Names in the Game from the Magazine

Names in the Game from the Magazine

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Mixed martial arts is the fastest growing sport in the world. It garners more attention and new fans daily. The emergence of so many new athletes sometimes makes it hard for fans to notice some of the fighters on the verge of making it to the next level. MMAWeekly.com’s Mick Hammond takes you deep inside the sport and presents you with some of the upcoming New Blood.

image descRose Namajanus
Record: 2-0
Key Victories: Kathina Catron, Emily Kagan
Weight Class: 115 lbs.
Age: 20
Country: United States
Nickname: Thug
Photo by Esther Lin | Invicta FC

For Invicta FC 115-pound fighter Rose Namajanus, taking chances has worked out well this year. Her decision to turn pro by joining Invicta FC—following a 4-0 start to her amateur career—resulted in back-to-back wins in the promotion.

“My skill level has definitely jumped up since I turned pro, but you can face a really skilled amateur fighter with not too many fights or a really skilled pro fighter with a lot of fights and anyone can win. So it can be difficult to gauge when the right time to turn pro is,” says Namajanus. “It’s just one of those things where you’ve got to take a chance, and it’s worked out pretty well.”

Taking chances has yielded big rewards, as Namajanus put on one of the standout performances at Invicta FC 5 when she submitted Kathina Catron in just 12 seconds via flying armbar.

“It’s really thrilling to get Submission of the Night and end it in such spectacular fashion,” she says. “It only took 12 seconds, and it’s like the fifth fastest submission in MMA, let alone the fastest women’s submission. It’s something I knew was in my bag of tricks. I definitely took a risk going for it, but it worked out, and I still can’t believe it actually happened.”

On a card stacked with some of the top female fighters in the world—including Cyborg Santos and Sarah Kaufman—Namajanus’ flying armbar stood out amongst the best. Now that she’s put herself on the map, she is ready for whatever challenge is put in front of her next.

“I’m not a matchmaker, so I’m not the best at knowing who the next challenge is for me, so it’s really just whatever Invicta has in mind for me,” she says. “I know what I’m capable of, and I just had to believe in myself.”

image descSergio Pettis
Record: 7-0
Key Victories: Jimmy Jones, Tom McKenna, Josh Robinson
Weight Class: 125 lbs.
Age: 19
Country: United States
Nickname: The Phenom
Photo by Paul Thatcher

Sergio “The Phenom” Pettis has a lot to live up to as he fights his way out of the shadow of his older brother, UFC contender Anthony “Showtime” Pettis. However, little brother has no doubts about his own talents. He wants to get to the UFC—and he’s in a rush to do it.

The 19-year-old Pettis would like to be fighting in the Octagon sometime within the next year. It isn’t easy to get there, however, when he can’t get the fights that will earn him the honor. RFA 7 was supposed to be his coming out party, but an injury to his opponent forced him off the card. Pettis was able to get onto the NAFC card the following week, and he showed no signs of a letdown as he defeated Josh Robinson via unanimous decision to bring his record to 7-0.

Even though he’s won all of his fights, Pettis says that it’s only just lately that he’s starting to come into his own as a fighter.

“I’ve learned a lot from my first fight to where I am now,” he says. “I didn’t have much of an amateur career, so I was learning as I went along. At the beginning, I could throw stuff, but I didn’t have much confidence behind what I was throwing. Now I’m more confident in the cage and used to performing in front of a crowd. I’m able to throw that extra meanness into my game and make everything count.”

Another reason why Pettis has been able to progress quickly is because big brother has served as a guide to going about things the right way.

“My brother helps me out a lot with career advice,” says Pettis. “He’s been through it all. He’s come from the bottom, and now he’s at the top. He knows the stuff that happens in between and what to look out for. He’s helping pave my career and has helped me out a lot.”

With his brother as an example, it’s no surprise that Pettis’ goal for 2013 is to join him on MMA’s biggest stage.
“My goal has been to get into the UFC by the time I’m 20 years old, so I want to be in the UFC this year or at least by the time I’m 21 years old,” he says. “Fight after fight, I just want to have a clean record and compete with the top contenders at 125 pounds.”

Pettis’ next fight is against UFC veteran Jeff Curran for the inaugural RFA Flyweight Championship on June 21. A victory over Curran could put Pettis in position to achieve his UFC dream.

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From centerfold to center cage, Invicta FC Atomweight Champion Michelle Waterson is keeping the eyes on her.

image descIn September 2008, Chuck “The Iceman” Liddell graced the cover of FIGHT! in preview of his upcoming bout against Rashad Evans at UFC 88. In that same issue, aspiring model and mixed martial artist Michelle “The Karate Hottie” Waterson was featured as the FIGHT! centerfold. The MMA landscape has changed considerably over the last 57 months for The Iceman and The Karate Hottie. Liddell hung up his four-ounce gloves to become a cog in the UFC corporate wheel, while Waterson is now the Invicta FC Atomweight Champion.

Over the next couple of years, Waterson went from natural beauty to natural fighter, amassing an 8-3 record by combining her background in American Freestyle Karate, Wushu, and Muay Thai. The Jackson MMA fighter’s career was on the upswing before she took a two-year hiatus that began midyear 2010. Since returning to fighting last year, Waterson has taken her career to an entirely new level. It’s not so much what she’s done in the gym—she always trained hard—but a major addition to her personal life that has made her want to strive for more in her career.

“After having my daughter in 2011, I’ve really kind of stepped up my game as far as being a fighter,” says Waterson. “Now, I have a lot more reasons to win and show my daughter that you can go after your dreams no matter what happens to you in life. I feel like I’m back and better than ever. I have more motivation, and she pushes me to be better every day.”

While Waterson had a convincing win in her first bout back against Donna Rael in January 2012, it was a Fight of the Night victory over Lacey Schuckman at Invicta FC 3 in October 2012 that really tested Waterson’s resolve as a competitor.

“Schuckman almost had me in the first round, so it was kind of a mental battle for me to pull myself out of that and acknowledge that I could win, even though I lost the first round,” she says. “I’ve always had heart, and when it comes to fighting, I think it’s important to understand that. There have been times where I’ve been tested and was able to focus and push through.”

At Invicta FC 5 on April 5 against Jessica Penne for the Invicta FC Atomweight Title, Waterson had to dig deep and push through like never before. The championship fight lived up to its namesake, as both fighters put on a technical display of MMA skills. Striking combos, leg kicks, takedowns, pulling guard, mounts, sweeps, submission attempts…the fight had it all, and that was only in the first two rounds.

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In round three, Penne came out aggressively and had Waterson in serious danger with a flurry of punches, but Waterson was able to work her way out of danger before giving up her back, which allowed Penne to transition to a deep armbar. Waterson refused to tap—even as it appeared her arm was about to snap—and she fought herself free to survive the round.

