On Thursday, Bellator MMA’s latest offering from its “FightSphere” completed the quarterfinals of its featherweight grand prix. While those matchups came out more or less as expected, some competitors still managed to impress or disappoint—not to mention the rest of the card. Here is the stock report for Bellator 252.
Emmanuel Sanchez: He couldn’t get the finish, but that’s about the only bone to pick with Sanchez’s one-sided mauling of Daniel Weichel in their quarterfinal. Ignore the official scorecards, which were all over the place—four of the five rounds featured dissenting scores. That should have been a 50-44 shellacking, with Sanchez’s brutal body work netting him a 10-8 second round. While “El Matador” was expected to win, it had to feel good to avenge his split decision loss to Weichel from four years ago. Now he advances to the semifinals, where he will have a chance to avenge another loss, this time against featherweight champ Patricio Freire. While “Pitbull” will be the righteous favorite going into that matchup, their first meeting was far from a walkover, and Sanchez has looked better than ever while winning three straight since then.
Patricio Freire: When you’re the defending champ and the odds-on favorite to win the grand prix and retain your belt, the only way to elevate your stock in victory is to bring some style points. Mission accomplished, thanks to a highlight-reel knockout. “Pitbull” walked right through Pedro Carvalho in the main event, moving inside fearlessly to blast the taller man with overhand rights, including the pair that finished the fight in just under half a round. It felt like a message to Sanchez, Darrion Caldwell and A.J. McKee, who round out the grand prix semifinal bracket. It also bolstered his case as the most accomplished fighter in Bellator history, a case which got a boost when Michael Chandler left for the Ultimate Fighting Championship this year.
Aaron Pico: Forget the 2015 hype and forget the ridiculous -1200 odds against John de Jesus on Thursday night. (In a sport as unpredictable as MMA, a decent argument can be made that nobody should ever be that big a favorite—let alone a young fighter whose chief identifying trait is inconsistency.) Pico is not the future of the sport, at least not in the way he appeared to be five years ago. He isn’t the 19-year-old wunderkind who might have been, on paper at least, the greatest MMA prospect ever. That person no longer exists, if he ever did. What does exist is a 24-year-old featherweight with plus athleticism, excellent wrestling and crushing punching power. He has struggled with lapses in focus and fight IQ, but outside of an upset in his professional debut, has only lost to very good fighters. As such, beating de Jesus by emphatic stoppage and without running any undue risk is a good sign. All Pico needs to do is keep beating the fighters he’s supposed to beat. The rest will take care of itself.
Yaroslav Amosov and Logan Storley: When two undefeated fighters enter the cage, something generally has to give. Of the two rising welterweight contenders, Amosov was far more experienced at 24-0 and was understandably favored to hand the 11-0 Storley his first loss. The outcome, a split decision in favor of the Ukrainian, probably left both frustrated, but didn’t do much harm to either man’s stock. Faced with the larger and sambo-trained Amosov, Storley for the first time in his career found himself unable to get his opponent to the ground without enormous, cardio-sapping effort.
However, a competitive fight that was slowly but clearly going the way of Amosov turned on a dime in the third round, as Storley took Amosov’s back in transition and threatened with a rear-naked choke for well over a minute. While Storley doesn’t come off as one who believes in moral victories, putting Amosov in survival mode for much of the third round despite clearly being the more tired fighter is optically much different from simply getting ground down for another five minutes. Meanwhile Amosov, now 25-0, survives and advances as the owner of the best record in major MMA since the apparent retirement of Khabib Nurmagomedov—who, incidentally, didn’t get to 29-0 without a few close calls of his own along the way.
Khonry Gracie: Oh, what a difference two or three decades make. The early years of this sport were full of Gracies winning everything in sight, and guys with spectacular mullets who generally didn’t fare so well. Fast-forward to 2020 and Khonry, son of the legendary Royce Gracie, walked into the cage as a whopping 6-to-1 favorite over Trevor Gudde, then walked into a perfectly timed step-in knee in the third round. Gudde finished the job with a dozen unanswered punches and hammerfists to complete the biggest upset of the night. Still just 23 years old, there’s plenty of time for Gracie to turn things around, but for now he finds himself in the Pico-esque position of having been put away by a hand-picked opponent, which is never a good look.