In May 2017, we looked at 16 Bellator fighters who deserved a spot on a Bellator MMA main card. These were guys who had performed well for the organization, but only in preliminary-card action. These were athletes we felt could make an impact on a promotion but had not quite been given a fair chance yet. Now, we’ll take a look back at those fighters and also single out 25 Bellator fighters who deserve the chance to shine in the Bellator cage in 2019.
So, who from our list of 16 made waves with Bellator?
Eryk Anders made waves, but it wasn’t with Bellator. The promotion let Anders slip from its grasp and land in the UFC, where he’s made four main-card appearances, including two headliners, and holds a 3-3 mark. He’s shared the cage with the likes of Lyoto Machida, Thiago Santos and Elias Theodorou.
Javy Ayala had gone largely ignored following his stunning upset of Sergei Kharitonov, but he landed on the main card in all three of his fights after making our list. He suffered losses to Roy Nelson and Cheick Kongo, but his Bellator 212 co-headliner with Frank Mir ended in victory for the veteran heavyweight.
Mike Shipman got his chance, but he’s still only flirting with permanent main-card status. Guilherme “Bomba” Vasconcelos went 1-1 in prelim action after our feature, but his most recent Bellator appearance was in a co-headlining slot at Bellator 210, where he lost to Bellator fixture David Rickels. Carrington Banks, probably one of the few fighters on the list that Bellator seemed to be actively grooming, won one more prelim fight and then became a main-card regular, though he has lost in both of his appearances on the bill. Blair Tugman’s success led to an outing on the main card of Bellator 182, but he was served up as a sacrificial lamb to established star A.J. McKee Jr. and then shipped out to CES MMA. Steve Garcia Jr. also got a shot on the main card, but he fell victim to Joe Warren and has since gone just 1-1 in a much smaller organization.
Jordan Young continues to dwell on the prelims and postlims, despite continued success. Frenchman Gregory Babene has gone on to make one prelim appearance — a first-round submission win — but he was also inactive for all of 2018. J.J. Okanovich continues to occupy a prelim and postlim spot with the company despite adding two more Bellator victories, including a 42-second armbar submission.
Johnny Marigo fell on hard times after our feature, going on to lose a postlim bout to Jordan Howard at Bellator 181 and then fight to a split draw with Jacob Thrall in a smaller promotion. Wade Johnson, who was coming off a win in his lone Bellator showing, fell victim to a submission at the hands of an 8-4 fighter in a small regional organization. Jaleel Willis has yet to appear on another Bellator show, but he has gone 1-1 with the Legacy Fighting Alliance and headlines LFA 58 later this month. Grady Hurley has failed to get a victory in his two appearances since the feature, and he has not appeared in Bellator during that time. Rashard Lovelace started his career strong, with three of his first four pro fights ending in victory inside the Bellator cage, but he, too, has failed to make an appearance with the company since our feature and has lost both of his subsequent fights under the Shamrock FC banner. Jermaine McDermott, another young gun among the 16 men listed, has only fought once since our feature, in a loss under the LFA banner.
Our previous set of fighters consisted of preliminary-card warriors who had yet to see a main card. Our current list won’t be so strict. While it still includes fighters at this level, it will also shine a light on some bigger prospects who have already seen the main card but haven’t gained true recognition as stars in the making for Bellator MMA (or, as Anders has shown, another promotion who outsmarts Bellator).
Mike Shipman (13-1 overall, 4-0 Bellator)
We’ll start with fighters who made our previous list and belong on this list as well. This brings us back to Shipman, who finally got a crack at the main card at Bellator 200. He destroyed Carl Noon in just 10 seconds. His reward? A trip back to the prelims, where the Brit needed less than three minutes to submit Scott Futrell.
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 93-second submission finish of Dominic Clark at Bellator 158 in July 2016. The promotion returned to London shortly after our feature, and Shipman made quick work of Marcin Prostko for a first-round knockout. Following another stoppage win, this time for the BAMMA promotion, Shipman returned to score his victories over Noon and Futrell.
By now, Shipman has to be wondering what it will take to get a permanent spot on the Bellator main card. His destruction of Noon came at a London event, but he was buried on the prelims against Futrell when Bellator traveled to Oklahoma. Based on these appearances, it would seem as though Bellator recognizes that it has an asset for its British shows. However, if Bellator can’t make it to London on a regular basis, it still needs to give this guy a shot at stardom. If he’s never exposed to American fans, then how can Bellator ever truly build him up? Given his recent wins, it’s going to be hard for Bellator to keep ignoring him, less he venture over to the UFC.
