Rafael Lovato Jr. (Keith Mills/Sherdog)

Give Them a Chance: Grading Our 2019 Bellator Breakout Candidates

In early January, we presented 25 potential breakout candidates for Bellator MMA. We avoided the obvious choices like A.J. McKee Jr. and Michael Page, opting instead to dig deeper. Some of the men and women we highlighted were already forcing their way onto the main card. Others were still toiling around in the prelims.

Now, it’s November. These fighters have had 10 months in which to further their case and become featured members of the Bellator product. Of course, this also requires Bellator MMA to recognize each individual’s achievements and reward them. Some have succeeded. Others have failed. Here’s a look at all 25 of our breakout candidates and their standing with the promotion.

Mike Shipman

The middleweight fighter entered 2019 with a 13-1 mark that included a perfect four-fight run with Bellator. He had already appeared on a previous Bellator breakout candidates list here on Combat Press, but he had continued to struggle to find a foothold on the main card for the promotion.


It looked like Shipman was finally poised to make his move, but things didn’t go so well. His March fight with Hracho Darpinyan was scratched when Shipman suffered an injury. The Brit did return for an appearance in London at Bellator 223, but he was finished via strikes by emerging star Costello van Steenis in a headlining spot. Despite the setback, the “Sea Bass” is now slotted in a co-headliner against Fabian Edwards in late November when Bellator once again returns to London.

Breakout Status: Maybe next year?

Jordan Young

The American Top Team fighter is another repeat member of this list, but he hasn’t been given the same huge opportunities by Bellator. He’s still perfect through 11 professional bouts, including a July win over Joel Bauman at Bellator 224, but he continues to reside on the preliminary card. In fact, he fights fellow light-heavyweight prospect Julius Anglickas as part of this weekend’s Bellator 233 preliminary card.

Breakout Status: Still on course and still awaiting his chance.

J.J. Okanovich

“The Bosnian Bomber” was our third and final repeat on the list. Unlike the other holdovers, the 28-year-old out of American Kickboxing Academy hasn’t even made an appearance with Bellator in 2019. Instead, Okanovich made a bid for a UFC contract via Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series. Okanovich won his fight over Christian Lohsen, but the lightweight fighter didn’t receive an offer from the UFC’s president.

Breakout Status: Ignored by Bellator, he’s now knocking on the UFC’s door.

Everett Cummings

The 32-year-old was 14-0 overall and 2-0 with Bellator when he was tabbed as one of our breakout candidates. Unfortunately, the heavyweight has yet to fight in 2019 and isn’t even booked for an appearance over the year’s final two months.

Breakout Status: Missing in action.

Tyrell Fortune

The former NCAA Division II national wrestling champion is one of a number of Bellator blue-chippers who has spent his entire professional MMA career with the organization. He was already undefeated through five fights by the start of 2019, but he added two more victories during the current calendar year. First, the 29-year-old heavyweight used strikes to put away .500ish fighter Ryan Pokryfky in a February prelim bout at Bellator 216. Then, he took on a far tougher task in a match-up with Rudy Schaffroth on the main card of August’s Bellator 225 and came away with a rear-naked choke submission for the win. Fortune already has another main-card appearance lined up for this weekend’s Bellator 233 event, where he’ll meet Azunna Anyanwu.

Breakout Status: A contender on the cusp.

Joey Davis

Davis, the first wrestler in history to finish his NCAA Division II career with an undefeated mark, was another blue-chipper signing for Bellator. He was already perfect through four fights entering 2019, and he continued to pile on the wins while staying busy in 2019. First, “Black Ice” landed a left jab and an overhand right to floor Marcus Anthony in the first round of a March prelim at Bellator 219. Next, the welterweight added a one-minute starching of veteran Jeff Peterson at October’s Bellator 229. The fight, unfortunately, was a postlim contest that probably very few people watched.

Breakout Status: Still on course and still awaiting his chance.

Ty-wan Claxton

Yet another of Bellator blue-chippers, the NCAA Divisions I and II All-American signed with the promotion after a successful amateur foray into the MMA world. He was 4-0 by the time 2019 rolled around. His May bout with James Bennett on the main card of Bellator 221 resulted in a third-round stoppage for the 26-year-old. He was then thrust in Bellator’s featherweight tournament, where he was overwhelmed by Emmanuel Sanchez via a second-round submission.

Breakout Status: Tournament appearance signals he’s in the mix.

Romero Cotton

This blue-chipper put his ugly past — he 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 — behind him 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, before joining Bellator. He entered 2019 with three pro wins, all in the Bellator cage. Unfortunately, he has yet to add to that total. A May contest against Matt Paul was canceled, leaving Cotton with just an upcoming appearance at this weekend’s Bellator 233 event, where the middleweight resides on the prelims and takes on .500 fighter Jason Perrotta.

