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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James Gallagher

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It’s easy to forget that 6-0 Bellator stand out James Gallagher is just 20 years old given the fanfare surrounding his progress in the promotion’s featherweight division. His performances have, duly, been getting increasingly more impressive, and a dominant first round submission win over Israel’s Kirill Medvedovski in Belfast this past February cemented his status as one of the most legitimate prospects in all of MMA – and one of the first names on the lips of potential opponents.

While a scrap with fellow undefeated up-and-comer AJ McKee seems all but destined to take place some time in the future, James Gallagher’s latest assignment comes against one of the most experienced rookies in the sport – Chinzo Machida.

The brother of legendary karate stylist Lyoto ‘The Dragon’ Machida, Chinzo may boast a record of just 5-2, but his experience in martial arts tournaments around the world should stand him in good stead in what The MMA Vanguard expects to be a momentous night as Bellator hold their first show in the sport’s newest territory – New York City.

Madison Square Garden will be the venue as Gallagher attempts to claim his biggest scalp to date, and James expects to have what will amount to a home field advantage in his first pro fight outside of the UK and Ireland. “One hundred percent, the Irish are coming over and they’re going to make some noise,” Gallagher told The MMA Vanguard in an exclusive interview. “There’s loads coming from my home town in Strabane, I’ve got loads coming from all around Ireland, there’s a bus load coming from Boston, and there’s also a big bunch coming from Queens in New York. The Irish are going to be there, you’re going to hear the Irish in there, and it’s going to be amazing.”

Some of the most vocal and passionate fans in MMA, we can expect the Irish contingent to be represented strongly in a city with great historic links to the Straight Blast Gym product’s home nation. It’s something that Gallagher admits motivates him – and he’s already feeling the love having touched down in New York City ten days ahead of fight night. “This is the kind of thing that drives me on, even since I’ve landed here in New York I’ve just been floating around the area and people have been coming over and wishing me good luck and stuff. I’m blown away by that kind of thing, to get recognized in such a big city just by doing something I love and something I’m passionate about, and getting to this level. It’s a warming feeling. I’m looking forward to going out here and putting on a show and stealing the show – That’s what I’m planning on, stealing the show and putting on a good display for the fans that came over to support me. I’m very grateful to them for making the trip over.”

That support, James feels, could be even greater than fighting back home: “I feel I’m going to have more support in MSG in New York City than I would have in Dublin or anywhere else, I think there’s going to be that much of a crowd coming. This is a big magnitude to this event and people get excited by that, I’m only the second Irish fighter ever to fight in MSG, Conor was first and I’m second, a lot of people get excited for that and they’re making the trip over to see what I’m about, and I look forward to showing them what I am about.”

One of the big questions, then, is will this kind of partisan atmosphere affect the performance of his opponent? “I don’t think it will, he’s an older guy, I’m sure he’s experienced this kind of thing before, but what is going to affect him is when I’m running straight out of the gates towards him and I’m in his face calling him on, and he’s going to be saying ‘What’s this kid doing, he’s not respecting me?’” James explains. “I feel like the next minute I’m on his back cracking him with big shots and starting to choke him, I feel like that’s going to affect him, once he feels my pressure in there, I feel like that will affect him more than the crowd will.”

The confidence and motivation levels evident in Gallagher could not have come across any clearer to The MMA Vanguard. With around 48 hours until fight time remaining, The MMA Vanguard asked James how he felt the fight might play out – and what kind of advantages he might hold over his ‘experienced rookie’ opponent: “I feel he’s very one dimensional, he’s got that Machida Karate style, and that seems to be all he’s got, he doesn’t seem to have anything else. I feel like that’s the difference – I’ve got it all, I can do everything. I can box, I can do karate, I can wrestle, I can do Jiu Jitsu, I can do everything in there and I’ve got that mindset that no matter what he does I’m still going to be in the fight, I’m still going to be coming at him, I’m still going to be talking to him, and telling him that I’m going to beat him during the fight. I feel like that’s really the difference, he’s not going that mindset that I have, I’m 20 years old, I’m hungry for this, I need this win, I feel like I want this too bad compared to him, he won’t want it as much as me, it’s only the start of me, and it’s the end of him.”