The company does have two United Kingdom shows coming up, but they’re already stacked with fights and Shipman is fresh off a recent victory, which might mean he’ll require more turnaround time. If 2019 is his breakout year, then it will likely start with a fight in London in the summer or fall. Bellator would be foolish to keep Shipman down for much longer.
Jordan Young (10-0 overall, 5-0 Bellator)
Since our previous feature, Young has added three more stoppage victories to his resume. Unfortunately, two of those wins came during Bellator prelims, and one was even relegated to the mostly ignored Bellator postlims. Young’s victories in this stretch include a first-round submission of Alec Hooben at Bellator 185, a third-round submission of Jamal Pogues at Bellator 201 and a first-round sub of Anthony Ruiz at Bellator 210.
The Iowa fighter was just 22 years old when we featured him on our list. The middleweight, who is now 24, had already decisioned the formerly undefeated Chris Harris and then submitted the formerly perfect Tim Caron in the first round of a 195-pound catchweight contest for Bellator. The one red flag that had worked against Young was his 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 Bellator 178 outing. He continued to disappoint when he checked in at 200 pounds for his 195-pound catchweight affair with Hooben.
Young’s answer has been to move up to light heavyweight. The scales have been much kinder there — he landed at 204.8 for the Pogues fight and 204 for Ruiz — and the change in weight classes hasn’t slowed Young down. This kid has a lot of appeal, especially for Bellator’s trips to the flyover states. Bellator was likely concerned about Young’s difficulties with the weight cut, but that concern can now be viewed as a thing of the past. It might just be Young’s year to crack into the core of Bellator’s light heavyweight roster.
J.J. Okanovich (6-1 overall, 5-0 Bellator)
The final holdover from our previous list is “The Bosnian Bomber.” After landing in our feature, the prospect added a 42-second armbar of Luis Jauregui at Bellator 183 and a decision nod over Hugo Lujan at Bellator 199.
Okanovich was a rather green upstart when we mentioned him in our feature. He had a lengthy and mostly successful amateur career before finally turning pro in 2015, but he stumbled out of the gates with a 45-second knockout loss to Danny Ramirez. The American Kickboxing Academy export has been perfect ever since, and it’s mostly come with a major promotion. His 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 a submission finish of Luis Vargas at Bellator 165 and a choke submission of Zach Andrews at Bellator 172.
Now 28, Okanovich is entering his prime years. He has four finishes as a pro, continuing a trend he started at the amateur level. As a member of AKA, he could be a worthy addition to any California event for the organization. Bellator has finally given some of its bigger prospects the chance to test themselves against better competition, and Okanovich’s turn should come soon.
Everett Cummings (14-0 overall, 2-0 Bellator)
Cummings, a 32-year-old fighter out of California, is among the lesser-known names on this list. However, he has several factors working in his favor. Most importantly, he’s a heavyweight. The division as a whole is shallow, but Bellator has made it a focus of its recent push. Yet, even the Bellator heavyweight tournament contained at least a few bloated light heavyweights. Cummings, like Ayala before him, could add a fresh face to the mix. Unlike Ayala, Cummings also brings a perfect record to the table.
After posting five wins as an amateur, Cummings made his pro debut in 2012. He absolutely savaged the competition in Gladiator Challenge and the smaller Up and Comers Unlimited organization. Through his first seven fights, Cummings never left the first round. In fact, he often clocked in at under a minute with his finishes. His first Bellator outings took place at 2015’s Bellator 132 card, where he finally made it to the second frame before defeating his opponent. He returned to Gladiator Challenge and the regional scene for his next five fights, recording another four first-round stoppages and one second-round finish. He returned to Bellator in early 2018 at Bellator 193 and breezed past Ben Beebe in just over two minutes to add another knockout victory to his record. His most recent appearance, again with Gladiator Challenge, ended in a no-contest against Sean Johnson.
The biggest issue hindering Cummings is his lack of high-level opposition, but this is where Bellator should step up its own game. Cummings might not make the main card in 2019 — it’s going to be tough to get a marquee spot on a roster with the likes of Fedor Emelianenko, Matt Mitrione and Frank Mir — but the company should find featured prelim spots for him against other up-and-comers and give him the chance to break out as an exciting finisher.
Tyrell Fortune (5-0 overall, 5-0 Bellator)
Speaking of up-and-coming heavyweights, perhaps the aforementioned Cummings could find his test against Tyrell Fortune, a blue-chip prospect for Bellator. The 28-year-old former NCAA Division II national wrestling champion has spent his entire professional MMA career with Bellator, and he’s sure to see a heavy promotional push at some point in the near future.
