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 obscurity, 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, from the small convention centers and high school gymnasiums to the developmental leagues that serve as a launching pad to the big show. It all begins with promotions such as these…
Kayla Harrison (8-0) vs. Jozette Cotton (8-2)
[Ed. Note — Harrison’s fight was canceled after this article was filed but shortly before its publication.]
The Titan Fighting Championship organization is the latest stop for Professional Fighters League 2019 women’s lightweight champion Kayla Harrison. Unlike her recent appearance with Invicta Fighting Championships, this outing will not be in the featherweight division. Instead, the two-time Olympic gold-medalist judoka is back at 155 pounds for her appearance at Titan FC 66, where she’ll meet Jozette Cotton in a rematch of one of her earliest fights.
Harrison had been a fixture for the PFL since her transition to MMA in 2018, but the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic led to the cancellation of the entire 2020 PFL season and left Harrison in need of fights. This has led to her appearances with Invicta and Titan FC. In her 2018 campaign, the Ohio native easily disposed of Cotton, as well as Brittney Elkin and Moriel Charneski. The PFL constructed a women’s lightweight season around her in 2019, and she again ran through the competition with wins over Larissa Pacheco (twice), Morgan Frier and Bobbi-Jo Dalziel. Harrison finally shifted down to featherweight in her crossover to Invicta, where she topped Courtney King. The undefeated 30-year-old star has three wins each by knockout and submission.
Cotton, 32, has been toiling around the professional circuit for far longer than Harrison, but she has just two more fights on her resume than the Olympian. Such is the struggle of residing in the women’s lightweight division. “The #1 Head Busta” made her debut in 2012 and bashed heads through her first three affairs. Her next trio of victories came on the scorecards. Cotton finally tasted defeat in her seventh contest, a 2016 bout against the aforementioned Dalziel. The Nebraska native rebounded with another two victories, but she then collided with Harrison and was put away via ground-and-pound strikes in the third round. That loss came in 2018, and Cotton has since gone on a tangent into the realm of boxing. This will be her first MMA fight since that previous loss to Harrison.
Harrison would likely find many more competitive fights if she permanently transitioned to featherweight, but the PFL has been happy to provide her with lightweight fights and will do so again during its 2021 season if all goes as planned. In the meantime, she’s avoiding ring rust through marquee appearances with other organizations. Harrison is, of course, a strong grappler with excellent takedown abilities. The southpaw can control opponents on the ground and find the finish either by submission or through an overwhelming barrage of ground-and-pound. Cotton has already been on the receiving end of the latter.
Cotton, to her credit, defended well against Harrison for two-plus rounds in their first meeting. However, as a boxer with little takedown defense, she had a minimal chance even against an inexperienced Harrison who was only in her sophomore effort in the MMA world. Cotton couldn’t shrug off the explosive takedowns of the Olympian and didn’t actively work to get the fight back to the feet. Instead, she threw some punches off her back and otherwise seemed content to just ride out the rounds while trying to minimize the damage she absorbed.
Harrison is absolutely vicious on the ground, and now, unlike in their first affair, she’ll have elbows at her disposal against Cotton. Furthermore, Harrison is now eight fights into her career. This is a wealth of experience for a fighter who was already really good when she first clashed with Cotton. Meanwhile, Cotton, at her best, is a stick-and-move boxer with a rather wild style. Despite a reach advantage against Harrison, she simply had no answer for the takedowns and ground game of the PFL star. Cotton is savvy enough to avoid the majority of submissions, but she’s still going to spend the majority of this bout on her back, where she’ll eat punches and elbows. The only difference between this fight and their first encounter will be the speed at which it ends. Harrison should find the ground-and-pound stoppage earlier in this go-around.
Other key bouts: Jeremie Holloway (10-4) vs. Bruno Assis (9-5), Juan Puerta (20-6) vs. Joe Penafiel (5-1), Ryan Kuse (2-0) vs. Harrison Melendez (1-5), Denzel Freeman (2-0) vs. Terrance Hodges (2-7), Royberth Echeverria (1-0) vs. Jon Arce (1-1), Gustavo Villamil (2-0) vs. Keaneo Moyer (1-0)
Pat Sabatini (12-3) vs. Jesse Stirn (10-3)
Cage Fury Fighting Championships is following a similar path to that of its UFC Fight Pass cohorts Cage Warriors by holding shows on back-to-back days. The second of these events features two thrilling title bouts. Combat Press contributor Jillian DeCoursey fights for strawweight gold at the league’s 91st event, while the vacant featherweight crown is on the line in the headliner. That main event is Pat Sabatini’s chance to recapture the crown he lost when he suffered a gruesome arm injury in a bout against James Gomzalez in February. However, Sabatini will have to get past Jesse Stirn in order to return to his throne.
