Chidi Njokuani can see the springboard on which his feet now rest.
The former Tachi Palace Fights champion will put his six-fight winning streak on the line when he meets Ultimate Fighting Championship veteran Melvin Guillard in the Bellator 171 headliner on Friday at the Kansas Star Arena in Mulvane, Kansas. Their three-round catchweight clash at 175 pounds highlights a four-fight main card on Spike TV (9 p.m. ET/8 p.m. CT).
Njokuani last fought at Bellator 167 on Dec. 3, when he cut down the highly regarded Andre Fialho with punches in just 21 seconds. The 28-year-old Dallas native has honed his considerable skills under Nick Blomgren, Sergio Penha and Saeksan Janjira, recording wins over Gilbert Smith, Max Griffin and Alan Jouban. Weight-cutting issues -- he has misfired on the scales on multiple occasions throughout his career -- seem to be all that stand between Njokuani and a rise to stardom. The 6-foot-3 muay Thai stylist has secured 10 of his 16 professional victories by knockout or technical knockout.
Meanwhile, Guillard seems to have struck an iceberg. The 33-year-old’s victory over David Rickels at Bellator 159 on July 22 was wiped from the books and changed to a no-contest after he tested positive for a banned substance, the infraction coming on the heels of consecutive defeats to Justin Gaethje, Brandon Girtz and Derek Campos. Guillard has not won a fight since he cut down Gesias Cavalcante with punches and elbows under the World Series of Fighting banner some two and a half years ago. “The Young Assassin” has become something of a vagabond since 2009, as he has trained with four camps in seven-plus years: Jackson-Wink MMA, the Blackzilians, American Top Team and the Grudge Training Center.
With the Njokuani-Guillard battle on the marquee, here is what to watch for at Bellator 171:
One of the Bellator MMA organization’s consummate showmen, the aforementioned Rickels wants nothing more than to please his fellow Kansans in the co-main event. There, he faces the returning Aaron Derrow.
Rickels, 28, has become a promotional staple and fan favorite -- his caveman-themed entrances are often highlights at events -- since he arrived on the scene in 2011, going 11-4 inside the Bellator cage and winning the Season 8 lightweight tournament. Only three men have beaten the Derby, Kansas, native: Michael Chandler (twice), Patricky Freire and Karl Amoussou. Rickels has not competed since his encounter with Guillard ended in a no-contest six months ago.
Derrow operates out of the Glory MMA and Fitness camp fronted by James Krause and will enter the cage with the wind of a two-fight winning streak at his back. However, the 29-year-old must deal with the potential rust from a two-year layoff, as he has not fought since he took a unanimous decision from Nate Jolly at Bellator 130 on Oct. 24, 2014. Derrow sports 12 finishes among his 14 career victories, 10 of them by submission.
A.J. McKee has begun his ascent toward title contention at 145 pounds.
The Team Bodyshop prospect has touched off his career with six straight wins, five of them finishes. McKee, 21, went the distance for the first time at Bellator 166 on Dec. 2, when he claimed a unanimous verdict against Ray Wood at the Winstar World Casino in Thackerville, Oklahoma. The son of former Maximum Fighting Championship titleholder Antonio McKee, he stopped his first five opponents in a little more than 15 minutes combined.
McKee’s latest test comes in the form of the twice-beaten Brandon Phillips. The 27-year-old Phillips has fought in Bellator and the World Series of Fighting but has spent the majority of his career competing on the regional circuit. He trains out of an American Top Team affiliate Oklahoma City.
There is no greater currency in professional sports than young, projectable talent. It stands to reason then that Bellator would take a cautious approach with blue-chip prospects Tyrell Fortune and Jarod Trice, both of whom return on the undercard.
Fortune faces rookie Will Johnson in a preliminary heavyweight tilt a little less than three months after he smashed Cody Miskell in his pro debut at Bellator 163. He won a Division II national title at Grand Canyon University and a pair of junior college national championships at Clackamas Community College in Arizona. The 26-year-old heavyweight has joined forces with the Blackzilians, where he has started to develop alongside Anthony Johnson, Rashad Evans, Michael Johnson and others.
Meanwhile, Trice was a three-time NCAA All-American at Central Michigan University, where he remains one of only 19 wrestlers in school history to eclipse the 100-win plateau. The 27-year-old heavyweight made his first MMA appearance at Bellator 167 on Dec. 3, when he was awarded a majority decision over Tommie Britton. Next up for Trice: a pairing with Kevin Woltkamp.