That isn’t the only advantage James feels he holds – one particular advantage ‘The Strabanimal’ may have is in the mental stakes: “I’ve got the right frame of mind. He’s coming in here for a contest – I’m coming in to fight, that’s a very different mind set,” James told The MMA Vanguard. “Coming for a contest or going for a fight.”

It’s a marked difference, really emphasised by Gallagher’s desire not only to win, but to get a finish no matter how the fight may play out: “I’m going to finish him in the quickest way possible. If it’s on the feet or on the ground, I’m here to do an MMA fight, I’m not going to do it one way or the other, I’m going to do it the quickest way that presents itself. If a takedown presents itself and I get on his back, I’m going to choke him. If a strike presents itself on the feet, I’m going to take that as well. I’m going to take what I can get. I feel like it won’t take me long to figure out the quickest way to beat him.”

With a clarity of focus, then, the key issue has to be around James’ fight camp – and James seems very please with how that’s gone, too: “Yeah, it’s been a great training camp. I feel like I’ve really worked myself, I’ve put everything I’ve got into this, [this fight at MSG] is something I’ve always dreamt of since a young age. I’ve figured out how to get here and I’ve put everything I’ve got into it, I’ve been at the gym every day, listening to my coaches, doing exactly what they’ve told me. I’m ready, I’m prepared, I feel like I’m in the best shape I’ve ever been in. I’m ready to go – I’m calm and I’m excited for Saturday. I’m really focussed, I’m physically in good shape, I’m mentally in good shape, I’m ready to go and look forward to doing it.”

So what has ‘The Strabanimal’ been working on? “I’ve been working on improving my game as a complete fighter, as usual, I don’t feel like I’ve done anything mad differently but I’ve got a lot more specific on what I’m doing and how the training sessions are planned. I’m running on more of a tight schedule. I’ve got George Lockhart looking after my diet for my weight cut, I’ve got Health Matters looking after my cardio side of things, then I’ve got John [Kavanagh] looking after all my technique and my sparring and all that side of things. I feel like I’ve got really specific about what I’m doing. I’m not guessing anything, I’m doing the cardio, I’m all measured out, always working off my heart rate, I’ve got my VO2 Mach tested, I know I’m doing the right cardio training and [thanks to] John I know I’m doing all the right sparring and technique training. George is looking after my diet to make sure my body’s fuelled through all these sessions, and also that I’m getting enough rest and stuff like this, so I feel I’m in the best shape I’ve ever been in.”

A scary prospect no doubt for a fighter that is only getting better, fast. So what are James’ thoughts on his performances in Bellator? “Yeah, it’s been a great run, I’ve had a few good fights, but there’s also been a few fights I don’t like either – I hate the fight I had in Dublin [against Anthony Taylor], I wasn’t happy with that, I feel like I wasn’t myself in that fight, it wasn’t me in there. I didn’t perform that good, but apart from that I feel I did good in my last fight in Belfast [against Medvedovsky], I ran through the guy, I was on the ball and I put on a good performance. Now I’m looking forward to this one, I feel like I’m going to show a different James Gallagher, I feel like I’m gonna be sharp and be on the ball and I think a lot of people are going to be shocked, but I know one thing for sure: I’m not going to be shocked and my coaches aren’t going to be shocked, this is what we expect, we don’t expect nothing else except for a perfect fight.”

Speaking of perfect fights, does James feel he’s near his peak as a performer? “I’m nowhere near my peak, I’m only getting started, I’m 20 years old, I’m still young. There’s still a lot to learn in this sport. I feel like this is just the beginning for me, I feel in this fight people are going to start to see what I’m about and see what I’m really like and I’m just starting to become a man, as you can say, and getting that man strength, so I feel like in the next five fights you’re going to see a really different James Gallagher than you’ve seen in the last year or so.”

So what’s next for James Gallagher, assuming he defeats Chinzo Machida? “I’d love a nice main event in Dublin, that would be great, or fight for the title, that’s what I want [most of all], I want the belt, that’s what I’m going after. One or the other I’d be happy with, but I’m just focussing on Chinzo, as soon as I’ve put him away then I’ll figure out very quick what’s next.”