Fortune made his debut in 2016 at Bellator 163, where his wrestling and ground-and-pound work carried him to a first-round finish of fellow rookie Cody Miskell. He added two more wins over rookie foes in 2017 and then stepped up to decision six-fight veteran Joe Hernandez in early 2018. His most recent fight came last summer when he again used ground-and-pound strikes to finish the fight, this time against seven-fight veteran Giovanni Sarran.
Fortune’s wrestling could make him a force in Bellator’s heavyweight division, but the promotion has a habit of protecting its young future stars. Even A.J. McKee Jr. took a while to finally get a taste of upper-tier competition, and Fortune, despite his own confidence that he could hang with any of the heavyweight tournament participants, did seem to tire himself out in the Sarran fight. If Bellator wasn’t as conservative with its prospects, then a pairing of Fortune against Cummings would be a solid addition to any card. However, Fortune’s breakout year might more closely mirror McKee’s rise and feature a number of easier wins for the heavyweight.
Joey Davis (4-0 overall, 4-0 Bellator)
Bellator is infatuated with former NCAA wrestlers who have transitioned to mixed martial arts. Davis, the first wrestler in history to finish his NCAA Division II career with an undefeated mark, joins the aforementioned Fortune as one of Bellator’s blue-chippers. He, like Fortune, has only fought inside the Bellator cage.
“Black Ice” debuted in 2016 with a decision win over Keith Cutrone at Bellator 160. The welterweight ended his next two fights in the first round, beginning with a ground-and-pound stoppage of J.T. Roswell and continuing with a spinning back kick to the body of Ian Butler that ended their Bellator 192 affair in just 39 seconds. Davis made his most recent appearance at Bellator 201, where he decisioned Craig Plaskett.
As is the case with Fortune, Davis will probably be brought along slowly. We’d expect Bellator to continue to build Davis by throwing him in the cage with low-level fighters. If he keeps winning, and especially in exciting fashion, the 25-year-old should emerge as a bigger part of Bellator’s plans late in the year.
Ty-wan Claxton (4-0 overall, 4-0 Bellator)
“Speedy” Claxton is yet another one of Bellator’s blue-chippers. He, too, holds a background in wrestling, including All-American honors in both NCAA Division I and II. Unlike his peers, though, Claxton ventured into the MMA world before joining Bellator.
The Cleveland native rolled through seven amateur opponents while making appearances with the Caged Madness and Xtreme Fighting Nation promotions. Once he was ready to turn pro, Claxton did ink a deal with Bellator. He made his debut in late 2017 at Bellator 186, where he lived up to his nickname by delivering a flying knee that floored Jonny Bonilla-Bowman in just 89 seconds. He went into the second round of his sophomore fight before landing a barrage of ground-and-pound strikes to put away Jose Perez. This signaled an early start to Claxton’s rise, as the Perez fight was featured on the main card of Bellator 194. He returned to the main card again at Bellator 204, where he decisioned Cris Lencioni. Despite Claxton’s success, he landed back on the prelims in December for a catchweight contest against Kaeo Meyer. Again, Claxton scored a first-round ground-and-pound stoppage.
Claxton’s ammy run gives him a more solid base of experience compared to the likes of Fortune and Davis. This is probably why the Ohio native has already climbed up to occasional main-card status. Claxton’s trend of scoring finishes gives him a strong chance for more opportunities, and he should start seeing increased challenges in the coming year. His wrestling chops should give him the tools to find continued success in the featherweight division, where Patricio “Pitbull” Freire, another homegrown Bellator star, reigns supreme.
Romero Cotton (3-0 overall, 3-0 Bellator)
If you thought we were done with the wave of blue-chippers, you’d be wrong. Cotton is yet another member of this group. A talented multi-sport athlete as a youth, Cotton also faced jail time as the result of an attack, carried out with his younger brother, against a man who had a romantic interest in the pair’s mother. He put that episode in the past and excelled as a college wrestler with Nebraska-Kearney, where he became a three-time NCAA Division II national champion and a four-time All-American.
Cotton started training for his MMA career at American Kickboxing Academy and was brought into the Bellator fold in 2017. He made his pro debut at Bellator 181 with a split decision over fellow rookie Aaron Rodriguez. His sophomore effort ended in a rear-naked choke submission of Justin Reeser. Most recently, Cotton returned to action at Bellator 204. The middleweight threw a series of knees in the clinch to knock out Willie Whitehead.
