10 January Tussles Worth Watching

By Brian Knapp Jan 9, 2016

In an effort to bring more attention to the global stage of mixed martial arts, this list does not focus on major North American-based promotions such as the Ultimate Fighting Championship, Bellator MMA and the World Series of Fighting ...

Livia Renata Souza has graduated from prospect to champion. So begins the next leg of her journey.

Souza will defend the Invicta Fighting Championships strawweight crown for the first time when she meets the unbeaten DeAnna Bennett in the Invicta 15 co-headliner on Jan. 16 at The Hangar at OC Fair in Costa Mesa, California. The event will stream to UFC Fight Pass at 9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT.

A judo and Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt, Souza has won each of her first eight bouts, seven by submission. The 24-year-old captured the Invicta strawweight championship on April 24, when she tapped Finland’s Katja Kankaanpaa with a fourth-round triangle choke at the Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City, Missouri. Souza boasts 24-, 42- and 47-second finishes on her resume.

Bennett, 31, has also rattled off eight consecutive victories to start her professional career. The Pit Elevated representative last appeared in the Invicta 14 co-main event on Sept. 12, when she took a three-round unanimous decision from the aforementioned Kankaanpaa. Bennett also holds wins over Norma Reuda Center and “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 18 winner Julianna Pena.

The Souza-Bennett title fight is but one outside-the-major-MMA-bubble bout worth monitoring during the month of January. Here are nine more:

Katlyn Chookagian vs. Isabelly Varela
Cage Fury Fighting Championships 55
Jan. 9 | Atlantic City, New Jersey

The Cage Fury Fighting Championships organization will crown its first female champion on Jan. 9, when Chookagian battles Varela for the vacant women’s flyweight title at CFFC 55. The 27-year-old Chookagian already has a World Series of Fighting appearance under her belt and owns perfect records as an amateur (7-0) and professional (5-0). She last fought at CFFC 52 on Oct. 31, when she earned a unanimous verdict over Sijara Eubanks. Varela, 19, has touched off her career with seven straight wins, three of them by armbar-induced submission.

Matheus Mattos vs. Bruce Carvalho
Jungle Fight 85
Jan. 9 | Sao Paulo, Brazil

A prospect with considerable upside, Mattos has raced out to an 8-0-1 record. The 23-year-old Team Nogueira rep was selected to appear on Season 4 of “The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil” but failed to advance beyond the elimination round. Mattos has not fought since he disposed of Allan Miguel da Costa Dantas with second-round punches some 16 months ago. Carvalho has compiled a 2-0 mark, having last competed in 2013.

Bojan Velickovic vs. Benjamin Smith
Resurrection Fighting Alliance 34
Jan. 15 | Broomfield, Colorado

The vacant Resurrection Fighting Alliance welterweight championship will be up for grabs, as the fast-rising Velickovic confronts the seasoned Smith in the RFA 34 main event. The 27-year-old Velickovic finds himself on a three-fight winning streak following his unanimous decision over Vardan Sholinian in October. The Serb has spent time honing his skills with the American Top Team and Elevation Fight Team camps. Xtreme Couture’s Smith, 35, has won seven of his last eight fights, a June 5 submission loss to Gilbert Smith the lone blemish.

Cristiane Justino vs. Daria Ibragimova
Invicta Fighting Championships 15
Jan. 15 | Costa Mesa, California

With a hypothetical super fight against Ronda Rousey perhaps permanently on hold, Justino shifts her attention to defending her Invicta featherweight championship. The 30-year-old “Cyborg” has won four fights in a row, the last two in less than a minute. Justino last appeared at Invicta 13 on July 9, when she needed a mere 45 seconds to dissect Faith Van Duin with a knee to the body and follow-up punches. The little-known Ibragimova will enter her promotional debut on the strength of a seven-fight winning streak. The Russian challenger has delivered seven of her nine pro wins by submission.

Bibiano Fernandes vs. Kevin Belingon
One Championship “Dynasty of Champions”
Jan. 23 | Changsha, China

Long viewed as one of the top bantamweights operating outside the auspices of the UFC, Fernandes will climb back into the cage to risk his One Championship 135-pound title. The 35-year-old Brazilian, who has not lost in more than five years, will carry a 10-fight winning streak into his showdown with Belignon. Fernandes last fought on July 18, when he knocked out Toni Tauru a little more than a minute into the third round of their One Championship 29 encounter. Belignon has alternated wins and losses in each of his past four outings, pairing wins over Koetsu Okazaki and David Aranda Santacana with losses to Dae Hwan Kim and Masakatsu Ueda.

Scott Smith vs. Justin Baesman
West Coast Fighting Championship 16
Jan. 23 | Sacramento, California

There was a time when Smith’s “Hands of Steel” made him a significant player at the MMA table, as evidenced by his knockout victories over Cung Le, Benji Radach, Terry Martin and Kyle Noke, along with his Hail Mary stoppage of Pete Sell at “The Ultimate Fighter 4” Finale in 2006. The 36-year-old Californian now plies his trade on the regional circuit. Smith snapped a four-fight losing streak in August 2013, when he made a triumphant promotional debut under the West Coast Fighting Championship banner with a second-round technical knockout against Mark Matthews. The win brought with it the vacant WCFC middleweight title, but Smith has not fought since. A Bellator and World Series of Fighting alum, Baesman is 3-4 across his last seven appearances.

Elvis Mutapcic vs. Anthony Smith
Victory Fighting Championships 47
Jan. 29 | Omaha, Nebraska

Mutapcic and Smith have designs on someday returning to the big leagues, so it seems fitting that their paths would cross inside the UFC Fight Pass-backed Victory Fighting Championships promotion. The vacant VFC middleweight title will hang in the balance. Mutapcic has rattled off seven wins in eight appearances, a decision loss to Jesse Taylor the lone misstep. The 29-year-old former Maximum Fighting Championship titleholder owns victories over Zak Cummings, Cezar Ferreira and Sam Alvey. Smith, 27, has pieced together a six-fight winning streak with five finishes since suffering consecutive submission defeats to Roger Gracie, Antonio Braga Neto and Josh Neer in 2013.

Riki Fukuda vs. Jung Hwan Cha
Road Fighting Championship 28
Jan. 31 | Seoul

A largely unsuccessful tour in the Ultimate Fighting Championship has not kept former Deep champion Fukuda from ringing the bell of success. Unbeaten in five outings since being released by the UFC, the 35-year-old captured the Road Fighting Championship middleweight title with a first-round technical knockout against Uh Jin Jeon on July 25. Now, he puts the gold on the line against Cha -- a man who has not tasted defeat in nearly four years.

Hatsu Hioki vs. Kyosuke Yokoyama
Pancrase 275
Jan. 31 | Tokyo

To call Hioki’s UFC run disappointing would be an understatement. The former Shooto and Sengoku champion went 3-5 in the Octagon before back-to-back defeats to Charles Oliveira and Daniel Hooker resulted in his dismissal. Once a consensus top 10 featherweight, Hioki has not recorded consecutive victories since winning six in a row between May 30, 2010 and Feb. 26, 2012. Krazy Bee’s Yokoyama will face the most significant test of his career on the heels of a four-fight winning streak.

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