Every Thursday, The MMA Corner will take a look at three regional or international cards, 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 the obscurity of the regional and international circuits, 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, in the small convention centers and high school gymnasiums. It all begins with promotions such as these…

Pinnacle Fighting Championships: Pittsburgh Challenge Series 1

Icoplex at Southpointe in Canonsburg, Pa.
Event Date: Dec. 29
Website: pinnaclefightingchampionships.com
Twitter: @PFChampionships

Spotlight Fight:
Anthony Durnell (11-3) vs. Jeremy Pender (7-3)

New Year’s Eve is a slow weekend for mixed martial arts outside of the major offerings from the UFC and Dream, especially when it comes to North American shows. However, there are some regional shows that aren’t taking the weekend off. Among them, Pinnacle Fighting Championships has the most intriguing matchup on its card, with Anthony Durnell looking to build upon his 11-3 record when he squares off with Jeremy Pender.

Durnell launched his professional career with eight straight wins, including a split decision over highly-regarded European prospect Alan Omer, but he’s gone 3-3 in the time since. He was thrown into deep waters when he faced Juha-Pekka Vainikainen, who handed him the first loss of his pro career in just 32 seconds. He’s also suffered defeat at the hands of another Finnish prospect in the form of Joni Salovaara, who is 10-1 over the last three years. The good news for the “Death Dealer” is that he is riding a two-fight winning streak.

Pender has been out of action for 14 months. His last fight was a TKO loss, and it happened to come courtesy of Salovaara as well. Before the loss, Pender had strung together four consecutive victories, including wins over Casey Dyer and Orville Smith.

Pender tends to go for submissions and lose via strikes. Durnell tends to have the opposite approach, looking for the knockout first and suffering all three of his losses via submission. However, Durnell’s background is heavily rooted in wrestling. He uses his wrestling to control where the fight takes place, and that could be a key factor in overcoming Pender.

Pender trains with the likes of Daniel Straus and Roger Bowling, and he’s shown a willingness to stand and trade. However, it’s his skills on the mat that earn him victories. The problem will be bringing Durnell into his world. Durnell will attempt to lure Pender into a striking battle, and it’s likely that Durnell’s wrestling, combined with a size advantage, will be sufficient in defending against Pender’s takedowns. If Pender can’t find a way to get Durnell to the ground and submit him, there’s not another option available. Durnell should continue to turn things and extend his winning streak with a TKO finish of Pender.

Inoki Bom-Ba-Ye 2012

Ryogoku Kokugikan in Tokyo
Event Date: Dec. 31
Website: igf.jp
Twitter: @IGF_OFFICIAL

Spotlight Fight:
Yusuke Kawaguchi (13-5) vs. Rolles Gracie (7-1)

Sometimes, Japanese events can be real head-scratchers. With Dream and Glory taking the reins for the big New Year’s Eve show in Japan—the one with the deep roster of relevant talent, that is—the Inoki New Year’s Eve show is a much less even affair. With some special tag team bouts, featuring the likes of Ray Sefo and Bob Sapp, and a large helping of fighters who are considered to be washed up (Tim Sylvia, Kazuyuki Fujita, Mirko CroCop) or complete busts (Satoshi Ishii), the standout affair from this lineup revolves around the most famous name in mixed martial arts—Gracie. The Gracie in question is Rolles, who has appeared inside the UFC Octagon. He’ll fight Yusuke Kawaguchi at the New Year’s Eve event.

Gracie’s arrival in the UFC was meant to signal a new era for the Gracie clan, one where the name could be associated once again with a UFC title contender. However, Rolles had an extremely disappointing showing versus Joey Beltran and was not afforded a second chance by the UFC brass. After more than a year away from active competition following the loss, Rolles returned and racked up four straight wins. He’s disposed of Bob Sapp and Tony Bonello, and Kawaguchi represents another step in the right direction for him.