In round four, Waterson showed off her great takedown defense and flexibility by stuffing a single-leg and taking Penne’s back. From there, she transitioned into an armbar of her own. Penne tapped almost immediately as Waterson claimed Invicta FC gold and brought her record to 11-3.

“You just can’t quit, even when you feel like you can’t go on,” says Waterson. “She almost got me in the third, and I just told myself to keep going. She’s an awesome fighter. She has so much heart. Winning the title is a dream come true.”

The 27-year-old will go from the hunter to the hunted as she prepares to defend her new title later this year. For Waterson, that’s just the next step in a journey that started when she began studying karate as a 10-year-old, thanks to her older brother. Now, Waterson is happy with the balance she’s found in her life.

Balance good. Karate good. Everything good.

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It took more than eight years for Robbie Lawler to lace up his gloves and return to the UFC Octagon. It took him less than four minutes to earn a knockout over Josh Koscheck and remind everyone why he’s dubbed “Ruthless.”

It was 2010, and I was nervous as hell. I was backstage staring at a tall, black curtain. On the other side was a scale, a commissioner, and a crowd. On my side sat six hungry men and members of their entourage. We represented half the fight card as we waited to weigh-in for Strikeforce: LA. It was my first Strikeforce fight. I was starving and dehydrated from the weight cut, but all I could feel was this empty pit in my stomach.

Behind the other curtain sat our opponents, who, I’m assuming, were just as hungry as we were, and, I hoped, just as nervous. This feeling, as excruciating as it was, is totally normal—at least that’s what everyone kept telling me. A six-week training camp was about to come to an end. All the hard work, all the sauna sessions, and all of the passed up slices of pizza led to the next 24 hours where all I had to do was weigh-in and fight. When the hard work ends, the nerves begin.

Then Robbie Lawler strolled in, ready to make weight for his fight against Renato “Babalu” Sobral.

I was equal parts envious and pissed. He was one-half of the main event on a card run by the second largest promotion in the world. On Showtime the following night, he was going to try and knock off a Brazilian’s head while trying to avoid the same fate. And yet, as he sat there joking with cornerman and friend Matt Hughes, it seemed like the furthest thing from his mind. Why was he all smiles?

My first thought? “What an asshole.” My second thought—and the one that lingered until our conversation for this article—was, “How the hell was he so calm?”

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UFC 157 will forever go down in history as the card that delivered the first female fight to ever grace the UFC Octagon. Robbie Lawler’s return to the UFC on the same card makes for a nice sidebar. The 31-year-old addition was part of the exodus of fighters coming over from the defunct Strikeforce ranks. For the better part of the last decade, Lawler earned his keep in Pride, IFL, EliteXC, and Strikeforce, but most MMA fans were introduced to the powerful slugger during his first tenure in the UFC from 2002-2004. At UFC 157, he quickly reminded everyone who he was.

image desc“I watched some fights with [Koscheck], and I noticed when guys back him up, he doesn’t fight that well,” says Lawler. “I just kind of stayed right in his face.”

A couple of punches to the head later, and Lawler’s return went from a footnote to Knockout of the Night.

“When I was out of the UFC, it was a good experience, but right now, coming back and winning that fight with Koscheck, it was the right time to come back in my career. I’m excited to be in the UFC again.”

The journey back to the hallowed grounds of the UFC was a long and winding one. The San Diego-born Lawler practiced ass kicking at an early age. He studied martial arts as a kid and would put together mini-training sessions at his house.

“I always watched boxing,” says Lawler. “I didn’t just watch boxing. I would listen to the analysts, see what they were doing, go downstairs and hit the heavy bag, do some pushups, go back up, and watch some more rounds.”

At 10-years-old, Lawler moved from sunny California to Iowa to live with his father—a move that turned out to be perfect for the would-be fighter, since Iowa was a hotbed for wrestling and the home of Miletich Fighting Systems. Pat Miletich’s team boasted a roster that included future UFC champions Matt Hughes, Tim Sylvia, and Jens Pulver. As soon as the then 18-year-old Lawler was handed his high school diploma, he made training with Miletich his full-time job.

At just 19-years-old and four fights under his belt, he made his UFC debut, defeating Aaron Riley by decision. His fight with Steve Berger at UFC 37.5 marked the first fight to air on cable television. His flying-knee KO of Joey Villasenor was the first PrideFC fight ever held outside of Japan. Icon Sport Middleweight Championship? He earned that. EliteXC Middleweight Championship? Mark that off as well. King of the Cage, the IFL, and Superbrawl all experienced the powerful southpaw before he settled on a semi-permanent home in Strikeforce.

Currently training out of Florida’s American Top Team, Lawler throws strikes like he’s holding a grudge. It’s almost as if anger fuels his fists. But it’s Robbie Lawler. To him it’s just fighting.

“I throw ferocious punches,” says Lawler. “I think that is how you’re supposed to throw punches. When you get someone hurt, you’re not trying to score points or get the ref to stop it—you’re trying to stop HIM. That’s what I’m trying to do.”

The next guy he’s going to try and stop is fellow Strikeforce alum Tarec Saffiedine at UFC on Fox 8 on July 27. The final-and-forever Strikeforce Welterweight Champion is coming off a career-making performance, putting together a nearly flawless striking display against Nate Marquardt that earned him a place on the UFC roster.

Stylistically, this stand-up battle provides plenty of intrigue. Saffiedine battered Marquardt with leg kicks throughout their 25-minute fight. When the final bell rang, Marquardt looked like he needed a wheelchair. Opponents have effectively used leg kicks to slow down Lawler before. But again, typical Lawler, his response to the former champion’s skills is simply, “He’s really good. He beat Marquardt in a five round title fight and he’s…really good. He’s a really good striker. Really clean.”

That’s Lawler in a nutshell. He speaks matter-of-factly. If a question doesn’t suit him, he doesn’t answer it. If he’s never thought about it, he’ll let you know. He’s like an 80-year-old man that doesn’t have time for your hip-hop music and diet sodas. I’m comfortable writing this way since the last person in the world to read an article on Robbie Lawler is Robbie Lawler. If it doesn’t make him a better fighter, he probably won’t find time for it.

He doesn’t think about his legacy, because how would that help him become a fighter now? He’s only Tweeted 87 times since January 2011. It’s not like social media is going to increase his cardio or help his leg-kick defense. He uses the word “fun” to describe the time he bludgeoned Murillo “Ninja” Rua. He scrambles opponent’s brain cells with the same demeanor you and I order a pizza. It’s just how he’s wired.

image descThe Iowan isn’t solely about ferociousness. His usual monotone inflection kicks up a notch when his mind wonders over old memories. “Over the years, you can have all these wins, you can have all these good camps, but I think it’s the memories with all your buddies that matter,” says Lawler. “Having a good time—not necessarily in the cage, but outside the cage the week or the month before—and being with your buddies is what matters.”

