Remember the Strikeforce Challengers series? In 2009 and 2010, this was the lower tier of Strikeforce’s event schedule. It was meant to be a sort of Triple A to Strikeforce’s bigger shows. Sometimes, though, it seemed like Strikeforce head Scott Coker and company were stuck in place.
They were fine with touting guys like Tim Kennedy, Luke Rockhold and Tyron Woodley within the confines of the Challengers series, but it seemed like these talented fighters just couldn’t make the jump to Strikeforce’s major events.
Kennedy, who already had some buzz behind him from his IFL days, at least garnered just two appearances, including one main event, on the Challengers series, where he defeated Nick Thompson and Zak Cummings. From there, he was “called up” and took out Trevor Prangley before making an unsuccessful bid for Strikeforce’s middleweight title against Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza.
Rockhold and Woodley were less fortunate, even if they did eventually land in the spotlight.
The future UFC middleweight champ Rockhold, already an alum of Challengers precursor Strikeforce Young Guns, ran through Cory Devela, Jesse Taylor and Paul Bradley before he was finally given his chance at the bigger Strikeforce shows. Fortunately for Rockhold, his first big-event outing came in a title showdown against Jacare that Rockhold won.
Woodley suffered the most among this group. The future UFC welterweight champ made four appearances under the Challengers series. One of those fights came after he made an appearance on a bigger Strikeforce show as part of the main card. Woodley finally got a title shot against Nate Marquardt at the tail end of Strikeforce’s existence, but it came after he secured an astounding eight wins with the promotion.
Perhaps it’s just coincidence, but Coker’s reign in Bellator MMA has a similar feel to it. The organization doesn’t have a developmental series like Strikeforce had, and it has largely stuck to the preliminary-card model that Coker’s predecessor Bjorn Rebney used — this being a lineup of local talent to warm up the crowd while having no long-term relationship with Bellator. Yet, prospect development from within is an important building block to a successful promotion.
Any UFC fan who watches the product often witnesses a prelim-card fighter pick up a few wins and climb onto the main card of a smaller show before eventually rising to the bigger events if they sustain their winning ways. Bellator’s prelim fighters don’t seem to enjoy the same assured opportunity to climb up the ladder. Surefire talents like Ed Ruth and Tyrell Fortune toil in the depths of the prelims, but their NCAA wrestling pedigrees give them a leg up on some of their prelim-card cohorts. Meanwhile, Bellator 179 will shine a spotlight on Kevin Ferguson, Jr., whose MMA record stands at 0-1, over more accomplished prelim fighters like Mike Shipman, Jay Dods and Alfie Davis.
Here’s a look at some fighters who’ve made numerous appearances with Bellator, including at least one in the last year, but have not yet received the chance they truly deserve to climb the Bellator ladder. We aren’t suggesting that any of these men are future superstars in the mold of Kennedy, Rockhold and Woodley. We’re simply pointing out that these fighters have earned the opportunity to step up. As for the ladies, we’re excluding them from this feature because that would be a whole separate discussion, given Bellator’s tendency to bury even legitimate female contenders on its prelim card.
Mike Shipman (9-1 overall, 1-0 Bellator)
The “Sea Bass” benefited from Bellator’s recent interest in the British market. The London Shootfighters product debuted with a loss in 2013, but he’s been perfect ever since. The middleweight fighter’s first Bellator appearance came in a winning effort against Dominic Clark at Bellator 158 in July 2016. The promotion had two other opponents lined up for him before it landed on Clark. However, since his 93-second submission finish of the veteran fighter, Shipman has not returned to the Bellator cage. That will change at Bellator 179. The promotion is back in London and Shipman is back on the prelims against Marcin Prostko. The British do tend to get behind their star fighters — Bellator need look no further than Liam McGeary, Paul Daley and Michael Page for examples — so it wouldn’t be a bad idea for Shipman to receive a promotion to the main card if he gets past Prostko.
Jordan Young (7-0 overall, 2-0 Bellator)
Iowa’s Young is a good pick for Bellator’s promotional machine. He is just 22 years old and already has seven wins on his spotless record. Two of those victories came in the Bellator cage, where the middleweight decisioned the formerly undefeated Chris Harris and then submitted the formerly perfect Tim Caron in the first round of a 195-pound catchweight contest. The one red flag working against Young is his recent struggle on the scales. He weighed in at 191 pounds for a Victory FC middleweight scrap and then tipped the scales at 187 pounds for his fight with Harris before moving to 195 for his most recent outing, which took place at Bellator 178 in April. Young has a strong submission game, but he needs to either make weight at middleweight or move up to the light heavyweight division if he wants a true push from Bellator.
Johnny Marigo (4-0 overall, 2-0 Bellator)
“The Soldier of Christ” is one of the least experienced fighters on this list, but his perfect marks both in and outside of the Bellator organization add legitimacy to his prospect tag. The 24-year-old Kansas-based fighter has made the most of his two Bellator appearances, one of which was actually a postlim bout. He scored a first-round submission of Andy Riley at Bellator 159. Then, he took just 83 seconds to knock out Joseph Fulk in January at Bellator 171. The bantamweight’s ability to score quick finishes makes him an exciting fighter to watch, and his early career entry into Bellator could allow the promotion to push him as a true homegrown talent.
