The tournament format has been an essential ingredient in the rise of Bellator MMA. The promotion’s earliest shows revolved around season-long tournaments to crown new champions and challengers. While the league has moved away from the tournament as its defining attribute, the company continues to use the format from time to time. Bellator 228 is one of these times.
The Forum in Inglewood, Calif., is the setting for the quarterfinal round of Bellator’s latest featherweight grand prix. The lineup is a doozy, too. The Bellator featherweight title is on the line in the biggest match-up of the tournament’s opening round. Titleholder Patricio “Pitbull” Freire must defend his crown in order to advance in the tourney, but he’ll encounter a very tough challenge in the form of Juan Archuleta, who has been perfect through five Bellator appearances.
The remaining tourney pairings include Darrion Caldwell against Henry Corrales, Daniel Weichel opposite Saul Rogers, and a clash between A.J. McKee Jr. and Georgi Karakhanyan.
In addition to the grand-prix action, Bellator will host a rematch five years in the making between former UFC staples Lyoto Machida and Gegard Mousasi. Machida outworked Mousasi over five rounds in their 2014 affair, but the younger Mousasi now has a chance to avenge that prior loss against his aging counterpart.
Bellator 228 takes place on Saturday, Sept. 28, as part of a two-event weekend for the Bellator MMA organization. The preliminary card airs live on Bellator.com at 7:30 p.m. ET. The main card follows on DAZN at 10 p.m. ET.
Juan Archuleta has an opportunity to unseat Patricio “Pitbull” Freire as the featherweight champion while also competing in the division’s tournament. Can he capitalize with a victory?
Archuleta is no joke. This is a man who won King of the Cage titles at bantamweight, featherweight, lightweight and 160 pounds. He entered the Bellator promotion and scored wins over grizzled veteran William Joplin and UFC castoff Robbie Peralta. The “Spaniard” took things to the next level with decision nods over Jeremy Spoon and Ricky Bandejas. Then, he made his biggest statement yet with a finish of former Bellator champ Eduardo Dantas.
The 32-year-old challenger is carving out a place in the Bellator featherweight division, and he’s a serious threat to Freire. Archuleta smoked both Peralta and Dantas with strikes. Pitbull will have to be careful on the feet. The Brazilian has never been finished by knockout, but he has been rattled in several fights. Archuleta won’t let him recover the way past opponents have.
With the exception of a leg injury that cost Pitbull his fight with Benson Henderson in 2016, the champ has primarily lost to strong, grinding wrestlers. Joe Warren and Pat Curran took him to split verdicts, while Daniel Straus edged him via a unanimous nod. Archuleta has much more of a reputation for his powerful strikes than he does for takedowns and top control. The challenger’s style could play to Freire’s favor. Pitbull, a two-division champion, is also coming off an impressive knockout victory in a title defense over Michael Chandler at the lightweight level.
Archuleta could define his career in this fight. He has the chance to capture gold and then continue through a tournament bracket that features many of Bellator’s other top featherweights. The challenger should be able to clip Pitbull early and set the tone for the fight. It’ll be a back-and-forth battle that becomes an instant classic, but Archuleta should have what it takes to score a knockout where others have failed.
Which other fighters will advance in the tournament this weekend?
There are some intriguing clashes set for this opening round of the tournament.
Darrion Caldwell has to turn his fortunes around after back-to-back losses to Kyoji Horiguchi. He’ll have his hands full with Henry Corrales, but this is a winnable fight for the former Bellator bantamweight kingpin. Caldwell will fall back on his wrestling skills and play it conservative en route to a decision nod.
The 29-year-old Saul Rogers can’t seem to catch a break. He did very well in season 22 of The Ultimate Fighter, but he was yanked from the tournament finals due to visa issues. Now, he’s set to meet Daniel Weichel as part of this Bellator tournament. Weichel is a strong grappler, whereas Rogers has suffered both of his career defeats via tapout. The British fighter was even recently submitted by Aurel Pirtea, who boasted a mediocre 11-8 mark entering the contest. This pairing definitely favors Weichel.
