt allowed Trinaldo the chance to take top position, which he held for more than half the first round. A transition to the back looked briefly threatening, but Thiago would be able to reverse positions with around 80 seconds to go, completing a takedown againsy the fence and using expert positional control to ride out much of the remainder of the round, before sparking into life with ten seconds to go, almost achieving a finish with a swarm of strikes with his downed opponent against the fence!

Round two saw Thiago again utilizing excellent leg kicks, exchanging body kicks with his opponent, and even a few punches and knees to the body as Massarinha replied. Trinaldo tied Moisés up, but soon found his back to the fence, before Thiago completed an excellent double leg. Massarinha tried to threaten with a kimura from the bottom, but when that failed, found himself beneath Moisés’ full mount. Massarinha defended relatively well, but Moisés would find himself close to a finish again with a series of hard punches against his turtled up opponent with 2:20 to go. Massarinha rode it out, but continued to find himself out-manoeuvred and out-grappled, and eating punches from a variety of bad positions. When he eventually found his feet with 15 seconds to go, a slip from an attempted knee again gave Moisés full rein to land strikes as Massarinha hung tough.

He would not, however, be able to endure a third and final round, and Thiago’s decision streak was snapped at two. With superior grappling, Thiago worked his way from an arm triangle to a triangle from bottom, loaded up with elbows to the top of the head, and took the submission by triangle armbar with three minutes left on the clock.

It was a superb outing, and another dominant display.

Travelling to America to resume the rest of his career, then, Thiago made his debut on US soil as a featherweight 12 months later. An unblemished 5-0 record and some great performances on tape convinced Atlas Fights to pit him against renowned prospect Jason Knight (12-1), a fighter currently enjoying a four-fight win streak in the UFC, and this proved a step too far for the 20 year old.

A Unanimous Decision loss put him back a step, and it would be six months before he would compete again. This time, RFA had swooped to land his signature, and pitted the young talent against 6-3 Javon Wright, a featherweight stand out from Missouri.

Opening up, Wright hammered the lead leg of Moisés with leg kicks, and put combinations together nicely with both speed and accuracy. A spinning back kick added to Moisés’ early problems calculating timing and distance in the striking stakes, so instead the Brazilian changed tact. Closing down Wright and initiating a clinch, Moisés struggled for and eventually achieved a takedown. Here, Wright showed good ability to prevent Moisés passing, but Thiago was relentless in his search for superior positions and, when the fight went back to the feet momentarily, he quickly grounded his opponent a second time. Looking for submissions ranging from a rear naked choke to a heel hook, Moisés was a constant threat, forcing Wright to spend much of his energy defending rather than attacking.

The second round saw Wright landing a couple of the better strikes, before diving full length for a single leg. It proved a fatal mistake. Thiago Moisés defended, briefly threatened with a guillotine, took Wright’s back, and worked patiently for what would almost inevitably be his: a rear naked choke submission at 2:10 of round two. While it can be argued Wright made a mistake trying to change levels, Moisés made the most of his superior grappling, posting the sixth win of his career.

Next would come a highlight reel submission of experienced 19-7 Dave Castillo, a Salt Lake City-based veteran with no fewer than 9 submissions and 6 TKOs to his own credit. An extremely experienced and well-rounded fighter, it would take something special to force only the third tap of Castillo’s professional career, especially with the RFA Lightweight title up for grabs. That ‘something’, however, occurred at 3:19 of round two, directly following a rocky first round for Moisés. Intent, apparently, on trading blows with Castillo, Thiago almost paid the price when a winging haymaker saw forearm bone connect with the side of his head, wobbling him, and putting him in danger as Castillo smelled blood! Moisés defending well, however, recovered his composure, regained his breath with a failed takedown attempt, and rode out the rest of the round on the feet.

The strong striking combinations from Castillo continued, Thiago eating his share of shots and looking to counter, while remaining just evasive enough to avoid the worst of his opponent’s arsenal. With sporadic takedown attempts easily deflected, Thiago looked to be getting the worst of the second round, only to explode into life and clearly hurting Castillo with a counter punch! Swarming Castillo, Thiago searched for the finish, only for Castillo to complete a strong double leg and wind up on top! It would be a HUGE mistake!