Guilherme Vasconcelos (9-3 overall, 2-0 Bellator)
The Brazilian might be one of the most recognizable names on this list, which makes his placement so far down the Bellator lineup a mystery. The 31-year-old took part in The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil 3 reality series, where he submitted Markus Perez before losing to Ricardo Abreu on the scorecards. “Bomba” also lost his only official UFC appearance via unanimous decision to Luke Zachrich at UFC 175. He put together a 4-1 mark following his UFC release and then entered Bellator. The BH Rhinos export finished Jordan Dowdy with just one second left in the first round to win his Bellator debut. In his sophomore outing with the promotion, he stopped John Mercurio with punches. The welterweight has had an up-and-down career, but he’s a solid competitor with a lot of stoppage wins. There’s no harm in adding a strong finisher, especially one with a UFC record, to the main card.
Gregory Babene (18-11 overall, 2-0 Bellator)
The Frenchman might be the most unlikely candidate on this list. After all, he’s already lost a double-digit number of fights in a career that began in 2004. Heck, he even had a stretch where he lost six fights in a row. However, there’s always the chance that the middleweight can pull off a late-career surge similar to what Matt Brown did in the UFC. The 33-year-old already has first-round submission finishes of veterans Brandon Farran and Emiliano Sordi under the Bellator banner. He was also slated to meet Francisco France in the Bellator cage before France withdrew with an injury. Babene tends to finish or get finished, so Bellator could deliver up exciting main-card matches involving the Snake Team fighter.
J.J. Okanovich (4-1 overall, 3-0 Bellator)
“The Bosnian Bomber” had a lengthy and mostly successful amateur career before finally turning pro in 2015. He stumbled out of the gates with a 45-second knockout loss to Danny Ramirez, but he’s been perfect ever since. The American Kickboxing Academy export’s second pro fight took place at Bellator 142, where the lightweight decisioned Israel Delgado. After a win on the regional circuit, Okanovich returned to Bellator for his two most recent outings, a submission finish of Luis Vargas at Bellator 165 and a choke submission of Zach Andrews at Bellator 172 in February. Okanovich is still a fledgling prospect, but the 26-year-old could be another top homegrown talent for the organization if given the opportunity to shine.
Carrington Banks (6-0 overall, 2-0 Bellator)
If the name sounds familiar, it might be because the Blackzilians fighter appeared on The Ultimate Fighter 21, where he decisioned Sabah Homasi in his lone TUF fight. Banks was not picked up by the UFC following the season, and now he is perhaps the most surprisingly overlooked talent on this list. The “Jetsetter” is close to getting his shot, though. After the talented wrestler posted a perfect mark through his first six fights, including two under the Bellator banner, he was slated to meet Mihail Nica at Bellator 176 in April. However, the lightweight fighter was forced to withdraw from the contest with an undisclosed injury. It would have been his first fight on a Bellator main card, but now he’ll have to wait for another opportunity.
Blair Tugman (10-6 overall, 5-2 Bellator)
“The Bull Shark” doesn’t exactly have the record to support a blue-chipper profile, but the bantamweight-turned-featherweight has found a decent amount of success while competing in the Bellator cage. He lost his Bellator debut way back at Bellator 39 in 2011, but he has gone 4-1 since returning to the promotion in 2014. He scored decisions over bantamweights Brandon Fleming and Marvin Maldonado before losing by submission in a 138-pound catchweight bout against Kin Moy. Following several scrapped regional bouts to kick off 2016, Tugman returned to collect a split verdict over Jay Perrin in a postlim bantamweight outing and then a unanimous nod over Walter Smith-Cotto in his featherweight debut, which also happened to be a postlim contest. His most recent outing ended in a submission finish of Tom English at Bellator 178. Perhaps Tugman has finally found his groove.
Wade Johnson (11-1 overall, 1-0 Bellator)
Arkansas’ Johnson put together a 9-1 mark through his first 10 fights while only going the distance twice. His only loss came under the Legacy Fighting Championships banner. “The Hammer” moved over to the World Series of Fighting, where he edged Justin Hartley via split decision. His most recent outing marked his Bellator debut. The 26-year-old scored a submission finish of the formerly undefeated Tyler Hill at Bellator 162. The welterweight fighter does have a confirmed upcoming bout, but it is in the little-known Pyramid Fights organization. Bellator has another potential welterweight player here and should bring him back into the fold as soon as possible.
Eryk Anders (7-0 overall, 1-0 Bellator)
Fighters who finish fights are often hard to come by, which makes Bellator’s seeming lack of interest in Anders a real puzzler. “Frankenstein” has a history of first-round stoppages extending all the way to his amateur days. As a pro, the 30-year-old has decimated four opponents in the first round via strikes. He’s added on one first-round submission and a third-round technical knockout. After scoring a 23-second TKO of Brian White at Bellator 162, Anders moved to Legacy Fighting Championships for his most recent performance, a 95-second putaway of grizzled veteran Jon Kirk. Anders would be an exciting addition to the upper levels of Bellator’s middleweight division.