In a way, he’s exactly like every other 31-year-old. Kicking it with friends and family, he doesn’t sweat the small stuff.

Of course, there are the obvious ways that he’s anything but ordinary. The man is built to fight, plain and simple. He doesn’t know what he would be doing if not for fighting. Maybe a chiropractor. But it doesn’t really matter. He plans on fighting until training and the quest to become better gets old, and he doesn’t see that happening anytime soon.

He’s staying at 170 pounds, and feels he’s entering his prime. That’s the strange thing about a fighter’s physical prime. You never know when you’re in it or when it’s over. But, just like Iowa weather, that’s not something he can control, so he doesn’t sweat it. He just keeps hitting the bag.

That’s the appeal Lawler finds in MMA. It’s not the destination, but the journey. “That’s why I love it. I didn’t get into this game to be cool. This is who I am. I’m a fighter, and I love it. I was in it before it was cool.”
That’s what he brings to the UFC cage he left so many years ago. Fighting culture is breeding all types of characters. Some dye their hair wild colors. Some are on the constant hunt for more Twitter followers. Some saw Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar throw down at the first TUF Finale and wanted to get on TV. But Lawler, now a 30-fight veteran, literally just wants to bang, bro.

“I enjoy what I’m doing,” says Lawler. “When you enjoy what you’re doing, you want to be there and things don’t bother you. I know what I’m capable of. When I go out there and do the things I’m capable of, I’m gonna be able to beat people and beat them pretty handedly. When you have those abilities and you believe in yourself that much, you’re just not worried.”

That’s why he could stroll into a Strikeforce weigh-in in 2010 looking like he didn’t have a care in the world. Robbie Lawler? No worries.

Lawler Strikes Again

If you thought Robbie Lawler’s KO of Josh Koscheck at UFC 157 was brutal, you don’t know what Robbie Lawler is capable of.

5) Niko Vitale
Icon Sport
2/25/2006

Lawler knocked out Vitale seven months prior for the Superbrawl Middleweight Championship, so he was happy to provide an encore. This time, Lawler hit Vitale so hard he sent his unconscious body flying into the oncoming referee.

4) Tiki Ghosn
UFC 40
11/22/2002

One of the most hilarious post-fight speeches came from Ghosn when he declared the fight was stopped from a cut…just seconds before the replay showed Ghosn’s unconscious body lying on his back taking piston-like ground-and-pound from the 20-year-old Lawler.

3) Matt Lindland
Strikeforce
12/4/2010

Lawler knocked Lindland down with a counter uppercut-right-hook combo and knocked him out cold with a follow-up strike from top. He even had the courtesy to gently lay Lindland’s stiff legs down on the canvas.

2) Melvin Manhoef
Strikeforce
1/30/2010

Lawler was visibly limping from the pulverizing leg kicks of Manhoef over the course of the first round. One overhand right from Lawler and a follow-up shot on the ground had the Dutch fighter snoozing on the canvas.

1) Frank Trigg
Icon Sport
3/31/2007

A Lawler left hook made Trigg go limp, and a follow-up right hand hit the wrestler square in the jaw. With Trigg sitting unconscious against the turnbuckle, Lawler managed to sneak in one last uppercut before the ref saved Trigg’s head from getting pelted into the fifth row.

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By Mick Hammond // MMAWeekly.com

Mixed martial arts is the fastest growing sport in the world. It garners more attention and new fans daily. The emergence of so many new athletes sometimes makes it hard for fans to notice some of the fighters on the verge of making it to the next level. MMAWeekly.com takes you deep inside the sport and presents you with some of the upcoming New Blood.

Rick Glenn
Record: 13-2-1
Key Victories: Alexandre Pimentel, Tristan Johnson
Weight Class: 145 lbs.
Age: 23
Country: United States
Nickname: The Gladiator

After putting together an impressive 10-fight winning streak, including two TKO finishes in the Score Fighting Series, Roufusport featherweight Rick Glenn made the jump to World Series of Fighting in March.

At the WSOF 2 in Atlantic City, NJ, Glenn faced undefeated and highly touted Alexandre “Pulga” Pimentel in front of a large crowd, both in person and on NBC Sports Network. Glenn entered the fight as an underdog to the BJJ black belt, but it was a position he was used to.

“My first fight for Score FS, I was supposed to be an underdog to Tristan Johnson or whatever, but I went up there and made a statement,” says Glenn. “Being an underdog doesn’t bother me. I train for everything.”

Underdog or not, Glenn took care of business on fight night, knocking out Pimentel less than two minutes into the third round. The KO derailed Pimentel’s undefeated streak. Glenn credits his performance to his preparation.

“I’ve been working with great coaches, including Duke Roufus on my striking, and Ben Askren on my wrestling,” says Glenn. “I’ve just got to stay consistent with my training. I’m now with the right people, so I think that will continue.”

Glenn knows that getting in on the ground floor of a growing promotion like World Series of Fighting and his solid performance could set him up to become a major force in the company over the coming year.

“There’s a handful of goals I have for the year,” says Glenn. “It would be great if I could get in four fights this year and stay with the WSOF.”

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Jeremy Kimball
Record: 9-3
Key Victories: Chidi Njokuani, Drew McFedries, Tom Speer
Weight Class: 185 lbs.
Age: 22
Country: United States

Following a perfect 3-0 campaign in 2012, Colorado middleweight Jeremy Kimball kicked off 2013 with a solid decision victory over UFC veteran Drew McFedries in January.

“I wish McFedries would have come to fight a little bit more, but it was good to start to the year with a win over a big name,” says Kimball. “My cardio went well, and I pushed the pace. I did pretty much everything I wanted to do, other than get the knockout.”

The win over McFedries opened the door to the co-main event at RFA 7 in Denver, CO, on AXS TV, challenging Chidi Njokuani, one of the top prospects in the country and the younger brother of UFC fighter
Anthony Njokuani.

Njokuani was the favorite, and he fought like it. In the opening round, Kimball took Njokuani to the mat, but the plan backfired as Njokuani controlled the fight on the ground. However, Kimball stuck with his strategy, and he finished Njokuani with a rear naked choke less than two minutes into the second round.

“It was the most adversity I’ve ever had to go through in a fight,” Kimball says. “I’m finally putting things together in the cage and performing the way that I do in the gym.”

