10 July Tussles Worth Watching

By Brian Knapp Jun 30, 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.

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In a country where boxing remains king of the combat sports, she has become one of the faces of mixed martial arts.

Alexa Grasso will risk her undefeated record when she meets the once-beaten Jodie Esquibel in the Invicta Fighting Championships 18 headliner on July 29 at the Kansas City Scottish Rite Temple in Kansas City, Missouri. UFC Fight Pass will provide start-to-finish coverage of the event, with Grasso as the centerpiece.

Spawned by the Lobo Gym in her native Mexico, Grasso has not fought since she took a unanimous decision from fellow prospect Mizuki Inoue at Invicta 11 more than a year ago. Injuries have cost the 22-year-old valuable time and opportunities, forcing her to withdraw from her last two bookings, a title bout with then champion Livia Renata Souza included. Souza later relinquished the 115-pound championship to Angela Hill. Should Grasso remain healthy and continue her current trajectory, it figures to be only a matter of time until she carves out a path to the UFC.

Esquibel will enter the cage on the strength of a two-fight winning streak. However, the 30-year-old Jackson-Wink MMA representative last appeared at Invicta 9 in November 20014, when she captured a unanimous verdict over Nicdali Rivera-Calonoc. In the interim, she competed on Season 23 of “The Ultimate Fighter” reality series, losing her qualifying match to Ashley Yoder. Esquibel owns a 7-7 record as a pro boxer.

The Grasso-Esquibel clash is but one outside-the-major-MMA-bubble matchup worth monitoring during the month of July. Here are nine more:

Kevin Aguilar vs. Tony Kelley
Legacy Fighting Championship 57
July 1 | Shreveport, Louisiana

The vacant Legacy Fighting Championship featherweight title will hang in the balance when Aguilar collides with Kelley at the Golden Nugget Hotel and Casino. Aguilar, 8-1, has posted back-to-back victories since succumbing to first-round punches from UFC and World Extreme Cagefighting veteran Leonard Garcia in December 2013. The 27-year-old Texan last competed at Legacy 49 on Dec. 4, when he struck David Bosnick into submission a little more than two minutes into the second round. Kelley has finished each of his first three opponents.

Bob Sapp vs. Aori Gele
Road Fighting Championship 32
July 2 | Changsa, China

Freakshow alert. Sapp, 42, left MMA in 2013 after a run of 12 straight defeats, 11 of which came inside the first round. He will come out of retirement to headline an event opposite Gele, a 21-year-old provincial sanda champion who made his MMA debut in December and has gone 1-2 since. A Pride Fighting Championships veteran, Sapp has stayed busy in retirement: He has competed sporadically in kickboxing and professional wrestling while also serving as a cage announcer and vice president of public relations for Road Fighting Championship. The 330-pound Gele was victimized by the 7-foot-2 Hong Man Choi in just 96 seconds in April. Grab the popcorn.

Paddy Pimblett vs. Teddy Violet
Cage Warriors Fighting Championship 77
July 8 | London

Two of Europe’s most promising featherweights will lock horns under the Cage Warriors Fighting Championship flag. Pimblett, 21, has pieced together a six-fight winning streak since his 35-second submission loss to Cameron Else nearly three years ago. The gifted Englishman passed one of his most significant tests on April 15, when he walked away with a unanimous decision over the experienced and well-traveled Ashleigh Grimshaw. Violet’s only two defeats have come against Michihiro Omigawa and two-division British Association of Mixed Martial Arts champion Tom Duquesnoy.

Czar Sklavos vs. Chico Camus
Resurrection Fighting Alliance 40
July 15 | Prior Lake, Minnesota

Another rung on the flyweight ladder awaits Sklavos in the Resurrection Fighting Alliance organization, this one taking the form of Roufusport’s Camus. Sklavos, 34, has compiled a 12-4 record in six years as a professional, losing only to high-quality opposition: T.J. Dillashaw, Josh Sampo, Alexis Vila and Hiromasa Ogikubo. The Twin Falls, Idaho, native made his RFA debut on July 3 and picked off Nick Burgos in a three-round unanimous decision. Camus was released by the UFC in 2015 following back-to-back defeats to Henry Cejudo and Kyoji Horiguchi.

