With the polished spectacle of the UFC returning to London in September and the difficulties of legal action looming, UK promotion Cage Rage is under more pressure than ever to deliver an exciting show.
By booking a card stacked full of striking specialists and fan-orientated match-ups, they have every chance of doing just that -- at the risk of upsetting some of the purists.
Massive boxer-turned-mixed martial artist Eric "Butterbean" Esch returns to face UK-based Armenian wrestler Tengiz Tedoradze (Pictures) in the main event Saturday's Cage Rage 22 in London.
Esch will be looking to score a big win following his hotly disputed stoppage of James Thompson (Pictures) back in February. Butterbean has shown some notable additions to his game in recent months, submitting the enormous "Zuluzinho" with a keylock and showing some idea of positioning on the floor -- but essentially he remains an immovable, huge punching brawler.
Tedoradze on the other hand has genuinely added to his game over the years, taking on some effective but unpolished boxing skills to compliment his staple ground-and-pound offensive game.
It is not clear how Tedoradze intends to take Esch to the mat, given the American's incredible girth. However, once on the floor with a striker on top of him, Esch has wilted in the past and I expect Tedoradze to find a way to take the big man down and promptly finish the fight with strikes.
Lee Hasdell is an absolute legend of UK MMA, being one of the first British fighters to compete in Japan, before promoting the classic "Ring of Truth" shows in the late 1990s. Known primarily as a striker, this fight with Brazilian grappling wizard, Mario Sperry (Pictures), seems likely to turn out like a throwback "striker vs. grappler" match-up between two respected veterans.
Whilst deeply revered in the UK, Hasdell remains a relative unknown throughout the rest of the world and Sperry will be anxious to demonstrate his superiority, having faced by far the sterner opposition in recent years. It seems likely that Sperry will take the fight to the floor and finish with a submission in the first round.
Wesley "Cabbage" Correira has his work cut out for him as he returns to make his belated Cage Rage debut, this time slated to face James "The Colossus" Thompson. Once known for his incredible chin thanks to his near superhuman performance against Tim Sylvia (Pictures) at UFC 39, Cabbage's ability to absorb punishment seems to have deteriorated significantly over recent years.
However, with some uncommonly fast hands for a heavyweight, the Hawaiian certainly has a decent chance against Thompson -- who will be seething at the thought of another Cage Rage loss having dropped his last two on the promotion.
The more recent loss, to Butterbean, is widely seen as a premature stoppage, but this I imagine this will only serve as extra motivation for the Bristol fighter who should demolish Cabbage in a similar fashion to his punch-to-the-finish win over Don Frye (Pictures) earlier in the year.
In his long-awaited return to Cage Rage, fearsome striker, Edson Drago (Pictures) faces Britain's own Gary "Smiler" Turner. A massively experienced fighter and intelligent man, Turner is an asset to the sport. However, I can't help but get the feeling that his win over Tank Abbott in April may have given him a false sense of security that led him to agree to this inadvisable match-up.
Drago amazed the London crowd back in April 2006 with his stunning one-punch knockout of Tengiz Tedoradze (Pictures). Dropping two submission losses since, it is clear that he can be vulnerable on the ground. However, going up against a stand-up specialist, this weakness should remain out of view and I expect him to finish the plucky Brit before the end of round two.
Known primarily as a mixed martial arts referee, Herb Dean (Pictures) has been training since 1993, beginning work with Zane Frasier in preparation for his ill-fated appearance at UFC 1. The man facing him, "Deathwish" Dave Legeno (Pictures) has received more than his fair share of criticism as a fighter in the past. Coming into the sport at a relatively advanced age, Legeno had a rough start, going on a steep learning curve that saw him drop his first three fights.
Coming back to even up his record with a trio of wins against similarly aged opposition, Legeno has since improved a great deal, but I feel that Dean carries with him an invaluable advantage in terms of experience having trained and been so closely involved with the sport for all these years -- which may not necessarily be reflected by his 2-2 record. I pick Dean to win by submission in the second round.
