Past history teaches us to expect the unexpected in mixed martial arts, especially at the highest levels. The nine men and women currently in possession of Bellator MMA gold will enter their respective 2022 campaigns with a sense of anticipation. Some will be rewarded with extended title reigns while others will endure very public falls from grace. Such is the nature of the beast in a sport where chaos and tumult lurk around every corner. Need evidence? Four of the nine undisputed championships changed hands at least once in 2021. Who will be the last men and women standing when the calendar flips to 2023? A look into the crystal ball:
Heavyweight: Valentin Moldavsky
Moldavsky gets his shot at glory right out of the gate, as he challenges Ryan Bader in the Bellator 273 headliner on Jan. 29 at the Footprint Center in Phoenix. There, the two men will unify the promotion’s heavyweight crown. Just 29 years of age, Moldavsky enters the cage on a career-best six-fight winning streak that now spans more than five years. The Fedor Emelianenko protégé captured the interim championship at Bellator 261, where he laid claim to a five-round unanimous decision over Ultimate Fighting Championship veteran Timothy Johnson on June 25.
Light Heavyweight: Corey Anderson
Long viewed as a future champion, Anderson has but one more hurdle to clear. “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 19 winner will lock horns with reigning 205-pound titleholder Vadim Nemkov in the Bellator light heavyweight grand prix final sometime in the first half in 2022. To the victor goes the undisputed light heavyweight championship. Anderson has rattled off three straight wins since he joined the Bellator roster as a big-ticket free agent a little more than a year ago. He last fought on Oct. 16, when he punched out the aforementioned Bader a mere 51 seconds into their grand prix semifinal at Bellator 268.
Middleweight: Gegard Mousasi
Mousasi may be the most complete fighter on the Bellator payroll at any weight. “The Dreamcatcher” will put his middleweight championship on the line when he entertains undefeated American Top Team standout Austin Vanderford in the Bellator 275 main event on Feb. 25 in Dublin. Mousasi, 36, has won 11 of his past 12 bouts, a contentious majority decision defeat to Rafael Lovato Jr. in June 2019 his only misstep. He last competed at Bellator 264, where he brought down John Salter with punches in the third round of their Aug. 13 encounter.
Welterweight: Yaroslav Amosov
The record speaks for itself: 26-0. Having risen to the top of the Bellator welterweight division, the unbeaten Amosov now must prove he can stay there. The Ukrainian brute completed his run to the 170-pound championship on June 11, when he took a five-round unanimous decision from Douglas Lima under the Bellator 260 marquee. Wins over Gerald Harris, Erick Silva, David Rickels, Ed Ruth, Mark Lemminger and Logan Storley preceded his title-clinching victory over Lima. While not yet official, Amosov expects to defend his welterweight crown opposite Michael Page in London during the second quarter of 2022.
Lightweight: Usman Nurmagomedov
Nurmagomedov looks like the next potential star in the Russia-to-American Kickboxing Academy pipeline. The 23-year-old blue-chip prospect has raced out to a perfect 14-0 start, with 12 of his wins coming by knockout, technical knockout or submission. Nurmagomedov last fought on Oct. 23, when he submitted Patrik Pietila with a rear-naked choke 4:06 into the first round of their Bellator 269 clash. While he does not yet have a clear path to reigning lightweight titleholder Patricky Freire, he has climbed into the Top 5 rankings and could move quicker than expected with another impressive performance or two. The situation remains fluid in a division where the champion seems more vulnerable than most.
Featherweight: A.J. McKee
Otherworldly talents like McKee only come along every so often. The Long Beach, California, native improved to 18-0 in his only appearance of 2021—a star-making submission of Patricio Freire in the Bellator 263 main event that brought with it the undisputed featherweight championship on July 31. McKee had the Brazilian badly hurt with a head kick before closing the distance and briefly choking him unconscious with a guillotine 1:57 into the first round. A rematch with “Pitbull” figures to be on the docket for McKee sooner rather than later, with challengers like Adam Borics and Mads Burnell also in the queue. “The Mercenary” will be favored in any bout at 145 pounds for the foreseeable future.
Bantamweight: Sergio Pettis
Pettis has as much momentum as any champion in Bellator at the moment. The current bantamweight titleholder was on the brink of being dethroned on Dec. 3, then proceeded to author the “Knockout of the Year” when he leveled Kyoji Horiguchi with a perfectly timed spinning backfist in the fourth round of their Bellator 272 headliner. It might not be the last time the two men stand across from each other inside the cage. Nevertheless, Pettis at the age of 28 appears to be a fully formed mixed martial artist with few holes to exploit. Might Roufusport teammate Raufeon Stots warrant a look as the next No. 1 contender at 135 pounds?
Women’s Featherweight: Cris Cyborg
There was concern that Cyborg’s knockout loss to Amanda Nunes in December 2018 might mark the end of her historic reign of dominance at 145 pounds. No such luck for the women who populate Bellator’s featherweight division. Cyborg has since pieced together a five-fight winning streak, with the last four of those victories having taken place in the Scott Coker-led promotion. While it may not represent a complete rebirth, Justino certainly looks like her old self again. She closed out her 2021 campaign in style on Nov. 12, when she waylaid Sinead Kavanagh with punches in the first round of their Bellator 271 main event and retained the women’s featherweight championship.
Women’s Flyweight: Juliana Velasquez
Velasquez reached the flyweight summit a little more than a year ago, when she upset Ilima-Lei Macfarlane in a five-round unanimous decision and walked away with championship gold strapped to her waist. The undefeated Team Nogueira product played a light schedule in 2021, successfully defending the 125-pound title in a split verdict over Denise Kielholtz in the Bellator 262 headliner on July 16. The fight was far more competitive than most expected, as Velasquez struggled to deal with the Dutch judoka’s sustained attack on her legs and body. Even so, she persevered. Macfarlane, Kielholtz, Liz Carmouche and Kana Watanabe look like Velasquez’s most pressing threats moving forward.
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