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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