Finally, there’s A.J. McKee Jr. and Georgi Karakhanyan. McKee remains undefeated after 14 pro fights. The 24-year-old is a very skilled wrestler, but he’s also delivered the occasional knockout. Meanwhile, Karakhanyan has been a Bellator regular for years while riding a roller coaster of wins and losses. The veteran is no easy fight, but McKee should be able to focus on Karakhanyan’s weaknesses and find his way to another victory.
Lyoto Machida decisioned Gegard Mousasi in their first encounter, which took place under the UFC banner in 2014. Will Mousasi avenge the loss in the pair’s rematch?
Mousasi will have to hope that Machida has experienced enough decline in the last five-plus years to make this a more manageable fight. In their first encounter, “The Dragon” was able to use range effectively in outpointing — and frustrating — Mousasi for five rounds. Unless Machida’s skill set has deteriorated, it’s reasonable to expect more of the same this time around.
Mousasi has had a more rigorous fight schedule recently. He departed the UFC on a five-fight winning streak that included victories over Thiago Santos, Vitor Belfort, Uriah Hall and Chris Weidman. He continued to rake upon arrival in Bellator, where he topped Alexander Shlemenko, Rafael Carvalho (for the middleweight strap) and Rory MacDonald. He did falter and drop his belt to Rafael Lovato Jr. in his most recent outing, but the result was just a majority decision in his opponent’s favor.
By contrast, Machida went 1-4 in his five fights after the win over Mousasi and has recently taken on the fading Belfort and an over-the-hill Chael Sonnen. His other two recent victories were split verdicts over Eryk Anders and the aforementioned Carvalho.
In terms of recent records, Mousasi, who is still just 34 years old, seems leaps and bounds ahead of his 41-year-old counterpart. However, Mousasi can have a tendency to come out flat, especially when the stylistic match-up is bad for him. This is one of those match-ups. Machida’s counter-fighting style and ability to use range to his advantage will make it very difficult for Mousasi to find the win in this one.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
The preliminary card has plenty of fights that could produce big finishes or entertaining fights, but none of them hold much significant in the bigger picture. However, one of the prelims does feature a WBC boxing champion who will make her MMA debut on Saturday night. That’s worthy of some attention, right?
Ava “The Lady of Boxing” Knight is the latest boxer to try her hand at MMA combat. As a boxer, she’s posted an 18-2-5 mark while collecting numerous belts. The Mayweather Promotions signee has reportedly been working on her MMA skill set for a few years now, and she’s even spent time learning the game from the legendary Randy Couture.
Knight has been paired with Shannon Goughary. This should make for an interesting test for the championship boxer. The 33-year-old Goughary went just 7-7 as an amateur and stands at 4-3 as a pro. She’s about as inconsistent as they come, but she has scored a handful of submission victories. If there’s anywhere a boxer tends to be prone, it’s in the grappling game.
If Knight can inflict damage on the feet early and stuff any takedown attempts, she should cruise to a victory. However, if Goughary can drag the fight to the ground, her chances of “upsetting” the boxer grow exponentially.
Main Card (DAZN, 10 p.m. ET)
FW Championship/FW Tournament Quarterfinal: Patricio “Pitbull” Freire vs. Juan Archuleta
MW: Lyoto Machida vs. Gegard Mousasi
FW Tournament Quarterfinal: Darrion Caldwell vs. Henry Corrales
FW Tournament Quarterfinal: Daniel Weichel vs. Saul Rogers
FW Tournament Quarterfinal: A.J. McKee Jr. vs. Georgi Karakhanyan
Preliminary Card (Bellator.com, 7:30 p.m. ET)
BW: Shawn Bunch vs. Leandro Higo
Catchweight: Jay Viola vs. Jonathan Santa Maria
LW: Joshua Jones vs. Dominic Clark
FW: Weber Almeida vs. Castle Williams
BW: Jason Edwards vs. Adrian Najera
Catchweight (165 pounds): Antonio McKee vs. William Sriyapai
Catchweight (165 pounds): Emilio Williams vs. Ian Butler
FW: A.J. Agazarm vs. Jonathan Quiroz
MW: Andre Walker vs. Osman Diaz
Women’s StrawW: Ava Knight vs. Shannon Goughary
Catchweight (175 pounds): Mike Jasper vs. Johnny Cisneros
Catchweight (133 pounds): James Barnes vs. David Duran
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