There was a time when Jon Fitch and Yushin Okami could be found sitting in the rankings right below UFC champions in their respective divisions. They might have been considered to be “boring” fighters in the eyes of many, but Fitch’s welterweight tenure and Okami’s middleweight campaign with the UFC put the perennial contenders in a spot where they could beat almost everyone in sight — 13 opponents for Fitch in his prime and 10 for Okami — except for the reigning champions, past champions and, in Okami’s case, fellow perennial top contender Chael Sonnen. Both men eventually faded enough to give the UFC an excuse to part ways with them, even while they were still considered among the elite. Now, Fitch and Okami are in the same division under the World Series of Fighting banner, and they are on a mission to prove that they aren’t done as contenders when they meet in the headliner of WSOF 24.

With Fitch’s last opponent, Rousimar Palhares, stripped of the WSOF welterweight crown, the door is open for the American Kickboxing Academy fighter and his opponent to climb the ladder and make another run at the gold. The promotion has already confirmed that the winner of this fight will meet Jake Shields for the vacant title. One man has the chance to step up and end his title drought. The other will continue to suffer the torture of coming close and falling once more.

The welterweight title eliminator tops a bill that also includes two title showdowns. In the heavyweight division, champion Blagoy Ivanov puts his strap on the line against veteran Derrick Mehmen. The flyweight division gets some WSOF love too, with Magomed Bibulatov and Donavon Frelow opening the main card in a showdown for the vacant 125-pound belt.

Light heavyweights Vinny Magalhães and Matt Hamill and lightweights Nick Newell and Tommy Marcellino round out a five-fight main card that gets underway at 8:30 p.m. ET on the NBC Sports Network. The seven-fight preliminary card airs live on nbcsports.com at 7 p.m. ET.

WW: Jon Fitch (26-7-1) vs. Yushin Okami (30-9)

Jon Fitch only had one shot at UFC gold and came up short. Now, he gets his chance to earn a second fight with WSOF gold on the line. The same is true of his opponent, Yushin Okami. The Japanese fighter last competed in November 2014 and came up short against David Branch for the WSOF middleweight crown. Okami is shifting his focus to the 170-pound division and another run at a title.

Fitch was known as a grinder during his time with the UFC. His work in the clinch and in neutralizing opponents with his wrestling was enough to earn Fitch eight wins, including four stoppages, on his way to a title bid against dominant UFC champion Georges St-Pierre. Fitch was battered by GSP and had to return to the drawing board. He responded with another five victories, all by decision, and a draw. It appeared Fitch was nearing another title shot, but his momentum was smothered by a 12-second knockout at the hands of Johny Hendricks. Fitch rebounded with another decision win before getting decisioned by Demian Maia. The UFC opted not to renew Fitch’s contract and the veteran contender moved on to the WSOF, where he was submitted in just 41 seconds in his promotional debut by fellow UFC vet Josh Burkman. Fitch righted the ship with two decision wins and earned a shot at Rousimar Palhares for the welterweight crown, but Palhares vanquished Fitch in just 90 seconds with one of his patented — and often controversial — leglock finishes.

Okami was the Fitch of the UFC middleweight division for quite some time. As a middleweight, the Japanese fighter was able to grind out wins in the clinch and in top position on the mat. He did stop four opponents while accumulating 10 wins en route to a title shot against Anderson Silva. Okami did stumble along the way, suffering losses to former champ Rich Franklin and contender Chael Sonnen. The longtime contender, like so many before him, was no match for Silva and fell via strikes in the second round. Okami didn’t bounce back immediately, suffering a follow-up loss to Tim Boetsch, but he did win three in a row to creep closer to another title shot before being shut down by Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza. Okami, like Fitch, was not brought back by the UFC despite his continuing status as a top middleweight, and he, too, landed in the WSOF. The 34-year-old posted one win and then challenged the aforementioned Branch for the middleweight belt, but lost via strikes in the fourth round.

