A disjointed schedule interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic did not prevent Bellator MMA from keeping the lines moving in its nine weight classes during the last calendar year. The Scott Coker-led promotion settled into its home away from home at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut, waded through the issues that sidelined various other organizations and crowned five new champions in 2020: Vadim Nemkov at light heavyweight, Gegard Mousasi at middleweight, Juan Archuleta at bantamweight, Cristiane Justino at women’s featherweight and Juliana Velasquez at women’s flyweight. Who will be the last men and women standing when the calendar flips to 2022? A look into the crystal ball:
Heavyweight: Vitaly Minakov
Minakov undoubtedly wants what was once his. The Russian sambo practitioner held Bellator’s heavyweight championship for 911 days during his 2013-14 run, only to be stripped of the title due to contract-related inactivity. Minakov left the promotion after the championship was taken from him and returned to the regional scene in Europe, where he rattled off seven consecutive victories and maintained a high profile as a top-flight heavyweight. Though his ballyhooed 2019 return to Bellator was spoiled by an upset loss to Cheick Kongo, he rebounded with a subsequent rout of Timothy Johnson six months later. Minakov did not compete in 2020, but he stands as the clear No. 1 contender for current champion Ryan Bader.
Light Heavyweight: Corey Anderson
Bellator’s loaded 205-pound weight class has become virtually impossible to handicap. Viable contenders abound for reigning titleholder Vadim Nemkov, who assumed the throne in August with his second-round technical knockout of the aforementioned Bader at Bellator 244. Phil Davis and the recently signed Yoel Romero and Anthony Johnson all have designs on challenging Nemkov for divisional supremacy, while Bader certainly warrants cursory consideration for a rematch. Anderson appears to have the strongest case as the next contender. “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 19 winner made his organizational debut in the Bellator 251 main event, where he dismantled Melvin Manhoef in less than two full rounds on Nov. 5.
Middleweight: Gegard Mousasi
Mousasi shows no outward signs of slowing down in his mid-30s. The two-time Bellator middleweight champion reclaimed the 185-pound crown in October, when he took a five-round unanimous decision from Douglas Lima at Bellator 250. Mousasi has won 10 of his past 11 bouts, a majority decision defeat to the unbeaten and now-retired Rafael Lovato Jr. his only misstep. “The Dreamcatcher” figures to settle his score with Lyoto Machida in 2021, as the two men have split their two previous meetings. Beyond Machida, John Salter, Anatoly Tokov and Austin Vanderford appear to be Mousasi’s most intriguing potential challengers at 185 pounds.
Welterweight: Douglas Lima
A unanimous decision loss to Mousasi in a failed bid to become a simultaneous two-division titleholder did nothing to diminish Lima’s stature within the company. He remains one of Bellator’s top pound-for-pound competitors and one of its most consistent champions. Lima, 33, figures to return to his more familiar haunts at 170 pounds sooner rather than later, and a compelling suitor has begun knocking at the door. Yaroslav Amosav improved to a perfect 25-0 with three wins in 2020, as the 27-year-old turned away Ed Ruth, Mark Lemminger and Logan Storley to quicken his climb on the welterweight ladder. The decorated sambo stylist sports 19 finishes—10 by submission and nine by knockout—among his 25 professional victories.
Lightweight: Patricio Freire
Preoccupied with his pursuits in the ongoing Bellator Featherweight Grand Prix, Freire has yet to defend the lightweight title he won with a stirring 61-second stoppage of Michael Chandler in May 2019. The 155-pound championship figures to remain on ice for at least the first half of 2021, as “Pitbull” prepares for his featherweight tournament semifinal with Emmanuel Sanchez and possible final with A.J. McKee. When and if Freire returns to the lightweight ranks, he would do so in a division with no clearly defined pecking order. However, a 2016 defeat to Benson Henderson remains a thorn in the Brazilian’s side and a blemish the Brazilian would certainly welcome the chance to rectify.
Featherweight: A.J. McKee
McKee’s stock continues to soar as he marches through the Bellator Featherweight Grand Prix. The undefeated 25-year-old stamped his ticket to the tournament final with victories over Georgi Karakhanyan, Derek Campos and Darrion Caldwell, none of whom survived to see the final bell. Viewed as McKee’s most difficult test to date on paper, Caldwell lasted just 71 seconds before being victimized by a unique neck crank in Sherdog’s 2020 “Submission of the Year” at Bellator 253 on Nov. 19. McKee now awaits the Freire-Sanchez winner and a shot at the undisputed featherweight crown.
Bantamweight: Kyoji Horiguchi
A serious knee injury forced Horiguchi to vacate the Bellator bantamweight championship in November 2019 and ultimately kept him on the sidelines for more than 16 months. However, the Japanese superstar returned in style on New Year’s Eve, as he buried Kai Asakura—one of only three men to defeat him—with punches 2:48 into the first round of their Rizin Fighting Federation 26 rematch in Saitama, Japan. Horiguchi may soon shift his attention stateside in a bid to reclaim Bellator gold at 135 pounds. If such a move materializes in 2021, he will find Juan Archuleta in his crosshairs. The criminally underappreciated Archuleta has recorded 20 wins across his last 21 appearances and laid claim to the vacant bantamweight title at Bellator 246, where he was awarded a five-round unanimous decision over Patrick Mix on Sept. 12.
Women’s Featherweight: Cristiane Justino
Justino has successfully distanced herself from a shocking 2018 loss to Amanda Nunes and, as most anticipated, breathed new life into her career under the Bellator MMA flag. The 35-year-old Brazilian juggernaut captured the featherweight championship with a fourth-round technical knockout of Julia Budd in her Jan. 25 promotional debut, then retained it with a rear-naked choke submission of Arlene Blencowe on Oct. 15. Where Justino goes from here remains to be seen. While a showdown with fellow Ultimate Fighting Championship veteran Cat Zingano could provide some intrigue, the most likely scenario involves a rematch with Budd. No matter who “Cyborg” faces next, she figures to do so as a prohibitive favorite.
Women’s Flyweight: Juliana Velasquez
The undefeated Velasquez managed to fly under the radar until she upset Ilima-Lei Macfarlane by unanimous decision at Bellator 254 on Dec. 10 and exited the cage as the undisputed Bellator women’s flyweight champion. The victory improved the 34-year-old Team Nogueira product to 6-0 in Bellator and 11-0 overall. Macfarlane was 11-0 with eight finishes prior to her encounter with Velasquez and had emerged as one of Bellator’s most bankable stars, her profile buoyed by memorable wins over Emily Ducote, Alejandra Lara, Valerie Letourneau and Veta Arteaga. The lack of a true No. 1 contender at 125 pounds means Velasquez will almost certainly meet Macfarlane in an immediate rematch sometime in the first half of 2021.
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