Perhaps they are shooting for a best-of-seven series in this rivalry.
Daniel Straus will face Patricio Freire for a fourth time when he defends his Bellator MMA featherweight championship against the Brazilian “Pitbull” in the Bellator 178 headliner on Friday at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut. Their five-round battle anchors a four-fight main card that airs live on Spike TV (9 p.m. ET/8 p.m. CT).
On the sidelines for more than a year, Straus has not fought since he reclaimed the 145-pound title with a five-round unanimous decision over Freire at Bellator 145 in November 2015. The 32-year-old American Top Team export has compiled nine wins across his past 11 outings, his run highlighted by victories over Pat Curran, Henry Corrales, Justin Wilcox, Alvin Robinson and Marlon Sandro. A decorated high school wrestler in his native Ohio, Straus owns an 11-3 mark in Bellator (live odds).
Freire last competed at Bellator 160 in August, when a leg injury resulted in a technical knockout loss to former Ultimate Fighting Championship and World Extreme Cagefighting lightweight titleholder Benson Henderson. A two-time Bellator tournament winner and three-time finalist, he has a 2-1 edge in his head-to-head series with Straus and holds other notable wins against Curran, Daniel Weichel, Diego Nunes, Georgi Karakhanyan and Wilson Reis (twice). Freire, 29, has proven to be an equal-opportunity finisher throughout his career, with nine victories by submission and 10 more by knockout or technical knockout.
With the Straus-Freire rematch on the marquee, here is what to watch for at Bellator 178:
Ilima-Lei Macfarlane could in time become the centerpiece of Bellator’s fledgling women’s flyweight division, which now features Anastasia Yankova, Keri Anne Taylor-Melendez and Lena Ovchynnikova.
MacFarlane operates out of the Team Hurricane Awesome outfit in San Diego, where she has trained alongside UFC veterans Mike de la Torre, Liz Carmouche and Walel Watson. The 27-year-old California-based Hawaiian has raced out to a 5-0 start as a professional that includes three finishes. MacFarlane’s most recent outing came at Bellator 167, where she was awarded a three-round unanimous decision over Emily Ducote at the Winstar World Casino in Thackerville, Oklahoma.
In her path stands Jessica Middleton, who awaits MacFarlane in the co-main event. Middleton, 28, has posted back-to-back decision wins against Alice Yauger and Bruna Ellen since she debuted in July.
A combination of pedigree and performance has made A.J. McKee one of the top prospects in the sport and one of Bellator’s most valuable commodities.
The son of former Maximum Fighting Championship titleholder Antonio McKee, the 22-year-old Long Beach, California, native will put his perfect 7-0 record on the line against Dominic Mazzotta in a three-round lightweight showcase. McKee has stopped five of his seven opponents, four of them inside one round, but went the distance in each of his last two appearances, taking a unanimous decision from Ray Wood at Bellator 166 in December before earning a unanimous verdict over Brandon Phillips at Bellator 171 on Jan. 27. He represents Team Bodyshop, where he sharpens his skills alongside onetime Bellator light heavyweight champion Emanuel Newton and two-time NCAA All-American Bubba Jenkins.
The once-beaten Mazzotta will enter the cage with the wind of an eight-fight winning streak in his sails. He suffered his only professional defeat in March 2015, when he succumbed to second-round punches from Cody Garbrandt at a Gladiators of the Cage event in Pittsburgh. Mazzotta, 29, has recorded eight of his 11 career victories by submission, six of them via rear-naked choke.
If nothing else, Saad Awad provides guaranteed entertainment value.
The Millennia MMA standout finds himself on a two-fight losing streak as he approaches a crossroads clash with Ryan Quinn at 155 pounds. Awad, 33, last fought at Bellator 163 in November, when he was cut down by Brennan Ward punches in a mere 86 seconds. He boasts 15 finishes among his 19 career victories, including his upset of American Top Team’s Will Brooks a little more than four years ago. A former Gladiator Challenge champion, Awad has never lost three fights in a row.
Quinn has managed to fly under the radar in Bellator, despite a 7-0 record with the promotion. He last appeared on the regional circuit in October, when he eked out a split decision over Canadian journeyman Matt MacGrath.
Two of Bellator’s premier young talents will take the stage on the undercard, as middleweight Ed Ruth locks horns with Aaron Goodwine and heavyweight Tyrell Fortune collides with Branko Busick.
Ruth was a three-time NCAA wrestling champion at Penn State University, where he won 136 of his 139 matches. He still ranks first on the school’s all-time list in winning percentage (.978), third in falls (46) and fifth in victories. Ruth has aligned himself with the powerhouse Jackson-Wink MMA academy in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where his development has been overseen by Greg Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn. He has stopped his first two opponents with punches inside the first round.
Fortune, meanwhile, captured a Division II national title at Grand Canyon University and two junior college national championships at Clackamas Community College in Arizona. Just 26 years of age, he has kicked off his pro MMA career with back-to-back finishes on Will Johnson and Cody Miskell.