The national exposure in RFA should help take Kimball to the next level. He spent the first couple years of his career building up a solid base, dominating the regional circuit in Colorado. At RFA, he was thrust into the national spotlight. Kimball has now won nine of his last 10 fights, following back-to-back losses in his first two pro fights. Currently on a five-fight win streak, the door is wide open for Kimball.

“I definitely feel like the next step is right there,” he says. “I’ve just got to keep winning. I’m always focused on the next guy I fight. I’ll fight whoever, whenever, whatever show. I love to fight, so I’m always ready for who is next.”

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Mirsad Bektic
Record: 6-0
Key Victories: Nick Macias, Doug Jenkins
Weight Class: 145 lbs.
Age: 22
Country: Bosnia-Herzegovina

Following a successful 4-0 start in the amateur ranks, featherweight prospect Mirsad Bektic has taken his game to a new level, winning his first six pro fights in convincing fashion.

“I moved to Coconut Creek to American Top Team, and it’s just been a humbling experience being with the quality of coaches and teammates I have around me,” says Bektic. “I’m literally living my dream, and I’ve just become a whole new fighter since making the move. In all my fights, I’ve learned and taken something from each of them.”

Perhaps no fight has been more productive for him than when he went the distance at RFA 5 against Doug Jenkins, which was the first time Bektic had not finished one of his opponents.

“When the 15-minute fight ended, I wasn’t feeling any different than I had in other fights,” says Bektic. “I always know I’m in great shape, so going three rounds gave me a lot more experience in how to handle myself and control myself. I definitely matured.”

Bektic’s performance against Jenkins was enough for the RFA to invite him to fight at RFA 7 against local up-and-comer Nick Macias in a featured bout on AXS TV.

“Macias has fought tough guys like Tyler Toner, and he’s gone to decisions more than I have,” says Bektic. “He’s had more ring time than me.

Bektic didn’t need to worry about decisions or ring time, as he immediately planted Macias on the mat and hammered right hands into his face until the referee stopped the fight. It was the first time Macias had been finished in nine fights.

Already a fighter on the radar of many promoters, Bektic feels that the pressure to live up to expectations is always there, but is not as prominent as the pressure that he puts on himself to achieve his own lofty goals.

“Moving to Florida and doing this full-time, I’m not doing it to see how far I can go,” he says. “I’m in it because I know where I’ve come from and where I’m going. I see the end result, and I believe I’m going to be a UFC champion, so I guess the pressure is always there. I push myself because that’s what I expect out of myself.”

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FIGHT! Magazine was in the house with an all-access pass to World Series of Fighting 2 in Atlantic City, NJ, on March 23. The MMA promotion’s sophomore show featured a fight card of veterans and talented up-and-comers that kept the crowd at the Revel Casio on their feet for much of the night.

WSOF 2 netted an average 210,000 viewers during its broadcast on NBC Sports Network, peaking at 332,000 during the evening’s heavyweight main event that saw Anthony Johnson defeat Andrei Arlovski via unanimous decision. In other action, Marlon Moraes notched an impressive first-round knockout of bantamweight Tyson Nam in the evening’s co-main event, and welterweight Josh Burkman picked up a violent knockout over fellow UFC veteran Aaron Simpson.

If you missed the play-by-play on NBC Sports, here’s our behind-the-scenes look at everything WSOF 2 had to offer.

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Fans, pundits, and commentators love throwing around the term “world class” when describing the skill level of mixed martial artists. However, the phrase is misused too often when discussing the wrestling chops of MMA fighters. A “world-class” wrestler earns the distinction by competing on the international circuit and finding a level of success. As good as they are at launching unsuspecting victims and shooting double-legs, even NCAA Champions like Josh Koscheck, Johny Hendricks, and Phil Davis don’t meet such lofty criteria.

Here are seven active fighters who are “world class” on the mats and in the cage.

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7. Joe Warren
Age: 31
Country: USA
MMA Record: 8-3
Wrestling Chops: World Championships gold medalist, Pan-American Championships gold medalist, NCAA All-American

One of only two Greco-Roman stylists on this list, the self-proclaimed “Baddest Man on the Planet” is nothing if not ambitious. After winning the World Championships in 2006, Warren was the favorite to win gold in the 2008 Olympics. However, a failed drug test for marijuana kept him from competing in China for the Games (see, it’s not just MMA fighters). With his Olympic dreams on hold, the Michigan Wolverine started fighting with the goal of becoming a dual MMA Champion and Olympic Champion. He won the Bellator Featherweight Title in 2010 but failed to make the 2012 Olympic team—still, it’s probably better than whatever you accomplished in the last three years.

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6. Alexis Vila

Age: 41
Country: Cuban
MMA Record: 11-3
Wrestling Chops: Two-Time World Championships gold medalist, World Championships silver medalist, Olympic bronze medalist, Pan-American Championships gold medalist

A Cuban import, Vila won the World Championships in freestyle wrestling in 1993 and 1994. He turned pro in MMA in 2007, reeling off 11 straight wins, nine by stoppage. In his debut bout in Bellator, he made history by stepping into the cage with Joe Warren, marking the first time two wrestling World Champions faced off against each other in high-level MMA. “The Exorcist” starched Warren by brutal knockout and made it all the way to the finals before losing to current Bellator Bantamweight Champion Eduardo Dantas.

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5. Sara McMann

Age: 32
Country: USA
MMA Record: 6-0
Wrestling Chops: Olympic silver medalist, World Championships silver medalist, two-time World Championships bronze medalist, two-time Pan-American Champion

Yup, the girls can wrestle too. McMann came into her own as the international female wrestling scene started to blossom. She turned her attention to submission grappling, finding great success in both FILA and the ADCC. After a 6-0 start to her MMA career, McMann made her UFC debut against German Sheila Gaff at UFC 159 on April 27. It’s widely thought that McMann’s world-class wrestling may serve as the best style to defeat the UFC Women’s Bantamweight Champion Ronda Rousey. Since Rousey has an Olympic medal of her own in judo, it would mark the first time two Olympic medalists faced off in the UFC.

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4. Muhammed “King Mo” Lawal

Age: 32
Country: USA
MMA Record: 9-2-1
Wrestling Chops: Pan-American Championships gold medalist, Krasnoyarsk World Cup silver medalist, NCAA Division II National Champion, NCAA Division I All-American

Lawal was the favorite to represent the US at 84kg in 2008 until Andy Hrovat narrowly beat him for the spot. Wrestling’s loss was MMA’s gain, as King Mo immediately jumped from the wrestling mats to the cage. The Oklahoma State Cowboy competed at heavyweight in Japan before signing with Strikeforce and winning the Light Heavyweight Title from Gegard Mousasi in a fight Lawal dominated with his wrestling. Lawal hit a rough patch with a loss to Rafael Cavalcante, a failed drug test in his bout with Lorenz Larkin, and a knee injury with recurring infections that required several surgeries and threatened the loss of his leg. Now, his current home is on Spike TV where he balances fighting for Bellator and professional wrestling with TNA.