The 30-year-old former champ has been a Cage Fury regular since his pro debut with the organization in 2014. Sabatini won his first two fights before coming up short against Robert Watley, but he responded to his first career loss by reeling off six straight victories. In the course of this streak, he captured and successfully defended the Cage Fury featherweight belt. After appearances in 2018 with Victory FC, where he lost, and CES MMA, where he was victorious, Sabatini added another two successful defenses of the title. He finally relinquished the belt early in 2020 when his arm broke as he tried to fend off an early submission attempt from the aforementioned Gonzalez. He returned in September with a victory over Jordan Titoni to re-establish his standing as a contender within the company. Overall, Sabatini has nine submissions and one knockout finish. He now gets another crack at the belt after Cage Fury vacated the championship when Gonzalez moved to bantamweight to pursue gold in that division.
Stirn debuted in 2015 and scored three stoppage wins under the Shogun Fights banner. He joined Cage Fury for his fourth pro fight, but it ended in disappointment when he was tapped by Giorgi Kudukhashvili. “Relentless” returned to Shogun Fights for three of his next four appearances, all of which he won. During this streak, Stirn squeaked past Mike Easton to win the Shogun bantamweight crown and then successfully defended it once before dropping it to Terry Bartholomew. He added a win in his next fight, but suffered another setback when he took on Scott Heckman. Stirn has since added two victories to his record, but they both came in split verdicts against .500 fighters. Overall, he has five submission victories and one knockout.
Sabatini is a strong grappler, but his striking can’t be overlooked. The former champ switches stances regularly on the feet while throwing combinations and kicks. His power was on display in the violent finish of Titoni. Of course, Sabatini’s bread and butter lies in his Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu skills. The black belt has tapped numerous opponents, and he’s not afraid to go for chokes from a standing position. He doesn’t have the strongest takedowns and often opts to trip or simply drag his opponent to the mat. This leads to plenty of time spent by Sabatini in clinch situations, but he usually finds a way to eventually convert a submission.
It would seem that Stirn is a perfect match-up for Sabatini. The 28-year-old has already been submitted twice, and he has barely eked out victories against fighters well below Sabatini’s caliber. The Ground Control Academy product is not a huge threat on the feet, either. On the ground, he prefers to look for chokes.
Sabatini has only been stopped once, and it came on that gruesome arm injury. The routes to a victory for Stirn are just not there. Sabatini won’t leave himself open for a choke, and he’s not going to get outworked by the Shogun Fights veteran. Sabatini will outclass Stirn in this contest and find the submission victory for a return to championship glory.
Other key bouts: Elise Reed (2-0) vs. Jillian DeCoursey (4-2) for the women’s strawweight title, Solomon Renfro (6-0) vs. Mike Malott (5-1-1), Jose Perez (1-0) vs. Jacob Dorman (1-3)
Phil De Fries (18-6) vs. Michał Kita (20-11-1)
Poland’s KSW promotion continues to serve up stacked cards. Its 57th effort includes three championship bouts and numerous additional prospects in action. The heavyweight title tilt between champ Phil De Fries and challenger Michał Kita takes center stage.
De Fries has fared far better in KSW than he did inside the UFC Octagon. The British fighter, who debuted in 2009 and won seven straight before joining the UFC roster, managed just a 2-5 mark with the big show. He was able to best Rob Broughton and Oli Thompson during this stretch, but he couldn’t handle the likes of Stipe Miocic, Todd Duffee or Matt Mitrione. De Fries’ next stop was Japan, where he beat Brett Rogers and came up short against Satoshi Ishii. He then returned to Europe and appeared for numerous organizations, including M-1 and RCC, while compiling a 3-2 run. He then made a lone appearance with Bellator MMA, where he beat James Thompson. The 34-year-old finally settled in with KSW in 2018 and has since won four fights. All of his KSW contests have been championship affairs. He won the vacant belt in his promotional debut and has gone on to defend it three times, including against the league’s light-heavyweight kingpin, Tomasz Narkun. In his most recent bout in 2019, he barely emerged with the strap after a close and grueling fight with Luis Henrique that ended in a split decision. The Brit loves to find the finish on the mat, where he has tapped 12 of his foes.
