Amsterdam, Holland -- After compiling a 3-0 team record and a 13-2 individual record en route to a Group D title in the 2009 "M-1 Challenge Presented by Affliction" (www.M-1Global.com), Team Russia Legion is locked and loaded as it ramps up for its run at the M-1 Challenge Championship Cup.
First, Russia Legion must win its upcoming best-of-five series vs. Team England on Sept. 26 during the M-1 Challenge semifinals, which will be broadcast live on Internet PPV via M-1Global.com. While Legion enters the matchup as the odds-on favorite, the never-say-day team of fighters from Britain have nothing to lose and everything to gain, as Legion must deal with the added competing in its home city of Rostov, Russia.
They will face a much-maligned Team England squad that went 2-1 during the regular season with a 10-5 individual record that was just good enough to edge out Team Japan and take first place in Group A.
England battled injuries during the course of the season and was plagued by inconsistency, as it shocked Team Japan winning by a 4-1 score this past April in Tokyo and then shut out Team Spain 5-0 on Aug. 15 in August. However, sandwiched in between its two dominating performances was a dismal 4-1 upset loss to Team France this past June in Kansas City.
When the '09 season began, England was picked to finish behind both France and Japan in the standings but was able to defy the odds through outstanding coaching from Dave Butlin and Aaron Chatfield along with having the best team chemistry of all the 16 teams that participated in this year's challenge. and
But England will face a Russia Legion team that has become a powerhouse factory for up-and-coming fight prospects. Led by welterweight Magomed Shikshabekov, voted the number eight best MMA prospect in Europe by Sherdog.com, Legion finished tied as the '09 M-1 Challenge number one overall team. Additionally, its "B" team is currently 3-0 in Group B of the M-1 Selection, a year-long team-based competition featuring the top fight gyms in Russia qualifying for the right to represent its home country in the 2010 M-1 Challenge.
Legion officials confirmed earlier this week that Shikshabekov, 4-0, will be taking on Team England knockout specialist Simon Phillips, 8-3, during the Sept. 26 semifinals. Joining Shikshabekov will be lightweight Yuri Ivlev (10-5), middleweight Ansar Chalangov (9-4), light heavyweight Besiki Gerenava (8-1-1), and heavyweight Akhmed Sultanov (8-3).
Out of all the variations of lineups Legion has fielded in the M-1 Challenge this year, M-1 officials believe that its semifinal lineup is perhaps the most potent roster it has fielded in the last two years.
Team England manager Ian Dean knows his fighters are in for a war.
"Without a doubt the Legion team is a top class and immensely strong outfit," Dean told M-1Global.com. "You don't go 3-0 and 13-2 in the M-1 Challenge by being a mediocre team. Their overall depth is phenomenal and unlike many other sides in the competition they truly are a team as well."
Dean is especially impressed by Legion's overall depth and the tough choices it had to make when finalizing its roster for Sept. 26. However, he sees Legion's decision to stack its lineup as a sign of respect for Team England.
"They have already been able to put out a reserve team last Saturday in the M-1 Selection and have left out some tough guys for Sept. 26 as well such as Rustam Khabilov, Sergey Kornev, and Gadzimurad Omarov," he remarked. "That speaks volumes about just how tough the Legion are in my opinion, but it also shows the respect the Legion have for Team England, as they have really thought about their line-up and have put a top quality team out to face us. But I know Dave (Butlin) and the guys wouldn't want anything less."
In addition to the highly-anticipated Shikshabekov vs. Phillips matchup at welterweight, the Legion vs. England semifinal showdown will also feature Chalangov taking on UK submission specialist Matt "12 Gauge" Thorpe. Thorpe, a lanky middleweight at 6'4'' and owner of notable victories in his career over Raymond Jarman and Che' Mills, could be facing the toughest test of his career in Chalangov.
Chalangov is not only a veteran of M-1 and BodogFIGHT, but is one of the few Russian fighters to have been given an opportunity to compete in the Ultimate Fighting Championship. While his UFC record stands at 0-2, Chalangov was not given any layups after being matched up against both Josh Koscheck and Thiago Alves in his lone Octagon appearances. And in spite of his UFC losses, Chalangov is considered one of the toughest fighters in all of Russia due to holding notable victories in his career over Dennis "Superman" Hallman, Dave Strasser, and Jason Jones.
Other Russia Legion vs. England matchups include Ivlev vs. former English football player Scott Hewitt; Gerenava vs. Lee Austin, and Sultanov testing his mettle against one of the best heavyweights in all of M-1, Rob "The Bear" Broughton.
Russia Legion vs. England will be a hotly-contested matchup that could come down to the wire with Legion's "homefield advantage" possibly proving the difference. However, Dean believes his Team England has the fortitude to overcome the odds yet again.
"[Fighting in Rostov] sounds like a daunting prospect, but England has already defeated Team Japan in their backyard... Of course the Russians will have home field advantage but I honestly don't think it will affect the guys."
The current fight-by-fight lineup for Russia Legion's best-of-five semifinal matchup vs. Team England is as follows:
ENGLAND VS. RUSSIA LEGION -
1. Lightweight (154 lbs./-70 kg): Scott Hewitt vs. Yura Ivlev
2. Welterweight (167.2 lbs./-76 kg): Simon Phillips vs. Magomed Shikshabekov
3. Middleweight (184.8 lbs./-84 kg): Matt Thorpe vs. Ansar Chalangov
4. Light Heavyweight (204.8 lbs./-93 kg): Lee Austin vs. Besiki Gerenava
5. Heavyweight (+204.8 lbs./+93 kg): Rob Broughton vs. Akhmed Sultanov