For the first time since the dark ages of the UFC, Mississippi will host major league MMA when Bobby Lashley and Bob Sapp square off for Fight Force International on June 27. While Sapp is one of the biggest drawing cards in Japan, still capitalizing on the sudden fame that changed his life from football failure to icon, it is the former WWE Champion Lashley that promoters hope will draw a crowd to the Mississippi Coast Coliseum and live on PPV.

“We needed a main event that appealed to the average fight fans, something that would attract the casual person that just likes to be entertained by an intriguing match…It [Lashley’s WWE fame] will definitely help,” promoter Ricky Derouen said in an exclusive interview with “Anything that draws the attention of ‘other’ fans is a positive thing because it exposes MMA to a different group of people and gives them a little taste of what it’s all about. Let me tell you, if Tiger Woods started competing in MMA, every single golf fan in the world would start watching and take an interest.”

Derouen comes from a family of boxers and promoted shows for years on the Gulf Coast. But like many boxing aficionados, he saw a bright future in MMA. In 2007 he stopped running boxing and toughman cards to concentrate on MMA. He and his brothers used their vehicles for collateral and started putting on events for the rabid local fans. Fourteen shows later and Fight Force International feels confident that they are ready for the big time.

“We have promoted 14 events in South Mississippi with 7 of them being at the Mississippi Coast Coliseum,” Derouen said. “We have entertained over 50,000 fans during those events. That is something I am very proud of. I was born and raised in Biloxi. I went to my very first concert in that building in 1978 and now we are bringing the biggest MMA event and first Pay-Per-View event ever to the Mississippi Coast Coliseum. I can’t describe how that feels!”

This PPV is more than a one-fight show. A solid semi-main event features former PRIDE and RINGS standout Gilbert Yvel duking it out with former UFC title contender Pedro Rizzo. It’s an interesting contrast in styles. Yvel is one of the sport’s most aggressive fighters, sometimes aggressive to the point of breaking rules and assaulting officials. Rizzo is a notoriously cautious counter puncher. Matchmaker Russell Schenk is confident that Yvel pressing forward into Rizzo’s devastating counter attack will make for an exciting action fight.

“I think Yvel will bring it and Rizzo will give it right back,” Derouen said. “These are two of the best strikers of all time in MMA history. Yvel is a veteran of Pride with 35 victories and 30 of those were by knockout. Rizzo has knocked out an impressive list of some of the biggest names in the sport. I asked Russell [Schenk] what his thoughts were on this fight, he just grinned, shook his head and said ‘It’s gonna be fireworks!’”

The undercard includes former UFC star Din Thomas and IFL wunderkind Chris Horodecki, but the most talked about fight will feature an outspoken MMA executive trading the boardroom for the training room. Affliction Vice President Tom Atencio will battle Randy Hedderick, a matchup that has led many to speculate that Affliction is co-promoting the show.

“Affliction has no involvement in this event as a promoter. This is a co-promotion between Fight Force International and Prize Fight MMA,” Derouen said. “Tom is passionate about this sport, you can hear it in his voice when he speaks. He truly loves MMA and just wants to train and compete and this is his opportunity. How many people are sitting around talking about doing something and they never do it. I have much respect for Tom and for anybody that steps in the cage.”

Although Sapp and Lashley have each headlined successful MMA shows, they are both coming off of disappointing performances. In March, Lashley went to a decision against lightly regarded journeyman Jason Guida, quieting comparisons with fellow WWE refugee Brock Lesnar. Sapp’s American MMA debut last year saw him last less than a minute against handpicked opponent Jan Nortje. Lashley realizes he needs to prove he can do more than rack up victories. To be a success financially in MMA, he has to entertain as well as win.

“I’m going to try and be good this time,” Lashley said. “Let’s be honest, this fight is going to be a train wreck. It’s two guys going out there to bang and it’s not going to take three rounds to do it, either. One, maybe two. The fans are going to get what they want.”