Breakout Status: In need of more fights.

Adam Keresh

The Israeli fighter could arguably be considered another Bellator blue-chipper, albeit not from the world of NCAA wrestling. He did have one pro bout before joining the organization, but he tacked on two more wins after his signing to enter 2019 with a 3-0 mark. The light heavyweight has yet to fight this year, but he’s less than two weeks away from a scheduled bout against veteran Vladimir Fedin at Bellator 234. It’ll be another prelim-card appearance for the promising Team Bert disciple.

Breakout Status: In need of more fights.

Mandel Nallo

With a nickname like “Rat Garbage,” Nallo is certainly a marketable fighter. His huge knockout of Carrington Banks doesn’t hurt either. The Tristar Gym product’s 2019 campaign kicked off with disappointment when his April affair against Don Mohammed was scrapped from Bellator 220. It didn’t get any better when the 30-year-old lightweight was finished with leg kicks in the third round of his recent fight with Killys Mota at Bellator 231.

Breakout Status: Needs a rebound in 2020.

Olga Rubin

The 30-year-old was one of the more prominent fighters mentioned on our list, primarily due to her weight class. Bellator is always in need of challengers for women’s featherweight champion Julia Budd, and Rubin, an accomplished fighter with a few Bellator appearances under her belt and an undefeated mark entering the year, seemed like an excellent contender that the company could groom. The Russian-born fighter earned her shot at the crown with a decision nod over Iony Razafiarison, but it came in a prelim contest at February’s Bellator 217. Rubin went from this rather obscure appearance straight to a headlining gig at Bellator 224 in July. She was punished by Budd, who scored the first-round stoppage. Now, the London-based fighter will try to get back on track at Bellator 234, where she faces Sinead Kavanagh.

Breakout Status: Entrenched contender in a shallow division.

Juliana Velasquez

The Brazilian entered 2019 with a perfect record that included three Bellator victories. The flyweight fighter added to her total in July with a TKO of Kristina Williams at Bellator 224. She’s scheduled to head to Hawaii in late December for what should be a rather easy fight against Bruna Ellen. The card also includes a title defense for Bellator’s women’s flyweight champion Ilima-Lei Macfarlane against Kate Jackson. With a win, Velasquez could be next in line for a crack at that belt.

Breakout Status: Potentially one win away from a title shot.

Logan Storley

The NCAA All-American wrestler took a different path to Bellator than his blue-chipper peers, but he, too, entered the year with a ton of expectations heaped upon him. The welterweight up-and-comer added a decision victory over Ion Pascu in a co-headlining bout at February’s Bellator 215, and he became a late addition to this weekend’s Bellator 233 card, where he’ll fight E.J. Brooks, albeit on the prelim card.

Breakout Status: Still on course and still awaiting his chance.

Neiman Gracie

The Brazilian grappler was already on the cusp of title contention by the time we compiled our breakout list in January. He was fresh off a victory over Ed Ruth, and it turned out his next — and only, so far, in 2019 — fight would be a title shot against Rory MacDonald that also represented a tournament bout in the division’s grand prix. Gracie dropped a decision to MacDonald at June’s Bellator 222 and does not yet have another fight on the horizon.

Breakout Status: Tournament appearance signals he’s in the mix.

Rafael Lovato Jr.

The 36-year-old Lovato was already an established figure in the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu 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 and joined Bellator by 2017. It’s no wonder that he was perhaps the most established star for the organization by the time 2019 came rolling around. He took another step up, though, when he edged Gegard Mousasi in a majority decision at Bellator 223 in June to become the league’s middleweight kingpin.

Breakout Status: He’s the champ. Need we say more?

Amir Albazi

Albazi is among the biggest oddities from the list. He’s a veteran who debuted in 2009 with four victories, but then went silent for four years before re-emerging in 2014 on the European circuit. The 26-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 2018’s Bellator 200, where he scored a first-round rear-naked choke submission of Iuri Bejenari. The Swedish fighter of Iraqi descent who trains out of England departed Bellator in 2019, though. He landed with the Brave Combat Federation, where he has so far lost to Jose “Shorty” Torres. “The Prince” is less than two weeks away from another Brave CF appearance.

Breakout Status: A big fish in a smaller pond with Brave CF.

Rudy Schaffroth

The heavyweight’s finishing rate and perfect mark through two Bellator fights and six bouts overall caught our attention in January. He had a March fight scrapped when his opponent, Jeremy Hardy, was involved in a car accident. This left the big man with just one fight on the year, and it came against a formidable foe. Schaffroth was submitted by Tyrell Fortune at Bellator 225 in August.