One thing James won’t be doing, however, is calling someone out – and with all the McKee posturing going on in the background, Gallagher feels pretty strongly about that subject! “No, I don’t need to call anyone out, I want the belt that’s where I’m going, and if there’s people who are ahead of me, I want them guys. I’ll go to Bellator and I’ll get them to get me one of them [top-ranked] guys, and I’ll go and beat a few of them as well [before I] get that belt. What’s the point in calling someone out, it doesn’t matter who they are, I just want the best, whoever’s above me or the guy who’s got the belt. I feel like there’s a lot of people in the division who keep calling me out, and I’m sitting here, I’m only 6-0, I don’t even have a belt, what the fuck you calling me out for? I want someone who has the belt or someone who has fought for the belt before, or someone who’s going to make me get it, that’s the kind of fight that I want.”

And one of those top fights could come James Gallagher’s way should he put in the kind of performance he feels he will do come Saturday. Bellator NYC: Sonnen vs Silva is possibly the biggest card the organization have put on to date, and James Gallagher, with his youth, exuberance, and above all else, confidence, is very definitely coming to make a statement in front of a huge crowd at Madison Square Garden.

The MMA Vanguard cannot wait!

Heather Hardy

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This coming Saturday, Bellator will make history.

New York City, the hard fought battle ground that effectively served as the final frontier for the sport of MMA in the United States, will finally roll out the welcome wagon in preparation for the company’s promotional debut. Bellator 180, or simply Bellator NYC, will be a monumental moment for everyone in the Scott Coker-led fight organization – and not least for Heather ‘The Heat’ Hardy.

For those unfamiliar with or perhaps unable to place the name, Heather is kind of a big deal within the NYC fight community. Introducing herself to a potential new audience here at The MMA Vanguard, Heather explained who she was during an exclusive interview: “My name is Heather Hardy, I’m a 35 year old single mom from Brooklyn, New York. I’m currently the WBC Super Bantamweight and Featherweight champion, I’m 20-0 as a professional boxer, and I like to beat girls up.”

Succinct, to the point, and extremely intriguing as a mixed martial arts prospect, Hardy’s cross-over to MMA has actually been on the cards for some time. In January of this year, Heather was due to compete for Invicta FC against Brieta Carpenter, an experienced amateur MMA stand out, only for Carpenter to pull out with an injury. Fast forward five months, then, and Hardy is ready to go again, only now with more training time under her belt as well as a superior boxing record having twice outpointed Hungarian Edina Kiss during that time.

“I’ve been training the last year for an MMA fight,” Heather told The Vanguard, referencing that false start with Carpenter. “I’ve stuck with my kickboxing and some of my Jiu Jitsu [for this fight], so there wasn’t a huge change [in my regime], but there’s certainly been a lot of training in a lot of different stuff.”

So is the plan for Heather to continue both careers simultaneously? “Yes, going forward I’m going to be co-promoted in boxing and MMA, so I look forward to staying active in both sports,” Heather clarifies. DiBella Entertainment, one of the biggest players on the New York boxing scene, will be handling negotiations across both sports, though until now, Heather has never fought on the biggest stage in NYC combat sports. Not surprisingly, Heather has always dreamed of fighting at Madison Square Garden.

“Oh my gosh, it’s every New Yorker’s dream,” Heather beams. “They could offer me a sword fight in Madison Square Garden and I’d take it, this really is the opportunity of a lifetime for me. When they offered me a spot on it I was [thinking] I’ve dedicated so much of my life to make this fight happen, and not just make it happen but make it successful – everything from the media, to promotion, to selling tickets, to getting my fans out [and] taking all my boxing fans and getting them to cheer for me doing something else – I’ve put a lot of work into this and I’m super proud to be a part of the night.”

It’s pretty clear, then, that this is not just a distraction for the hugely successful (and immensely popular) Bronx-based pugilist – and there’s no doubt she will make for one of the biggest attractions on offer particularly for local audience members. We asked her what she’s expecting from the atmosphere at MSG this weekend: “Oh my God, it’s going to be electric – I mean you walk into Madison Square Garden and whether it’s Billy Joe playing the piano or you’re attending a college graduation, it’s almost like walking into the old Yankee stadium, you know? It’s powerful, it’s so New York – so I really can’t wait to see it when I walk out to ‘Girl on Fire’. When I hear my song, man, that’s going to be my moment, [something] I’ll never forget!”