Former kickboxer James McSweeney (Pictures) is a dangerous opponent for anyone with his precise, rangy striking. He faces another Cage Rage veteran, Mark Buchanan (Pictures), who will be desperate to return to form after back-to-back losses on the main show.
Working with the Trojan camp, Buchanan will have been training to a solid game plan. However, I'm picking McSweeney to take this one, quickly and brutally.
With his penchant for stand-up wars, it's not hard to see why matchmaker Dave O'Donnell has put together the encounter between Paul Cahoon and Mark "The Beast" Epstein. Both men are known for their granite chins, durability and single-minded determination to knock their opponents out cold.
I can't see this fight going to the ground for any length of time, with the Dutch-trained Cahoon coming through a beating to win inside the distance.
One of the most fascinating match-ups on the card is the featherweight encounter between Trojan fighter Ronnie Mann (Pictures) and Tsunami gym representative Robbie Olivier (Pictures). Blazing through Mark Chen and taking sweet revenge in his submission victory over Brad Pickett (Pictures), Olivier was then derailed in less than 30 seconds by Masakazu Imanari (Pictures).
Conversely, the still undefeated Ronnie Mann (Pictures) will be riding high after his most recent win -- the impressive shut out of Pancrase London's Ashleigh Grimshaw (Pictures) in February. With only 10 fights on his record, it will be very interesting to see how the youthful, well-rounded Mann matches up with the more experienced, rugged grappler in Olivier. This fight has the potential to be an extremely thoughtful ground fight, with Olivier scraping by for the decision win.
In what promises to be another stand-up war, up-and-coming super-striker from the London Shootfighters Marios Zaromskis looks to capitalize on his emphatic victory over Damien Riccio (Pictures) at Cage Rage 20 as he goes up against Ross "The Boss" Mason.
In the Riccio fight, Zaromskis showed an array of vicious strikes as he dismantled his overmatched French opponent -- and with a triangle submission win on his record, the young Pole is no one-trick pony.
The heavy-handed Mason has shown striking skills in the past that forced UFC veteran and former boxer Chris Lytle (Pictures) to close the distance. In fact, hardly any of his recent opponents have looked anywhere near comfortable in their feet. With neither man ever looking to take any of their fights to the ground, this one promises fireworks, with Zaromskis taking the win.
TUF graduate Ross "The Gladiator" Pointon has the world to fight for in his second appearance in Cage Rage. Matched up with the athletic but limited Team Titan fighter Dean Bray (Pictures), Pointon simply has to win -- and win big -- to be considered any kind of threat in the promotion, following a rough losing streak in the UFC and another shocking KO loss to Abdul Mohamed (Pictures) in April.
Bray is a solid fighter with a great work ethic, but it is doubtful that he will have what it takes to upset such an experienced and hungry opponent.
Arguably making his debut on the main show due to his unbelievably aggressive-looking appearance and brawling style, tattooed former bodybuilder Joe Mac goes up against Cage Rage mainstay Jeremy "Bad Boy" Bailey. Fighting well above his natural weight, Bailey will almost certainly struggle, particularly as he has shown that he is vulnerable to being bullied back against the cage -- a strength-based attack that Mac has employed with a savage delight in the past.
Bailey, however, has got a real crack to his right hand that would probably trouble the chin of a heavyweight. But in this fight, Mac's high-pressure assault will more than likely see him take the fight to the ground and punish the Bad Boy with strikes for a decision win.
Frenchman Damien Riccio (Pictures) is one of those fighters who simply will not quit and has shown in the past that he will fight to the bitter end. He may well have the opportunity to painfully demonstrate this ability once again, as he faces another London Shootfighter, Michael Johnson.
Riccio is a rugged brawler with some wonderful submission defense, but Johnson has a whole different level to his striking game and some solid counter-wrestling that should see him keep the fight upright, eventually scoring the knock out win.
In the first fight of the night, two young and angry fighters, Tom "Kong" Watson and Ed "Smasher" Smith, face off in a match that could determine who stays on the main show and who will be preparing for their next fight on Cage Rage Contenders.
Having worked so hard and with so much at stake, I expect a huge effort from both men, with "Kong" avoiding Smith's hellish short punches, taking the fight to the floor for a submission win.