Mikey Musumeci has previously described his September 30 showdown with Cleber Sousa as the biggest match of his life – quite a statement from a guy with five IBJJF black belt world titles. However, for Musumeci, the chance to fight for a ONE Championship belt is more than just another world title – it’s a chance to further the professionalization of jiu-jitsu as a combat sport.
Musumeci and Sousa may be the ones competing for ONE gold on Friday night, but they’re certainly not the only jiu-jitsu athletes who will be watching this match closely. Fellow ONE Championship grappling star Danielle Kelly, for instance, is eager to see these two put on a show.
“I think it’s a great match,” Kelly tells the Jiu-Jitsu Times. “I’m a small grappler, and so is Mikey, and it’s pretty cool to see the smaller grapplers getting that kind of attention.”
Size aside, she and “Darth Rigatoni” have also previously shared common ground as young, somewhat shy Americans learning to navigate their careers on ONE’s massive international platform. Laughing, Kelly shares a story about a bonding moment at a recent press conference: “We had a funny little conversation when we were at the press conference in LA,” she recalls. “Because we’re both kind of awkward, so we were like, ‘Hey, do we just walk over there? Do we just walk awkwardly over this way?’” She laughs again. “It was funny, realizing that we were kind of the same.”
They have yet to roll with each other, but it’s an opportunity Kelly would welcome, especially now that they’re roster-mates: “Yeah, I’d roll with him, especially since he’s kind of closer to my size! He’s really cool, and nice, so it would be fun to train with him.”
“I like that Mikey is going to be the first person to fight in a ONE title match for grappling,” she adds. “That’s pretty cool, and I think he’s very deserving. And I think it’s a good matchup. I know he and Sousa have fought twice already, and that they’re one-and-one. So that’s going to be challenging, especially since they’ve competed against each other in the past.”
“It’s always like that with jiu-jitsu,” Kelly elaborates. “When you’re going up against someone you’ve fought before, you already know what their game is, but you also kind of have to tweak your own game, and change certain things. I think it’s really exciting because they probably know each other’s games, and they’re both pretty high-level. Especially Mikey – it’s going to be interesting to see what he does because he always has tricks up his sleeves. He’s on a roll right now, so I’d probably go with him, if I had to pick a winner.”
She also thinks that Musumeci’s previous experience grappling in the cage may give him an edge: “Knowing how to use the cage against someone is a big factor,” she says, pointing out that most pure jiu-jitsu athletes aren’t used to navigating the extra dimension that the cage wall presents.
“That’s what happened in my match against Mei Yamaguchi,” admits Kelly. “She was doing something really smart, where she’d be in my guard, then push me up against the cage, so I’d be stuck. Since these two are both jiu-jitsu guys, they’ll probably want to stay in the middle and pull guard, but if one of them can use the cage, that could make a difference.”
Kelly’s money may be on Musumeci for this match, but she has a lot of respect for the skillsets of both contenders, and expects to see an aggressive grappling exchange dominated by tricky guardwork: “They do both pull guard – and with ONE Championship’s ruleset, you really can’t stall – and they both play the game really well, which is what makes it so interesting. We might see a double guard pull, but I know Mikey’s been working his guard passing, so we might also see some cool passing sequences from him.”
Though neither Mikey nor Sousa are particularly well-known for their wrestling, Kelly believes that both could benefit from adding more wrestling to their repertoire, particularly given ONE’s grappling format: a no-gi, submission-oriented ruleset in a cage, which heavily rewards intelligently applied aggression – all factors that tend to favor strong wrestlers. “I’ve been studying the Ruotolo brothers, and they work on a lot of wrestling – even when they pull guard, they still wrestle up, and I think it’s a really important factor in the game. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Mikey really wrestle, but I feel like it would help [add to what he can already do], for sure.
“I’ve seen two matches of his – one against Geo Martinez, and one against Gabriel Sousa – and I know Gabriel’s a really good wrestler. I feel like if we’re gonna talk about guys who are that high-level, then yes, wrestling would be really important. With Geo, even when he went for a takedown, Mikey was able to control him with guardwork the whole time. But I definitely think that wrestling could add to Mikey’s game.”
If she had to make a prediction, Kelly suspects we’ll see shades of Mikey’s performance against Masakazu Imanari, and adds, “Mikey probably expects a guard pull – and then he’ll use it for either a pass or a back take. Either way, it’s gonna be really cool. It’s going to be something to study.”
The outcome of this match also has implications for Kelly’s own future prospects in the promotion. After all, if Musumeci vs. Sousa turns out to be a banger, that performance will pave the way for more grappling title shots in the ONE Circle. “If there’s already a men’s grappling title [at this weight class], I can only imagine there’s going to be way more, with the number of jiu-jitsu athletes being signed,” Kelly points out. “It would be really cool to be the first girl – hopefully! – to be up for a grappling title under ONE Championship.”
She’s already eyeing possible matchups. “I’ve already kind of been studying and keeping in mind who my potential opponents could be,” says Kelly. “A lot of people assume that because I haven’t competed since March, I’m just kind of going with the flow – but no, I’m still studying, I’m still challenging myself, I’m staying ready. I have an idea of a few people I might be going against, so I’ve got to stay ready, because I could get the call at any time.”
Tune into Musumeci vs. Sousa on Amazon Prime this Friday, September 30, at 8 PM EST.