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3. Ben Askren

Age: 28
Country: USA
MMA Record: 11-0
Wrestling Chops: Pan-American Championships gold medalist, 2008 US Olympian, Two-Time NCAA Division I National Champion

In the discussion of the greatest college wrestler, Askren stands near the top, boasting four trips to the NCAA wrestling finals, winning twice, and holding the NCAA pin record. After the 2008 Olympics, the Wisconsin native stayed close to home to train at Roufusport in Milwaukee. No other wrestler has converted his style of wrestling better to fit MMA. Askren has taken down every fighter he’s faced and wins with grueling top position and unorthodox grappling that he adapted from his “funky” college wrestling style. Not only is he undefeated and the reigning Bellator Welterweight Champion, but he also doesn’t mind calling out promotional rival Georges St-Pierre on Twitter.

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2. Daniel Cormier

Age: 33
Country: USA
MMA Record: 11-0
Wrestling Chops: World Championships bronze medalist, Pan-American Championships gold medalist, two-time Olympian, NCAA Division I runner-up

The former Team USA captain came one win away from an Olympic medal in 2004, and he was a medaling favorite in 2008 until a botched weigh cut led to kidney failure and his dismal from the Games, which is still a sore subject in the wrestling community. The Oklahoma State Cowboy found MMA powerhouse team American Kickboxing Academy and turned pro in 2009. Currently undefeated, the charismatic fighter won the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix—after coming in as an alternate—by dominating veteran Josh Barnett in the finals. The Louisiana native defeated former UFC Heavyweight Champion Frank Mir at UFC on Fox 7 on April 20. Don’t be surprised if this heavyweight decides to drop a weight class. He has his eyes set on UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Jon Jones.

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1. Dan Henderson

Age: 42
Country: USA
MMA Record: 29-9
Wrestling Chops: Two-Time Olympian, Pan-American Championships gold, silver, and bronze medalist

Was there even a question? “Hendo” has consistently been one of the top fighters in the world in a career spanning three weight classes and countless fights against top competition. The Californian entered MMA in 1997 with nearly unparalleled wrestling skill, but he soon discovered his knack for knocking opponents unconscious with his potent right hand. The only man to hold two major titles in different weight classes simultaneously has defeated the likes of Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, Fedor Emelianenko, Michael Bisping, and Wanderlei Silva. This Greco-Roman wrestler is the gold standard for crossover wrestlers entering MMA.

—————

#KeepOlympicWrestling
By Michael Riordan

Olympic wrestling has not yet dropped into sporting oblivion, but its weight is suspended over that ignominious abyss only by the thinnest of filaments. When the executive board of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) met in February and announced its intention to exclude wrestling from the 2020 Olympic Games, it took the first step toward dropping wrestling into the endless expanse of irrelevance.

The board’s decision to exclude wrestling from the Olympic program of 25 core sports served as a formal proposal. This proposal still needs to be presented and finalized by the IOC for approval. In this process, Olympic wrestling faces two extremely crucial decision points where the IOC will determine the sport’s fate.

The first decision point comes in the late spring of 2013. The IOC executive board will meet in May to add the second and final part to this proposal. The board must determine which additional non-core sport(s) will be deemed worthy of consideration for inclusion in the 2020 games. From a wide-ranging list, the board will make up to three selections. If wrestling is not one of these selections, its life as an Olympic sport will be effectively ended then and there. If the board chooses wrestling, then the sport survives, at least until the fall of 2013.

In the second decision point, the executive board will present a proposal for the sporting agenda of the 2020 Olympics—including 25 core sports and the three potential added sports—before the entire IOC when all 114 members assemble in September. At this assembly, the IOC will also separately vote on both parts of the executive board’s proposal: the modified 25 core sport program, and the final sport added from the board’s three recommendations made in May.

If wrestling makes it this far, the sport will hope that one of two doom-averting possibilities will come to pass. The first and highly unlikely possibility would be a decision to reject the new 25-core sport program set. In this scenario, the Olympics would continue with the 2012 program (where wrestling is included), and the whole affair will have seemed like a fever dream.

The second path to salvation lies in the assembly’s vote on the final sport added to the 2020 program. The assembly will select one of the three sports forwarded by the executive board in May as an addition to the 2020 program. The added sport must receive a simple majority of the assembly’s votes. If wrestling makes it to this point, its chances of final selection seem promising, as the assembly has resisted the addition of new sports in the past. Wrestling has a long tradition on its side, and if it is presented before the IOC assembly for addition to the 2020 program, it will not have to fight any of the possible prejudices against unfamiliar sports.

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image descFor many, the allure of MMA reality shows has long lost its luster, but where others may falter, Bellator’s innovative new entry into the genre hopes to shine.

Bertrand Van Munster and Elise Doganieri, the creative forces behind the smashingly successful reality game show The Amazing Race, had been briefed on the pitfalls of a show about professional fighters. Show-runner Mark Seliga knows them as well as anyone. He had worked on mainstream shows like Project Runway and The Real World, but he was also hired because his résumé included stints on the first, sixth, and seventh seasons of TUF. He considers himself a fight fan, and he told the somewhat green-to-MMA team that shooting a show around the sport could be “raw.”

What he meant: Being called to a booze-soaked set at 2 a.m. to talk down someone having a nervous breakdown or to put down a real fight; watching the fighter house be destroyed by young men out of their minds with boredom; and witnessing one fighter leave an “upper-decker” in the toilet. All of these things he had seen.

“For a long time, The Ultimate Fighter did a lot of the stories in the house,” Seliga says. “I think TUF didn’t encourage them not to act like savages.”

Titillating as the juvenile hijinks were to much of TUF’s young male audience—which helped spark the UFC’s explosive growth in the mid-2000s and drew an average weekly viewership north of one million for Spike—they weren’t as appealing to Seliga as the stories behind the fighters and fights or “the intellectual elements of fighting that people really gloss over.”

“I always want to tell the reason, the actual chess structure, of a fight,” says Seliga. “It’s such a scientific thing.”

Luckily, his bosses felt the same. In November 2012, when dozens of experienced vets and prospects converged at American Top Team in Coconut Creek, Fla., to audition for the project (both lightweights and welterweights were summoned), they were told at the top of interviews: You know the stereotypes—try to avoid them.

“Don’t try to make TV,” Seliga says. “Just be you—a fighter.”

