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…

Deep 61 Impact

Korakuen Hall in Tokyo
Event Date: Feb. 16
Website: deep2001.com
Twitter: @deep_official

Spotlight Fight:
Kazunori Yokota (16-5-3) vs. Shoji Maruyama (12-7-1)

It’s not often that fighters get a second chance after being routed by an opponent. And it’s even rarer that gold would be on the line in such a search for redemption. However, former lightweight King of Pancrase Shoji Maruyama is getting exactly that opportunity for the Deep featherweight championship against reigning featherweight kingpin and former lightweight champ Kazunori Yokota at the top of a solid offering from Japan’s Deep promotion.

The first time the two met was in June 2011 at Deep 54 Impact. It marked Yokota’s return to the promotion following a lengthy run in the larger Sengoku organization. At the time, it was Yokota that was in need of redemption, following a three-fight campaign between the end of 2009 and the close of 2010 that saw him drop decisions to Tatsuya Kawajiri and Brian Cobb before falling victim to a knockout at the hands of Jadamba Narantungalag. Yokota had gone 12-2-3 prior to his skid. Maruyama wasn’t faring much better at the time, having gone 2-4-1 over his previous seven outings.

Yokota, who was making his featherweight debut in the fight, was able to show utter dominance in that affair. The Team Grabaka product tends to feature a stand-up attack, and he landed counters and kicks to Maruyama’s face. However, the black belt judoka also took Maruyama to the mat and displayed positional dominance.

The unanimous verdict in that fight kick-started Yokota’s shift to the lighter weight class, as he went on to pick up the championship in the course of winning three additional fights. Even at lightweight, it primarily took the best competition to overcome Yokota. Beyond the three-fight losing streak, his most recent loss was to Satoru Kitaoka. Meanwhile, Yokota also posted wins over the likes of Michihiro Omigawa (during Omigawa’s ill-fated lightweight days), Mizuto Hirota, Ryan Schultz and Eiji Mitsuoka. He’s still working his way up the featherweight ranks, although Maruyama seems like more of a step backward than a move forward.

Despite his disappointing showing in their first encounter, Maruyama is no slouch. In 2007, he lasted to a decision, though in a losing effort, versus current UFC featherweight kingpin Jose Aldo. His losses also feature some of Japan’s stiffer competition, including Daiki Hata, Yuji Hoshino and Koichiro Matsumoto, but he doesn’t quite have the signature wins that Yokota’s resume sports. His struggles on the mat are in large part due to his background in the striking arts. He came up as a boxer and bare-knuckle fighter, but he’s competent enough to defend himself on the mat and has never been put away by submission.

Yokota’s first meeting with Maruyama should give him an abundance of confidence. He’ll just have to be careful not to get overly confident, as doing so could result in a knockout loss (something the judoka has experienced twice already in his career). Maruyama’s striking has led him to eight wins by some form of knockout, but when he can’t gain the upper hand in the striking department, he tends to drop decisions. That happens to be Yokota’s specialty, with 10 of his 16 wins going the distance.

Maruyama should enter this fight with a smarter game plan, but don’t expect him to have enough to overcome Yokota. He’ll land more significant blows, but Yokota will still get the best of the exchanges with well-placed counters and teep kicks. He’ll also deploy takedowns to further his advantage over Maruyama on the scorecards.

This will be an eerily similar fight to their first encounter, though in championship format this time around. Yokota’s talent will still shine through as he continues to establish himself as a top featherweight. Another dominant showing could put him just a win or two away from drawing the attention of the UFC or other major promotions, including Dream.

Other key bouts: Kazuhiro Nakamura (16-11) vs. Young Choi (16-8-2) for the middleweight championship, Seigo Mizuguchi (11-13) vs. Ken Hasegawa (5-0) for the megaton championship, Toshiaki Kitada (14-5-4) vs. Daiki Hata (14-9-7), Doo Ho Choi (9-1) vs. Tatsunao Nagakura (7-3), Masakazu Imanari (26-11-2) vs. Kenichi Ito (10-9-8), Yuya Shirai (22-12-1) vs. Yuki Okano (5-4), Yuta Watanabe (15-5-4) vs. Naoki Samukawa (3-2)

Shooto: Gig Tokyo 13

Shinjuku Face in Tokyo
Event Date: Feb.16
Website: x-shooto.jp
Twitter: @xshooto

Spotlight Fight:
Fumihiro Kitahara (11-3-1) vs. Kiyotaka Shimizu (12-7-3)

If only major organizations could operate in the same fashion as Shooto and Pancrase in regards to the sharing of talent. Without the relationship between the two Japanese promotions, fans wouldn’t have the opportunity to see reigning super flyweight (125 pounds) King of Pancrase Kiyotaka Shimizu step up to bantamweight under the Shooto banner to lock horns with 2008 Shooto rookie champion Fumihiro Kitahara.

