Any time you hear “and new,” someone’s stock is surely rising, but there’s more to it for Juliana Velasquez.
The main event of Bellator 254 saw a rare clash between undefeated fighters in a major MMA title fight, and once the 25 minutes were up, one of the most dominant champions in Bellator MMA history, Ilima-Lei Macfarlane, had been dethroned. However, Bellator’s final event of 2020 featured plenty more to digest, as we saw two unbeaten prospects headed in opposite directions, witnessed a veteran turning it around after a rough patch, and welcomed back a fighter who seems to be scarier than ever despite a long absence. Here’s the stock report for Bellator 254.
Juliana Velasquez: It isn’t just that Velasquez won a unanimous decision over Macfarlane to become just the second woman to wear the Bellator flyweight belt. That was expected, as she entered the cage a -170 favorite. However, the areas in which Velasquez figured to have the advantage played out as expected, while the threats Macfarlane was supposed to pose never materialized for the most part. Velasquez’s obvious, substantial advantages in size and strength caused Macfarlane to struggle to find her range on the feet, particularly in the first two rounds, and Macfarlane’s attempts to bring the fight to the floor were largely unsuccessful. While the Hawaiian did appear to be the quicker fighter, she simply wasn’t able to do much with it, and cardio didn’t factor into the deliberately-paced fight at all. The 34-year-old Brazilian judoka now owns the Bellator women’s flyweight crown, which she may well defend against two-time Ultimate Fighting Championship title challenger and longtime Macfarlane teammate Liz Carmouche. After that, frankly, there doesn’t appear to be a whole lot to make the new champ nervous.
Magomed Magomedov: Former Absolute Championship Akhmat bantamweight champion Magomedov came back from a two-year absence to make his Bellator debut and looked better than ever. Against a very credible prospect in the 12-1-1 Matheus Mattos, “Tiger” put on a completely dominant show across three rounds. Magomedov’s performance was pure Dagestani brutality, as he slammed Mattos all over the place, applied withering pressure from top position and generally made life miserable. Still just 28 years old despite the long layoff, Magomedov has instant cachet as the only man to defeat UFC bantamweight champ Petr Yan. While Yan won in their rematch a year later, both fights were very competitive, which lends further credence to the idea that Magomedov looks like he could give any 135-pounder on earth a run for his money right now. The Bellator bantamweight division can consider itself on notice, and the possibility of cross-promotion bringing Magomedov and Rizin FF’s Kyoji Horiguchi into a ring or cage together is the kind of thing that should make any hardcore fan stand at attention.
Romero Cotton: It’s hard to say what Cotton’s ceiling is as a fighter, but it’s easy to point out the obvious and say “higher than this.” Bellator stands out among MMA promotions for its admirable practice of signing young talents and developing them at a sensible rate. Rarely, if ever, do we find ourselves lamenting that Bellator threw a promising prospect to the wolves. However, Cotton, who moved to 5-0 with a first-round throttling of Justin Sumter on Thursday, has blown through all of his opponents with such ease that we really need to see what he can do against a good middleweight. Part of the problem is that in Bellator’s thin middleweight division, there is a sharp drop-off outside of the top few contenders, but there must be a happy medium between “throw him to Gegard Mousasi” and “sign another +400 underdog.” In his post-fight interview after choking out Sumter, the 29-year-old former college wrestling standout credited his home gym, American Kickboxing Academy, stating that he gets tougher looks in practice than in any of his actual fights. It was meant as a shout-out to his team, but at the same time it kind of reinforces the point.
Ilima-Lei Macfarlane: The “Ilimanator” will almost certainly get a shot at winning back her belt—if not immediately, then probably soon. After all, she is one of the most dominant champs in Bellator history as well as one of the promotion’s biggest stars and the centerpiece of its periodic trips to Hawaii. The scores (48-47, 48-47 and 49-46) are close enough on paper that the rematch would be an easy sell, especially to anyone who didn’t watch Thursday’s fight. However, to anyone who did watch all five rounds, there isn’t a whole lot to indicate that a second go-round would turn out much better for Macfarlane. Scorecards aside, there was really only one round—the fourth—that was a clear Macfarlane round, and even that one was by no means dominant. Macfarlane won the belt and defended it a record-tying four straight times despite being severely undersized for the division, thanks to her outstanding grappling and a combination of speed, fitness, fight IQ and heart not unlike Frankie Edgar. But unlike Edgar, who eventually found that the answer was to drop down to a more suitable weight class, Macfarlane does not currently have that option.
Robson Gracie Jr.: Another in the seemingly endless parade of Brazilian jiu-jitsu’s first family to come up through the Bellator ranks, the youngest son of the legendary Robson Gracie entered the cage on Thursday as a 3-0 prospect and a whopping 5-to-1 favorite over Billy Goff. Some of that lopsided line seemed justified, as Gracie’s previous three fights—all under the Bellator banner—had been impressive, one-sided grappling clinics. If Gracie’s wins had been examples of best-case outcomes for jiu-jitsu in MMA, the Goff fight showed the worst case. Unable to get Goff to the ground on his terms, Gracie found himself stuck on the feet with an aggressive, hard-nosed, competent striker, and quickly ran out of gas. By the end of the first round, Gracie was reduced to flopping and being waved back up to his feet by his opponent and/or the referee, and in the second, he was a sitting duck for Goff’s punching combinations. This is by no means the end of the line for Gracie, but as a 31-year-old “prospect” with just four fights under his belt, he has his work cut out for him if he wants to do work as a well-rounded mixed martial artist in the Bellator welterweight division.