Kawaguchi is a former Deep Megaton champion, but although he is a move in the proper direction for Rolles in terms of level of competition, he still leaves a lot to be desired. Kawaguchi might possess a 13-5 career mark, but he has lost four of his last six. Furthermore, one of those losses came to Mariusz Pudzianowski and Kawaguchi also barely eked past James Thompson via a controversial split decision.

Kawaguchi has definitely fared better on Japanese shores than he has abroad. But outside of Rob Broughton, Kawaguchi has faced his toughest competition—Soa Palelei, Jorgen Kruth, Peter Graham—on foreign shores. Graham is actually a common opponent between Kawaguchi and Gracie, with Gracie submitting Graham in the first round and Graham scoring a TKO of Kawaguchi, also in the first frame.

Gracie’s only downfall came in a bout where he was injured and became exhausted within the first couple of minutes of action. Kawaguchi, much like Beltran, prefers to utilize a brawling style and grind out opponents or score the TKO. Assuming Gracie’s cardio is not an ongoing problem, he shouldn’t wear down in the same way as he did at UFC 109, but it could be a concern.

Kawaguchi is a black belt in judo, but Rolles likely has the edge even in that aspect, possessing a third dan black belt of his own. Gracie will have to avoid Kawaguchi’s strikes and take this fight to the mat, where his Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu skills come into play. The BJJ black belt should have little trouble wrapping Kawaguchi up for a submission win.

Other key bouts: Tim Sylvia (31-7) vs. Satoshi Ishii (4-2-1), Kazuyuki Fujita (15-9) vs. Naoya Ogawa (7-2), Mirko “CroCop” Filipovic (27-10-2) vs. Shinichi Suzukawa (0-0), Ikuhisa Minowa (54-34-8) vs. Bor Bratovz (6-2)

Cage Warriors Fighting Championship 51

The Helix in Dublin, Ireland
Event Date: Dec. 31
Website: cagewarriors.com
Watch Event: mmajunkie.com
Twitter: @CageWarriors

Spotlight Fight:
Conor McGregor (11-2) vs. Ivan Buchinger (21-3)

What do you do when you’re a top featherweight prospect who already holds the Cage Warriors featherweight crown and is only a win or two away from likely receiving a UFC invite? If you’re Conor McGregor, you hop on up to lightweight and try to claim the vacant Cage Warriors crown at that weight too. McGregor’s in for a tough test, however, in Ivan Buchinger. If McGregor wins this one, he should be hearing from the UFC in no time.

The Irishman’s only losses came via submissions to Artemij Sitenkov and Joseph Duffy, but he hasn’t lost in over two years. That span has included seven victories, most by knockout or TKO. His most recent victory, which came in June, was a rear-naked choke submission of Dave Hill at Cage Warriors 47. McGregor tends to come out of the gates with aggression, scoring eight of his wins within the first stanza.

Buchinger is exactly the type of opponent McGregor should be most worried about facing. The 26-year-old is well-versed in submissions and has gone the distance with UFC veterans Anton Kuivanen and Akira Corassani, though he lost in both of those outings. Buchinger was knocked out in just 20 seconds by Sergey Golyaev, so McGregor’s early barrages of strikes could be the answer to defeating the Slovakian fighter in this match-up. However, Buchinger has a number of quick submission finishes of his own, so McGregor will have to be wary of getting taken to the mat early.

Size could be the biggest factor in this contest. McGregor has had great success at featherweight, but will his power translate at 155 pounds the same way it did at 145? And will Buchinger’s size and strength allow him to quickly get the smaller Irish fighter to the mat? Experience and size favor Buchinger, and he won’t squander those advantages. McGregor might have a future in the big leagues, but Buchinger will prove that such a future lies at featherweight. Buchinger ends this fight by coaxing a tapout from his Irish counterpart.

Other key bouts: Chris Fields (10-4) vs. Jesse Taylor (23-9) for the middleweight title, Aisling Daly (13-4) vs. Katja Kankaanpaa (6-0-1), John Michael Sheil (8-1) vs. Jack Mason (21-11),

Photo: Rolles Gracie (Andres Sema/Sherdog)