That synonymy, that connection with her audience has been a huge part of Heather’s success, and will no doubt play a major role come Saturday night. But while Heather will of course be the face of Bellator in her home city, we asked if she is keeping her options open with regards to fighting elsewhere: “Yeah, I would love to,” she admits, “I mean no athlete is going to say that they don’t want to fight in front of their home town, but I’m really anxious to fight in other places so that I can build my base as well.” Does that include overseas? “I would love to, yes, my family is from Ireland, and my dream is to go to Ireland, I’d love to see that [and make it happen].”

Even with MMA royalty like Wanderlei Silva, Chael Sonnen, and Fedor Emelianenko on the card, then, Bellator have succeeded in playing not only to NYC fight fans’ demands, but also those heading over from Ireland. With SBG stand out James Gallagher also on the card, Heather should find that there will be a significant following from the Emerald Isle – and they will most likely also be firmly in her corner for this tough bout against nine-fight veteran Alice Yauger.

That isn’t to say this will be an easy bout, however. 38 year old Yauger not only possesses far more experience inside the cage, but has, perhaps crucially, gone the distance no fewer than seven times. While Hardy should have no concerns about her own cardio given her outstanding boxing résumé and propensity for dominating round after round, the longer the fight goes, the longer Yauger has to impose that experience differential.

“I’m expecting Alice Yauger to bring it,” Heather told The MMA Vanguard of what she’s expecting in her MMA debut, “But it’s about time one of the Brooklyn girls stood up and showed everybody what we do.” When asked what came most natural to her in her MMA training, Heather kept it short and sweet: “I like punching girls, everybody knows that!”

Heather does admit, however, that there are key differences. While the concept of a complete fighting system is far from unfamiliar to Hardy, and while as she astutely points out “if I walked down the street and someone tried to steal my wallet I wouldn’t be lost,” the fact is those differences that have to be overcome. “In boxing I can step in and lean my shoulder against my opponent to bully her and move her around,” Heather states, illustrating the point. “I can’t do that in MMA because they’ll take me to the ground. I’m having to learn about distance and where I need to stand, and being aware of leg kicks and someone grabbing me. It’s an adjustment, but like I say I’m a fighting athlete anyway, I understand it, so it’s not so much like I’m starting from the ground up. I understand the foundations of martial arts. I think the coaches are always so surprised that I do things because I’m athletic, you know? I know so much about fighting.”

Showing no shortage of confidence then, and rightly so for a competitor of her stature, Heather also holds a great deal of respect for her opponent. When we asked her thoughts on facing a fighter about to have her tenth pro MMA bout, Heather stated: “Well you also have to consider who would be willing to fight an undefeated 20-0 two-division boxing champion, you know? I’m very thankful and grateful to go in there with someone who’ll step in with me, I give so much respect to my opponent for, I don’t care who she is – I don’t mean that in a disrespectful way, I mean that in a polite way, you could put anyone in front of me and I’ll fight!”

That’s a sentiment reinforced in her refusal to call out a potential next opponent. “No, it would be very disrespectful of me to mention someone’s name and call anyone out because I haven’t established myself yet – after this fight you can talk to me about where I want to go!”

As for predictions, Heather keeps things clean: “I’ve never done that before in any of my boxing matches, but I will tell you this: I’m coming out a champion! I’m a champion, I’ll fight like a champion, and I’m coming out of that cage an undefeated champion!”

We at The MMA Vanguard cannot wait for fight night at Bellator NYC: Sonnen vs Silva this coming Saturday!

Bellator Signs Mike Goldberg, Mauro Ranallo

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PRESS RELEASE: LOS ANGELES — Bellator has signed longstanding MMA commentators Mike Goldberg and Mauro Ranallo to multi-event broadcast agreements beginning with Bellator NYC: Sonnen vs. Silva and Bellator 180: Davis vs. Bader on Saturday, June 24. The move sees Goldberg return to SPIKE for the first time since 2011, while Ranallo reunites with Bellator President Scott Coker, having worked together through 2013. The pair will join a broadcast team that currently includes Jimmy Smith, Jenn Brown and Chael Sonnen.