Put two grinders in the cage and you’re likely to get a chess match that goes the distance. However, neither of these men are still the dominant figures they once were. Fitch’s chin has been known to betray him at times, and Okami has displayed holes in his game that have led to losses against the likes of Branch, Jacare and Boetsch. The problem is that Fitch doesn’t have the overwhelming striking speed and power to drop Okami with ease, and Okami isn’t exactly packing one-punch knockout power either.

This is really anyone’s fight. Okami tends to be weakest when opponents can keep him on the outside and chip away at him, but that’s just not Fitch’s style. Both men are most comfortable in the clinch and working ground-and-pound from top position. Okami might have a size advantage, but he can crumble against a superior wrestler with competent striking, as he did against Sonnen. Fitch is capable of duplicating Sonnen’s approach. The AKA fighter will use his wrestling to keep Okami on the defensive. It’ll be enough to give Fitch the judges’ nod.

HW Championship: Blagoy Ivanov (12-1) vs. Derrick Mehmen (19-6)

A knife wound to the heart couldn’t stop him. Fedor Emelianenko couldn’t stop him. Former WSOF heavyweight champion Smealinho Rama couldn’t stop him either. Bulgarian heavyweight Blagoy Ivanov is one tough fighter. Now, Derrick Mehmen will look to succeed in stopping the 29-year-old champ and claiming WSOF heavyweight gold.

Ivanov, who was stabbed in a bar fight and spent months in a serious fight for his life, is a World Combat Sambo champion who defeated the aforementioned Emelianenko on his road to the championship. The Bulgarian debuted in 2007 and won his first five fights, including one under the Sengoku banner, before signing with Bellator and making his promotional debut in 2011. Ivanov won his first two fights with Bellator and claimed a regional win over former UFC heavyweight Ricco Rodriguez before being the victim of the near-fatal stabbing. He returned in late 2013 and picked up where he left off, picking up four straight victories, including wins over Richard Hale and Lavar Johnson on his way to a Bellator heavyweight tournament final against Alexander Volkov. Ivanov was submitted by Volkov. He didn’t fight again until a year later when he defeated the aforementioned Rama for the WSOF belt.

American Top Team’s Mehmen is a veteran journeyman who seems to have finally found a home with the WSOF. The 30-year-old debuted in 2006 and won eight of his first nine before making an appearance with Bellator in which he suffered a loss to Dave Branch in a 190-pound catchweight affair. Mehmen returned to the regional circuit and posted a 3-1 mark over his next four contests before heading to Strikeforce, where he picked up a win in his debut. He suffered back-to-back losses to Rodney Wallace and Gian Villante at 205 pounds before reeling off three straight wins and entering the WSOF as a heavyweight. He finished Rolles Gracie via strikes in his WSOF debut and added wins over Scott Barrett and Dave Huckaba under the promotion’s banner. He challenged Rama for the heavyweight strap at a WSOF Canada show in late 2014, but he was put away via strikes in just 51 seconds. He ventured outside of the WSOF cage for his most recent bout, a decision win over Brett Rogers at Abu Dhabi Warriors 2.

Mehmen is a tall, lanky heavyweight who will hold roughly a five-inch height and reach advantage over Ivanov, but that might not be enough. Ivanov should be able to close the distance and put Mehmen on the mat, where the Bulgarian does his best work. It’s been quite some time since Mehmen suffered a submission loss, but that could change when he steps into the cage with Ivanov.

LHW: Vinny Magalhães (12-7) vs. Matt Hamill (11-5)

Matt Hamill is determined to end his retirement, but it’s been a struggle. The UFC veteran was slated to meet Thiago Silva at WSOF 19 in a rematch of their UFC Fight Night 29 bout, which was Hamill’s last before announcing his retirement. The fight was scrapped, however, when Hamill fell ill. Then Hamill was set to meet Vinny Magalhães at WSOF 20, but Magalhães had contract issues and that fight was also scrapped. Now, Hamill has to be hoping the third time’s the charm as he prepares again to meet Magalhães in the WSOF cage.

