Contention on His Mind

By Jason Burgos Jan 23, 2019

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Ricky Bandejas put the mixed martial arts world on notice with his drubbing of ballyhooed SBG Ireland prospect James Gallagher under the Bellator MMA flag in August. He will look to up the ante on when he meets former King of the Cage champion Juan Archuleta at Bellator 214 on Saturday at The Forum in Inglewood, California. A bantamweight title shot could conceivably await the winner.

A well-respected talent on the regional scene, Bandejas was not a known commodity on the national stage entering his clash with Gallagher. By contrast, the Irishman was heavily promoted and modeled his persona after teammate and former two-division Ultimate Fighting Championship titleholder Conor McGregor. However, the hype surrounding Gallagher had no impact on Bandejas. He saw it as a perfect matchup.

“I viewed him as an easy fight,” Bandejas told Sherdog.com. “I knew he was 7-0, [but it came] against seven hand-fed guys, guys that had no ground [game and guys] the promotion picked out.”

Despite his 10-1 record entering the fight, Bandejas was viewed by some as little more than fodder for Gallagher, who had finished six of his seven opponents.

“I did feel that the promotion did want him to win and they set me up to lose, but fortunately, that was not the way it went down,” he said. “We knew he was going to come out like that, you know, a little firecracker. I don’t think it was too good. He threw a couple kicks [and] he really didn’t try punching at all, so I think he needs a lot of work on his standup.”

Once the Cage Fury Fighting Championships titleholder rode out Gallagher’s early storm and offered significant resistance, he felt a change in his opponent.

“He took a deep breath, and he started slowing down,” Bandejas said. “He took the deepest shot possible -- like a textbook takedown -- and he got it, [but] it felt weak. His ground game, it looks good against guys that don’t have any ground game. After that, I just knew it was our night.”

A massive overhand right floored Gallagher, leading to a beautifully placed side kick to the Irishman’s face. Punches followed, and the bout was waved off just 2:49 seconds into the first round. While that fight went as expected for Bandejas, he believes he has a much stiffer challenge ahead in the 21-1 Archuleta.

“I think he’s a way better test and a way better talent,” he said. “He’s all-around [talented]. He doesn’t [just have] knockouts. He’s got submissions. He’s got everything. He’s tough.”

After competing exclusively as a featherweight during his three-fight Bellator run, Archuleta has elected to take his talents to the bantamweight division -- a weight class in which he captured a King of the Cage championship. Bandejas remains uncertain as to how the weight cut might affect Archuleta.

“I’m not too sure. I know he’s a little short. I don’t know if it’s that a hard cut for him with the frame [he has],” Bandejas said before questioning the wisdom of moving to 135 pounds. “He’s been doing so good at ’45. I don’t understand why he would jump down. Maybe because he has some teammates who fight [at] ’45? At least he knows if he loses, he can always go back up.”

Archuleta has not lost a fight in nearly four years. Bandejas respects the skills “The Spaniard” brings to the cage but thinks he is the superior skill-for-skill fighter.

“I didn’t see any weakness, but I just think I’m that much better in every area,” he said. “I think my standup’s just a little bit better, my ground. A lot of fights he wins because he wears on guys, gets them tired, but that’s not going to happen [with me].”

Just like Archuleta -- who trains with Ultimate Fighting Championship luminaries like Cub Swanson and bantamweight titleholder T.J. Dillashaw -- Bandejas builds confidence from training with high-level fighters. Mixed in with training alongside “tough regional guys” and “a bunch of ’35ers,” Bandejas works with notable fighters like Professional Fighters League bantamweight Timur Valiev and UFC flyweight Said Nurmagomedov. The latter is related to UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov and PFL lightweight Abubakar Nurmagomedov. He has served as Bandejas’ primary training partner throughout this camp, since the team feels he can come closest to mirroring Archuleta’s style. Win or lose, Bandejas believes the fight should decide the next No. 1 contender for Darrion Caldwell’s Bellator bantamweight title.

“It would be insane to think that the winner doesn’t get a title fight,” he said. “You know, 21-1 versus 11-1, both on big win streaks? I can’t imagine the winner not getting a title fight.”

A title shot for either man may not be automatic, because Rizin Fighting Federation bantamweight champion Kyoji Horiguchi may stand in their way. The Japanese fighter defeated Caldwell at Rizin 14 in the promotion’s inaugural bantamweight title fight. Part of the deal to allow Caldwell to fight for Rizin was a clause that affords Horiguchi a rematch in the Bellator cage for Caldwell’s belt. If he were to defeat Archuleta, Bandejas has a great deal of confidence in facing either man for the 135-pound strap somewhere down the line.

“I match up very well with both of them,” he said. “I think that Archuleta is a tougher fight than Caldwell. They both have great wrestling, but Archuleta has a little better cardio and standup. Caldwell doesn’t really have any standup.”

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