Santa Claus was good to Bellator MMA President Scott Coker, who enters his latest campaign with some new toys with which to play—most notably Yoel Romero and Anthony Johnson.
Bellator withstood a five-month stoppage due to the COVID-19 pandemic, then meandered its way through the uncertainty that followed. Between July 24 and Dec. 10, the organization staged 15 events, crowned five new divisional champions and provided its blue-chip talents with high-profile platforms through which to perform. Still, the dawn of a new year brings new challenges, including the continued presence of a global health crisis and the conclusion of the promotion’s featherweight grand prix.
With the calendar having flipped to 2021, what matches should be in the Bellator pipeline between now and Dec. 31? Some ideas:
Ryan Bader vs. Vitaly Minakov: Bader relinquished his hold on the light heavyweight throne in a technical knockout loss to Vadim Nemkov in August. Now, his attention figures to turn elsewhere. “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 8 winner has not defended his heavyweight championship since his September 2019 encounter with Cheick Kongo ended with an eye poke-induced no-contest. Minakov, a former Bellator champion who was stripped of his title amid a contract dispute some five years ago, improved to 22-1 with a first-round knockout of Timothy Johnson at Bellator 225 but has not fought since.
Cristiane Justino vs. Julia Budd: Few legitimate threats to Justino’s reign at 145 pounds exist, and Budd’s track record as a past champion gives her the inside lane to a rematch with the Brazilian juggernaut. “Cyborg” ended Budd’s reign atop the featherweight division after 1,408 days in January, as she dismissed her with fourth-round punches at Bellator 238. Justino has since tightened her grip in the title with a rout of Arlene Blencowe, their Oct. 15 pairing at Bellator 249 concluding with the first submission victory of her 15-year career. Budd, meanwhile, rebounded from her loss to “Cyborg” with a unanimous decision over Jessy Miele at Bellator 244 in August.
Vadim Nemkov vs. Phil Davis: Nemkov completed his climb to the top of the 205-pound weight class on Aug. 21, as he cut down Ryan Bader with a head kick and follow-up punches to capture the light heavyweight championship in the second round of their Bellator 244 main event. The 28-year-old enters 2021 on a seven-fight winning streak that includes a contentious split decision over Davis in November 2018. “Mr. Wonderful” has bounced back from his narrow defeat to Nemkov with three straight victories over Liam McGeary, Karl Albrektsson and Lyoto Machida.
Anthony Johnson vs. Corey Anderson: A monstrous X factor in Bellator’s reshaped light heavyweight division, the soon-to-be 37-year-old Johnson has not fought since he submitted to a rear-naked choke from Daniel Cormier at UFC 210 nearly four years ago. Consistently one of the sport’s heaviest hitters, the Sanford MMA rep’s exploits remain fresh in the minds of seasoned observers despite his extended absence. They include violent first-round finishes of Ryan Bader, Glover Teixeira, Alexander Gustafsson and Antonio Rogerio Nogueira. Anderson made a successful promotional debut at Bellator 251, where he disposed of Melvin Manhoef with a volley of elbows in the second round of their Nov. 5 pairing.
Yoel Romero vs. Liam McGeary: Bellator decided to get in to the Romero business in December, less than two weeks after the Ultimate Fighting Championship elected to release the 2000 Olympic silver medalist. The American Top Team standout turns 44 in April, and while his days as an elite competitor may be numbered, he has managed to keep Father Time at bay thus far. Romero closed out his tenure in the UFC with back-to-back-to-back decision defeats to a middleweight Murderer’s Row: Robert Whittaker, Paulo Costa and Israel Adesanya. He plans to join the Bellator roster at 205 pounds. A former Bellator light heavyweight champion, McGeary has not competed since his third-round technical knockout loss to Phil Davis in April 2019.
Gegard Mousasi vs. Anatoly Tokov: With the unfortunate retirement of Rafael Lovato Jr. and the continued age-related deterioration of Lyoto Machida, Mousasi appears to have few legitimate challengers at 185 pounds. He retained his middleweight title with a unanimous decision over welterweight boss Douglas Lima in a champion-versus-champion superfight at Bellator 250 in October, giving him his 10th win in 11 outings. Tokov did not compete in 2020, his absence undoubtedly linked to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the 30-year-old Russian boasts a 29-2 record that includes Bellator wins over Alexander Shlemenko, Gerald Harris and Hracho Darpinyan.
Juliana Velasquez vs. Ilima-Lei Macfarlane: Immediate rematches have their place in MMA, and considering the top-heavy state of the Bellator women’s flyweight division, it screams for one. The undefeated Velasquez captured the 125-pound championship with a unanimous decision over the previously unbeaten Macfarlane in the Bellator 254 headliner on Dec. 10. Scores were 49-46, 48-47 and 48-47. Velasquez and Macfarlane have clearly separated themselves from the rest of the pack at 125 pounds—a reality that could lead to an extended rivalry between them.
Douglas Lima vs. Yaroslav Amosov: It has become impossible to ignore Amosov as a serious contender in the welterweight division. A three-time world champion in combat sambo, the Ukrainian has compiled a perfect 25-0 record with 19 finishes as a professional mixed martial artist. Amosov passed his stiffest test to date in November, when he was awarded a split decision over Logan Storley and handed the four-time NCAA All-American wrestler his first defeat at Bellator 252. Lima reclaimed Bellator’s 170-pound championship and won the 2018-19 Bellator Welterweight Grand Prix with a unanimous decision over Rory MacDonald in October 2019. He has since failed in a bid to become a two-division titleholder, losing a unanimous decision to middleweight champion Gegard Mousasi.
Juan Archuleta vs. Sergio Pettis: Archuleta has posted 20 wins across his last 21 appearances, a unanimous decision loss to reigning Bellator featherweight champion Patricio Freire his only misstep. The 33-year-old Californian returned to more hospitable haunts at Bellator 246, where he laid claim to the vacant bantamweight crown with a unanimous verdict over the previously undefeated Patrick Mix on Sept. 12. Archuleta appears to be well-suited and finely tuned for an extended run at 135 pounds, even as contenders rise up to challenge his superiority. Pettis, 27, has pieced together a three-fight winning streak since he linked arms with Bellator in 2019, defeating Tyson Nam, Alfred Khashakyan and Ricky Bandejas in succession.
Goiti Yamauchi vs. Benson Henderson: An inability to consistently meet the 156-pound threshold for lightweights means Yamauchi will likely have to ply his trade as an undersized welterweight for the foreseeable future. Even so, he remains a can’t-miss attraction for Bellator due to his unshakable toughness and penchant for sensational fight-ending sequences. Yamauchi has delivered 20 of his 25 professional victories by submission and has never been finished in his 29-fight career. Henderson, a former UFC and World Extreme Cagefighting champion, has gone 5-5 under the Bellator banner since he signed as a free agent in 2016.