“Mike Goldberg and Mauro Ranallo are two of the best in our business and I couldn’t be happier about them joining the Bellator family,” said Scott Coker. “In addition to June 24, we look forward to working together to make future Spike broadcasts even more exciting for our fans as we add further depth to an already-exceptional broadcast team.”

“The addition of highly-regarded announcers Mauro and Mike to our fantastic lineup of broadcasters, and our first-rate production led by Scott Fishman, further demonstrates our commitment MMA fans and expanding the global Bellator brand,” added Spike SVP, Sports and Specials Jon Slugger.

Mike Goldberg is best known for his 20 plus years of play-by-play work in professional MMA and trademark calls that made him popular with fans around the globe. In addition to his two decades in mixed martial arts, he has broadcast every major sport at the network level, most notably his 900 games in the NHL, both nationally and with the Minnesota Wild, Vancouver Canucks and Detroit Red Wings. He has also hosted entertainment shows, including Shaq Vs. A graduate of Miami (Ohio) University, Goldberg now resides in Phoenix, Ariz.

Mauro Ranallo gained notoriety with MMA fans during his tenure with PRIDE, and later STRIKEFORCE, where his voice became synonymous with the now-legendary events. Throughout his career, Ranallo has spent time working with various sports outside of MMA, including boxing, professional wrestling, kickboxing and ice hockey, and will continue his work with Showtime Boxing. Ranallo, a native of British Columbia, Canada, now resides in Los Angeles, Calif.

Please visit Bellator.com and BellatorNYC.com for upcoming event information.

About Bellator:
Bellator is a leading mixed martial arts and kickboxing organization featuring many of the best fighters in the world. Under the direction of veteran fight promoter Scott Coker, Bellator is available to nearly 500 million homes worldwide in over 140 countries. In the United States, Bellator can be seen on SPIKE, the combat sports television leader. Bellator is comprised of an executive team that includes top industry professionals in television production, live event orchestration, fighter development/relations, venue procurement, sponsorship creation/development, international licensing, marketing, advertising, publicity and commission relations. Bellator is based in Hollywood, Calif. and owned by entertainment giant Viacom, home to the world’s premier entertainment brands that connect with audiences through compelling content across television, motion picture, online and mobile platforms.

About Spike:
Spike is available in 98.7 million homes and is a division of Viacom Media Networks. A unit of Viacom (NASDAQ: VIA, VIAB), Viacom Media Networks is one of the world’s leading creators of programming and content across all media platforms. Spike’s Internet address is http://www.spike.com and for up-to-the-minute and archival press information and photographs, visit Spike’s press site at http://www.spike.com/press. Follow us on Twitter @spiketvpr for the latest in breaking news updates, behind-the-scenes information and photos.

Brendan Schaub to Co-Host Bellator NYC: Sonnen vs Silva Pre-Show Live From MSG

Bellator

PRESS RELEASE: LOS ANGELES — Brendan Schaub, a former professional MMA fighter and football player, host of the popular MMA podcast “Big Brown Breakdown” and co-host of the hit podcast “Fighter and the Kid”, will serve as co-host for Spike TV’s LIVE pre-show leading into Bellator’s epic event, Bellator NYC: Sonnen vs. Silva, from New York’s legendary Madison Square Garden.

Schaub will join Bellator host, Jenn Brown, in the broadcast booth and will offer insight and analysis for all the fights on Spike’s stacked Bellator 180: Davis vs. Bader card leading into the biggest event in the promotion’s history, Bellator NYC: Sonnen vs. Silva. Additionally, Schaub will be featured in original Bellator digital content in advance of the event.

Headlined by the long-awaited fight between two of the biggest names in mixed martial arts history, Chael Sonnen (29-15-1) and Wanderlei Silva (35-12-1, 1 NC), Bellator NYC: Sonnen vs. Silva airs live on pay-per-view beginning at 10 p.m. ET/7 p.m. PT. Prior to the pay-per-view event, SPIKE will air Bellator 180: Davis vs. Bader LIVE and FREE on both coasts, beginning at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT. Additionally, Bellator 180 prelims will air exclusively on Bellator.com and the Bellator Mobile App at 6 p.m. ET/3 p.m. PT.