Employing the butterfly guard immediately, Thiago manipulated the posture of Castillo, leg-pressed him into midair, and caught him on the way down with a seamless transition straight into an armbar! It was a beautiful, slick piece of BJJ history has been variously referred to as a helicopter armbar and an elevator armbar. It was the sort of move that comes off only very rarely, and can only be accomplished by the most skilled practitioners of the grappling arts. Watch the move here.

“Yes, I train this armbar often,” Thiago told The MMA Vanguard exclusively. “I have done this movement a couple of times,” he says without a shred of boasting. Follow up title defences over against Jamall Emmers (9-2), the victim of a fifth round TKO, and Zach Freeman (8-1), via Unanimous Decision, have now elevated Thiago from mere ‘potential’ to legitimacy.

With good striking, excellent Muay Thai and BJJ, as well as honed grappling, it’s easy to see why this weekend’s opponent Robert Watley rates Moisés so highly; and why Thiago is entirely justified in dreaming big!

“I will be the UFC champion, this is how far I’ll go,” Thiago told us. “I’ll make history in MMA.” Adding that one of the reasons for his success is his mentality: “I face all my opponents as if they are the toughest. I never underestimate them, so I am prepared for anything.”

The same will no doubt be true of Robert Watley this Friday night. If Moisés can wrest the LFA Lightweight title, he may well be right in his prediction that the UFC will come calling. As we said at the beginning, there is a whole lot more than just a gold belt to play for!

Bellator 184: Dantas vs Caldwell Announced; Straus vs Sanchez as Co-Main

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LOS ANGELES – Bellator returns to WinStar World Casino and Resort in Thackerville, Okla. for the third time in 2017 on Friday, October 6 for Bellator 184: Dantas vs. Caldwell.

The main event of Bellator 184 will feature Bellator’s two-time bantamweight champion Eduardo Dantas (20-4) defending his belt against Darrion “The Wolf” Caldwell (10-1). In addition, the co-feature pits former featherweight titleholder Daniel Straus (24-7, 1 NC) competing against Emmanuel “El Matador” Sanchez (15-3). The event will be broadcast live and free on SPIKE at 9 p.m. ET/8 p.m. CT, while preliminary action will stream on Bellator.com and the Bellator Mobile App. Tickets for Bellator 184: Dantas vs. Caldwell are on sale now and can be purchased at the WinStar World Casino and Resort box office, as well as Ticketmaster and Bellator.com. Additional main and preliminary card bouts will be announced in the coming weeks.

Originally, Dantas and Caldwell were scheduled to compete for the title at Bellator 177; however, when Caldwell was forced to withdraw due to injury, “Dudu” went on to defeat Leandro Higo, besting his opponent on short notice. Hailing from Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, the flashy 27-year-old is widely known as one of the most dynamic competitors in the division, recording victories in 13 of his last 15 bouts. Currently in the midst of his second stint as Bellator’s bantamweight world champion, Dantas will look to stop Caldwell’s meteoric rise to the top of the 135-pound division.

Coming off a victory over Joe Taimanglo at Bellator 167, the 29-year-old Caldwell will be competing for promotional gold for the first time in his career on October 6. “The Wolf” was able to avenge his earlier loss to Taimanglo, earning his 10th career victory. Caldwell has collected five wins by way of first-round knockout or submission, making him one of the most dangerous competitors at 135-pounds. Hailing from Rahway, N.J. and training alongside Bellator stars Phil Davis and Justin Lawrence at Alliance MMA in San Diego, Calif., Caldwell has quickly put together an impressive professional resume inside the cage, highlighted by a remarkable first-round finish over former multi-division champion Joe Warren.

One half of some of the greatest fights to ever take place inside the Bellator cage, Daniel Straus returns to action following his featherweight title bout against Patricio “Pitbull” at Bellator 178 this past April. A longtime member of American Top Team in Coconut Creek, Fla., the 32-year-old will be competing for the second time in 2017. The two-time champion returns to action with redemption on his mind, as he looks to climb back up the 145-pound ranks and earn a shot for the title that he still considers to be his.

