Bellator MMA has placed a premium on star power ahead of its return to pay-per-view.
Chael Sonnen will square off with former Pride Fighting Championships titleholder Wanderlei Silva in the Bellator 180 headliner on Saturday at Madison Square Garden in New York. Their three-round grudge match sits atop a five-fight main card (10 p.m. ET/7 p.m. PT) that features everything from timeless legends and fine-tuned champions to upstart contenders and can’t-miss prospects.
Sonnen was an NCAA All-American wrestler at the University of Oregon and parlayed those skills into a long and successful career in mixed martial arts. However, the 40-year-old Team Quest rep has seen his better days. Sonnen finds himself on a two-fight losing streak and last appeared at Bellator 170 on Jan. 21, when he submitted to a first-round rear-naked choke from Tito Ortiz at The Forum in Inglewood, California. He has not posted a victory in nearly four years.
One of the sport’s most ferocious competitors in his prime, Silva has not fought since he knocked out Brian Stann in the UFC on Fuel TV 8 headliner on March 3, 2013. “The Axe Murderer” casts a significant shadow across MMA, his outstanding resume highlighted by wins over Quinton Jackson, Cung Le, Michael Bisping and Dan Henderson. He also defeated Japanese icon Kazushi Sakuraba on three different occasions. Silva has secured 27 of his 35 professional victories by knockout or technical knockout.
With the Sonnen-Silva grudge match as the centerpiece, here is what to watch for at Bellator 180:
Fedor Emelianenko has mapped out the next chapter in his storied career.
“The Last Emperor” will make his once-delayed promotional debut, as he locks horns with Ultimate Fighting Championship veteran Matt Mitrione in the heavyweight co-main event. Emelianenko, 40, has the wind of a five-fight winning streak at his back, though questions remain about his long-term viability in a division he once ruled. The Red Devil Sport Club cornerstone last appeared under the Fight Nights Global banner a little more than a year ago, as he walked away with a controversial majority decision over Fabio Maldonado. Most regard Emelianenko as the greatest heavyweight in MMA history.
A protégé of Henri Hooft, Chris Lytle and Duke Roufus, Mitrione has recorded back-to-back victories since moving to Bellator in 2016. The 38-year-old Springfield, Illinois, native last fought in July, when he disposed of British strongman Oli Thompson with second-round punches at the O2 Arena in London. Only two of his 16 career bouts have gone the distance.
Three title fights are on the docket, as lightweight champion Michael Chandler meets Brent Primus, welterweight champion Douglas Lima faces Lorenz Larkin and light heavyweight champion Phil Davis battles Ryan Bader. Chandler-Primus and Larkin-Lima will help anchor the main card, while the Davis-Bader rematch serves as the featured attraction on a preliminary card that airs live on Spike TV (8 p.m. ET/7 p.m. CT).
A four-time NCAA All-American wrestler at Penn State University, Davis laid claim to the 205-pound crown seven months ago at Bellator 163. There, “Mr. Wonderful” routed the previously unbeaten Liam McGeary in a five-round unanimous decision at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut. Davis has rattled off four straight wins since he wound up on the wrong side of a split decision against Bader at UFC on Fox 14 in January 2015. He operates out of the Alliance MMA camp, where he trains alongside reigning One Championship heavyweight titleholder Brandon Vera and former UFC bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz.
Another high-profile free agent who jumped ship from the UFC to Bellator, Bader fills in for the injured Muhammed Lawal in his organizational debut. He has won seven times in his past eight starts, a knockout loss to Anthony Johnson his lone misstep. Bader, 34, last competed at UFC Fight Night 100 on Nov. 19, when he cut through Antonio Rogerio Nogueira with third-round punches in Sao Paulo, Brazil. He burst on the MMA scene as an undefeated prospect in 2008, winning Season 8 of “The Ultimate Fighter” reality series.
Plenty of hype surrounds Aaron Pico, but now, the proverbial rubber meets the road.
The 20-year-old uber-prospect will dip his toes in MMA waters for the first time in a three-round lightweight feature, as he takes on Zach Freeman at 155 pounds. Pico excelled as an amateur wrestler -- he finished second at the 2016 Olympic Trials -- and also enjoyed success in boxing and pankration. He signed a multi-fight contract with Bellator at the age of 18 in 2014, the Viacom-fronted promotion making a long-term investment in his talents.
Freeman started his career with seven consecutive victories but has gone just 1-2 since. The 33-year-old has not fought since September, when he dropped a five-round decision to Thiago Moises in a failed bid to capture the Resurrection Fighting Alliance lightweight championship.
Persons of Interest
Following in the footsteps of SBG Ireland stablemate Conor McGregor, James Gallagher has begun to carve out a niche of his own.
Gallagher’s degree of difficulty increases on the undercard, where the unbeaten featherweight puts his perfect 6-0 record on the line against Chinzo Machida. Still just 20 years old, “The Strabanimal” has submitted five of his first six opponents, four of them with rear-naked chokes. Gallagher last appeared at Bellator 173 in February, when he throttled Kirill Medvedovski inside one round at the SSE Arena in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Machida, 40, has won four fights in a row, three of them by knockout. He is the older brother of former UFC light heavyweight champion Lyoto Machida.