Cotton is on a similar track to his fellow recruited wrestlers. This means we’re likely to see Cotton build his record in 2019 before potentially getting a larger push late in the year. His overall athletic skills and wrestling acumen should carry him far in a very competitive Bellator middleweight division.
Adam Keresh (3-0 overall, 2-0 Bellator)
Not every undefeated Bellator upstart was an immediate signing from the NCAA wrestling world. Take Keresh, for example. The Israeli fighter, who trains out of Team Bert, started his pro career in late 2016 under the Mix Fight Combat Israel banner. After just a single victory, he made his way to Bellator.
Keresh’s MFC win and his Bellator debut, which came at Bellator 188, both ended in ground-and-pound stoppages for the heavyweight. He moved to the main card at Bellator 209 in November, but the company appeared to be feeding him to the more high-profile “Baby Fedor,” Kirill Sidelnikov. Instead, Keresh landed a head kick and followed up with punches to destroy Sidelnikov in just 72 seconds.
Keresh accelerated his career with the big knockout of “Baby Fedor.” However, the last time we had a heavyweight signee go down in an upset — Sergei Kharitonov against Javy Ayala — Bellator chose to ignore the underdog winner for an extended length of time. The same could happen with Keresh. If the Israeli big man does get a crack at the main card again, it could be when Bellator returns to his homeland.
Mandel Nallo (7-0 overall, 2-0 Bellator)
Yes, this man’s nickname is “Rat Garbage.” If you want to know why, you’ll just have to cruise on by his Instagram page. If you want to know why he’s poised for a breakout, then you need to see his spectacular knockout finish of Carrington Banks.
Nallo was already a solid prospect heading into his bout with Banks. The 29-year-old debuted in 2012 and picked up five victories before landing in the Bellator cage at Bellator 189 in late 2017. Nallo landed a head kick just 18 seconds into his fight with Alec Williams during the prelim card. This led to his match-up with Banks, which came on the main card of Bellator 207. The Tristar standout waited until early in the second round before throwing the fight-ending blow.
While Banks arguably has more name recognition, Nallo entered their bout as a slight favorite and lived up to those expectations. Nallo posted a 5-1 mark as an amateur, and his only loss at that level came against future UFCer Olivier Aubin-Mercier. Meanwhile, he scored three first-round finishes as an ammy. Nallo has the backing of one of the world’s more renowned gyms, and his flair for dramatic finishes is a huge plus. Add in the rat art, and we’re looking at a quirky personality who can entertain inside the cage. He should start getting bigger opportunities in Bellator’s lightweight division.
Olga Rubin (5-0 overall, 2-0 Bellator)
Let’s not forget that Bellator also hosts some women’s divisions. Namely, the featherweights have found solid footing with the promotion. The league’s champion, Julia Budd, is in need of more worthy challengers, and Rubin could emerge as one of the next to test the titleholder.
The 29-year-old prospect actually made her pro debut with Bellator when she crushed fellow rookie Laurita Likker-Cibirite with ground-and-pound strikes at Bellator 164 in late 2016. The Russian-born fighter continued to rack up wins, including one knockout, while residing in Israel. She returned at Bellator 188 with a ground-and-pound finish of Joana Filipa. Her big break came when she was upgraded to the main card at Bellator 209 and decisioned Cindy Dandois.
As with native Israeli fighter Adam Keresh, Rubin has been a fixture when the promotion travels to Tel Aviv. She’s also fighting in a shallow division where she has already beaten an established contender in Dandois. Rubin heads to Ireland next for Bellator 217 and a showdown with Sinead Kavanagh. If she gets past Kavanaugh, who has lost three of her last four, then Rubin could be just one win away from a clash with Budd.
Juliana Velasquez (8-0 overall, 3-0 Bellator)
Rubin isn’t the only one with a title shot in her crosshairs. Brazil’s Velasquez has similar expectations down in the women’s flyweight division, where Ilima-Lei Macfarlane currently reigns supreme. The 32-year-old Velasquez wants her crack at the gold following her narrow victory in December over Alejandra Lara.
The Team Nogueira fighter has the resume to back her call for a title shot. She debuted in 2014 with a win over Priscila de Souza and then decisioned future UFC fighter Talita Bernardo in her sophomore fight. Over her next two fights, Velasquez stopped solid veterans Rosy Duarte and Elaine Albuquerque. After adding a late 2016 victory over a complete unknown, Velasquez dropped from bantamweight to flyweight and entered Bellator. She scored an armbar submission of Na Liang at Bellator 189, a third-round body-kick knockout of Rebecca Ruth at Bellator 197 and the split nod over Lara in a main-card outing at Bellator 212.
