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…

KSW 24: Clash of the Giants

Atlas Arena in Lodz, Poland
Event Date: Sept. 28
Website: konfrontacja.com
Watch Event: live pay-per-view stream at kswtv.com
Twitter: @KSW_MMA

Spotlight Fight:
Simona Soukupova (4-2-1) vs. Karolina Kowalkiewicz (3-0)

To be a star in women’s MMA, the common route involves either Jewels, Invicta FC or the UFC. However, Karolina Kowalkiewicz has become a popular fighter in Europe without ever setting foot in any of those three promotions. Her two most recent wins have come under the banner of the Polish KSW promotion, and the most recent of those victories put her in possession of championship gold. Until just yesterday, the up-and-comer was slated to meet Invicta vet Jasminka Cive in a non-title strawweight encounter. However, Cive was forced out of the bout and has been replaced by fellow Invicta vet Simona Soukupova.

Soukupova enters the fight on roughly three days’ notice, but that’s a position she’s somewhat familiar with. Soukupova’s Invicta debut came on just three weeks’ notice when she stepped in for the injured Nicdali Rivera-Calanoc to face Cassie Rodish. Soukupova, whose background in martial arts is rooted in Muay Thai kickboxing but also includes wrestling and jiu-jitsu, secured a guillotine choke to submit Rodish in the second stanza. The victory put her on a two-fight winning streak that followed a tough three-fight stretch that saw her drop unanimous verdicts to high-level opponents in Karla Benitez and Felice Herrig and fight to a draw with Katja Kankaanpaa. Yet even her win over Rodish marks just a .500 opponent, giving the striker wins over two fighters who now sit at .500 and two wins, including one over Celine Haga, against fighters with losing records. The fight against Rodish came at atomweight, and Soukupova has stated that she’d prefer to fight at 110 pounds, if such a weight class existed.

Kowalkiewicz may be a star in Poland, but she’s yet to gain international exposure. Her fight with a well-known name like Soukupova could change that. Whereas the 36-year-old Soukupova has been fighting professionally since 2010, the 27-year-old Kowalkiewicz made her pro debut in 2012 and has just three fights under her belt. Her competition has been limited to fellow Poles with records that currently stand at 0-2, 3-2 and 1-1. Her win against the now 1-1 opponent, Marta Chojnoska, resulted in a submission win at the 71-second mark of the first round and earned her KSW’s 121-pound women’s title. The Gracie Barra Lodz product has a good mixture of ground skills and striking. She can throw strong combinations at time, but sometimes looks sluggish in throwing strikes. On the ground is where she tends to excel. Her TKO victory came via ground-and-pound after she brought her opponent to the mat and prevented a reversal. Her submission win came as the result of a ground-and-pound barrage that forced Chojnoska to leave her neck exposed.

Soukupova is receiving attention as a legitimate top-10 fighter at atomweight, but this fight has her stepping back up to 115 pounds on just a few days’ notice. Like Kowalkiewicz, she has a well-rounded game, but hers focuses first on striking moreso than grappling and ground-and-pound. Kowalkiewicz, meanwhile, is shifting down from a win at 121 pounds and likes to take her opponent’s back and pound away until either the ref steps in or a submission presents itself.

This will be a telling fight for both ladies. Soukupova has impressed at times, but she seems better suited for 105 pounds and still has to beat a fighter with a winning record. Kowalkiewicz is undefeated, but she only has three fights under her belt and has also faced subpar competition. The Polish fighter’s size might be the deciding factor in this outing. She may lose the stand-up exchanges, though that’s not a certainty. However, she should have the upper hand against the English-based Soukupova should the fight hit the mat. Kowalkiewicz will close the distance, clinch with Soukupova and drag her to the canvas. Once there, her size will allow her to control positioning as she sets up a ground-and-pound attack that brings her the victory.