Denis Goltsov vs. Paul Buentello
Absolute Championship Berkut 41
July 15 | Sochi, Russia

Goltsov is something of a rarity in MMA: a heavyweight prospect under the age of 30. The 25-year-old Russian finds himself on a career-best 12-fight winning streak during which he has posted victories over Mike Kyle, James McSweeney, Peter Graham and Brett Rogers. A potent offensive fighter who has shown a diverse repertoire, Goltsov sports 14 finishes among his 17 pro wins -- seven by knockout or technical knockout and seven by submission. In Buentello, he confronts his most seasoned opponent to date. The 42-year-old Texan, who once fought for titles in Strikeforce and the UFC, has won six of his past seven bouts, including back-to-back victories over Rameau Thierry Sokoudjou and Eric Prindle.

Ryan Spann vs. Robert Drysdale
Legacy Fighting Championship 58
July 22 | Lake Charles, Louisiana

The vacant Legacy Fighting Championship light heavyweight title will be up for grabs when Spann takes on Drysdale in the Legacy 58 headliner. Spann, 24, trains out of an American Top Team affiliate in Beaumont, Texas, and last appeared at Legacy 52 on March 25, when he submitted Aaron Davis with a first-round guillotine choke. His grappling skills will undoubtedly be put to the test against the undefeated Drysdale, a multiple-time Brazilian jiu-jitsu world champion who also struck gold in the absolute division at the 2007 Abu Dhabi Combat Club Submission Wrestling World Championships. The 35-year-old has not fought since July 2014, when his rear-naked submission on Keith Berish at “The Ultimate Fighter 19” Finale was overturned after he was flagged for elevated testosterone.

Shintaro Ishiwatari vs. Jonathan Brookins
Pancrase 279
July 24 | Tokyo

Ishiwatari will defend his Pancrase bantamweight title in a rematch with Brookins at Differ Ariake. The 31-year-old judo black belt has rattled off consecutive victories since he lost a decision to Brookins in November 2014. Ishiwatari last fought at Pancrase 273 on Dec. 15, when he retained his championship with a five-round unanimous decision over CSW prospect Victor Henry. The mercurial Brookins has fought sporadically since parting ways with the Ultimate Fighting Championship in 2012. Wins over Yves Jabouin, Michael Johnson and Luis Palomino anchor “The Ultimate Fighter 12” winner’s resume.

Joseph Gigliotti vs. Trevin Giles
Resurrection Fighting Alliance 41
July 29 | San Antonio, Texas

Gigliotti moves into the next phase of his career, as the 22-year-old Power MMA Team prospect appears in a Resurrection Fighting Alliance main event for the first time. He has zipped out to a 7-0 record, with seven finishes, and last fought at RFA 37 on April 15, when he needed less than a minute -- 58 seconds, to be exact -- to dispose of John Poppie with a guillotine choke. Giles, 23, will face something of a baptism by fire, as he makes his promotional debut on the marquee. The Legacy Fighting Championship alum has stopped each of his first six opponents, four of them inside one round.

Agnieszka Niedzwiedz vs. Claudia Rey
Invicta Fighting Championships 18
July 29 | Kansas City, Missouri

Two unbeaten upstarts will do battle when Niedzwiedz squares off with Rey in a flyweight showcase. The 21-year-old Niedzwiedz has authored six finishes on her way to a perfect 7-0 mark but has not competed since she wiped out Julija Stoliarenko with third-round elbows more than two years ago at a Fighters Arena event in her native Poland. An Astra Fight Team rep, Rey, 30, has stopped her past four opponents in the first round, the last three in a combined 2:09.

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