Andrey Koreshkov

Koreshkov

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.

bellator-182-koreshkov-vs-njokuani.png

Grigory Popov

GrigoryPopov

Fighting out of Yakutsk, Eastern Siberia, a port city on the Lena river, the capital of the Sakha Republic, Russia, and one of the coldest and most remote cities in the world, Grigory Popov has risen through the ranks of professional Muay Thai and MMA to become one of the best flyweight prospects in the world. At 33 years old, Popov has arrived relatively late to the sport of mixed martial arts, but his dazzling striking skills have made him an attractive and lucrative proposition both in Russia, as well as in another burgeoning hotbed of MMA, China.

“In China, MMA is developing at a rapid pace,” Grigory told The MMA Vanguard. Indeed Grigory has fought twice in the People’s Republic, first in Zhengzhou, then in Changping, cities almost a thousand miles apart, and much further still from either his home in Yakutsk, or his other fight camp at Tiger Muay Thai in Phuket, Thailand. If evidence was needed that the global village is real, then the success of prizefighter Grigory Popov goes some way to showing what is possible.

But Popov has aspirations that extend beyond the borders of Russia, China, Thailand, even Asia. Grigory Popov and his team want to compete on an even greater stage. The ambition is to compete in the UFC, and with the UFC’s eyes now trained on the Asian market, dominated as it is by ONE Championship, somebody like Grigory could hold a great deal of appeal. The UFC needs athletes that hold familiarity and appeal in these enormous, fertile hunting grounds, and while only a handful of Asian stars have truly made the grade in the biggest promotion MMA has ever known, Popov has real hope.

“Yes of course I want [to compete] in USА and Europe,” Grigory told us, “My friend, brother, and student Oleg Olenichev and I got into the [Tiger Muay Thai] team [because we] wanted to get into the UFС. To this day we are working and trying. The dream is [to fight in] the UFС at 57 kg [125 lbs], where the current champion is Demetrious Johnson.”

Lofty goals indeed, and while the journey can be long and arduous, Popov is 12 fights down the line and sports an outstanding record – not only in MMA, but in Muay Thai as well. In fact, Grigory has competed so many times in Muay Thai that he no longer recalls his exact record: “I can not exactly say [how many professional Muay Thai fights I have had],” he says, before estimating: “[I’ve had] about 30 battles of which 25 were wins!” His MMA record, however, is much clearer: “I’m 11-1 in MMA.”

Reaching 12 professional MMA fights hasn’t been easy. “I tried MMA for the first time in 2008,” Grigory tells us, “And began seriously training in 2012.” We asked him how the level of competition in MMA compared to Muay Thai. He told us: “For me, in Muay Thai there is a great competition in the lighter weight classes,” adding: “It’s hard to compare exactly.” What we do know, however, is Grigory’s record in both sports is exemplary.

Popov’s mention of 2012 as the start of his ‘serious training’ in MMA coincided with his debut in the sport. Fighting three times in three months for the Far Eastern Modern Pankration Federation at the end of 2012, Popov amassed one TKO and two decision wins. Two of his conquests, Evgeniy Ryazanov and Abdul Gayirbegov, have since gone on to have long and successful MMA careers of their own, both with fight tallies in double figures and having competed for recognizable promotions. Those wins behind him by the end of December 2012, Popov would not compete in MMA for a full 23 months.

“The reason for the long break is that I moved to Phuket, Thailand” Grigory explains. “There I competed in Muay Thai and K1 [kickboxing] in China. Then I met my current friend and manager, Sayat Abdrakhmanov. He suggested that I start focusing again on MMA.” The rest, as they say, is history.

Refocussed, Popov bested debutant Arip Yakubov in his return fight in November 2014, and took another fight just a month later. This time he would face a man with a record of 14-4-1, and with a huge experience advantage. Not only that, the fight would take place at lightweight, a class significantly higher than Popov’s natural weight, and at short notice. The deck was stacked against him. To make matters worse, Popov’s opponent, Alexey ‘Gladiator’ Polpudnikov was fighting in his home town of Khaborovsk, and Grigory is adamant that there were shady dealings with regards to the rules under which the fight took place.

