Rousimar Palhares (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

Out of Obscurity: M-1 Challenge 90, FNG 85 and PA Cage Fight 31

Every week, Combat Press takes a look at three regional, developmental and international cards from the upcoming weekend, previewing from each a single fight to which people should pay close attention. We will also list other significant bouts from the card, as well as information on how to follow each promotion and watch the events.

Let’s discover those prospects that fight in the obscurity of the regional, developmental and international circuits, waiting for their shot at the bright lights and big stage of the UFC, and those veterans looking for one more chance at stardom. It all begins here, in the small convention centers and high school gymnasiums. It all begins with promotions such as these…

M-1 Challenge 90
M-1 Arena in St. Petersburg, Russia
Event Date: March 30
Watch Event: Russia 2 (Russia), Fite TV free
preliminary card stream and pay-per-view main card stream via Combat Press
Twitter: @OfficialM1


Spotlight Fight:
Alexey Kunchenko (17-0) vs. Alexander Butenko (45-12-3)

M-1 Challenge once ruled the Russian MMA landscape. While the company is far from the only game around nowadays, it can still compile a solid lineup that includes veterans and prospects. Alexey Kunchenko is among the world’s top prospects, and he’ll return at M-1 Challenge 90 to defend his welterweight crown against veteran Alexander Butenko in the evening’s headliner.

Kunchenko, 33, only debuted as a pro in 2013, but he has quickly developed into one of the top non-UFC fighters out there. He remains undefeated through 17 outings. Kunchenko has faced some tough veteran competition, but his most notable victories, in addition to his title-clinching win over Murad Abdulaev, came against Bellator veterans Ron Keslar and Carlos Pereira. After capturing the welterweight crown from Abdulaev, Kunchenko returned to action in a non-title catchweight bout and worked his way to a unanimous decision nod over Eduardo Ramon. Then, he successfully defended the title against Abdulaev in a rematch and against Maksim Grabovich, who entered the bout with an underwhelming 5-3 mark. However, in his most recent title defense, Kunchenko destroyed fellow up-and-comer Sergey Romanov with strikes in the first round. Kunchenko, a Russian military hand-to-hand combat champion, also has a foundation in Muay Thai. The Boets product registered 12 of his 17 wins by way of strikes.

The 31-year-old Butenko has been a busy fighter, registering 60 pro outings since debuting in 2008. “Iron Capture” went just 2-3 through his first five fights, but he finally found his groove in mid-2009 and reeled off a nine-fight winning streak that included a submission victory over Ali Bagov. The Fight Spirit Team product has had plenty of ups and downs since then. He made a stop in the Cage Contenders promotion, where he was submitted by future UFC star Gunnar Nelson. He dropped a 2013 fight to Alexander Sarnavskiy and even had a short-lived lightweight title reign with M-1 after defeating Artiom Damkovsky for the belt. After losing the belt in his first attempted defense, Butenko shifted to the welterweight division, where he’s managed a 3-0-1 mark through four recent fights.

Kunchenko can deliver devastating flurries of punches on the feet and barrages of ground-and-pound strikes when he gets to mount, but he tends to sit back and wait for counters. He’s strong in the clinch, too. His Ukrainian foe tends to focus on the ground game. Butenko has scored just four knockouts, but he has a head-turning 27 submission victories. Kunchenko might want to work to keep this fight off the mat.

Kunchenko has a relatively strong takedown defense, which might leave Butenko with few routes to victory. If the fight hits the mat and Butenko gets top position, Kunchenko could be in trouble. If Butenko opts to pull guard or gets stuffed on takedowns, though, the tables could be turned and Kunchenko’s overwhelming ground-and-pound could factor into this fight’s outcome.

Butenko is a very experienced fighter, but he hasn’t seen many contests against even the best Russia has to offer. He’s stumbled primarily against stiff competition, at least, but Kunchenko is probably the most skilled opponent he’s faced since the bout with the aforementioned Gunnar Nelson. Kunchenko will likely be far too much for Butenko to handle. This fight should end in a knockout victory for the champ.

