Bellator MMA kicked off its 2019 campaign with a quality card at The Forum in Inglewood, California, ushering a series of promising talents into the cage before wrapping up the Heavyweight Grand Prix with a main event showdown between light heavyweight champ Ryan Bader and Russian legend Fedor Emelianenko.
For Bader, it was a chance to make history by becoming the first “double-champ” in Bellator MMA history, while for Emelianenko, it marked an opportunity to add one more major name to his already impressive resume before finally pulling the plug on his illustrious career.
Here’s a look at what took place on Saturday night and what it means going forward for Bellator MMA in 2019.
1. Bader Rules Bellator
Ryan Bader became the first two-weight world champion in Bellator MMA on Saturday evening, knocking out Fedor Emelianenko in just 35 seconds to close out the Heavyweight Grand Prix and Bellator 214 at The Forum in Inglewood.
After a very brief feeling out period, the light heavyweight champion lunged forward with a lead left hook that landed on the button, taking Emelianenko’s feet out from under him and bringing the main event to a sudden halt. While a couple follow-up blows came quickly, they were academic — “The Last Emperor” had been felled and Bader had etched his name in the Bellator record books.
JUST LIKE THAT!!!! ?? @RyanBader with the HUGE KO against Fedor Emelianenko! #Bellator214 pic.twitter.com/7fm2XFY1zh
— Bellator MMA (@BellatorMMA) January 27, 2019
Although Bader winning the Grand Prix was what many people anticipated when the eight-man tournament kicked off a year ago, few could have forecasted him doing it in such dramatic fashion. This was one of the shortest fights of the iconic Russian’s illustrious career and the quickest he had ever been defeated and Bader made it look easy.
Congrats to the two-weight world champion and Grand Prix winner!
2. A Case for Pound-for-Pound Inclusion
Bader left the UFC as an under-appreciated talent; a guy who spent the majority of his eight years competing in the Octagon as a Top 10 fighter, but who didn’t get the respect he deserved because he never fought for the title and lost to some truly elite opponents.
A little over two years after his final UFC appearance, the 35-year-old Arizona State alum has a strong case for being considered one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the sport today. Not only has he gone 5-0 since signing with Bellator, earning both the light heavyweight and heavyweight titles, but he’s won his last four in dominant fashion across two divisions.
Although he’s the first to admit that light heavyweight is where he belongs, Bader has proven that he is capable of competing with the best heavyweights Bellator has to offer, so the potential is there for him to retain both titles and defend both belts in 2019.
Becoming a “double champ” has become trendy over the last eight months, with Bader joining Daniel Cormier and Amanda Nunes as the third fighter to accomplish the feat since last summer. Those two are currently stationed in the Sporting News Pound-for-Pound rankings and with his performance on Saturday night, Bader can make an excellent case for inclusion in the next installment.
3. Fun Fights or Bust for Fedor
Emelianenko acknowledged in the week leading up to Saturday’s main event that his career is winding down and he’s been thinking more and more about retirement. If he does continue to fight, however, it’s time to just put the iconic Russian heavyweight in fun, nostalgic matchups rather than rolling him out there against the best the division has to offer.
As much as I don’t really like advocating for meaningless fights, I have to admit there is a time and a place for them and now is the time for Bellator to go that route with Fedor. Instead of trying to build him back into a contender or putting him in there with various tenured heavyweights, use whatever fights he has left on his contract to pair him off with other established names who are at the tail end of their careers.
Fedor vs. Tito?
Fedor vs. Rampage?
Maybe we finally get Fedor vs. Randy Couture or a rematch with Dan Henderson, who was in attendance Saturday night and could probably be talked out of retirement for one last go-round with a guy he’s already beaten.
If he wants to keep fighting, have some fun with it.
4. Corrales sleeps Pico, calls for championship bout
Henry Corrales looked to be on his way to a quick loss, but instead, the sturdy veteran steadied himself and scored a first-round knockout win over highly-touted prospect Aaron Pico in the co-main event of the evening.
After getting dropped 30 seconds into the fight with a clean right uppercut, Corrales shook out the cobwebs and caught the 22-year-old with a clean right hand in the midst of a back-and-forth exchange 30 seconds later. Pico was out before his body hit the canvas.
?WOW! What a stunner!!! @HenryCorrales86 shocks everyone!! #Bellator214 pic.twitter.com/Siz1acPVKe
— Bellator MMA (@BellatorMMA) January 27, 2019
Now riding a five-fight winning streak that coincides with shifting his training to The MMA Lab in Glendale, Arizona, Corrales was emotionless and terse with his post-fight comments, telling John McCarthy that he’s ready to fight again in a hurry and calling out featherweight ruler Patricio Pitbull, who bested Corrales in a short-notice assignment at Bellator 153.
5. No Substitute for Experience
Charting a course for an ultra-talented and engaging prospect like Pico is difficult and the 22-year-old has made it even more challenging for Bellator by looking like an absolute monster over his last four fights.
In his last appearance of 2018, he put away former Legacy champ Leandro Higo in a little over three minutes, which had many — myself included — believing that Pico could procure a title shot with a win on Saturday night.
But the trouble with trucking a guy like Higo is that it’s difficult to then book Pico against some behind the Brazilian in the pecking order, which is how he ends up in the cage with a 20-fight veteran who is 10 years his senior and been through things in the cage that Pico has yet to experience.
There is no easy answer for the Bellator brass — book him against a lesser foe and they get called out for playing favorites; book him against a tough veteran and they’re criticized for extending him too far, too soon, especially when he gets sparked in a high-profile matchup.