Hamill, a three-time NCAA Division III wrestling champion, amassed a 10-5 record inside the Octagon. He spent almost his entire professional career with the UFC before hanging up his gloves in 2013. The WSOF coaxed him out of retirement in 2015, but he has yet to return to action. Hamill, who has been in the cage with the likes of Jon Jones and Tito Ortiz, packs some power in his punches and has a solid wrestling base, but he looked severely outmatched during the tail end of his career, suffering losses to Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Alexander Gustafsson and the aforementioned Silva to end his career with a 1-3 mark over his last four fights.

The 31-year-old Magalhães is a former The Ultimate Fighter cast member and a high-level jiu-jitsu practitioner. The BJJ black belt has washed out of the UFC on two occasions, going 0-2 with losses to Ryan Bader and Eliot Marshall in his first run and posting a 1-2 mark with a win over Igor Pokrajac and losses to Phil Davis and Anthony Perosh in his second stint. Outside of the UFC, Magalhães has fared much better. He won and defended the M-1 light heavyweight crown and most recently claimed the Titan FC belt. The Brazilian’s biggest struggle toward consistency seems to be his numerous contractual conflicts with his employers, which have led to his departures from M-1 and Titan.

Magalhães is a strong ground fighter whose chin can sometimes betray him. He’s dealing with a fighter who is far past his prime, however. Hamill doesn’t have the hand speed or footwork to land a knockout blow against Magalhães, and the wrestler will be in danger regardless of position if the fight goes to the ground. Unless Magalhães makes a significant error during this fight, the win should be his for the taking.

Hamill, despite his declining game, is still a tough out. Magalhães isn’t known for his power, but he could find the TKO or submission if he presses the action and exhausts Hamill. If the stoppage doesn’t come, the Brazilian should still be able to do enough to take a clear decision victory.

LW: Nick Newell (12-1) vs. Tommy Marcellino (7-3)

In his title fight with Justin Gaethje, Nick Newell gave it his all and came up short. Now, he’s making the case for another title bid. The journey to another championship bout continues when he meets Tommy Marcellino.

Newell gained much notoriety for being a successful fighter despite being born with a congenital amputation. He remained perfect through his first 11 fights, scoring numerous submissions while capturing the XFC lightweight belt and winning his first two WSOF outings. The former high school wrestler battled the aforementioned Gaethje for the WSOF lightweight crown, but he suffered a second-round TKO loss. He returned in April and scored a decision win over Joe Condon.

Marcellino is a journeyman fighter who has made a couple of appearances with the WSOF, beginning with a loss in his promotional debut at WSOF 2. The 31-year-old debuted in 2006, but he didn’t make his sophomore outing until 2011. He remained undefeated through his first four fights, but then suffered back-to-back losses to Andrew Osborne and Brenson Hansen. He rebounded with three wins on the regional circuit. He returned to the WSOF at WSOF 13 and suffered a loss to Frankie Perez. This will be his first fight in over a year.

This fight is simply a way to rebuild Newell’s status as a viable title contender. Newell’s one weakness is in his striking game. He put up a valiant effort against Gaethje, but he was eventually outgunned in that fight. However, even then Newell was able to hold his own for a while. Put him against a grappler, though, and the advantage tilts heavily in Newell’s favor. Marcellino’s specialty happens to be his grappling game, but it’s doubtful that he can trade submissions with Newell.

Think of this as a throwback fight to the days when Newell was marching up the XFC ladder. He’s getting an opponent that he can handle on the feet and dismantle on the ground. Newell was forced to settle for a decision in his last fight, but he won’t be content to do so in this contest. He’ll come out hunting for the finish, and he’ll eventually find it by way of submission.

