UFC Fight Night returns to London on Saturday July 23 with a card packed with British talent, with the fight between heavyweight contenders Tom Aspinall and Curtis Blaydes headlining at the O2 Arena.
Look a little further down the card, however, and you’ll find one of the most intriguing fights of the night between American newcomer Charles “InnerG” Johnson and Britain’s Muhammad “The Punisher” Mokaev in the battle of contenders for flyweights.
Johnson will be making his UFC debut, while Mokaev is coming off a masterful “club and under” finish against Cody Durden.
Fans will look to the undefeated Mokaev – who has been unstoppable in his mixed martial arts career thus far – for another virtuoso performance. However, underestimating Johnson could prove fatal to the 21-year-old’s dreams of becoming the UFC’s youngest champion.
Mokaev, “the prince” of American stable Top Team, maintains an unequaled amateur record of 23-0 and already has an appearance in the semi-finals of the 2021 U23 World Wrestling Championships to his name.
While there was immense hype around Mokaev ahead of his UFC debut against Durden on March 19, his final 58-second finish in front of the London crowd catapulted him into the spotlight as one of the hottest prospects. most exciting of MMA.
Mokaev quickly amassed a 5-0 professional record before signing with the UFC. Durden was already a proven UFC fighter with a well-rounded skill set, and yet Mokaev made him look like a novice.
His performance sent the O2 crowd at UFC Fight Night — and the MMA community — into a frenzy, cementing him as the flyweight division’s premier prospect.
Despite Johnson’s impressive reign as Legacy Fighting Alliance champion, Moakev doesn’t see it as a step up in the competition. In an interview with Sportskeeda’s Andrew Whitehall, the young fighter proclaimed his debut against Durden was the toughest challenge as he believes “if Cody Durden and Charles Johnson fight, I think Cody Durden would win”.
On the “Punching In” podcast with Dan Lambert, Mokaev said Johnson had “a really big problem in (the) ground game,” and that he would “take him down and finish him off.”
Mokaev’s confidence can be mistaken for arrogance, but his conviction comes from daily training with high caliber fighters at ATT.
Former Bellator bantamweight champion Kyoji Horiguchi, No. 13-ranked flyweight Su Mudaerji and No. 4-ranked Alexandre Pantoja are some of the world-class fighters Mokeav is sharpening his tools alongside.
After his second successful defense of the LFA flyweight title against undefeated prospect Carlos Mota, Johnson’s signing to the UFC was inevitable.
He is now on a four-fight winning streak since a 2019 LFA 48 decision loss to UFC No. 5 flyweight Brandon Royval.
Johnson’s striking and general fighting has improved dramatically since getting sponsored Tiger Muay Thai training at their 2019 trials.
TMT’s impact on Johnson’s ability and style is evident, with the fighter subsequently adopting a traditional Muay Thai stance and using a combination of kicks. Johnson’s clinch control is impeccable, preventing takedowns and leveraging position to unleash strikes on the break.
In an interview with Sportskeeda MMA’s James Lynch, Johnson said that while fighting in the LFA he held his “close cards”, having felt pressure to play it safe so as not to jeopardize a move to the UFC. .
Now, however, he no longer sees “any reason to play it safe.” I have no reason to hold anything back.
One flaw in Johnson’s style that Mokaev could exploit is the former’s heavy kicking arsenal, which presents opponents with opportunities to defeat him.
While Mokaev will look to attack Johnson’s lackluster defence, Johnson is tackling that weakness by training with some of the best grapplers and wrestlers in the world. He spent time in his final training camp with Olympic wrestler Jordan Burroughs and three-time All-American Joey McKenna at the Pennsylvania Olympic Regional Training Center. He received additional training at Daniel Gracie BJJ with several expert grapplers, such as UFC’s Pat Sabatini and Sean Brady. Coming out of his home gym, Johnson showed he was both aware of his flaws and eager to improve on his weaknesses.
The hype surrounding a prospect like Mokaev may overwhelm some opponents, but Johnson remains unfazed. In an interview with Lynch, Johnson said it was an opportunity to capture the Mokaev hype for himself.
The 31-year-old American understands the spotlight is on Mokaev for a reason, saying his opponent “has been groomed since he was 12” to become champion.
“(But) we’ll see what kind of adversity he’s able to deal with when things don’t go as smoothly as he thinks,” Johnson added.
The winner of this fight will be the man who controls where the fight takes place. Mokaev will look to bring down Johnson while Johnson will aim to fight on his feet. Will Johnson sacrifice his kicks to limit Mokaev’s takedown opportunities, or will he trust his recent grappling training to keep the fight going? The positional advantage will be everything in London.
The Vegas odds give Mokaev the edge, with an 83% chance of defeating Johnson and a 50/50 chance of winning from distance.
Will Mokaev continue on his path to UFC gold, or will Johnson derail his train and climb up the rankings?
Those who sit down early at the O2 Arena on Saturday night are in for a rare treat.