“Against Polpudnikov, I was asked to compete as a substitute because the [original opponent] from Uzbekistan suffered an injury. My weight at that time was 62-63 kg, and the fight took place at 67 kg. I knew that Polpudnikov’s [natural] weight was about 77-78 kg, but I agreed to fight on the condition that elbows and knees [would be legal] both standing and on the ground. The [promoter’s] gave their consent, and that there would be MFP [Modern Fighting Pankration] rules. I only got one week’s notice, but I was ready for battle.”

“When I came to Khabarovsk, they talked about the rules at the weigh ins and said that elbows and knees would be legal. [However] when I entered the ring the referee told me that there would be no elbows and knees allowed,” Grigory states, understandably still unhappy about he situation. “I was just at a loss,” he continued, “Then I approached my coach and said that my elbows and knees were banned. We could [have] refused the fight, but [instead] we agreed to fight as it was. After a moment, we were called forward and told that there were no elbows in the clinch or on the ground. There would be no standing knees [either]. The rules were changed then and there. [The problem was] my elbows and knees are my crowning blows.”

If the situation wasn’t confusing enough, Grigory told The MMA Vanguard that these new rules weren’t properly adhered to anyway. The fight started, and after both fighters exchanged a few strikes, Polpudnikov took Popov down. “Here,” Grigory explains, “I was like a fish out of water.” Polpudnikov struck him with elbows from guard, much to Popov’s confusion, and to no admonishment from the referee. “He struck me with his elbows,” Popov explains, “So confused, I began to push him with my feet, thinking that elbows on the ground were legal after all. At that moment, I [failed to defend one of] the blows, and was knocked out.”

The full fight can be seen here.

To this day, the loss to Polpudnikov remains Popov’s sole defeat. “The [organizers] have this fight on their conscience. After that, I decided I will not trust these people anymore. His elbows to the head were clear, and I, Polpudnikov himself, and referee Dmitry Sazonov [knew it].”

Perhaps surprisingly, Popov has since trained with Alexey, but he’s unlikely to forget the sense of injustice felt that night in Khabarovsk. “What they did behind my back [that night] they did before the eyes of the HIGHER,” Popov says, referring to his faith. “I’m not angry with them, but in everything there is Karma. It was such an unpleasant incident with Polpudnikov, and few people really know the truth. The facts are known [only] to a narrow circle of my friends.”

Since that night, Popov has gone some way to repairing any damage he may feel was done to his reputation. From a respectable 4-1 mark, Grigory racked up a pair of wins in 2015 against two more debutants, winning via Gogoplata against Rashid Gasanov, before challenging undefeated Portuguese prospect Vando de Almeida in February 2016. That fight, at bantamweight, would see Popov garner the second submission victory of his career, and improve his overall record to 7-1. What’s more, his performances had caught the attentions of WuLingFen, a Chinese promotion who wished to pit him against an unbeaten national in the form of Aoriqileng (2-0).

The first of his two fights in China, Popov’s technical excellence in the striking stakes and improving all round game proved too much for Aoriqileng, who was submitted in the second round by a rear naked choke. Hexi Getu (4-1) would last longer, making it to the third and final stanza in their bout from Changping, but he too would taste defeat, this time via a scintillating third round leaping front kick knock out!

That bout with Getu would be Popov’s first at flyweight, a division he has since committed to, and remained at in his most recent victory against South Korean opponent Sung Jae Kim. Here, Popov displayed vicious body and leg kicks, while bamboozling the Korean native with a variety of flashy strikes. While Kim showed incredible fortitude to ride out three heavily one-sided rounds of action, there was no doubt who would be declared the winner. Popov was in devastating form en route to his tenth career victory.

Now, Popov is seeking out the biggest possible platforms to compete on. While MMA in China continues to grow, and while Russian MMA is more than capable of putting on extravaganzas, the goal is, and always was, the UFC. If he isn’t already on the radar of the world’s number one promotion, he might be very soon courtesy of both their own, and the sport’s, continuing expansion.