Other key bouts: Mariusz Pudzianowski (5-3) vs. Sean McCorkle (17-5), Pawel Nastula (5-4) vs. Karol Bedorf (9-2) for the heavyweight title, Michal Materla (19-3) vs. Jay Silva (8-8), Borys Mankowski (13-5-1) vs. Ben Lagman (6-4), Anzor Azhiev (4-0) vs. Artur Sowinski (13-7), Andre Winner (15-7-1) vs. Mateusz Gamrot (4-0)

North American Fighting Championship: Battle in the Ballroom

Eagles Club Grand Ballroom in Milwaukee
Event Date: Sept. 28
Website: nafc.tv
Twitter: @NAFCFights

Spotlight Fight:
Sergio Pettis (8-0) vs. James Porter (7-1)

When fans hear the name Pettis, the first thing they think of is the UFC’s recently crowned lightweight champion, Anthony Pettis. However, the Roufusport product has a brother, and that brother is every bit as dynamic as the champ, only smaller. Sergio Pettis has emerged as a hot flyweight prospect, and his family name only helps in gaining him a bigger spotlight. Despite his promising future as a flyweight, Sergio is fighting up in weight at 135 pounds for the NAFC promotion this weekend when he faces less renowned prospect James Porter.

Like his older brother Anthony, Sergio is a well-rounded fighter with an exciting stand-up arsenal and a dangerous submission game. He’s just 20 years old, but he already has eight victories, including three by some form of knockout and two via submission, and holds the Resurrection Fighting Alliance flyweight championship. Sergio’s pro career started in late 2011, but it was preceded by an amateur run that saw him notch four wins, including two TKO victories and a submission finish. He has several first-round stoppages, but has also gone the distance in three of his last five fights.

Training out of Hollywood MMA in Indiana, Porter might seem anonymous in comparison to Pettis. However, he has picked up seven wins and just one loss since going pro in 2011. At 21, Porter is just as much of a young prospect as his counterpart. His lone loss came to Carson Beebe via submission, and he holds the Kombat Zone flyweight strap and won the Absolute Fighting Alliance bantamweight title earlier in his career. He has won five of his fights by way of submission, but his other two victories came in closely contested decisions that divided the judges. Porter attained the level of black belt in taekwondo at the age of 13 and had his first amateur MMA bout when he was 16 years old. Like Pettis, he qualifies as one of the new breed of mixed martial artists who trained in various martial arts from an early age.

Porter has faced a number of extremely experienced adversaries and suffered his only loss to Beebe, the best prospect he’s met to this point. He thought that fight was tough, and he’ll find himself in a similar boat in this match-up. Both men are young prospects with the potential to end up in the UFC one day, either at bantamweight or flyweight. Pettis will be the first to get there, however, and he’ll do so on the momentum of a submission win over Porter.

Pancrase 252: 20th Anniversary

Yokohama Cultural Gymnasium
Event Date: Sept. 29
Website: pancrase.co.jp
Twitter: @_PANCRASE_

Spotlight Fight:
Rin Nakai (14-0-1) vs. Tara LaRosa (21-3)

This is a notable year for mixed martial arts. Twenty years ago, the UFC hosted its first show, paving the way for what would eventually become the sport we know today. However, the UFC was not the only trailblazer to make its debut 20 years ago. Pancrase is also celebrating its 20th anniversary, and the organization is doing so in grand fashion. It has constructed a stacked card that features lightweight King of Pancrase Isao Kobayashi and flyweight King of Pancrase Mitsuhisa Sunabe, plus the likes of Marlon Sandro, Satoru Kitaoka and Shunichi Shimizu. Kobayashi and Sunabe will defend their titles, and there’s also a Queen of Pancrase, Rin Nakai, in the lineup, though her belt will not be at stake when she meets women’s MMA pioneer Tara LaRosa.