Emanating from Madison Square in New York City, the mecca of combat sports, this blockbuster event includes a heavyweight bout between MMA legend Fedor Emelianenko (36-4, 1 NC) and hard-hitting Matt Mitrione (11-5), along with two championship bouts, including Douglas Lima (28-6) defending his 170-pound strap against Lorenz Larkin (18-5, 1 NC) and current lightweight champion Michael Chandler (16-3) putting his world title on the line against the undefeated Brent Primus (7-0).

About Bellator:
Bellator is a leading mixed martial arts and kickboxing organization featuring many of the best fighters in the world. Under the direction of veteran fight promoter Scott Coker, Bellator is available to nearly 500 million homes worldwide in over 140 countries. In the United States, Bellator can be seen on Spike, the combat sports television leader. Bellator is comprised of an executive team that includes top industry professionals in television production, live event orchestration, fighter development/relations, venue procurement, sponsorship creation/development, international licensing, marketing, advertising, publicity and commission relations. Bellator is based in Hollywood, Calif. and owned by entertainment giant Viacom, home to the world’s premier entertainment brands that connect with audiences through compelling content across television, motion picture, online and mobile platforms.

About Spike:
Spike is available in 98.7 million homes and is a division of Viacom Media Networks. A unit of Viacom (NASDAQ: VIA, VIAB), Viacom Media Networks is one of the world’s leading creators of programming and content across all media platforms. Spike’s Internet address is http://www.spike.com and for up-to-the-minute and archival press information and photographs, visit Spike’s press site at http://www.spike.com/press. Follow us on Twitter @spiketvpr for the latest in breaking news updates, behind-the-scenes information and photos.

Rafael Lovato, Jr

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Rafael Lovato, Jr etched his name into grappling folklore when he became the first American to win the Brazilian National Jiu Jitsu (BNJJ) championship as a black belt in 2007. That same year, Lovato would become only the third American to win the World Championship at black belt in sport Jiu Jitsu, and would again set records in 2013 by becoming the first American to win the BNJJ championship in the Absolute, or open weight division. He has also claimed European, Pan-American, World Masters, and World NoGi titles in an incredibly accomplished grappling career that sets him well apart from many less-distinguished Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black belts on the MMA scene.

In September 2014, Lovato brought that incredible grappling acumen to mixed martial arts. Having started training in an MMA-oriented Muay Thai style alongside Mauricio Veio in 2010, Lovato appears to have held designs on a run at MMA for some time. The results, to date, have been duly outstanding.

Legacy FC added Lovato to their prospect-heavy roster, and immediately pitted the BJJ ace against 4-1 Canaan Grigsby for his pro debut. Grigsby, a 6’3 middleweight, was riding a three fight TKO streak at the time Lovato came calling. Respectful of his opponents’ striking, Lovato quickly closed the distance on Grigsby and worked a takedown from a clinch against the fence. On the ground, perhaps unsurprisingly, Grigsby had no answer. Avoiding a potential crucifix early was Grigsby’s finest work. From that point on, Canaan battled in vain to frustrate Lovato’s active and suffocating top game, which effortlessly morphed into a triangle choke attempt from half guard, before Rafael progressed the hold to a hybrid full mount-side control situation. Seemingly reluctant to commit to a traditional and technical full side control finish, Lovato visibly cranked the hold tighter and tighter, forcing the tap after a period of uncomfortable pressure.

It was the sort of performance Brazilian Jiu Jitsu greats have hoped for from their MMA debuts in the past, but have not always been able to deliver. Lovato, however, looked superbly well-prepared

Another 6’3, 4-1 prospect awaited Lovato in his second outing. Kevin ‘Trail Blazer’ Holland, these days an impressive 9-2 prospect with 9 finishes to his record, threatened a potential upset – on paper. A well-versed Muay Thai striker, Holland represented no easy out in October 2015. Still, the fight did not last long on the feet, and in truth, did not last long, period. Lovato, exhibiting enviable takedown ability for a mat technician of his rank and résumé, looked every bit the nightmare opponent his debut made him out to be. Holland twisted and turned off his back, hoping perhaps to unseat the BJJ master, but his efforts proved futile. While Grigsby endured just over four minutes of action, Lovato put Holland away in 84 seconds – this time by rear naked choke.