Grigory closed out his interview with The MMA Vanguard by saying: “I want to thank my parents, my family, my children, my brothers, sisters, friends, my manager Sayat, who paves the way in this difficult sport and for his understanding and support. Special thanks to Tiger Muay Thai and Uraanhai (in Yakutsk), and Our Il Darkhan, (the head) of the Republic of Sakha Yakutia.”

Martina Mokhnatkina

Marina-Mokhnatkina

Crowned Sambo World Champion for a fourth time in Sofia, Bulgaria in 2016, one member of the Russian National Sambo team has, nevertheless, seemingly flown under the radar of MMA fans the world over prior to a pro debut in June last year. Despite dominating the opposition and becoming renowned by Sambo insiders for quick, decisive, often violent submission finishes, as well as having family ties to the sport of mixed martial arts, it was only when a 25-second armbar submission in a debut fight on a Fight Nights Global card occurred that heads were turned.

This was, clearly, an elite fighter with a elite-level skillset. Being wed to another Sambo World Champion and a member of the Russian National Sambo team only underlined their legitimacy. Her name? Marina Mokhnatkina.

The wife of Fight Night Global’s Mikhail Mokhnatkin, and mother to their son, one particular anecdote involving Marina sheds light on her true character – having won her fourth and most recent Sambo World title, Mokhnatkina burst into tears; not of joy, but of longing. Missing her son, who she had not seen for three weeks, Marina’s emotional response made her priorities in life clear. Family comes first; her otherworldly talent in the Sambo stakes a distant second.

Yet Marina Mokhnatkina could well find herself one of the most marketable female commodities in the world. In an age where some of the biggest stars in the sport are seemingly-superhuman females drawn largely from the United States, Brazil and Europe, there is an astonishing lack of participation from Russian nationals. Fight Nights Global, and Marina Mokhnatkina in particular, could put an end to that surprising dearth of notable superstars.

Her aforementioned blitz of kickboxer Ekaterina Torbeeva in 25 seconds was as perfect a start to her MMA career as could have been hoped for. Immediately taking the centre of the age, Mokhnatkina closed the distance, took hold of her opponent, and scored a takedown straight into mount. Two punches gave Torbeeva food for thought, as Mokhnatkina calmly manufactured a perfect set up for a devastating armbar submission.

It was as easy as that, and all in a division desperately seeking competition for the undeniable lead-Amazon, Cristiano ‘Cyborg’ Justino. While the 145 lb division may not have a future at present in the UFC, there will be plenty of organisations willing to pair up two world class female fighters at featherweight. This could be big news for anyone willing to offer the right kind of financial incentives to the right people.

Mokhnatkina’s sophomore outing, which took place in October of last year, saw her pitted against Karina Vasilenko. Vasilenko, a Judoka representing the Russian police force, looked to use movement to nullify the obvious threats from her elite Samboka opponent. Avoiding a front kick in the opening seconds, Vasilenko was able to use punches to keep distance, and even succeeded in unbalancing Mokhnatkina at around the 40 second mark. While Marina’s striking defence looked somewhat raw, she succeeded in landing a takedown at the first opportunity, only to find Vasilenko’s guillotine choke attempt a barrier to further success.

Riding out the storm, Mokhnatkina ate a couple of body shots, before a kneebar attempt had her opponent reeling. While Vasilenko was able to defend that particular hold, Mokhnatkina quickly adjusted to a heel hook attempt, and when even that failed, a straight leglock would prove sufficient.

Once on the ground, there was no doubt about Mokhnatkina’s superiority, the fight lasting a total of just 2:51. While Mokhnatkina displayed a couple of holes in her all-round game, this remained an impressive outing in only her second professional MMA bout. With work to do on her striking defence, Marina has some way to go before she can challenge the very best in the world, but with the right kind of guidance from her husband and their fight team at Sambo-Piter from St Petersburg, the world could yet be her oyster.

With grappling skills even elite NCAA Division I wrestlers would be proud of, this is one Russian who could prove an immeasurable trailblazer for Russian females trying to shine in a patriarchal national hierarchy. While WMMA and indeed women’s combat sports don’t yet garner enough recognition in Russia, that tide could yet turn.

The MMA Vanguard encourages fight fans to keep an eye out for this outstanding talent.