Kita is an elder statesman in the sport. The 40-year-old debuted in 2006 and has experienced a number of ups and downs during his lengthy career. He juggled wins and losses until an extremely busy 2009 in which he posted a six-fight winning streak that culminated in three victories in a single November evening. This streak consisted entirely of first-round finishes, including one of current UFC fighter Aleksei Oleinik. The success was short-lived, however, as Kita then dropped three in a row, including one to Dave Herman. This pattern has continued ever since. He has added wins over the likes of Ricco Rodriguez, Valentijn Overeem, Mike Wessel and Igor Pokrajac, but he’s suffered setbacks against D.J. Linderman, Karol Bedorf, Viktor Pešta and Ednaldo Oliveira, among others. “Masakra” earned his shot at the belt with a first-round finish of Michał Andryszak to avenge a prior loss. This isn’t Kita’s first crack at the KSW gold, though. In 2015, he fought the aforementioned Bedorf and was on the receiving end of a head-kick knockout.
While he tips the scales near the 265-pound divisional limit at times, De Fries is not a typical heavyweight bruiser and only has two knockout victories through 24 pro fights. Even those two stoppages were a result of ground-and-pound strikes, and he was actually in big trouble on the feet in one of them before securing a takedown. The champ’s strategy is to get the fight to the canvas and wear down his opponent. He works well to control his foe from the top and pours on a steady stream of ground-and-pound. His strikes aren’t meant to be fight-enders. Instead, he works to accumulate damage before finding a submission on a tired opponent.
Kita employs a similar strategy to De Fries. However, his vulnerability to submissions — he’s been tapped three times — and overall inconsistency at this level of the sport leaves him as a low-confidence pick in almost any KSW pairing. “Masakra” will likely hold a striking advantage over De Fries, but he gives up three inches in height and approximately four inches in reach to the champ. Of course, these men will hardly fight at range anyway. Instead, fans should expect a lot of clinch work, takedowns and scrambles. Kita, who checks in as more of a cruiserweight than a full-fledged heavyweight, will likely struggle to win these battles due to the disparity in size.
While De Fries would still find difficulty in cracking into the UFC these days, he’s by himself right now in the top tier of the KSW heavyweight division. That’s unlikely to change against the undersized Kita. The challenger is, stylistically, a smaller version of the champion. De Fries should be able to use that size advantage to take the upper hand on the ground and eventually find a submission to once again successfully defend his belt.
Other key bouts: Marian Ziółkowski (21-8-1) vs. Roman Szymański (13-5) for the lightweight title, Antun Račić (24-8-1) vs. Bruno Santos (9-1) for the bantamweight title, Abusupiyan Magomedov (23-4-1) vs. Cezary Kęsik (12-0), Tomasz Drwal (22-5-1) vs. Patrik Kincl (22-9), Christian Eckerlin (12-5) vs. Albert Odzimkowski (11-4), Borys Mańkowski (21-8-1) vs. Artur Sowiński (21-11)
The Best of the Rest
Cage Fury Fighting Championships 90: Collin Huckbody (8-2) vs. Aaron Phillips (5-1) for the middleweight title Watch Event:UFC Fight Pass
Megdan Fighting 8: New Winners: Stipe Brčić (8-1) vs. Mikhail Sirbu (14-7) for the bantamweight title
Russian Cagefighting Championship 8: Anton Vyazigin (15-3) vs. Evgeny Goncharov (14-3) Watch Event:YouTube
Eagle Fighting Championship 31: Magomed Umalatov (8-0) vs. Rashid Koychakaev (7-2) for the welterweight title
Last Week’s Scorecard
Luke Shanks vs. Jake Hadley at Cage Warriors 117
Shanks by decision
Hadley by decision
Daniel Zellhuber vs. Alexander Barahona at iKON 4
Zellhuber by submission
Zellhuber by knockout
Jack Grant vs. Agy Sardari at Cage Warriors 119
Grant by submission
Sardari by split decision
In Hindsight: It turns out that Hadley, not Shanks, has the strong wrestling game. Shanks came nowhere near scoring the predicted decision, as Hadley exposed his lack of takedown defense and dominated the now-former champ over five rounds…Zellhuber outclassed Barahona, which was expected, but he opted for a ground-and-pound TKO rather than the predicted submission finish…Grant did not emphasize his grappling as much as anticipated and therefore did not even come close to the predicted submission victory. Instead, he and Sardari engaged in a five-round battle primarily on the feet. Sardari squeaked by with the split-decision win…“Best of the Rest” selections Nathias Frederick, Jason High, Anastasia Feofanova and Aziretaly Jumabek Uulu all scored stoppages.
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