Macfarlane already made a title defense against Lara in June 2018, so Velasquez’s victory over the former challenger could be enough to put the Brazilian in line for her own title bid. While Velasquez will have a tough time getting past the current champ, she should remain near the top of the mix for Bellator moving forward.
Logan Storley (9-0 overall, 4-0 Bellator)
The four-time NCAA All-American wrestler isn’t quite in the same boat as all of the blue-chippers we discussed earlier. Yes, he’s another elite wrestler with an unblemished record, but he didn’t join Bellator from the get-go. Instead, Storley got his feet wet with the Resurrection Fighting Alliance and the LFA. It wasn’t until he was 5-0 that Bellator snatched up this welterweight talent.
Storley’s 2015 debut with the RFA lasted just over two and a half minutes before he finished Bill Mees with ground-and-pound strikes. He added three more knockouts with the RFA and another with the LFA before making his Bellator debut in 2017. He kept his streak of stoppages alive when he scored the first-round knockout of Kemmyelle Haley at Bellator 181. “Storm” was given veterans Matt Secor and Joaquin Buckley over his next two bouts, the latter of which landed on the Bellator 197 main card. The 26-year-old decisioned both men. His most recent bout came in a co-headlining slot at Bellator 204, where he dispatched A.J. Matthews via ground-and-pound in the second round.
Storley is already in the midst of his breakout as 2019 gets underway. He co-headlined an event, but he was snubbed for Bellator’s welterweight tournament. This next year could be a big one for the Power MMA and Fitness product, who has already established his ability to top experienced competition in the Bellator cage.
Neiman Gracie (9-0 overall, 7-0 Bellator)
Storley may have missed out on the welterweight tourney, but Gracie did not. The highly decorated Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu ace landed a spot in the bracket against Ed Ruth and has gone on to advance to the semifinals.
Gracie made his professional MMA debut in 2013 for the World Series of Fighting. Of course, his two fights against low-level competition ended in submission wins for the world-champion grappler. He joined Bellator in 2015 and continued to flash his submission skills by coaxing tapouts in three of his first four Bellator contests. He stepped up in competition in late 2017 to submit Zak Bucia at Bellator 185. In his first fight of 2018, he added a tapout of Javier Torres. Most recently, Gracie submitted the formerly undefeated Ruth in their quarterfinal match-up at Bellator 213. All but his first two Bellator appearances have come on the main card.
Gracie is far from our usual fighter for this list. It’s not just because of his grappling background, but also because of the sustained success he’s already seen with the company. However, the year 2019 could still count as a breakout campaign for the one member of the Gracie family with the best shot at a title in a major MMA promotion. That shot is already guaranteed, too, since the Brazilian is slated to meet the winner of the tournament quarterfinal between Bellator welterweight kingpin Rory MacDonald and Jon Fitch, which also doubles as a title fight.
Rafael Lovato Jr. (9-0 overall, 5-0 Bellator)
Lovato was lined up for his own crack at Bellator gold later this month against middleweight champ Gegard Mousasi until Mousasi was forced out with an injury. It could be said that the BJJ black belt and world-champion grappler already had his breakout in 2018, but a booking against Mousasi for the championship is still a giant leap up from main-card affairs with Chris Honeycutt, Gerald Harris and John Salter.
The 35-year-old Lovato is an established figure in the BJJ world, where he became only the second American to win the world championship as a black belt. He made his transition to MMA in 2014 with the Legacy Fighting Championship organization. Lovato scored three submissions and a ground-and-pound finish over four Legacy fights, including outings against Kevin Holland and the previously unbeaten Marcelo Nunes. The Oklahoma-based fighter then moved on to Bellator, where he’s added five victories. His debut ended in a 13-second knockout of Charles Hackmann. He needed less than two minutes to submit Mike Rhodes at Bellator 181. He then decisioned the aforementioned Honeycutt at Bellator 189, armbarred Harris in just 71 seconds at Bellator 198 and tapped Salter in the third round at Bellator 205. With the exception of his fight with Rhodes, all of Lovato’s Bellator appearances have been on the main card.
Can Lovato win the Bellator middleweight championship? We’ll have to wait longer than expected to find out. However, the grappling ace has combined his ground skills with a surprising amount of talent and power on the feet to become a true all-around threat. He could push Mousasi to the limits if the pair’s fight eventually gets rescheduled. Even if he comes up short, Lovato will prove in 2019 that he is a top 185-pounder.