The truth of the matter is that Pico needs to log as much time as possible in the cage over these next few years so that he can gain experience in the innumerable positions and predicaments that a fighter faces over their careers. He doesn’t benefit from mauling overmatched cannon fodder, so find some game regional veterans who can take a punch and potentially push the youngster inside the cage and go from there.
Pico is still an outstanding prospect; he just needs more seasoning.
6. Hager Rolls, But What’s Next?
Jake Hager, better known to professional wrestling fans as former WWE superstar Jack Swagger, made his MMA debut on Saturday night, turning to his collegiate wrestling skills to quickly tap out 40-something J.W. Kiser early in the opening round.
? @RealJackSwagger ?comes away with the W tonight!
Were you watching when he made history coast to coast on @ParamountNet and simulcast on @DAZN_USA ? #Bellator214 pic.twitter.com/VKSadMgEiC
— Bellator MMA (@BellatorMMA) January 27, 2019
It was the equivalent of the kind of squash matches you used to see on “WWF Superstars” on Saturday mornings, where hyped newcomers piled up wins over an assortment of jobbers before eventually entering into their first real feud. Shout out to “Iron” Mike Sharpe!
What’s interesting, however, is that Hager said he’d like to spend the next decade competing inside the Bellator cage. The University of Oklahoma product has some obvious upside as an athletic heavyweight with a collegiate wrestling pedigree and he took a good shot from Kiser right out of the chute and kept moving forward, which is a positive sign, so the potential is there for Hager to hang around and make a real go of things in MMA.
But how long will that last?
Bobby Lashley has logged 17 fights over the last eight years, while maintaining a steady schedule as a professional wrestler, but he also hasn’t fought in over two years and I can’t see him returning while he’s under contract with WWE.
Hager is currently wrestling on the independents and with Lucha Underground, where he is the current champ, so he shouldn’t face any push-back about fighting for Bellator on that front and finding him opponents shouldn’t be an issue either.
The sticking point could come down to how often Hager wants to schlep to Uncasville, Connecticut or Temecula, California to fight overmatched, unknown foes while logging the cage time necessary to give himself a real chance to make something of himself as a mixed martial artist.
Only time will tell.
7. “Utility Infielder” Archuleta Wins Again
Juan Archuleta is like a utility infielder on a Major League Baseball team — he can fight in multiple divisions without issue and he’s capable of handling himself well no matter where you put him.
Saturday night, the 31-year-old extended his winning streak to 17 with a unanimous decision win over Ricky Bandejas in the bantamweight division. It was the first time Archuleta competed at 135 pounds since December 2016.
A four-division champion under the King of the Cage banner, Archuleta now has to be considered in the title mix at both bantamweight and featherweight and could continue to bounce between divisions in order to chase the best opportunities.
8. An Inauspicious Start for A.J. Agazarm
Former collegiate wrestler turned world-class grappler A.J. Agazarm made his first start as a professional mixed martial artist on Saturday and it wasn’t pretty.
Squaring off against fellow first-timer Jesse Roberts, Agazarm’s inexperience shone through, as he looked uncomfortable on the feet early and struggled to get the fight to the floor at times, while failing to find a finish when the action did hit the canvas. When the 10s and nines were tallied, it was Roberts who walked away with the split-decision victory.
Although there were moments where Agazarm’s pedigree on the ground was obvious, he’s clearly got a long way to go in his transition to becoming a full-fledged MMA fighter. If he does want to continue pursuing a career in the cage, the best thing for Agazarm to do is work on his setups and transitions.
As weird as that sounds when talking about someone who wrestled collegiately at Ohio State and has had success in both gi and no gi grappling, he just doesn’t understand how to make those skills work for him inside the cage just yet. He has the pedigree. Now, it’s all about learning how to put the pieces together to take advantage of his best weapons and continuing to gain experience.
9. One to Watch: Jay Jay Wilson
Fighters from the Oceanic region had a massive year inside the Octagon in 2018 and that impact flowed over to the Bellator cage on Saturday night as 21-year-old New Zealander Jay Jay Wilson quickly collected his second consecutive first-round submission win in as many professional starts.
Wilson ate a clean shot from Tyler Beneke that immediately created a mouse under his left eye right out of the gate, but it prompted the Kiwi to take the fight to the canvas where he put his tremendous size and long limbs to good use. After quickly working around to Beneke’s back, Wilson fished the arm under the chin and secured the tap.
Bellator has traditionally done an excellent job of bringing young talents along slowing and giving them every opportunity to gain momentum and make a name for themselves before dropping them into the deep end of the talent pool. Wilson is largely unheralded, but he’s looked solid in his first two starts and is someone who could get a longer look over the next 12 months.
10. Can’t Ask for Much More
Eight of the 10 scheduled preliminary card fights made it into the cage prior to the main card kicking off, largely because six of those eight ended inside the first round.
While the skill ranged from super-sloppy to pretty solid, there is nothing better than a series of quick, impressive finishes to carry you through the prelims and onto the main card.
Besides Wilson, the other early standouts included California regional vet Thor Skancke (pronounced “Skanky”), who put Jesse Merritt to sleep with a north-south choke, and Machida Karate product Weber Almeida, who stung Odan Chinchilla with a high kick before felling him with a one-hitter quitter three minutes into the opening frame.
The action moved quickly, the majority of the fights were entertaining and there were a couple strong showings from young fighters to pay attention to going forward.
What more can you ask for?