Thirty-two men from the 170-pound division were selected for a single-elimination tournament, with MMA luminaries Randy Couture, Greg Jackson, Frank Shamrock, and Joe Warren coaching teams of four, after the elimination round. The winner earns a $100,000 grand prize and a spot in a future eight-man competition for Bellator (and five additional wins on his pro record—in contrast to TUF, where the bouts are considered exhibitions).

The result, Fight Master: Bellator MMA, debuts this summer on Spike. Its creators hope to change the faces of MMA reality.

“I think we’ve got some amazing fighters,” says Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney. “What I think this is going to do is develop them to the next level. If we can create the next Michael Chandler or Pat Curran or Ben Askren, then it will have been wildly successful.”

*****

The aim of creating a pipeline of promotable talent via reality TV is, of course, nothing new to MMA. When it was developed in 2004, the UFC called TUF 1 its Trojan Horse. The theory was that through the medium’s well-worn conceits of single-elimination competition and end-of-show contracts, the promotion would expose the sport and its personalities to a larger audience, which would translate to bigger pay-per-view business.

It worked out, and then some. Spike, which broadcast 14 seasons of TUF before the promotion moved to FOX, helped create several of today’s MMA stars. It also helped define the genre, which has since been copied (badly) by knock-offs such as Fight Girls, Ultimate Women Challenge, and, most dubiously, Iron Ring.

If successful with Fight Master, the network, whose corporate parent Viacom owns a majority stake in Bellator, could build future stars for the promotion’s live events and, perhaps, pay-per-view broadcasts. Instead of spotlighting damaged goods alongside talented up-and-comers, it’s banked on a small, powerful idea to drive the show’s drama: choice.

Unlike TUF, after Fight Master’s elimination round, it’s the fighters who pick the coaches and select opponents as they progress through the tournament. The coaches and Rebney do retain some sway—they seed contestants after every round, which gives early picks more leverage in the competition. Producers, nonetheless, are confident the switch will shift the focus from alcohol-fueled misbehavior to the tension of navigating challenges and consequences among trained brutes.

“It’s on the fighters and the training and the coaching, and the fighters are in control of their destiny,” says Randy Couture.

It’s also a nod to Bellator, whose “Toughest Tournament in Sports” tagline is founded on the idea that combatants, not promoters, control their futures. Fighters and egos will provide the usual drama, of course. The set is stocked with Miller Lite, who sponsors the show—so, some things haven’t changed.

“I’m not going to say our show didn’t have drama, but it was always fight-based, and it didn’t go to the extremes of crazy, insane bullshit,” Seliga says. “It was more stuff that’s really based in the fighter world. What we really want them to do is live in a fight camp.”

*****

Considering the show’s physical environment—the “fight camp” of Fight Master—it’s impressive the show didn’t quickly devolve. In February, the cast assembled at a warehouse in New Orleans and quickly noticed something: a lack of places to escape. Unlike TUF, there would be no separation between fighter house and training center. They called it “The Compound.” Nine handheld cameras monitored four separate training centers, bedrooms, and a video breakdown area 24 hours a day. There were 13 cameras shooting on fight days, which came every eighth day, and a smattering of what Seliga called “oh shit” cameras for stuff that couldn’t be captured.

There was no hot tub, no swimming pool—just ping-pong, billiards, the hum of humidifiers (Nola can get sticky), and the thwack of heavy bags.

“It’s not a mansion in Las Vegas,” says Spike senior publicist Salil Gulati.

Potential drama emerged early when teams were picked after the elimination round. Seliga said one coach objected to opposing team members bunking together and complained outright. There were also concerns that eliminated cast members would distract those still in the competition, as with TUF, where booze flowed freely among those with little left to lose.

Non-disclosure agreements aside, it sounds like producers managed to avoid meltdowns.

image desc“At first, I thought it could be an obstacle,” says Joe Warren. “But these were all pretty knowledgeable fighters and athletes, so they adapted really well. Everything was inclusive, and nobody had to leave but us.”

The proximity also fostered closeness between the fighters and the coaches.

“A lot of the coaches would just hang out,” Seliga says. “That was a lesson for these fighters, hearing their gods tell them tales of their glory days over a beer. They might even go back in the cage—like with Randy, showing how he beat Chuck [Liddell]—and then it would go back into a training session. Frank Shamrock is a Zen-chi guy. His salutation is ‘Chi’ to everything, so he hung out with his fighters, not just because of the training, but because he thought getting to know them on a totalitarian level was all part of it. Joe Warren is a little prankster guy—he’d hang out and be goofy and make fun of people. When Greg Jackson was there, he was all about work—he’s a guru.”

Couture, who broke new ground as a coach on the first The Ultimate Fighter, says that while the focus of the show was different, his job was the same.

“At the end of the day, it’s still coaching, and something I did for a long time in the wrestling world before I ever started MMA, and I translated that experience into coaching at Team Quest and working on TUF,” Couture says. “I’m certainly a much better athlete and better coach than I was back then.”

Is the next Bellator champ on the show?

“I definitely saw some good talent,” Couture says. “Some of it a little more raw than others, but a ton of potential, and guys who could go all the way in given time. Is there anybody that’s going to jump in right now and be a champion? Probably not right this minute. But there’s definitely a ton of potential.’

*****

Whether that potential translates to an audience is Spike’s unanswered question. As Rebney often has noted, a large swath of MMA fans still associate the cable network with MMA, which has helped account for Bellator’s jump in ratings since vacating MTV2. But it’s still a new venture, and there remains stiff competition. The network covets the same demographic as TUF, which soon films its 18th season with a new twist: a co-ed cast and female coaches. By all estimates, it’s a recipe for the kind of soap opera you’d expect from seven people picked to live in a house and have their lives taped. That’s exactly the opposite direction Bellator is running. Is it the right one?

Roll tape.

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By Mick Hammond // mmaweekly.com

Mixed martial arts is the fastest growing sport in the world. It garners more attention and new fans daily. The emergence of so many new athletes sometimes makes it hard for fans to notice some of the fighters on the verge of making it to the next level. MMAWeekly.com takes you deep inside the sport and presents you with some of the upcoming New Blood.

image descGraham Spencer
Record: 10-1
Key Victories: Shane Nelson, Mukai Maromo
Weight Class: 155 lbs.
Age: 29
Country: Canada

While last year didn’t exactly go how MFC featherweight Graham Spencer planned, 2012 was a successful year in which he won both of his fights and raised his record to 9-1.

“I only had two fights and would have liked to have been more active, but I had some family issues and stuff I needed to take care of,” says Spencer. “It would have been nice to get a finish against Shane Nelson, but he’s a tough guy who has only been finished once his entire career.”

Having taken steps to make fighting his sole focus, Spencer wants to be more active in 2013.