Amir Albazi (11-0 overall, 2-0 Bellator)
Bellator tends to go local for its undercards, especially when it travels outside of the United States. Albazi, a Swedish fighter of Iraqi descent who trains out of England, has already made two appearances for the company at London events.
“The Prince” has an odd record. It kicked off in 2009 with four victories, but then Albazi went silent for four years before re-emerging in 2014 on the European circuit. He bounced around between a number of smaller promotions while adding five finishes to his resume. The 25-year-old London Shootfighters disciple made his Bellator debut at 2017’s Bellator 179 card, where he decisioned Jamie Powell. The flyweight fighter’s next outing came at Bellator 200, where he scored a first-round rear-naked choke submission of Iuri Bejenari.
The UFC’s plans for the flyweight division could factor into an Albazi breakout in 2019. If the UFC follows through on the rumored scrapping of its own flyweight division, then Bellator could build its own roster for a weight class that it hasn’t featured much up to this point. If Bellator goes this route, Albazi could serve as one of the company’s own finds opposite any incoming UFC talent. Regardless of how this scenario plays out, “The Prince” should be a centerpiece of the local talent included on future Bellator visits to England.
Rudy Schaffroth (6-0 overall, 2-0 Bellator)
The 32-year-old Schaffroth managed just a 6-2 mark as an amateur, but he’s been perfect through six professional bouts. The heavyweight division’s lack of depth makes the big man an interesting prospect for Bellator. He’s already won two fights for the organization, but it might be time to give him a bigger role with the company.
The Team Quest fighter made his pro debut in late 2016 and rolled through opponent Derek Luna in just 11 seconds. A no-contest and three more first-round stoppages followed for Schaffroth. He didn’t make his Bellator debut until the middle of 2018 when he topped seasoned veteran Jon Hill at Bellator 202. Schaffroth secured the victory over Hill via strikes in just 42 seconds. He made his sophomore appearance for Bellator in November at Bellator 210, where he destroyed Vernon Lewis in under three minutes. Unfortunately, the bout took place on the mostly ignored postlim portion of the card.
Schaffroth is yet another heavyweight with a high finishing rate. Of course, the heavyweight prospects have to contend with a Bellator roster that has thrown its focus onto guys like Fedor Emelianenko and Frank Mir. If Bellator finally sees the light and looks for new blood, Schaffroth could emerge as a star.
Ricky Bandejas (11-1 overall, 1-0 Bellator)
Sometimes the route to the spotlight can involve taking out someone Bellator has already pegged as a star. Such is the case for Bandejas, who destroyed fellow bantamweight James Gallagher at Bellator 204.
The 27-year-old Nick Catone disciple posted a 7-1 amateur mark and only lost to future UFCer Shane Burgos. He debuted as a pro in 2014 and quickly became a mainstay under the Cage Fury FC banner, where his only loss came to UFC veteran Nick Pace. Eventually, Bandejas claimed Cage Fury gold with a victory over Giorgi Kudukhashvili and defended the belt against Bellator vet Nick Mamalis. This led to his Bellator fight with Gallagher, in which Bandejas landed a head kick and punches to dispatch of the formerly undefeated Irishman.
Bandejas quickly made himself known as a spoiler with his victory over Gallagher. He’ll get another chance to fill the role when he meets Juan Archuleta at Bellator 214 later this month. At the very least, Bandejas has emerged as a solid test for Bellator’s bigger signings in the division. His fate with the company could rest on how he performs against his upcoming opponent.
Yaroslav Amosov (20-0 overall, 1-0 Bellator)
It’s not often that a mixed martial artist makes it 20 fights into their career without a loss. It’s even less often that a fighter does so when they actually step up to meet legitimate competition rather than padding their record against scrubs. Let us introduce you to one of these rare fighters, the Ukraine’s Amosov.
The 25-year-old welterweight debuted in 2012 and scored a number of his early victories on the regional circuit against fellow inexperienced fighters. However, the “Dynamo” began to distinguish himself as a true up-and-comer in 2015 when he knocked out longtime journeyman Diego Gonzalez. Just a few fights later, he sneaked past Roberto Soldić, who would go on to become a standout for Poland’s KSW organization. After a couple of submission victories against solid competition, Amosov signed on with Bellator and made his promotional debut at Bellator 202. He was pitted against UFC veteran Gerald Harris. It was a test Amosov passed with flying colors when he earned the unanimous nod from the judges.
