Alessio Sakara has for years been one of the faces of the Italian mixed martial arts scene, a fact that provides the Bellator MMA organization with some promotional leverage in its global ventures.
“Legionarius” will meet fellow Ultimate Fighting Championship veteran Joey Beltran in the Bellator 168 headliner on Saturday at the Nelson Mandela Forum in Florence, Italy. Sakara-Beltran serves as a fill-in for the original main event, a rematch between reigning middleweight champion Rafael Carvalho and Melvin Manhoef. A Carvalho injury resulted in the bout’s cancellation.
Sakara enters the cage on the strength of a modest two-fight winning streak. The 35-year-old American Top Team representative made his promotional debut at Bellator 152 on April 16, when he knocked out Brian Rogers with second-round punches. A Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt with professional boxing experience, Sakara has delivered 14 of his 18 career wins by knockout, technical knockout or submission. He posted victories against Thales Leites, James Irvin, Joe Vedepo, James Lee, Viktor Valimaki and Elvis Sinosic during a 15-fight stay in the UFC.
Beltran, 34, has lost five of his past eight bouts. He last competed at Bellator 155 on May 20, when he wound up on the wrong side of a split decision against Chase Gormley. Beltran operates out of the Alliance MMA camp in California, where he trains alongside reigning UFC bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz and current Bellator light heavyweight titleholder Phil Davis. Wins over Houston Alexander, former International Fight League champion Vladimir Matyushenko and 2007 Abu Dhabi Combat Club Submission Wrestling World Championships silver medalist Rolles Gracie anchor his resume.
With the Sakara-Beltran clash front and center, here is what to watch for at Bellator 168 (current odds):
Philipe Lins has the makings of a potential contender at 205 pounds.
The 31-year-old Nova Uniao Kimura standout draws former Jungle Fight champion Kleber Raimundo Silva in his latest assignment. Lins suffered his only pro defeat in 2014, when a knee injury resulted in a premature end to his clash with Kelly Anundson in the Bellator Summer Series light heavyweight tournament semifinals. The Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt made a triumphant return at Bellator 159 on July 23, disposing of Guilherme Viana with second-round punches at the Kansas Star Arena in Mulvane, Kansas. Lins boasts eight finishes among his 10 professional victories.
Silva has wandered into the wilderness after a successful start to his career. The Champion Team export has gone 2-4, with one no-contest, across his last seven appearances.
John Salter has become a factor in the Bellator middleweight division.
The Gardendale, Alabama, native has gone 7-1 since his UFC release in 2010 -- a run of sustained success that includes his current four-fight winning streak. Salter, 31, wrestled collegiately at Lindenwood University, an NAIA school in St. Louis where he won a national championship in 2007. He last competed at Bellator 156 in June, when he bloodied and then submitted former middleweight champion Brandon Halsey with a first-round triangle choke. Salter has never gone the distance in his 15-fight career.
A date with Italian striker Claudio Annicchiarico awaits Salter. An accomplished muay Thai practitioner, Annicchiarico dipped his toes in MMA waters for the first time in April, when he succumbed to first-round punches from Junior Orgulho at a Fight or Nothing event in Switzerland.
It seems only a matter of time before Goiti Yamauchi vaults into title contention.
The 23-year-old Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt made a dazzling return to the lightweight division -- he fought previously at 145 pounds -- at Bellator 162 on Oct. 21, as he submitted Ryan Couture with an armbar in just 61 seconds. Yamauchi has recorded 15 wins over his past 17 outings, decision losses to Will Martinez and Bubba Jenkins his lone missteps. He has stopped 14 opponents inside one round, eight of them in less than two minutes.
Moldovan prospect Valeriu Mircea will oppose Yamauchi. Mircea, 23, has been hyperactive on the European regional scene, having already fought eight times in 2016. He will carry a four-fight winning streak into the most significant opportunity of his career. Mircea last appeared at a Power Nation Fighting Championship event on Nov. 5, when he knocked out Hrvoje Stepic with first-round punches.
Bellator 168 will also feature five kickboxing bouts, as Denise Kielholtz battles Gloria Peritore for the Bellator kickboxing women’s flyweight crown, Giorgio Petrosyan confronts Jordan Watson, Joe Schilling collides with Vittorio Iermano, Karim Ghajji squares off against Luca Novello and Kevin Ross faces Alessio Arduini.