On Thursday, Bellator 253 sewed up one side of the Bellator MMA Featherweight Grand Prix bracket, as A.J. McKee will now await the winner of the semifinal between Emmanuel Sanchez and sitting champ Patricio Freire. The nine-fight card also featured an assortment of rising contenders, fading veterans and once-touted prospects who seem stuck in first gear. That being the case, some fighters’ stocks rose while others fell. Here are some of each.
A.J. McKee: It isn’t just that he keeps winning. That’s expected, and McKee has been a healthy favorite in all of his fights since the beginning. It’s how he keeps doing it, blowing through each successive challenge with shocking ease. John Teixeira and Georgi Karakhanyan were hard-as-nails veterans who had never been cleanly knocked out, and McKee left both men staring at the lights: Karakhanyan in just eight seconds, “Macapa” in barely a minute. Against Pat Curran, a former two-time Bellator featherweight titleholder and one of the toughest, most well-rounded fighters in the division, McKee swept every round in a way not even Curran’s fellow champs Patricio Freire or Daniel Straus had managed.
Thursday’s performance against former bantamweight champ Darrion Caldwell offered more of the same. Caldwell, a 2009 NCAA Division I wrestling champion, figured to present some unique challenges to the 16-0 phenom, and entered the cage with the closest odds of any McKee opponent to date. Instead, the only unique thing to happen was the neck crank from guard—textbook jiu-jitsu but rare in MMA—that finished the fight. Caldwell became the latest victim of a spectacular McKee finish, as he secured an early takedown only to have McKee calmly lock up the submission, forcing the tap in just 71 seconds. Now McKee waits to see whether it will be Freire or Sanchez who meets him in the final. “Pitbull,” the sitting champ and odds-on favorite to win the tournament since the outset, is one of the best pound-for-pound fighters on the planet and would be by far the sternest challenge of McKee’s career to date. Considering the way “Mercenary” has aced every test so far, however, perhaps the same could be said of him for Freire.
Raufeon Stots: Understand that “holding steady” is not a bad thing for a fighter as red-hot as Stots. In blanking Keith Lee, a decent prospect in his own right who had won his first two fights in the Bellator cage, Stots did no more or less than expected—to win—but in the post-Caldwell, post-Kyoji Horiguchi bantamweight division, to keep on winning is all he needs to do. Stots has now won seven straight, is 15-1 overall and has made the transition from prospect to contender seamlessly. A date with new Bellator bantamweight champion Juan Archuleta might be part of the very near future for the Roufusport product.
Benson Henderson: In 2015 Henderson, a former World Extreme Cagefighting and Ultimate Fighting Championship lightweight champion, moved up to welterweight and defeated Brandon Thatch and Jorge Masvidal back-to-back in UFC main events. While Masvidal is a smallish ‘tweener like Henderson and the fight was precisely the kind of iffy split decision that Henderson usually seemed to win and Masvidal always seemed to lose, Thatch was a true, rangy 6-foot-2 welterweight and Henderson completely dominated him. It was an eye-opening performance that gave hope that “Smooth” might have a new lease on life in a new weight class.
Unfortunately, the visual memory of Henderson manhandling the much larger Thatch may have created the persistent idea—with Henderson himself as well as his promoters—that he can compete on a regular basis with bigger men. Against Jason Jackson on Thursday, Henderson looked a full weight class smaller, and the fight played out accordingly. Henderson struggled to get the fight to the ground where he wanted it, and spent three rounds being outstruck at range by the Jamaican. After his knockout loss to Michael Chandler in August, the setback against Jackson leaves the 37-year-old Henderson 0-2 this year and without a clear road back to contention—in either division.
Kevin Ferguson Jr.: The quartet of Team Bodyshop super-prospects who debuted in Bellator around 2016 have taken widely diverging roads. McKee, as already discussed, has blown away expectations, with a showman’s flair in and out of the cage. Joey Davis, who picked up another dominant win on Thursday, is far quieter than McKee but every bit as undefeated. Aaron Pico stumbled out of the gate and suffered a couple of setbacks while moving from one gym to another, but notched his third stoppage win in a row last week at Bellator 252 and might finally be turning a corner.
Alone among them, “Baby Slice” simply has not panned out. Like Pico, he lost his debut, but where Pico regrouped and has only lost to very good fighters since then, Ferguson shows no signs of getting over the hump. Stardom beckoned if the son of the late Kevin Ferguson were to develop into even an above-average fighter. Thus far, that has not happened, despite moving from welterweight to lightweight and despite Bellator’s best efforts at friendly matchmaking, including his Bellator 253 opponent, Kaheem Murray, a .500 fighter debuting in Bellator off a loss. Against Murray, a transparent setup to get Ferguson a winnable fight, he lost all three rounds in one-sided fashion. It’s difficult to point to an appropriate next step for Ferguson, who would likely be gone already if not for his famous lineage.