Amosov was set to be an alternate in Bellator’s welterweight tournament, but an injury forced him out of this opportunity. Bellator hasn’t given up on him, though. The Ukrainian will appear on the main card of February’s Bellator 216 card, where he meets longtime UFC veteran Erick Silva. The inconsistent Silva has been involved in plenty of exciting fights, and this could be just the pairing Amosov needs to garner more attention from Bellator fans.
Costello van Steenis (11-1 overall, 3-0 Bellator)
Another middleweight hopeful for Bellator, van Steenis is slowly climbing the ranks with the promotion. He has three victories inside the Bellator cage, and each fight has represented a step up in competition for “The Spaniard,” who actually hails from the Netherlands.
The 26-year-old fighter has some low-level grappling honors to his name, and his submission savvy has carried over to an MMA career that kicked off in 2014. He journeyed around the European regional scene while amassing eight wins and just one loss. Van Steenis made his first appearance with the company at Bellator 185, where he met and quickly submitted sub-.500 fighter Steve Skrzat. He was invited back at Bellator 200 and needed just 80 seconds to knock out Kevin Fryer, who held a winning record at the time. This led to his biggest challenge yet, a fight against established Bellator middleweight Chris Honeycutt. Van Steenis squeaked past Honeycutt by way of a split decision.
Prior to his fight with van Steenis, the aforementioned Honeycutt had shared the cage with a number of notable Bellator fighters, including Mikkel Parlo, Ben Reiter, Kevin Casey, Rafael Lovato Jr. and Leo Leite. Bellator obviously thinks highly of Honeycutt, which makes the van Steenis win all the more important. That victory should lead to even bigger opportunities for van Steenis. He will have to wait his turn behind Lovato and perhaps some of Bellator’s other rising middleweights, but van Steenis should see some big fights in 2019.
Ádám Borics (12-0 overall, 3-0 Bellator)
Bellator has made inroads in some places that don’t typically see a lot of visits from the world’s top MMA promotions. The organization frequently visits Israel, Italy and, most unusual of all, Hungary. Of course, the trips to Budapest often involve Bellator Kickboxing, but they also include MMA fare, primarily featuring local talent. Alessio Sakara has taken on headlining duties in Italy, and there’s a chance Hungarian featherweight Borics could follow suit in Budapest.
Borics, who debuted in 2014, racked up nine victories, including six stoppages, before joining Bellator in 2017. He made his promotional debut as a supporting player at Bellator 177, where he submitted Anthony Taylor in the first round. The organization returned to Budapest at Bellator 196 and inserted Borics as a co-headliner. The Hungarian took advantage of this opportunity by landing a flying knee that knocked out opponent Teodor Nikolov in the second frame. Borics returned at Bellator 205, which went down in the United States, and submitted Josenaldo Silva.
While Bellator tends to focus on its kickboxing arm when in certain parts of Europe, Borics could drive up interest in the MMA half of the Hungarian cards. Bellator’s decision to include him in a trip to Idaho is evidence that the promotion doesn’t just view him as a local talent anymore. The Bellator 145-pound weight class would benefit greatly with Borics thrown into the title mix later in 2019.
Dominic Mazzotta (14-2 overall, 2-1 Bellator)
“The Honey Badger” has taken the more traditional route to a major organization. The 31-year-old posted a 7-1 mark as an amateur and then toiled around the regional circuit as a pro between his debut in 2013 and his emergence on the Bellator roster in 2017. He may have been one of Bellator’s sacrificial lambs for A.J. McKee Jr., but Mazzotta now looks like a respectable bantamweight addition for the company.
Mazzotta wasn’t perfect through his pro stint before meeting McKee, but his one prior loss shouldn’t prompt any shame on his part. In just his fourth pro outing, “The Honey Badger” ran into future UFC champion Cody Garbrandt and ended up on the wrong end of a knockout. He went on to win his next nine fights, though, including a submission of veteran Keith Richardson. Mazzotta’s promotional debut against McKee came at Bellator 178, where he was dropped with a head kick in just 75 seconds. He returned at Bellator 186 to earn a first-round doctor’s stoppage over Matt Lozano. Mazzotta further proved himself at Bellator 197 with a decision nod over Josh Sampo.
The bantamweight competitor was slated to fight Brandon Phillips late in 2018, but he was held out of the contest following a concussion. Given that Mazzotta’s only two losses have come against world-class prospects, he’s obviously no slouch. Once he’s fully recovered from the concussion, he should return to action and steadily make a case to be a featured member of Bellator’s 135-pound roster.