FlyW Championship: Magomed Bibulatov (9-0) vs. Donavon Frelow (5-0)

The WSOF is ready to crown its inaugural flyweight champion. The promotion has found two undefeated, but largely unknown fighters to compete for the crown. Chechen fighter Magomed Bibulatov will clash with American Donavon Frelow for the belt.

Bibulatov will be making his WSOF debut after picking up nine wins on the regional circuit overseas. He made his pro debut in 2013 and had five wins under his belt within four months. His 2014 campaign netted the 27-year-old another three victories, including decisions over Said Nurmagomedov and Olivier Pastor. In his only fight of 2015, Bibulatov added a 90-second finish of Eduardo Felipe via strikes. The Akhmat MMA product has a background in sambo, wrestling and hand-to-hand combat. He tends to win fights on the mat, where he has submitted four of his foes, but he has a flashy striking game that makes him an all-around threat.

Frelow rose through the amateur ranks with Tuff-N-Uff and King of the Cage before turning pro in 2014. He picked up three submission wins across the KOTC and Gladiator Challenge promotions before making his WSOF debut in his fourth pro fight. Frelow went the distance in that outing against veteran Taylor McCorriston. He was slated to meet Bibulatov in August, but the Chechen fighter withdrew from the bout and Frelow defeated Carlos Garcia instead. Overall, the 30-year-old Syndicate MMA member has four submission wins as a pro.

These two rising prospects could put on an early candidate for “Fight of the Night.” Bibulatov loves to throw spinning attacks and has even attempted a “Showtime Kick” during a fight, but his wrestling and sambo base gives him a number of weapons that will make him a very difficult opponent for Frelow, who can get wildly aggressive on the feet and gives up position on the mat. If Frelow goes into slugfest mode, it could leave openings for Bibulatov to land a spinning kick or spinning back fist that puts Frelow down. On the mat, the Chechen will have to be wary of Frelow’s submission game, but he’ll likely be able to control from the top, even if he has to sweep his way into the position after a Frelow takedown.

This contest has all the qualities that make a flyweight pairing so fun. These guys are fast and well-rounded. Toss in the potential fireworks that come when one fighter is swinging for the fences and the other is seeking to throw flashy strikes, and the ingredients are there for an extremely entertaining five-round affair.

Frelow will keep this competitive as long as he doesn’t get too aggressive and walk into an early spinning back fist, but Bibulatov appears to have a much tighter overall game that relies as much on technique as it does aggressiveness. The Chechen fighter will claim the title with a finish in the middle rounds.

Preliminary Card Predictions
Fight Prediction
FW: Rick Glenn (15-3-1) vs. Adam Ward (15-7) Glenn by second-round TKO
FW: Alexandre de Almeida (17-5) vs. Saul Almeida (18-5) Saul Almeida by unanimous decision
FW: Rodrigo Almeida (12-2) vs. Bruce Boyington (10-8) Almeida by first-round submission
MW: Justin Torrey (7-1) vs. Rex Harris (7-2) Harris by first-round TKO
MW: Louis Taylor (11-3) vs. Nicolai Salchov (5-0) Taylor by second-round submission
WW: Washington Da Silva (5-1) vs. Colton Smith (5-4) Smith by unanimous decision
HW: Pat Walsh (6-2) vs. Tyler King (9-3) Walsh by third-round TKO

About The Author

Bryan Henderson
Editor-in-Chief

Bryan Henderson became a fan of MMA in the late ’90s when he happened upon the early UFC events on VHS at a local video rental store. He started writing about the sport on his Sporting News member blog in 2007 before becoming an official staff writer for Sporting News’ “The Rumble” MMA/boxing blog. He went on to become a staff writer and the Features Manager for MMA DieHards before moving on to The MMA Corner, where he assumed the role of Editor-in-Chief. Bryan left The MMA Corner in 2014 and founded Combat Press along with two of his colleagues. In addition to covering mixed martial arts, Bryan also operated the Modified Mind body modification e-zine website for more than a decade.

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