UFC Fight Night returns to London on Saturday, July 23 featuring a card crammed with British talent, with the bout between heavyweight contenders Tom Aspinall and Curtis Blaydes topping the bill at the O2 Arena.
Look a bit further down the card, however, and you will 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 the flyweight contenders.
Johnson will be making his UFC debut, while Mokaev is coming off a masterful “club and sub” finish against Cody Durden.
Fans will look to the undefeated Mokaev — who has been unstoppable in his mixed martial arts career so far — for another virtuoso performance. However, underestimating Johnson could prove fatal for the 21-year-old’s dreams of becoming the youngest ever UFC champion.
Mokaev, “the prince” of the American Top Team stable, retains an unparalleled 23-0 amateur record and already has to his name a semifinals appearance in the 2021 U23 World Wrestling Championships.
While there was immense hype surrounding Mokaev prior to his UFC debut against Durden on March 19, his eventual 58-second finish in front of the London crowd catapulted him into the limelight as one of MMA’s most exciting prospects.
Mokaev swiftly 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 premier prospect in the flyweight division.
Despite Johnson’s impressive reign as Legacy Fighting Alliance champion, Moakev does not see him as a step up in competition. In an interview with Andrew Whitehall of Sportskeeda, the younger fighter proclaimed that his debut against Durden was the stiffer challenge as he believes that “if Cody Durden and Charles Johnson fight, I think Cody Durden would win.”
On the “Punching In” podcast with Dan Lambert, Mokaev stated that Johnson has a “very big problem in (the) ground game,” and that he will “take him down and finish him.”
Mokaev’s confidence can be mistaken for arrogance, but his conviction comes from training with fighters of a high caliber on a daily basis at ATT.
Former Bellator bantamweight champion Kyoji Horiguchi, No.13-ranked flyweight Su Mudaerji, and No. 4-ranked Alexandre Pantoja are a few of the world class fighters alongside whom Mokeav sharpens his tools.
Coming off his second successful LFA flyweight title defense against previously undefeated prospect Carlos Mota, Johnson’s signing to UFC was inevitable.
He is now on a four fight winning streak since a decision loss at LFA 48 in 2019 to now-UFC No. 5 flyweight Brandon Royval.
Johnson’s striking and general fighting has improved dramatically since gaining sponsored training at Tiger Muay Thai at their 2019 tryouts.
TMT’s impact on Johnson’s ability and style is evident, with the fighter subsequently adopting a traditional Muay Thai stance and utilizing a combination of kicks. Johnson’s clinch control is immaculate, preventing takedowns and leveraging position to fire off strikes on the break.
In an interview with James Lynch of Sportskeeda MMA, Johnson said that during his LFA fights, he held his “cards close,” having felt pressure to play it safe so as not to jeopardize a move to UFC.
Now, however, he sees no “reason to play it safe anymore. I don’t have any reason to hold anything back.”
A flaw in Johnson’s style that Mokaev could exploit is the former’s kick-heavy arsenal, which presents opponents with opportunities to take him down.
While Mokaev will look to attack Johnson’s lackluster takedown defense, Johnson is addressing this weakness by training with some of the best grapplers and wrestlers in the world. He has spent time in his latest camp training with Olympic wrestler Jordan Burroughs and three-time All-American Joey McKenna at the Pennsylvania Olympic Regional Training Center. He has received additional training at Daniel Gracie BJJ with several expert grapplers, such as the UFC’s Pat Sabatini and Sean Brady. By branching out of his home gym, Johnson has shown he is both conscious of his flaws and eager to improve upon his weaknesses.
The hype surrounding a prospect like Mokaev can overwhelm some opponents, but Johnson remains unfazed. In an interview with Lynch, Johnson expressed that this is an opportunity to seize Mokaev’s hype for himself.
The 31-year-old American understands that the spotlight is on Mokaev for a reason, saying his opponent “has been groomed since he was 12 years old” to become a champion.
“(But) we will see what kind of adversity he’s able to deal with when things don’t go quite as easy as he thinks they will,” Johnson added.
The winner of this bout will be the man who controls where the fight takes place. Mokaev will seek to take Johnson down while Johnson will aim to fight on his feet. Will Johnson sacrifice his kicking to limit Mokaev’s takedown opportunities, or will he trust his recent grappling training to keep the fight standing? Positional advantage will be everything in London.
Vegas odds give Mokaev the edge, with an 83 percent chance of defeating Johnson, and a one in two chance at winning inside the distance.
Will Mokaev continue on his path to UFC gold, or will Johnson derail his train and spring his way up the rankings?
Those who take their seats early at O2 Arena on Saturday night are in for a rare treat.