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.
The world’s foremost women’s atomweight has decided to hunt bigger game.
The reigning Invicta Fighting Championships titleholder at 105 pounds, Ayaka Hamasaki will move to the strawweight division to confront Livia Renata Souza in the Invicta 22 co-headliner on March 25 at the Scottish Rite Temple in Kansas City, Missouri. Their three-round clash helps to anchor an event that will stream in its entirety to UFC Fight Pass.
Hamasaki, 34, has rattled off five consecutive victories since she succumbed to punches from Claudia Gadelha a little less than four years ago. It remains the only blemish on her otherwise pristine resume. Hamasaki captured the Invicta atomweight championship in a split decision over Herica Tiburcio in July 2015 and has successfully defended it twice, submitting Amber Brown with a third-round armbar before forcing a second-round doctor stoppage against Jinh Yu Frey. The Megumi Fujii protégé boasts eight finishes among her 14 professional wins.
Souza will enter the cage on the heels of her first career setback -- a split decision loss to Angela Hill that cost her the Invicta strawweight crown. The 25-year-old Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt has secured seven of her nine pro victories by submission: three by armbar, two by triangle choke, one by heel hook and one by rear-naked choke. Souza’s list of victims includes DeAnna Bennett and Katja Kankaanpaa.
The Hamasaki-Souza battle stands as one under-the-radar matchup worth monitoring during the month of March. Here are nine more:
Legacy Fighting Alliance 6
March 10 | San Antonio
Dern’s transition to MMA has gone swimmingly thus far, as the 2015 Abu Dhabi Combat Club Submission Wrestling World Championships gold medalist and multiple-time Brazilian jiu-jitsu world champion aced her first two tests inside the cage. The 23-year-old last competed at Legacy Fighting Championship 61 on Oct. 14, when she tapped Montana Stewart with the omoplata to rear-naked choke transition made famous by Masakazu Imanari. Dern trains out of the MMA Lab camp in Glendale, Arizona. Roy, 31, made her pro MMA debut in July, earning a three-round unanimous decision over May Ooi.
One Championship “Warrior Kingdom”
March 11 | Bangkok, Thailand
Hunter becomes the hunted, as the undefeated Lee defends the One Championship women’s atomweight crown for the first time. In her path stands the unbeaten Huang. Lee, 20, submitted her first five opponents before outdueling Mei Yamaguchi across five rounds for the vacant championship in May; it was one of the year’s best fights. Early returns on the Evolve MMA export point to a star in the making. Off to a rousing 5-0 start of her own, Huang raised eyebrows on Dec. 2, when she hit a rare gogoplata submission on April Osenio at One Championship “Age of Domination.”
Absolute Championship Berkut 54
March 11 | Manchester, England
Khalidov takes his show on the road, as the reigning KSW middleweight champion makes his debut under the Absolute Championship Berkut flag. The 36-year-old Chechen has rattled off 12 consecutive victories -- he has beaten Matt Lindland, Jesse Taylor, Kendall Grove, Melvin Manhoef and Michal Materla during his tear -- since his May 2010 encounter with Ryuta Sakurai ended in a draw. Khalidov boasts 29 finishes among his 32 career victories. A quarterfinalist on Season 17 of “The Ultimate Fighter,” Barnatt has stopped four straight opponents since parting ways with the Ultimate Fighting Championship in 2015.
March 12 | Tokyo
In the twilight of his outstanding career, Ueda has a few scores he wants to settle. The former Shooto champion’s sights are now fixed on a rematch with Henry, the CSW prospect who submitted him with a kneebar at a Grandslam MMA event in February 2015. Ueda has gone 5-1 in six appearances since and last competed at Pancrase 282 on Nov. 13, when he was awarded a unanimous decision over Hidekazu Fukushima. Henry has lost two of his last three fights, one of them in a failed bid to dethrone bantamweight King of Pancrase Shintaro Ishiwatari.
Global Knockout 9
March 18 | Jackson, California
Morales could soon leave the regional nest. First, the 22-year-old Team Alpha Male prospect will put his Global Knockout flyweight championship on the line against Espinosa at the Jackson Rancheria Casino Resort. Morales has finished five of his first seven opponents, four of them inside the first round, and captured the 125-pound title with a five-round unanimous decision over Josh Paiva in November. A CES MMA and Legacy Fighting Championship alum, Espinosa trains out of Luttrell’s MMA in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He owns a 4-1 mark with one no-contest over his last six appearances.
Legacy Fighting Alliance 7
March 24 | Houston
The Legacy Fighting Alliance promotion has assigned two of its most promising young fighters to headlining duty. Off to an 8-0 start as a pro, Turcios last competed at a Fury Fighting Championship event in September, when the 23-year-old Bellator MMA alum put away Trent Meaux with third-round punches. Five of his first eight bouts have gone the distance, two of them resulting in split verdicts. Mowles, 21, raised his stock at Legacy Fighting Championship 61 on Oct. 14, when he went three competitive rounds in a decision loss to Damon Jackson. The Texas-based Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt followed it with a second-round technical knockout on Jimmy Flick a little less than two months later.
Invicta Fighting Championships 22
March 25 | Kansas City, Missouri
Kunitskaya submitted Evinger with a first-round armbar in an apparent changing of the guard at Invicta 20 in November. However, the result was later changed to a no-contest when the Missouri Office of Athletics found fault in referee Mike England’s handling of the bout. England incorrectly told Evinger she could not stand on Kunitskaya’s face while attempting to pry her arm free. Now comes the inevitable rematch, with Evinger’s Invicta Fighting Championships bantamweight title once again on the line. Kunitskaya, 27, had won seven of her eight previous fights before her encounter with Evinger.
CES MMA 42
March 31 | Lincoln, Rhode Island
The vacant CES MMA welterweight championship will hang in the balance when Curtis locks horns with Santiago Jr. at the Twin River Casino. A Team Vision representative, the 29-year-old Curtis has won four of his past five bouts, a controversial and widely panned split decision loss to Nah-Shon Burrell his only misstep. He last appeared under the Final Fight Championship banner in June, when he took a unanimous verdict from Leo Bercier in Daytona Beach, Florida. Santiago will enter the cage on a run of four consecutive first-round finishes.
Eurasia Fight Nights Global 62
March 31 | Moscow
Heavyweight prospects are few and far between in MMA, which means Pavlovich could climb the ladder quickly if he remains on his current trajectory. The Fight Nights Team export has christened his career with 10 straight wins, eight of them by knockout or technical knockout, and next faces Sidelnikov in a Eurasia Fight Nights tournament final. Pavlovich has not fought since he earned a unanimous decision over Alexei Kudin in the semifinals on Nov. 16. He sports 20-, 24- 59- and 75-second finishes on his resume. Sidelnikov, a five-time combat sambo world champion, will step into the cage with the wind of a five-fight winning streak in his sails.