At Bellator 244 on Friday, in his first appearance at 205 pounds since October 2018, Ryan Bader looked painfully slow and out of sorts against challenger Vadim Nemkov, dropping the first round before being overwhelmed in the second. While referee Kerry Hatley gave Bader every chance to recover, Nemkov was relentless, and Hatley had no option but to stop the beating at just over three minutes of Round 2. Bellator’s first simultaneous two-division champion, who had put the light heavyweight title on hold while he entered the heavyweight grand prix, is now back down to one belt.
With the dominant performance, Nemkov became the seventh man to wear the Bellator light heavyweight belt. The 28-year-old protégé of Fedor Emelianenko is now riding a seven-fight winning streak, the last four of which include the three previous lightweight champions—Bader, Phil Davis and Liam McGeary—as well as former middleweight champ Rafael Carvalho. Nemkov’s ascendancy may be a good sign for Bellator. While the light heavyweight division worldwide is perceived to be aging and lacking in depth, Nemkov is Bellator’s only champion under 30, and unlike his two immediate predecessors, who were already Top 10 contenders when they came to Bellator from the Ultimate Fighting Championship, he is a largely home-grown star.
Here is the nearly 10-year history of the Bellator light heavyweight title and the times it was won, lost or defended. It tells the story of a division breaking out of a long period of stagnation and—perhaps—entering a dynamic new age with a young champion at its head.
Ben Duffy/Sherdog.com illustration