Breakout Status: Needs a rebound in 2020.

Ricky Bandejas

The 27-year-old Nick Catone disciple entered the year with high hopes after a huge finish of James Gallagher, a fighter that the promotion was hyping as a star. Unfortunately, Bandejas failed to capitalize on this good fortune despite a busy 2019 campaign. The bantamweight dropped a decision to Juan Archuleta in January at Bellator 214. Then, he was submitted in just 66 seconds by Patrick Mix at June’s Bellator 222. Bandejas was demoted back to the prelims for his most recent appearance, a first-round knockout of Ahmet Kayretli at Bellator 225 in August.

Breakout Status: Our first true bust.

Yaroslav Amosov

It’s difficult to compile a 20-0 career mark and still be considered a prospect who needs to break out, but that’s exactly where this Ukrainian found himself at the start of 2019. The 26-year-old hadn’t been padding his record, either. Instead, he already held wins over Diego Gonzalez, Roberto Soldić and Gerald Harris. “Dynamo” was granted a pair of high-profile contests this year, and he upped his career mark to a perfect 22-0 in the process. First, he decisioned UFC veteran Erick Silva at Bellator 216 in February. Next, he added a submission victory over Bellator staple David Rickels at August’s Bellator 225 in a catchweight contest. Bellator’s sure to continue to reward one of its more overlooked contenders with a prominent spot on an upcoming card.

Breakout Status: Overdue for a title bid.

Costello van Steenis

He’s one of this weekend’s headlining fighters at Bellator 233, and rightfully so. The 27-year-old “Spaniard,” who actually hails from the Netherlands, already had three Bellator wins, including a split verdict over Chris Honeycutt, by the start of 2019. He added a June win over Mike Shipman at Bellator 223. This paved the way for his upcoming bout against John Salter, a veteran who could serve as a gatekeeper between van Steenis and the upper echelon of Bellator’s middleweight division.

Breakout Status: A contender on the cusp.

Ádám Borics

Our list of breakout candidates certainly saved some of the best for last. Take, for instance, this Hungarian featherweight. Now based out of Florida, the 26-year-old Borics continued to climb the ranks in 2019. He landed a flying knee that dropped Aaron Pico at Bellator 222 in June. After polishing off Pico with some ground-and-pound, Borics was booked for a main-card fight against Pat Curran, a true Bellator veteran, in the company’s featherweight tournament. “The Kid” advanced with a ground-and-pound finish of the former champ at Bellator 226 in September.

Breakout Status: A contender on the cusp.

Dominic Mazzotta

“The Honey Badger” didn’t have the most striking Bellator resume to enter the year, but his one loss with the company came to A.J. McKee Jr., a true stud. The 32-year-old had rebounded with two subsequent wins, but it all came crashing down in a postlim bout in March at Bellator 219. Mazzotta was decisioned by mid-tier talent Shawn Bunch. He spent much of the year outside of Bellator, even going on to win a fight against a sub-.500 opponent, but he was scheduled to resurface in late October against Patrick Mix at Bellator 232. However, an injury forced him out of the contest.

Breakout Status: He looks like a bust, but Bellator hasn’t given up on him yet.

Valentin Moldavsky

The Ukrainian-born fighter’s first two Belator wins were enough to secure him a co-headlining slot at March’s Bellator 218. The heavyweight delivered with a decision win over promotional mainstay Linton Vassell. He was scheduled to meet UFC veteran Timothy Johnson in August at Bellator 225, but he was forced to withdraw from the contest.

Breakout Status: In need of more fights.

Anatoly Tokov

Another stud with a head-turning record, the Russian continued to impress in 2019. First, he submitted UFC castoff Gerald Harris with a front choke at Bellator 218 in March. Then, the middleweight destroyed Hracho Darpinyan with elbows in the second round of their Bellator 229 bout in October. Unfortunately, the latter of these contests was part of the preliminary card.

Breakout Status: What’s Bellator thinking? An underutilized potential star.

Juan Archuleta

Big expectations followed Archuleta toBellator after he had claimed championships in multiple divisions with the King of the Cage promotion. The second “Spaniard” on our list had already totalled three Bellator wins before 2019, and he added to that total with a January decision over Ricky Bandejas at Bellator 214 and a knockout of Eduardo Dantas at June’s Bellator 222 event. Archuleta couldn’t find as much success in a featherweight title tilt opposite champion Patricio “Pitbull” Freire at Bellator 228 in September.

Breakout Status: Now a former title challenger, he’s poised to stay in contention in at least two Bellator weight classes.