M-1 Challenge: Damkovsky vs. Figueroa will take place on Friday, March 25th from the Ted Constant Convocation Center in Norfolk, Virginia. The card is the first of four events on Showtime, airing live at 11:00 PM ET with former PRIDE play-by-play man Mauro Ranallo and UFC veteran Pat Miletich calling the action.
While the event is far from a star-studded line-up of recognizable names, even to the hardcore fans, a deeper look at the roster reveals solid matchmaking that could produce some excellent scraps. If you're looking to fill your Friday night with excitement before you hit the town or merely crave any and all MMA action you can find, M-1 has potential to fill that void.
Lightweight Title Bout: Artiom Damkovsky (8-4) vs. Jose Figueroa (9-4): M-1 is relying on this battle of unknowns to bring this event some relevance. Not surprisingly, the MMA media isn't giving it much of a chance. But the lightweight title tilt between Artiom Damkovsky and Jose Figueroa could be a fun fight for those looking for exciting action on Friday night.
Both Damkovsky and Figueroa are strikers historically with Damkovsky narrowly winning my comparison with more proven power. A cursory glance at his record wouldn't signal any sort of indication that I'm correct, but he's battered some of his opposition so badly that they've had to resort to the ground game to have a chance. While he hasn't been overly exposed as a green grappler, Mairbek Taisumov made him look bad in the first two rounds at M-1 Challenge XXI: Guram vs. Garner in October, hinting that Damkovsky needs to improve in that area of his game.
Figueroa is a much taller, lankier fighter than Damkovsky, giving him an enormous reach advantage in this affair. That could reap benefits for him if he had shown a speedy jab in past fights. Unfortunately, Figueroa lets his opposition inside his wheel house far too often for my liking. He has some grappling capabilities, but he seems more intent on keeping it standing, a part of his game that needs technical tweaking to be dangerous. Those facts lean me towards Damkovsky. Figueroa has a good chance of winning if he's made improvements however. Damkovsky via decision
Middleweight Title Bout: Magomed Sultanakhmedov (15-5) vs. Tyson Jeffries (7-4): One of the more intriguing match-ups on M-1's roster of bouts on Friday evening features 22-year-old Team Quest product Tyson Jeffries as he battles 26-year-old Russian karate and kickboxing champion Magomed Sultanakhmedov for the M-1 middleweight strap. At 7-4, it may not be evident that Jeffries has what it takes to take on a twenty-fight veteran with proven striking skills and an able ground game, but it's difficult to discount the youthful wrestler considering the fact that he trains with MMA legend Matt Lindland and highly-successful UFC fighter Chael Sonnen.
Sultanakhmedov could derail any hopes of Jeffries ascending to brighter lights. The champion striker has proven to be quite effective on the feet, battering opponents with kicks and punches despite having a reach disadvantage in many of his fights. He is especially unique in that he implements Brazilian kicks into his attacks and lands quite often on the feet with a less profound version of it than we see in K-1. He's also shown knockout power on the feet, a legitimate danger to Jeffries who isn't a technical whiz standing.
Tough call here, but I like Sultanakhmedov. Jeffries isn't a bad fighter by any means, and I imagine we'll be hearing more from him in the future. But I'm not sold on his progression. He hasn't looked massively improved in his more recent fights. He's a tough, scrappy fighter who has good wrestling skills and some limited stand-up abilities, but that isn't indicative of success. Sultanakhmedov has highly-underrated takedown defense, and he'll either topple Jeffries and await a stand-up or batter Jeffries from range on the feet. Sultanakhmedov via decision.
Light Heavyweight: Vinny Magalhaes (6-5) vs. Jake Doerr (6-0): The Ultimate Fighter season 8 runner-up and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu ace Vinny Magalhaes returns to M-1's ranks to battle undefeated Wisconsin-native Jake Doerr in light heavyweight action. Since Magalhaes' exit from the UFC, he's amassed a 4-1 record with victories over UFC veteran Mike Nickels and Bellator light heavyweight prospect Chris Davis. Despite the wins, there is still an opinion among fans that Magalhaes can't handle more powerful opponents who can produce damage from top control. Doerr happens to fit that mold, lending some evidence to the notion that Magalhaes could be on the end of another loss on Friday night.
I won't bite on that happening though. Doerr, while built like an ox and powerful from the top, doesn't have the grappling capacity to deal with Magalhaes' Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu prowess. Of course, this is the same song and dance we've went through in past Magalhaes fights in which he's lost. That makes Doerr's presence in this match-up interesting, much more interesting than many fans might believe. Doerr trains with Nick Thompson, a solid grappler in his own right. Is that enough to stop Magalhaes? I won't take the chance. Magalhaes via submission.
Lightweight: Alexander Sarnavskiy (12-0) vs. Beau Baker (8-3): The #7-ranked lightweight on our 2011 World MMA Lightweight Scouting Report will make his 2011 debut after rattling off an impressive six straight victories in 2010, extending his undefeated record to twelve. The 22-year-old Russian "Tiger" has steadily progressed up the ladder in terms of competition, but there is some criticism that he hasn't been thoroughly tested enough to be considered a top-flight prospect. Victories over Victor Kuku and Karen Grigoryian are in line with where Alexander currently stands in his progression, but his original opponent, Josh Bacallao, wasn't indicative of a step-up in competition. Despite late replacement Beau Baker's disadvantage in taking this fight on roughly one week's notice, he should provide a respectable challenge for the young Russian.
On short notice, I'll go with Sarnavskiy, although I do think Baker offers some interesting challenges in this match-up. He has a style that is synonymous with scrappy North American-style wrestlers, a very tough chin, enough cardio to get him the distance, and he can utilize some transitions to leg locks and armbars to threaten. With a full camp, I think he has the tools to beat a guy like Sarnavskiy, a fighter who doesn't have the most dynamic ground game. But I think Sarnavskiy hurts him on the feet and finishes him on Friday night. Sarnavskiy via TKO.
Middleweight: Jason Norwood (10-2) vs. Mojo Horne (8-2): I'll go with Norwood as my entire family with the exception of my immediate family lives in Lawton, Oklahoma. He's an Army Captain at Fort Sill, and I'd be bludgeoned if I didn't go with what I know. Norwood is a strong wrestler and fairly well-rounded, but Horne does have some considerable reach in this contest. I expect Norwood to win, but I won't be surprised to see Horne come away with the victory. Norwood via decision.
Rest of the Card
Bantamweight: Jessie Riggleman (10-2) vs. Jason Hilliker (3-1)
Lightweight: George Sheppard (10-5) vs. David Derby (9-4)
Heavyweight: Johhny Curtis (4-2) vs. Bobby Gurley (0-0)
Welterweight: Brian Nielson (0-0) vs. Colton Smith (0-0)
Women's (135 lbs.): Stacy Grant (1-0) vs. Bethany Marshall (4-0)
Bantamweight: Bryan Lashamb (1-0) vs. Marcus Daniels (0-0)