Jaleel Willis (7-0 overall, 1-0 Bellator)
Willis is another fighter with a history of wins under more than one top promotion. After debuting in 2014 and posting five victories, “The Realest” moved to the World Series of Fighting and topped fellow undefeated prospect Chauncey Foxworth at WSOF 27. His next stop was Bellator 162, where he decisioned Omar Johnson in a 160-pound catchweight postlim contest. Willis has stopped four opponents with strikes. He bounces between the lightweight and welterweight divisions and could make a home in either weight class under the Bellator banner.
Steve Garcia, Jr. (7-1 overall, 5-1 Bellator)
New Mexico’s “Mean Machine” has been largely machine-like in his destruction of the opposition. The Jackson-Winkeljohn fighter debuted in 2013 and finished his first opponent with strikes. He was slated to make his sophomore appearance with Bellator at the promotion’s 97th show, but the bout was pushed back to Bellator 105, where Garcia took a technical knockout over Shawn Bunch. Following another regional win, also via TKO, Garcia returned at Bellator 121 and destroyed Cody Walker with strikes in just 39 seconds. He’s gone on to claim a split verdict over Kin Moy, a first-round TKO of Eduardo Bustillos and, most recently, a decision nod against Ronnie Lawrence. Along the way, the 24-year-old did face one setback at Bellator 151, where he lost to Ricky Turcios via split decision. Garcia has defeated five of his six Bellator foes, which should earn him a crack at some bigger challenges in the league’s bantamweight division.
Grady Hurley (14-1 overall, 1-0 Bellator)
The real life boy named “Sue,” Hurley’s moniker has apparently made him just as tough as the character in Johnny Cash’s famous song. The Mississippi native debuted way back in 2001. Why only 15 fights? Well, he took an extended break from 2002 until 2014. Prior to his absence, the veteran had gone 6-1. Since his return, he’s been a perfect 8-0. Hurley has seen the scorecards just twice through those recent eight outings. Meanwhile, he’s stopped five fights with his fists and one bout via submission. Primarily a middleweight, Hurley picked up the V3 Fights belt in his most recent fight against Ben Brewer, another accomplished veteran. Hurley’s lone Bellator appearance came as a light heavyweight at Bellator 162, where he finished Chad Cook via punches in just under the halfway mark of round one. Hurley has an incredible comeback story following a 12-year departure from the sport. This is a storyline Bellator could definitely use to promote Hurley as he rises through the ranks.
Rashard Lovelace (4-0 overall, 3-0 Bellator)
The 27-year-old Lovelace is among the least experienced fighters on the list, but he’s also a definite homegrown Bellator talent who has only competed outside of the promotion once in his four-fight pro career. The featherweight debuted as an undersized welterweight in mid-2015 and scored a 58-second leg-kick TKO of Matt Helm in a postlim bout at Bellator 138. His sophomore outing came at Bellator 145, where he competed at 145 pounds and needed just over two minutes to put away Brandon Lowe with strikes. After another quick TKO victory during a lightweight venture to Shamrock FC, Lovelace returned to the featherweight division at Bellator 157 and scored a second-round TKO victory over Garrett Mueller. Lovelace’s aggressive striking attack makes him another attractive addition to any Bellator main card.
Jermaine McDermott (3-0 overall, 2-0 Bellator)
“The Monument” is yet another potential homegrown star in the early days of his pro career. The light heavyweight started out as a heavyweight at the amateur level, but he’s been at 205 pounds since turning pro in late 2015. His debut lasted just 90 seconds, in which McDermott put away Marcus Abarquez with strikes. He’s appeared in the Bellator cage in his subsequent two bouts, a quick submission finish of Eric Huggins in a Bellator 148 postlim affair and a 20-second destruction of Blake Watkins in a Bellator 156 postlim. With three fights under his belt that have all gone less than two minutes, McDermott seems like a very intriguing future light heavyweight contender.
Javy Ayala (10-5 overall, 5-2 Bellator)
Ayala is a unique name for this list, but he warrants mentioning. He’s the epitome of Coker’s tendency to choose name value over instant momentum. “Eye Candy” is just 10-5, but he’s a heavyweight finisher who disposed of one of Coker’s big signings, veteran heavyweight Sergei Kharitonov. Ayala blasted the Russian for a 16-second finish on the main card of Bellator 163. His reward? He still hasn’t been slated for a return bout, whereas Kharitonov was booked for a fight with Chase Gormley five months later and won. Granted, Ayala has had his ups and downs with Bellator. He beat Thiago Santos, Eric Prindle and Raphael Butler, all title contenders under Bellator’s old regime, before dropping back-to-back bouts to Alex Huddleston and Carl Seumanutafa. But his more recent postlim first-round dismantling of Roy Boughton and the shocking upset of Kharitonov should have bought Ayala some main-card redemption and a legitimate push with Bellator.
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