Valentin Moldavsky (7-1 overall, 2-0 Bellator)
Perhaps the biggest dark-horse candidate on this list based on his record, Moldavsky has managed to remain perfect through two Bellator fights and has won a world championship in combat sambo. The only question is whether he can find continued success when pitted against more formidable opponents in the MMA arena.
The 26-year-old combat-sambo specialist trains under Alexander Nevsky, the well-known coach to Fedor Emelianenko. While fighter databases list his pro MMA debut as a February 2015 fight against Karen Karapetyan, the heavyweight fighter did suffer a loss to future UFCer Magomed Ankalaev in a contest at the Russian MMA Championship 2015 in May 2015 that is not credited as a pro affair. By late 2015, he was appearing in fights under the Japanese Rizin Fighting Federation banner. His Rizin run included decision nods over the formerly undefeated Karl Albrektsson and veteran Szymon Bajor. He suffered his lone loss in the second day of a Rizin tournament when he was edged by Amir Aliakbari. His next stop was Bellator 181, where he decisioned Carl Seumanutafa on the prelims. He was elevated to the main card at Bellator 202, where he finished 1-0 fighter Ernest James via strikes in the second round.
Moldavsky is sure to benefit from Emelianenko’s presence in Bellator. It wouldn’t be the first time a promotion has prioritized a teammate of one of its bigger draws. As a combat-sambo world champion, Moldavsky has the background to suggest he can be competitive inside the Bellator cage. The first step will be for the organization to give him tougher fights. Perhaps Bellator could even start testing its heavyweight prospects — the aforementioned Schaffroth, Keresh and Cumming, to name a few — against each other. If it does os, then Moldavsky will get a chance to make waves.
Anatoly Tokov (27-3 overall, 3-0 Bellator)
We saved some of the best for last. First, there’s the 30-fight veteran Tokov. The Russian is the most experienced fighter on our list, and he, like Moldavsky, benefits from his place in the Alexander Nevsky camp that also houses the aforementioned Emelianenko. As would be expected, Tokov is also a combat-sambo specialist. The middleweight has quickly climbed the ladder in Bellator and even holds a win over one of the league’s former champs.
Tokov debuted in 2009 and won his first seven fights. After back-to-back defeats, he went on another extended streak of 17 consecutive victories, which included a 55-second finish of A.J. Matthews under the Rizin banner and a decision nod over Vladimir Filipovic. He stumbled in an M-1 appearance against Ramazan Emeev in late 2016, but Bellator added him to its roster in 2017. He scored a ground-and-pound stoppage of Francisco France at Bellator 172 and submitted the aforementioned Filipovic in the pair’s rematch at Bellator 200. This set up Tokov for a fight with former long-reigning Bellator middleweight champion Alexander Shlemenko at Bellator 208. Tokov took the victory over his fellow Russian by way of a decision.
The middleweight fighter was already on his way to a featured spot for Bellator when he tore his ACL prior to a scheduled outing against John Salter in late 2017. With his wins over Filipovic and Shlemenko, Tokov now appears fully healed and ready to challenge the upper echelon of Bellator’s 185-pound weight class. He should find plenty of success in 2019.
Juan Archuleta (21-1 overall, 3-0 Bellator)
Finally, we land on another of the most obvious breakout candidates for Bellator. Archuleta is another traditional prospect, in the sense that he came up through the regional circuit. His most notable stop was King of the Cage, where he won belts in four separate weight divisions. The 31-year-old has been a member of the Bellator roster since early 2018, and he’s already set to appear in his second division with the organization later this month.
The California native has been busy building his lengthy resume since making his pro debut in 2013. He won his first five fights and landed in the WSOF, but he stumbled against rookie competitor Andres Ponce. He hasn’t tasted defeat since then. Instead, he has collected numerous belts while also defeating the likes of Chris Tickle, Jordan Griffin and Mark Dickman. This led to his addition to the Bellator fold. He debuted at Bellator 195 on the main card with a decision nod over veteran featherweight William Joplin. Next, he played spoiler to UFC veteran Robbie Peralta in Peralta’s own Bellator debut. In his most recent outing, Archuleta decisioned Jeremy Spoon.
This is one fighter who could pose a threat across various weight classes for Bellator. He’s already 3-0 in the company’s featherweight division. He gets a tough task when he drops down to fight Ricky Bandejas at Bellator 214, but it could be the start to a run for him as a bantamweight. Archuleta also held KOTC straps at 155 and 160, so a move up to lightweight isn’t necessarily out of the question, either. With so many possible openings, Archuleta has a great chance to find success with Bellator in the coming months.
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