Bellator MMA returns to the combat sports scene on the eve of the Floyd Mayweather Jr.-Conor McGregor super fight and does so with a handful of key players at its disposal.
In his first appearance since surrendering his welterweight championship to Douglas Lima, Andrey Koreshkov will lock horns with Chidi Njokuani in the Bellator 182 headliner this Friday at the Turning Stone Resort and Casino in Verona, New York. Their three-round clash at 170 pounds anchors a four-fight main draw that airs on Spike (9 p.m. ET/8 p.m. CT) and carries with it potential title implications.
A protégé of former Bellator middleweight champion Alexander Shlemenko, Koreshkov saw a six-fight winning streak grind to a halt on Nov. 10 in Tel Aviv, Israel, where Lima punched him unconscious in the third round of their Bellator 164 rematch. The defeat was the 26-year-old Russian’s first in more than three years. Known for his prodigious offensive talents, Koreshkov has secured 13 of his 19 career victories by knockout, technical knockout or submission.
Njokuani will enter the cage on a run of seven straight wins. The 28-year-old Saeksan Janjira, Nick Blomgren and Sergio Penha understudy last competed at Bellator 171 in January, when he took a three-round unanimous decision from Melvin Guillard. A former Tachi Palace Fights champion, Njokuani has had issues with weight cuts in the past. He is the younger brother of Ultimate Fighting Championship and World Extreme Cagefighting veteran Anthony Njokuani.
The Koreshkov-Njokuani is but one must-see attraction the Bellator 182 menu. Here are four more:
Ward and his established reputation as a live-by-the-sword-die-by-the-sword kind of fighter take aim at Gonzalez in the welterweight co-main event. There, they will go about fleshing out Bellator’s middle tier at 170 pounds. Ward, 29, finds himself on the rebound following a devastating knockout loss to Paul Daley at Bellator 170 on Jan. 21. A flying knee turned out the lights 2:27 into the first round and saddled the New London, Connecticut, native with his second loss in three appearances. Ward has gone the distance only once in his 19-fight career. The well-traveled Gonzalez has rattled off six wins across his past seven outings, a controversial split decision defeat to Michael Page the only blemish. The 33-year-old Californian last fought at Bellator 174 in March, when he was awarded a unanimous decision over Brandon Girtz.
McKee has thus far lived up to the lofty expectations placed upon him. The undefeated featherweight prospect has compiled an 8-0 record with six finishes, and at 22, he has the look of a future champion at 145 pounds. The son of former Maximum Fighting Championship titleholder Antonio McKee, “The Mercenary” last competed on April 21, when he knocked out Dominic Mazzotta with a head kick just 75 seconds into their Bellator 178 encounter at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut. Though he will enter the match as a massive underdog, Tugman has experience on his side. He has been a professional mixed martial artist since 2007 -- McKee was 12 when “The Bull Shark” debuted -- and has made the rounds on the regional circuit. Tugman has pieced together a three-fight winning streak since he submitted to a Kin Moy triangle choke a little more than two years ago. He wrestled collegiately at Lock Haven University, a Division I institution in Pennsylvania.
They have 42 finishes between them, and the fact that their showdown wound up on the prelims speaks to the depth and quality of this card. A former Tachi Palace Fights and World Series of Fighting champion, Karakhanyan hopes to steady himself following a majority decision loss to Roufusport’s Emmanuel Sanchez at Bellator 170 some seven months ago. Wins over Din Thomas, Lance Palmer and Bubba Jenkins (twice) buoy the Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt’s resume, which includes 14 submissions. Karakhanyan operates out of the Millennia MMA camp, where he trains alongside Lorenz Larkin, Saad Awad and Tatiana Suarez. A onetime Legacy Fighting Championship titleholder with UFC experience under his belt, Pineda has won four of his last five bouts. The 32-year-old Texan has not appeared since he submitted Mark Dickman with a third-round rear-naked choke in September.
The road does not get any easier for Kavanagh, even after her first setback. The SBG Ireland rep raced out to a 4-0 record to start her career but dropped a unanimous decision to Iony Razafiarison at Bellator 173 in February. The defeat slowed her rise at 145 pounds. Kavanagh was a five-time national boxing champion in her native Ireland and got her feet wet in the British Association of Mixed Martial Arts organization prior to signing with Bellator. Widely regarded as one of the top 10 women’s featherweights in the world, Blencowe rebounded from her majority decision loss to Julia Budd at Bellator 162 with consecutive first-round finishes against Rhiannon Thompson and Janay Harding. The 34-year-old Australian has proven vulnerable on the ground, as five of her six defeats have come by submission.