Bo Nickal at the 2019 Southern Scuffle (photo courtesy of Sam Janicki; SJanickiPhoto.com)
As part of the International Fight Week festivities, the UFC will host its second annual Fight Pass Invitational grappling event on Sunday. When the four teams were recently announced, there was one key name that many wrestling fans recognized right away. Former Penn State national champion Bo Nickal will represent Jorge Masvidal's iKon MMA team. The following looks at Nickal's top five potential opponents.
The somewhat unusual style of the event provides for many potential matches. Each team will have four competitors. In the first round, the teams will face off in dual-meet style matches with the winning teams advancing to the finals. However, there is a bit of a twist.
At the start of the dual, each team will send out one competitor. Once the individual match is complete, the winning grappler will stay on the mat and face the next member of the opposing team, while the loser is eliminated. If the bout ends in a draw, both competitors are eliminated, and both teams send out new representatives. The mat continues until one team runs out of competitors. Professional wrestling aficionados might be reminded of the WWE's annual Survivor Series match.
The individual bouts will be eight-minute submission-only grappling matches. For the uninitiated, imagine an MMA fight without any striking. The bouts are not scored. If neither competitor is able to score a submission, the match is ruled a draw and both are eliminated. If the dual ends with a draw, the final match is judged to determine a team winner.
Earlier this month, Nickal made his professional MMA debut with a 33-second knockout of John Noland. He did not show very much grappling in that contest, but he previously faced off in a submission contest against Gordon Ryan. Ryan, who is considered one of the best competitive grapplers on the planet, won via submission, but Nickal managed to last over 13 minutes in the contest. What kind of opposition will he be facing off against on Sunday?
Top Five Potential Opponents
Loder will be part of Urijah Faber's A1 Combat team. He made his professional MMA debut last October and has quickly moved to 3-0 in the sport. The middleweight is scheduled to return to action on a show promoted by Faber on July 31.
During his college days, Loder was a four-year starter for Northern Iowa. As a junior, he finished seventh to become an All-American. The following year, he lost in the Round of 12, but he managed to claim victories over the likes of Lelund Weatherspoon, Dan Chaid, and recently crowned Bellator champion Johnny Eblen.
Nickal obviously trumps Loder in terms of collegiate wrestling credentials, but it would be interesting to see how he performs against a fellow wrestling convert who is a little bit further into his MMA career.
After starting his professional MMA career in 2015, Varela went 3-2 in the sport before shifting his focus to competitive grappling. He has not fought since 2018, but he has been a regular for the Submission Underground grappling promotion. During his run with the company, he has scored victories over former Olympic gold medalist in judo Satoshi Ishii, UFC veteran Kevin Casey and current UFC middleweight contender Sean Strickland. Varela will be part of the Fighting Alliance Championship team led by current UFC fighter and coach James Krause.
Despite being a UFC-sponsored event, there are relatively few active UFC fighters competing. One of those fighters is Solecki. The lightweight has been fighting exclusively for the promotion since earning a contract via Dana White's Contender Series in 2019. He has gone 4-1 in the promotion with an impressive victory over veteran Jim Miller.
Last year, Solecki took a pair of grappling matches outside the promotion. He went to a draw against current UFC middleweight Gregory Rodrigues on last year's Fight Pass Invitational show. Rodrigues is an accomplished grappler and medaled at the Cadet Pan American Championships back in the day. He recently scored a devastating first-round knockout over Julian Marquez earlier this month. Solecki followed that up with a rear-naked choke submission over fan-favorite Donald Cerrone.
In a potential match against Solecki, the former Penn State wrestler will have a pretty clear size advantage. Despite that fact, it will be interesting to see how he matches up against a current UFC competitor even if the bout is under a different ruleset.
While Nickal will have a size advantage over Solecki in their potential match, that will certainly not be the case against Manasoui. The 20-year-old grappler stands 6'7â€ tall and has weighed in as high as 275 pounds. He will be a part of the Anthony Pettis FC team for this event, but he has been training with John Danaher for the past three years. Manasoiu recently qualified for the ADCC Submission Wrestling World Championships via the European Trials. Nickal should have the wrestling advantage over many of the competitors in this event, but the size difference here might level that playing field a little bit.
These are the type of matches that can only really happen in grappling events like this. Faber is a retired former WEC champion and member of the UFC Hall of Fame. He began fighting in the UFC in 2011 after the WEC was absorbed by the promotion. Faber spent the majority of his UFC career down at 135 pounds and fought for the bantamweight title on multiple occasions. He retired in 2017 but returned to action in 2019 and split a pair of fights. Faber has not fought MMA since dropping a fight against Petr Yan in December 2019.
Faber appears to be ostensibly retired from MMA at this point, but he has remained active. He has competed in several grappling events and recently entered the U.S. Open in a Masters division. The former UC Davis wrestler made the finals of his bracket before coming up short against Glenn Garrison in the finals.
Nickal's professional MMA debut came up at 185 pounds, so he should tower over Faber who has fought as low as 135. However, smaller competitors routinely win grappling bouts like this one, and it is certainly the rare type of match that makes this somewhat odd event worth watching.