“Last year I quit my day job, so fighting is full-time for me now, and in order for me to keep that happening, I have to stay active,” he says. “I just can’t have two fights. I’d like to have four.”

No matter how many fights Spencer gets in 2013, he kicked off the year by submitting Mukai Maromo to capture the MFC Lightweight Title. Now, Spencer plans to fight for MFC at featherweight.

“I’m not going to be staying at lightweight,” says Spencer. “MFC didn’t really have any other featherweights for me at the moment, so I fought at lightweight. I know MFC president Mark Pavelich has some big plans for building the featherweight division, and I think I’ll be right up there and be—if not the top guy—one of the top guys in the division.”

*****

Scott Holtzman
Record: 4-0
Key Victories: Jason Hicks
Weight Class: 155 lbs.
Age: 29
Country: United States
Nickname: Hot Sauce

Scott “Hot Sauce” Holtzman is a classic example of a fighter who was virtually unknown to start a year, only to become one of his promotion’s top young stars by the end of it.

“I got a shot to be on the XFC undercard when it came through Knoxville, Tennessee, and all I needed was the opportunity to go out there and prove myself,” says Holtzman. “They liked what they saw, and I got another shot and then another.”

image descThat added up to a breakout 2012 for Holtzman, kicking off his professional career in style, following a 5-0 amateur record. Holtzman’s success in the XFC in 2012 put him in a lightweight title eliminator match against fellow up-and-comer Jason Hicks to start off 2013.

Although he’s only been fighting professionally for 14 months, Holtzman has been able to keep things in perspective and not get overwhelmed. That served him well in the fight against Hicks. Holtzman had been able to finish his first three pro fights, but he had to dig deep with Hicks and go the distance en route to winning a unanimous decision.

“I don’t get too high or too low on these fights,” Holtzman says. “I don’t make them out to be anything more than they really are. At the end of the day, it’s still a fight. The cage is the same size, he puts on his gear the same way I do, and whether the fight was on the undercard, the main event, or a title fight, it’s still just a fight.”

After a stellar 2012 and the follow-up victory against Hicks, Holtzman is now prepared to live up to expectations in 2013 and become one of the XFC’s premier fighters.

“It’s always good to have goals,” says Holtzman. “I’d like to have a title belt in the XFC. I’d like to keep it rolling, get a couple more wins in the XFC cage, and continue to build my name and brand.”

*****

Lauren Taylor
Record: 5-0
Key Victory: Jennifer Scott
Weight Class: 135 lbs.
Age: 29
Country: United States

Legacy FC 135-pound prospect Lauren Taylor knows that the fight game is a work in progress, and that’s fine with her, as her work ethic is one of her defining features.

image desc“The biggest thing about me that maybe other women don’t have is that I’m going to outwork every single one of them,” she says. “I’m going to outwork them in the gym, and if they beat me, it’s not going to be for lack of hard work or preparation.”

Taylor’s work ethic to continually get better not only comes through in the gym but also in her fights, as evidenced by her most recent win over Jennifer Scott.

“I’m not entirely thrilled that she was getting the better of me on the feet,” says Taylor. “I’ve watched the video of it a couple times, and once I started to relax, I started to do a little bit better. I’m a huge fan of throwing elbows on the ground. I don’t even punch when I’m on the ground. Throwing elbows just comes natural. Once I had her on the ground, I knew it was over.”

The TKO-victory over Scott pumped Taylor’s record up to 5-0, making her one of Legacy’s top female fighters. While she’s enjoying her position in the promotion, she ultimately wants to test herself against the best females in the division, which now means the UFC or Invicta FC.

“The 135-pound division is full of really talented females,” says Taylor. “I’d like to make a name for myself, and I think even with the toughest women out there, I can put on a good show and hang with them. I’m going to work on improving as fast as I can. While I might not always pull out a win, I guarantee it’s definitely going to be a fight everyone’s going to want to see.”

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Daniel Cormier vs. Frank Mir
UFC on Fox 7: 4/20/13
San Jose, CA

Here’s a joke: How do you put an alligator in an armbar? Wait, we’ll get back to that.

image descWhen Daniel Cormier and Frank Mir square off at UFC on Fox 7 on April 20, the aftershock (265-pound pun intended) will be felt in both the heavyweight and light heavyweight divisions. Cormier—the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix Champion—is perhaps the most lauded crossover from Strikeforce, and that’s saying a lot, especially when you consider that Gilbert Melendez, Luke Rockhold, and Gegard Mousasi have also paid the toll to Charon to be ferried from Strikeforce’s deceased to the UFC. Mir—the grandfather of UFC heavyweights—is a two-time UFC Heavyweight Champion, the longest tenured fighter in the UFC (since 2001), and the winningest fighter (14) in the UFC heavyweight division.

With a win, Cormier controls his own destiny: he can choose to fight the winner of Cain Velasquez vs. Antonio Silva (5/25/13) or drop to light heavyweight (belly permitting) and fight the winner of Jon Jones vs. Chael Sonnen (4/27/13). If Velasquez beats Silva, it’s unlikely Cormier will want to face his AKA training partner and friend, so a move to light heavyweight could be in the cards, if he can cut back on the Chinese food.

A win for Mir? Tack on a plus-one win over someone like Alistair Overeem or Fabricio Werdum, and boom—he’s back fighting for the UFC Heavyweight Championship. Mir is definitely in the upper echelon of UFC bigs. Calling him a “gatekeeper” is insulting, especially when you look at his résumé. In the heavyweight division, there are no gatekeepers. If you’re fighting for the title, you’re just one punch away from hoisting gold. Big trees fall hard.

Let’s Get It On

Cormier is a world-class wrestler, a commonly misunderstood distinction. He’s not a great wrestler (like Gray Maynard, Michael Chandler, and Chris Weidman). He’s not a badass wrestler (such as Phil Davis, Josh Koscheck, and Johny Hendricks). He’s a world-class wrestler (in the vein of Ben Askren, Joe Warren, and Sara McMann). According to FightMetric, Cormier’s takedown defense is 100 percent. When you couple that with Frank Mir’s takedown accuracy of 46 percent, it spells problems for the former UFC Heavyweight Champ. If Cormier doesn’t want to take the fight to the ground, there is a good chance it won’t end up there, at least not for very long. And the ground is where BJJ black belt Mir is most dangerous. Give him a toe, and you’ll hear Tank Abbott scream through the TV. Give him a knee, and you’ll hear Brock Lesnar scream through the TV. Give him an arm, and you’ll hear 196,655,007 Brazilians scream through the TV.

image descFor Mir to control his own destiny, he’ll have to utilize his 50 percent significant striking accuracy and 8-inch reach advantage against Cormier’s alligator arms. If Mir has one superior attribute (besides his BJJ pedigree), it’s reach advantage, not that it fared too well for Josh Barnett (+7 inches) or Antonio Silva (+11 inches) in their fights with Cormier. Mir will need to put on his skates and move, move, move inside the cage. Trying to punch Cormier from the clinch will lead to trouble.