Since debuting with Bellator MMA in 2014, the 26-year-old Sanchez has gone about his business by taking on the top competitors that Bellator’s featherweight division has to offer, fighting Pat Curran, Georgi Karakhanyan, Justin Lawrence and Marcos Galvao en route to his meeting with Straus at Bellator 184. Proclaiming that he hopes to eventually become the “Oscar De La Hoya of MMA,” Sanchez is well on his way, earning six victories since 2015. Training at Roufusport in Milwaukee, Wis., “El Matador” trains alongside some of the world’s elite fighters, making his matchup with Straus that much more intriguing.

Updated Bellator 184: Dantas vs. Caldwell Fight Card:
Bantamweight World Title Main Event: Eduardo Dantas (20-4) vs. Darrion Caldwell (10-1)
Featherweight Co-Main Event: Daniel Straus (24-7, 1 NC) vs. Emmanuel Sanchez (15-3)

Bellator 181 Live Weigh-Ins

Main Card:

Lightweight Fight:
Brandon Girtz vs. Derek Campos

Middleweight
Kendall Grove vs. John Salter

Bantamweight
Joe Warren vs. Steve Garcia

Women’s Flyweight
Jessica Middleton vs. Emily Ducote

Preliminary Card (Spike.com)

Welterweight
A.J. Matthews vs. André Fialho

Featherweight
Justin Lawrence vs. Treston Thomison

Bantamweight
Jordan Howard vs. Johnny Marigo

Middleweight
Rafael Lovato Jr. vs. Mike Rhodes

Welterweight
Guilherme Bomba vs. E.J. Brooks

Women’s Flyweight
Bruna Vargas vs. Kate Collins

Women’s Featherweight
Amanda Bell vs. Brittney Elkin

Middleweight
Romero Cotton vs. Arron Rodriguez

Heavyweight
Valentin Moldavsky vs. Carl Seumanutafa

Welterweight
Logan Storley vs. Kemmyelle Haley

Welterweight
William Florentino vs. Jonathan Gary

Lightweight
Guillermo Gonzalez vs. Fernando Trevino

Brave 7: Untamed Line Up Announced

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Brave Combat Federation has announced the full line-up for its first event in Mexico. Brave 7: Untamed will take place in Tijuana, on July 29th. The main event features a rematch between local heroes Alejandro Martínez and Fabian Quintanar, in a Featherweight matchup.

“Pato” and “El Aniquilador” first met during the third season of reality show The Ultimate Fighter Latin America. Martínez prevailed after a hard-fought battle, winning a split decision, and their encounter received Fight Of The Season honors. Now, they will run it back in front of their home fans as both fighters hail from Tijuana.

On the co-main event, Lightweight Ivan Castillo looks to rebound from a tough loss against Brazil’s Fighter of the Year Luan “Miau” Santiago as he battles American Chris “Taco” Padilla.

Elsewhere on the main card, Mexican MMA icon Antonio Duarte makes his Brave debut as “El Tigre” faces Hector Valenzuela. Former The Ultimate Fighter cast member Pablo Sabori also fights for the first time under the promotion as he battles Andrew Lagdaan.

Although Mohammad Fakhreddine is focused on his upcoming title shot at Welterweight, the Lebanese phenom will take a close look at Brave 7 as his little brother Hassan Fakhreddine makes his MMA debut against Rodrigo Reyes to round off the main card.

Main card:
Lightweight: Alejandro Martínez x Fabian Quintanar
Lightweight: Chris Padilla x Ivan Castillo
Featherweight: Andrew Lagdaan x Pablo Sabori
Bantamweight: Antonio Duarte x Hector Valenzuela
Welterweight: Hassan Fakhreddine x Rodrigo Reyes

Preliminary card:
Bantamweight: Ernesto Galán x Marco Beristain
Welterweight: Jimmy Harbison x Sam Ramiro Martínez
Featherweight: Irving Hernández x Kevin Amador
Featherweight: Benny Pineda x Victor Tirado
Featherweight: Saul Cabrera x Jaime Florez