Shimizu may have the less impressive winning percentage, but that is partially due to a 1-4-1 mark in his first six professional fights that included losses to top flyweights Mitsuhisa Sunabe and Yasuhiro Urushitani. That’s a steep climb in level of competition faced for someone so early in their pro career. Since then, Shimizu has rebounded with a mark of 11-3-2. That makes this fight much more intriguing than the initial glance at the two fighters’ records would suggest. Toss in Shimizu’s impressive third-round knockout victory over his most recent opponent and Kitahara’s two losses via some form of knockout in the course of his last four fights, and we really have a gripping match-up on our hands.

Considering his misfortunes on the feet, it’s no surprise that Kitahara’s focus is on getting fights to the mat. When he doesn’t win via decision, he’s taking victories by way of submission. Shimizu, meanwhile, has the more traditional Japanese fighter’s balance of wins, with a majority coming by decision. His recent knockout victory does suggest that he has the power in his punches to end Kitahara’s night early and in devastating fashion.

Kitahara’s struggles have come against the likes of Ryuichi Miki and Mamoru Yamaguchi, fighters at the top of the game among flyweights. Shimizu qualifies in this category as well. In those previous affairs, Kitahara struggled to score takedowns and saw his light switch turned off in the process. Shimizu will likewise thwart Kitahara’s attempts to drag him to the mat. Kitahara’s chin has been proven susceptible to the knockout, and Shimizu will find a home for one of his punches to continue to build upon his recent success.

German MMA Championship 3

Ruhrstadt Arena
Event Date: Feb. 16
Website: german-mma.de
Twitter: @GMC_MMA

Spotlight Fight:
Ruben Crawford (12-2) vs. Nayeb Hezam (14-13)

Germany has become a hotbed for mixed martial arts in Europe as of late. Leading the charge is the German MMA Championship promotion, which returns after a two-year hiatus with a supercard of sorts, with five title fights set for a single evening of action, and a cage in place of the promotion’s traditional ring. Topping the billing is a rematch between Andreas Kraniotakes and Bjoern Schmiedeberg for the heavyweight crown. Although the rematch does hold some intrigue of its own, it is likely to be a repeat of the battle of attrition between the two sloppy strikers with minimal gas tanks. The real treasure here is the lightweight title tilt between Ruben Crawford and Nayeb Hezam.

The current champ, Crawford, is one of Germany’s most promising, yet most unheralded, prospects. At 23 years of age, the Combat Club Cologne product has been fighting for approximately four-and-a-half years now. He lost his pro debut in June 2008, but went on to win his next eight fights before dropping another decision, this time to Mamed Khalidov’s cousin, Aslambek Saidov. He has never been stopped, but he has finished his opponent in 10 of his 12 wins (three via (T)KO and seven by way of submission). Crawford certainly prefers to carry out his attack on the mat, and he will remain active off his back if taken down.

Hezam is just a single win above the .500 mark for his career, but he’s an ideal test for Crawford. In fact, his record is misleading, as he lost nine of his first 12 fights before figuring out a formula for success. He’s turned his career around, with an 11-4 mark since 2009. Although he has lost two of his last three, it’s hard to hold a loss under the Bellator banner against current Bellator tournament participant Magomedrasul Khasbulaev against the French fighter. Hezam’s early career defeats include losses to familiar names such as Ronnie Mann, Paul McVeigh, Phil Harris and Yves Jabouin, and his more recent losses include notables Shane Omer and Daniel Thomas. Hezam, having claimed nine of his victories by way of submission, is just as much of a grappling-first type of fighter as Crawford.

This might be a case where size is the biggest factor. With the bout contested at lightweight, Crawford continues his campaign at 155 pounds after having previously fought at welterweight. Meanwhile, Hezam had competed as a featherweight. That definitely signals that the size advantage will lean in Crawford’s favor.

Also troubling is all of Hezam’s early career losses. Although he has turned things around, one of his four most recent losses came to a fighter who now sits at 4-7 for his career. Hezam only lasted 24 seconds with Khasbulaev before losing via TKO and has suffered some quick submission losses. He may have a larger spectrum of experience, but he hasn’t shown an ability to endure against even smaller opponents.

Crawford should be the one dishing out takedowns in this contest. He’ll use his size to bully his smaller foe to the mat and hold him down. Once on the ground, there’s a good chance that the young German fighter can secure a submission win.

Other key bouts: Andreas Kraniotakes (15-6) vs. Bjoern Schmiedeberg (9-3) for the heavyweight title, Marcin Bandel (8-2) vs. Andreas Birgels (6-3) for the middleweight title, Jessin Ayari (9-2) vs. Abusupiyan Magomedov (7-0) for the welterweight title, Martin Buschkamp (6-0) vs. Patrik Berisha (6-3) for the featherweight title, Angelos Zampakikas (9-1) vs. Djamil Chan (5-2)

Photo: Kiyotaka Shimizu (R) (Taro Irei/Sherdog)