What about Mir’s experience edge you ask? It’s true, he more than doubles Cormier in pro bouts, but I’m throwing that factor right out the window. If anything, taking pummelings from Brock Lesnar, Shane Carwin, and Junior dos Santos has made Mir’s melon more unstable than a Corvair. Cormier, on the other hand, hasn’t taken any real damage. He’s like a 34-year-old MMA spring chicken.

The eye test says Cormier is slicker on his feet, with superior hand speed, feints, and footwork. When he gets in trouble with his stand-up, he takes the fight to the mat. Having a world-class wrestling pedigree is a nice default mechanism to fall back on. However, if there is one place Mir should be feared, it’s on his back. He averages almost three submission attempts for every 15 minutes and owns nine career submission wins. He’s also a sweeping fool. Mir sweeps more than most heavyweights eat.

In 29 minutes inside the cage, Cormier has never attempted a submission. He’s never tried a sweep (mainly because he’s never been taken down). Heck, he may be unaware that submissions are legal. Once a wrestler learns to punch, it’s like Christmas every day. There’s no time for silly submissions.

While it’s fun to dissect the minutiae, we really won’t know until both men step inside the Octagon. Once the cage door slams shut, anything can happen, and I mean A-N-Y-T-H-I-N-G. If you need a few recent heavyweight reference points, watch Frank Mir vs. Big Nog II, Antonio Silva vs. Alistair Overeem, or Mark Hunt vs. Stefan Struve.

Back to the joke. How do you put an alligator in an armbar? Very carefully.

Cormier will come chomping. Mir needs to be careful.

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Mixed martial arts is the fastest growing sport in the world. It garners more attention and new fans daily. The emergence of so many new athletes sometimes makes it hard for fans to notice some of the fighters on the verge of making it to the next level. MMAWeekly.com takes you deep inside the sport and presents you with some of the upcoming New Blood.

James Krause

Record: 19-4
Key Victories: Toby Imada, Joe Jordan
Weight Class: 155 lbs.
Age: 26
Country: United States
Nickname: The James Krause

Former WEC welterweight “The” James Krause is on a roll, having won seven fights in a row and kicking off 2013 by exacting revenge on former Bellator staple Toby Imada.

“I wanted to show everybody what I’m all about, and I think I did that over the last year,” says Krause. “I think I’ve done a good job of showing the evolution of my game. I feel that I’ve improved so much over this past year, and I’m a different guy now. I’ve come full circle and become a complete fighter.”

In particular, Krause feels one aspect of his game has grown considerably in the last year, thanks to a new teammate at K2L Grindhouse.

“My wrestling has grown leaps and bounds from where it was, even from six months ago,” Krause says. “UFC fighter Tim Elliott is part of the team now, and I think I’ve picked up those little movements and that gritty wrestling between-fighting that Tim’s so good at.”
Incorporating the influence of Elliott, Krause is out to prove that—despite 23 bouts to his credit—he’s a new fighter who has an injection of new blood reinvigorating his career. He intends to ride the wave that is taking him to the heights he couldn’t quite reach in his first attempt at the big leagues.

Krause is reaching for the pinnacle this time around. Although he’s been a staple of Resurrection Fighting Alliance, he’s gunning for the Octagon.

“In a perfect world, I’d be in the UFC after my last fight,” he says. “They called me to fight Yves Edwards, but they ended up giving Jeremy Stevens the fight instead of me, so I know I’m on their radar.”

Carla Esparza

Record: 9-2
Key Victories: Bec Hyatt, Lynn Alvarez, Felice Herrig
Weight Class: 115 lbs.
Age: 25
Country: United States
Nickname: Cookie Monster

She’s just one fight into 2013, but that one fight has already topped a banner 2012 for Carla Esparza.

“I think 2012 couldn’t have gone better,” Esparza says. “I really displayed my wrestling in fights, which is something I was scared to do in previous years. I think it’s something I’ve always had, but I was not as confident in my jiu-jitsu, so I didn’t want to take people down. Now that my ground-and-pound is coming along, I feel comfortable standing or on the ground. It’s great to have wrestling and decide where the fight goes.”
Wrestling was the key in her Invicta FC Strawweight Title fight with fiery Bec Hyatt, who threw everything she had at Esparza for five full rounds, rocking her on occasion, but was never quite being able to seal the deal. Her inability to finish her had more to do with Esparza’s wrestling than it did with Hyatt’s lack of desire. Any time Hyatt threatened, Esparza planted her on her back, grounding-and-pounding her way to a dominant unanimous-decision victory and staking her claim as the first Invicta Strawweight Champion.

The belt has long been a goal of Esparza, but she’s not done. Now, she has her sights set on world domination.

“The goal is always to have a belt and to be the best in the world,” says Esparza. “I’ve been working toward that, and whether it takes two, three, or 10 fights, that’s what I want.”

Will Brooks

Record: 9-0
Key Victories: Ricardo Tirloni, Satoru Kitaoka, Drew Dober
Weight Class: 155 lbs.
Age: 26
Country: United States
Nickname: Ill Will

With a win over Satoru Kitaoka on New Year’s Eve at Dream 18 and a victory over Ricardo Tirloni in the latest Bellator Lightweight Tournament, things are looking up for “Ill” Will Brooks.

“I’ve been focusing on being a better person, and it spilled over into my career,” says Brooks. “It’s just a positive energy that I’m trying to put out into the environment and the people around me. It really boosted my career and has given me great opportunities like competing in Japan and coming back home and being able to sign with Bellator.”
Already a strong wrestler, Brooks’ striking has really been improving, making him even more dangerous.

“I’m finding my comfort zone and place in the cage,” he says. “And once that starts happening, I think that’s when you really start to have success in whatever you do.”
Brooks’ peaking comes at an important time in his career, as he is now featured in the Bellator Lightweight Tournament, which is being watched by a huge audience on Spike TV. Although Brooks had to go the distance for the first time in his career to secure the win over Tirloni, that won’t slow him down. He’s finally hitting his stride and doesn’t intend on looking back.

“I’m looking to keep putting in people’s mind that I am a dominant force in the lightweight division and will be here for a very long time,” he says. “In the beginning, I was trying to force it, and I started putting a lot of pressure on myself and got into a really negative place. Recently, I settled back and decided to take it one fight at a time, and whatever is put in front of me, I’ll deal with it as it comes.”

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