Other key bouts: Rafael Dias (14-5) vs. Vadim Malygin (12-3-1) for the flyweight title, Joe Riggs (48-17) vs. Boris Polezhay (18-6), Ruslan Rakhmonkulov (11-1) vs. Lom-Ali Nalgiev (14-7), Magomedkamil Malikov (4-0) vs. Sado Ucar (10-4), Maxim Kuldashev (2-0) vs. Damien Peltier (8-8-1), Roman Bogatov (5-0) vs. Tahir Abdullaev (6-0), Silmar Nunes (35-13-1) vs. Oleg Olenichev (9-5)

Fight Nights Global 85
Ice Sports Palace in Moscow
Event Date: March 30
Watch Event: YouTube
Twitter: @fngmma

Spotlight Fight:
Aliaskhab Khizriev (11-0) vs. Rousimar Palhares (19-8-1)

The antics of Rousimar Palhares led to his dismissal from first the UFC and then the World Series of Fighting. Despite the controversy surrounding his repeated late releases of submission holds, the Brazilian has seemingly settled into a new home with the Fight Nights Global organization. At the company’s 85th event, Palhares squares off against the undefeated Aliaskhab Khizriev for the welterweight strap.

Palhares is among the most familiar names toiling away on the regional and international circuit. “Toquinho” debuted in 2004 and landed in the UFC by 2008. He went 8-4 while competing inside the Octagon, but he drew plenty of criticism and eventually earned his ouster after failing to let go of a leglock in a timely manner when he submitted Mike Pierce at UFC Fight Night 29. The Team Nogueira fighter moved on to the WSOF, where he immediately challenged for the welterweight championship. He used his patented leglock to defeat Steve Carl for the belt and then to defend it against Jon Fitch. His next defense came against Jake Shields, but numerous fouls marred the contest and led to the stripping of his title and a two-year suspension that forced Palhares to compete overseas. The Brazilian lost his next two fights via knockout, and he went just 1-0-1 under the FNG banner before receiving this title shot. While Palhares isn’t always consistent, he has defeated the likes of Jeremy Horn, Dave Branch, Dan Miller, Pierce, Carl, Fitch and Shields. Meanwhile, he has suffered losses to Dan Henderson, Nate Marquardt, Alan Belcher, Hector Lombard, Emil Weber Meek and Michał Materla.

Khizriev has quietly climbed his way through the regional circuit. He debuted in 2014 and competed on the fourth season of the MixFighter series. His October 2015 TKO finish of Dzhamal Magomedov marked Khizriev’s first win over an established fighter. While he did return to fights against less-experienced foes, the Russian also handed out one more defeat to a veteran fighter when he stopped Matej Truhan with a body-blow knockout in just 28 seconds. The prospect really turned heads when he outworked M-1 mainstay Yasubey Enomoto through three rounds in a September contest.

Khizriev has flashed the type of quick knockout ability that has been kryptonite to Palhares. The Brazilian was knocked out early by Marquardt, Belcher, Lombard and Meek, and he also fell in the second stanza against Materla. If Khizriev can find the chin of Palhares, he could score a major upset in this fight.

However, the concern here is in Khizriev’s lack of victories over proven opponents. He outlasted Enomoto, but that’s the only battle-tested veteran he’s met. Palhares would arguably still reside in either the UFC or another major promotion like Bellator if not for his unsportsmanlike behavior. Palhares might have a weak chin, but he’s usually able to avoid getting tagged before he finds a limb and punishes it, usually to unnecessary lengths. Khizriev is bound to learn more about the Brazilian’s tendencies firsthand.

