Prime Picks: ‘PFL vs. Bellator Champs’

The Professional Fighters League will stage a promotion-versus-promotion rumble for its first show of 2024 this Saturday at Kingdom Arena in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. By putting up a few of its champs against the best that Bellator MMA can offer, the two leagues are pulling out a lot of stops to make sure people realize the power of their merger. The three champion-versus-champion bouts are three-round encounters, which might change how some approach these proceedings. In this abbreviated PFL vs. Bellator edition of Prime Picks, we suggest two Ultimate Fighting Championship veterans will get it done while pitching a parlay of Bellator beltholders running the table.

Ryan Bader (-110)

Bader has more than proven himself since leaving the confines of the UFC as an elite contender who could not get over the hump of the Top 3. The 40-year-old still struggled against Corey Anderson and Vadim Nemkov—both Top 3 light heavyweights—but has had no equal since climbing above 206 pounds. Part of it is the level of competition, as aging names like Muhammed Lawal and Cheick Kongo hardly stack up against the Alexander Volkovs and Ciryl Ganes of the world. Against Renan Ferreira, an extremely rangy striker with a very exploitable ground game, Bader has an apparent and distinct path to victory that makes it somewhat surprising he is not favored.

The 6-foot-8 Brazilian, with an incredible 11-inch reach advantage over his opponent, can do practically whatever he wants from range. “Problema” can create real problems by firing off front kicks that Bader cannot get in on or potshot the former two-division titleholder from afar with piston-like jabs. Bader’s durability has never been immaculate, so he may get clipped trying to find his range or crash the pocket. As long as Bader stays on the outside, it will be Ferreira’s fight, but luckily for “Darth,” he has a trump card of elite wrestling. Putting the 265-pound beanpole on his back, staving off the occasional triangle setup and laying down ground-and-pound will be exactly how Bader should approach this 15-minute affair. This approach is not alien to the two-time NCAA All-American wrestler from Arizona State University, and it can keep his chin off the gunnery range and take him to a clear-cut win that might have a few scares.

Thiago Santos (-125)

At a combined 86 years of age, Santos and Yoel Romero will engage in the battle of elder statesmen on this bill. Both men have lost numerous steps, and the likelihood of this 205-pound match being a banger is low. Santos’ timing and speed have abandoned him, and his power has seemingly gone with it, as he has not done much with his hands since his thriller with Jan Blachowicz almost exactly five years ago. On the other hand, Romero may have won since departing the promotion in 2020 against exceptionally low-level opposition in the form of an older Melvin Manhoef and Alex Polizzi. On both occasions, Romero looked pedestrian until exploding into action, and that explosion is not likely to work on “Marreta.”

It is for the best that these two do not have five rounds to ply their craft, as their cardio reserves may not be able to take it. Romero did next to nothing for the first 20 or so minutes against Vadim Nemkov, except eat clean one-twos until deciding it was time to fight. Romero blitzed with all he had left, even securing a takedown. Still, the activity may have been more preempted because Romero had seemingly saved all his energy until that point while Nemkov teed off at will. It was not enough. Against Santos, another fighter who has become cautious to a fault, it is a measure of who is willing to give up more rounds. In recent memory, while Santos does little, Romero does almost nothing until going ballistic for a few seconds. It may not be the ideal match to bet on, but it beats guessing if A.J. McKee can outwrestle Clay Collard or whether Claressa Shields will get upset by a sub-.500 fighter on this bedazzled lineup.


Ryan Bader (-110)

Johnny Eblen (-550)

Patricio Freire (-135)

With Bader as the anchor—and he might be a scary one for as long as the fight is upright—the two remaining picks come in the form of a massive favorite and a current champ taking on the man who finished in second place last year. As Bellator middleweight kingpin, Eblen has displayed the skills and dominance that leave fans questioning whether he is some Top 10 middleweight or the best in the world without any way to prove it. Constantly changing his nickname, he appears to have settled on “Pressure” for now, which is perfect given his style and endurance. The NCAA Division I wrestler from Missouri can throw anyone around that he faces like a takedown dummy. Former welterweight-turned-light heavyweight Impa Kasanganay will go down in weight for this challenge, and it is a stiff one that may not bode well for him. To prevail, he must stay off his back or keep his back off the cage wall and be the one leading the dance. If not, it will be an uncomfortable 15 minutes against the heavily favored Eblen.

Kicking off the parlay is a potentially problematic fight, similar to the PFL scheduling Raush Manfio against best buddy Natan Schulte. “Pitbull” has said publicly that he likes Gabriel Braga, his late replacement foe, and that the recent passing of Braga’s father, Diego Braga Alves, weighs heavily on them both. As a result, Freire may take it easy on the 25-year-old in mourning. If fight fans are lucky, the two countrymen will put their emotions aside and take the fight as seriously as any other. However, the opportunity also presents itself, and this could look more like a sparring match than an actual “championship” fight—even though Braga is not the titleholder in PFL, Freire still holds the featherweight strap in Bellator. With the opportunity to triple one’s input by selecting three Bellator fighters to top their PFL counterparts, it may be a better investment than a moneyline four-piece of Jason Jackson (-700), Vadim Nemkov (-550), McKee (-300) and Biaggio Ali Walsh (-1100) combined at an almost even return of -104.
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