Nakai has been training in judo since the age of three. She has never lost in MMA competition, though she did fight to a draw with Danielle West. In a rematch in the finals of the grand prix to determine a Queen of Pancrase, Nakai handed West a unanimous decision loss. The fight sparked a lot of controversy surrounding how Pancrase handled the regulation (and Pancrase’s role in managing Nakai seems to be a conflict of interest). Nakai is one of the few top women in Japan to not have made the trek to compete under the Invicta banner in the United States. She has competed in grappling matches with mixed success, though she did beat 2007 ADCC finalist Felicia Oh by points. The 26-year-old packs power in her punches, but she can be outclassed on the feet by a skilled striker. Nakai has been on the losing end of striking exchanges in previous fights, only to shift gears and use takedowns to either win the fight or, in the case of her first meeting with West, at least emerge with a draw. Since the draw, Nakai has won four straight, including the rematch with West and her most recent fight against King of the Cage titleholder Brenda Gonzales.

LaRosa is a legend among female fighters. She had her first professional fight in 2002 and was long considered to be one of the best female fighters in the world. However, the 35-year-old has fallen on hard times in her career. She lost her Invicta debut to Vanessa Porto after missing weight for the contracted flyweight contest. It marked the second straight fight for which she failed to make weight. LaRosa then returned to bantamweight in the tryouts for The Ultimate Fighter 18, but lost in her qualifying fight against Sarah Moras. She is now 3-2 since 2010, not including the loss to Moras. LaRosa’s earliest experience in combat sports came in the form of shotokan karate when she was a teenager, and she also trained in judo and jiu-jitsu during her college years. Her journey into mixed martial arts has included time spent training with the legendary Royce Gracie. LaRosa is a highly decorated grappler with numerous gold medals from FILA and NAGA competitions and a pair of silver medals from ADCC tournaments.

LaRosa has a number of factors working against her. Considering the way Pancrase reportedly treated Nakai’s rematch with West and Pancrase’s involvement in managing Nakai’s career, LaRosa has to maintain at least some level of skepticism when it comes to a fair playing field in this bout. Furthermore, LaRosa is essentially on a two-fight skid and hasn’t demonstrated the dominance that once made her the top female fighter in the sport. Porto was able to avoid LaRosa’s takedowns and pick her apart in the stand-up, and that was at a 127-pound catchweight bout. Moras was able to take LaRosa down and put her in some bad spots en route to the decision. Does the Jackson’s MMA product still have the ability to hang with the world’s best? Or is she nearing retirement, like many of her legendary peers, such as Megumi Fujii?

Nakai’s strong judo base and powerful striking provides her with the weapons she needs to conquer LaRosa. LaRosa doesn’t have the stand-up skills to put Nakai in danger on the feet and has only scored three knockouts in her career, while losing once by way of knockout. LaRosa has never been submitted and does have a mastery of the ground game. She has submitted 12 opponents and could surprise Nakai on the mat, but her performance against Moras suggests that Nakai could score takedowns and ride out the fight in top position. However, there’s too much risk for Nakai in taking LaRosa to the ground. Porto’s blueprint of staying outside and chopping away at LaRosa is more attractive and is the one that Nakai will utilize to maximum effect. Nakai, who has knocked out four opponents in her 15-fight career, could score the finish, but it’s more likely this one will see the judges.

Other key bouts: Isao Kobayashi (13-1-4) vs. Yoshiaki Takahashi (10-3-2) for lightweight King of Pancrase title, Mitsuhisa Sunabe (19-7-4) vs. Noboru Tahara (12-6-1) for flyweight King of Pancrase title, Marlon Sandro (24-5) vs. Yojiro Uchimura (11-6-2), Dom O’Grady (15-5-1) vs. Satoru Kitaoka (31-12-9), Masanori Kanehara (22-10-5) vs. Joe Pearson (43-17-1), Will Noland (10-3) vs. Shinsho Anzai (6-1), Shinji Sasaki (13-6-2) vs. Bogdan Cristea (8-4-1), Shunichi Shimizu (28-8-10) vs. Daniel Swain (10-2), Richie Whitson (11-4) vs. Hiroki Nagaoka (19-18-12), Marcio Cesar (17-8-3) vs. Yuki Baba (10-3), Sirwan Kakai (9-1) vs. Taichi Nakajima (7-3-1), Ryo Kawamura (15-8-4) vs. Kazuo Takahashi (30-26-3)

Photo: Sergio Pettis (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

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