Other key bouts: Abusupyan Alikhanov (9-2) vs. Roman Kopylov (6-0) for the middleweight title, Liliya Shakirova (4-0) vs. Julia Borisova (4-4), Boyd Allen (15-3-1) vs. Magomed Yunisulau (5-0), Valdir Araujo (18-8) vs. Raimond Magomedaliev (4-0), Ivan Gluhak (16-8-1) vs. Zelim Imadaev (7-0), Magomed Ismailov (12-3) vs. Ildemar Alcantara (22-12), Gazavat Suleymanov (8-1) vs. Alexander Matmuratov (9-3)

PA Cage Fight 31
Woodlands Inn and Resort in Wilkes Barre, Pa.
Event Date: March 31

Spotlight Fight:
Sean Santella (19-6-1) vs. Charles Johnson (6-0)

The PA Cage Fight promotion isn’t exactly the top of the food chain on the regional circuit. Instead of lineups stacked with veterans and top prospects, the organization tends to go the pro/am route, with an emphasis on amateur fights. The lineup for its 31st effort appears to lean this way, to say the least, but it does throw a spotlight on a few pros, including the promotion’s defending flyweight champion Sean Santella and his challenger, Charles Johnson.

The 33-year-old Santella was once considered a top bantamweight and flyweight prospect. He captured flyweight crowns under the Ring of Combat and Cage Fury Fighting Championships banners and defended the latter of those titles four times before dropping it to Nick Honstein. After three different scheduled bouts fizzled, Santella returned in 2015 and suffer another loss, this time to Jimmy Grant on the scorecards. He had another bout fizzle and then fought to a no-contest with Matthew Rizzo in a Global Proving Grounds flyweight title fight. After another two bouts fizzled, things finally started looking up for Santella again. He returned to his old stomping grounds on the East Coast and won fights under the ROC and Cage Fury banners. He’s gone 6-1 over his last seven fights while collecting flyweight straps under the Cage Fury, V3 Fights and PA Cage Fight banners. The Ricardo Almeida and AMA Fight Club product, who serves as the jiu-jitsu instructor at Miller Brothers MMA, wrestled in high school and later took up jiu-jitsu. He has suffered losses to UFC veteran Nick Pace and current UFC fighter Aljamain Sterling, but he has notched wins over Bellator veteran Tuan Pham and Strikeforce vet Anthony Figueroa.

Johnson is an up-and-comer with a far shorter pro resume. However, the 27-year-old made up for this with a longer tenure in the amateur circuit, where he went 14-3-1. “InnerG” finally went pro in 2016 and reeled off six straight wins out of the gates. The Missouri-based fighter scored stoppages in his first three pro fights, with the first two victories coming in bantamweight contests. His next two fights went the distance, resulting in one unanimous nod and one split verdict. The second of those bouts took place under the Legacy Fighting Alliance banner. In Johnson’s most recent appearance, he scored a first-round submission victory over Marc TongVan. As an amateur, Johnson scored six submission finishes and three knockouts. At the pro level, he has three submissions and one knockout.

Johnson’s amateur losses take some of the shine off of his current perfect pro run. Furthermore, the combined pro mark of the three men who defeated him on the ammy circuit currently stands at 6-6, with two of the fighters sporting losing records. Johnson has obviously improved since then, but his pro opponents held just a combined 17-10 mark heading into their fights with Johnson. The prospect still has a lot to prove.

Santella nearly made it to the UFC at one point in his career. He was set to meet Wilson Reis at UFC 201, but he was unable to get cleared on his pre-fight medicals. While he never made it to the big show, the UFC’s interest in the decorated flyweight is telling of his skill level. This is a ridiculous step up in competition for Johnson. Santella is likely to be far superior to Johnson in every area of the fight, and that even goes for the grappling department, which stands out as Johnson’s own specialty. Santella’s going to add another choke finish to his record on Saturday night.

Other key bouts: Daniel Tolbert (1-0) vs. Tyler Bayer (1-1)

Last Week’s Scorecard
Fight Prediction Outcome
Ricky Simon vs. Vinicius Zani at LFA 36 Simon by decision Simon by knockout
Martin Nguyen vs. Bibiano Fernandes at ONE Championship Fernandes by submission Fernandes by split decision
Oleg Borisov vs. Rustam Kerimov at ACB 83 Kerimov by knockout Kerimov by split decision
Jack Shore vs. Vaughan Lee at Cage Warriors 92 Shore by submission Shore by decision