Rafael Lovato was taking to MMA like a duck to water, living up to every one of his hard-earned grappling credentials. The truth was, the Carlos Machado-trained ace had scarcely struggled against two very credible opponents. Next up, however, he would face a fellow undefeated up-and-comer in Marcelo Nunes for the Legacy FC Middleweight title. Nunes, a Rob Drysdale-trained fighter, held serious BJJ accolades of his own. Having worked up from world champion at blue belt right up to holding his own in the black belt ranks, Nunes also began a foray into the annals of Muay Thai, amassing an impressive 7-0 record. Nunes, who admitted to respecting Lovato at the time, felt the Oklahoma native lacked the aggression inherent in Drysdale’s own Jiu Jitsu stylistics.

Still, there was little doubt who’s grappling would be favoured should the bout hit the floor as Lovato’s first two outings had, but here there was more respect in the air. Lovato started out looking to work his ever-evolving stand up, though Nunes appeared to have the advantage in that field early on. Catching a kick and dumping Lovato on his backside, Nunes was smarter than to commit to the temptation of top position. Unfortunately for Nunes, Lovato made no such concessions when he completed a double leg takedown with two minutes of the first stanza remaining. Lovato tried to work a rear naked choke, but Nunes proved he was no slouch, seeing out the rest of the round.

The second round did not start promisingly for Nunes, a driving right hand-takedown combination putting Nunes where he didn’t want to be – but Nunes would quickly turn the tables, opting to stand from top position and resume the fight on the feet. It could have been a demoralising moment for Lovato, as could a slip from a head kick just moments later. Instead, the mis-step proved a crucial moment for the multiple-time BJJ world champion, as Nunes hovered over looking to drop bombs from his feet. Lovato laced his legs around Nunes, and though never really getting full control of his opponent, Lovato equally refused to let him go. Rising to a clinch against the fence, Lovato stuck to Nunes like glue, dragging him to the mat, and eventually establishing mount. Here, Lovato rode several hip-escape attempts from a wily and well-trained Nunes, but he would not be denied. Lovato opted for strikes rather than submissions, landing damaging shots that forced the referee to wave off the contest. It was Lovato’s first TKO victory, and his longest fight to that point – what’s more, it was his first title win in mixed martial arts.

Heading the queue of challengers, Cortez Coleman sported a 13-6 record, a ton of experience across TUF, Bellator, and Strikeforce, as well as a three-fight win streak. Would it be enough?

Sporting far greater takedown defence than the likes of Grigsby and Holland, Coleman had the wherewithal to utilise vicious elbows and a plethora of anti-grappling techniques to not only deny Lovato, but wear him down in the process. Where there had been an air of inevitability about Lovato’s ability to conquer his foes via takedowns and top control in previous fights, Coleman was able to have more of a say in regards to level changes. Coleman fought hard for positions, mixed things up with dirty boxing and superior footwork, and even scored a knock down with a body shot-right hook combination. As the rounds wore on, Lovato found himself in unfamiliar territory in the third stanza, and if stamina was a question, Lovato passed with flying colours.

Dragging the fight to the mat, Lovato came 55 seconds short of a 15-minute outing when Coleman tapped to an armbar mid-transition – and though he’d been forced to endure more adversity than he’d known up to that point, Lovato remained perfect in terms of record and finishes. He was 4-0, and the best Legacy FC had to offer.

That was November 2016. In early 2017, Lovato signed a contract with Bellator, and quickly debuted against 4-4 Charles Hackmann in March. The fight did not last. A glancing head kick rocked Hackmann, and Lovato showed devastating poise with two pinpoint accurate knees to follow up – a few punches against the fence later, and this one was over. A total of thirteen seconds had elapsed.

While the Hackmann fight hardly seemed like a spiritual successor to Lovato’s run in Legacy, future fights retain a palpable air of anticipation as he commits to the banner of one of the United States’ major MMA players. Bellator no doubt have themselves one of the most outstanding prospects in the game, and at 33, Lovato looks to have time on his side as he continues to improve.

The MMA Vanguard urges fans to keep an eye out for this world class BJJ player.