Bellator MMA is not holding back when it comes to its effort to “Salute the Troops.” The promotion is headed to Hawaii and teaming with the USO for not one, but two full nights of MMA action for the U.S. military personnel. It concludes with Bellator 236 on Saturday. The larger show of the two-night extravaganza, it features a women’s flyweight championship headliner and a quarterfinal bout from the men’s featherweight grand prix.
Ilima-Lei Macfarlane seeks to make her fourth successful defense of the Bellator women’s flyweight title that she captured in late 2017. Thus far, the native Hawaiian has turned back challenges from Alejandra Lara, Valérie Létourneau and Veta Arteaga. The undefeated 29-year-old has yet to go the distance in a Bellator championship affair. Her latest challenger is Kate Jackson, a British fighter who appeared on season 23 of The Ultimate Fighter. Jackson has won three of her four Bellator fights.
The featherweight tournament quarterfinal bout pits A.J. McKee Jr. against Derek Campos. A.J., the son of UFC veteran Antonio McKee, is perfect through 15 professional bouts. He advanced to the quarterfinals with an eight-second finish of Georgi Karakhanyan. Campos, a longtime member of the Bellator roster, joined the tournament despite a three-fight skid. The 31-year-old broke his freefall and advanced to the quarterfinals with a decision nod over former Bellator champ Daniel Straus.
The Bellator 236 lineup also includes notable appearances by Neiman Gracie, Juliana Velasquez and Raufeon Stots. Gracie, fresh off a failed bid for welterweight gold, takes on Kiichi Kunimoto. Velasquez, who could be next in line for a crack at the women’s flyweight strap, meets Bruna Ellen. Stots, a bantamweight prospect, makes his promotional debut against Cheyden Leialoha, one of 10 fighters who was selected from a Bellator tryout to compete during the two-night salute to the troops with the hopes of earning a multi-fight Bellator contract.
The evening’s festivities take place at the Neal S. Blaisdell Arena in Honolulu. The preliminary card begins at 8:30 p.m. ET and can be seen on DAZN, Bellator.com or via the promotion’s app. The main card gets underway at 10 p.m. ET and airs live on DAZN.
What does former The Ultimate Fighter participant and four-fight Bellator veteran Kate Jackson need to do in order to unseat Ilima-Lei Macfarlane in the women’s flyweight title match?
First and foremost, avoid the ground. Macfarlane has been quick to submit her opponents, especially since beginning her Bellator title reign. She tapped Emily Ducote in the fifth round to claim the crown and then went on to submit Alejandra Lara and Valérie Létourneau in the third stanza. She earned a TKO via doctor’s stoppage due to a cut against Arteaga that came as a result of a ground-and-pound elbow landed by Macfarlane after she secured one of her many takedowns. If Jackson fails to stuff takedowns, she’s destined to meet a similar fate to her peers.
Macfarlane has been a beast as the champion. She’s persistent and usually successful in her takedowns, and her grappling abilities are a nightmare for any challenger. Arteaga was able to frustrate the champ at times, and Jackson should review Arteaga’s efforts from Bellator 220 for some ideas of how to effectively counter Macfarlane.
Even that’s going to be a tall task for Jackson. The British fighter succumbed to a first-round submission from Tatiana Suarez during TUF, and she’s also suffered a setback against Létourneau. Jackson is a solid fighter, but she’s simply not on the same level as the champion. Suarez’s success against Jackson is a good indicator of how this fight should play out. Jackson won’t find many opportunities to score points, because she’s going to be too busy fending off Macfarlane’s takedowns. Once the hometown favorite plants Jackson on the mat, it’s only a matter of time until the submission finish.
Will A.J. McKee Jr. remain unscathed when the dust settles on his featherweight grand-prix quarterfinal bout with Derek Campos?
McKee has passed all of his tests thus far, and Bellator hasn’t always thrown him softballs either. He demolished Dominic Mazzotta with a head kick in just 75 seconds. It took him 69 seconds to dispose of UFC veteran John “Macapá” Teixeira. Daniel Crawford at least made it past the three-minute mark before succumbing to an anaconda choke. Justin Lawrence and Pat Curran dropped decisions to the standout. Georgi Karakhanyan only lasted eight seconds. McKee is the real deal.
His fight with Campos doesn’t even seem like the most difficult stop on his journey. The Mohler MMA product was on a miserable three-fight skid when he entered the tournament field. He was dropped by Patricky “Pitbull” Freire and Pedro Carvalho, and he sandwiched a split-decision loss to Sam Sicilia between those stoppages. This made his tourney win over former Bellator champ Daniel Straus somewhat of a shock, even if Straus has suffered through his own bouts of inconsistency.
Campos is looking at an even bigger uphill climb here. His chin has failed him on numerous occasions throughout his career, and he has a history of struggles against top-tier opponents. McKee has been a freight train rumbling over and through anything in his path. Campos is set to become just the latest victim for McKee.
The card also features tough tests for undefeated female flyweight Juliana Velasquez and recent Bellator acquisition Raufeon Stots. Will either of these rising fighters falter in Hawaii?
Velasquez is tasked with Bruna Ellen, a 5-2 fighter whose record is deceiving. Ellen went to a split verdict in a losing effort against Veta Arteaga, who gave Ilima-Lei Macfarlane a tough time in their title showdown. The 23-year-old also topped Elina Kallionidou in July. Ellen’s a grinder, but she’s going to have a hard time edging Velasquez, whose resume is full of veteran names. Velasquez has won four Bellator contests, including three via stoppage. The undefeated 33-year-old should add another victory to her record against Ellen. This should be enough to position her as the next — and perhaps the greatest — threat to the reigning champ.
Stots, meanwhile, draws one of Bellator’s tryout selections, Cheyden Leialoha. There’s a pretty significant difference in the records of these one-loss prospects. Stots, who has records 12 wins to accompany his one defeat, has made stops with Victory Fighting Championship, Ring of Combat, and the Legacy Fighting Alliance. The Roufusport disciple has encountered a number of established veterans along the way. He suffered his lone loss to current UFC fighter Merab Dvalishvili, and he’s registered wins over Jeff Curren, Rob Emerson, Levi Mowles and Ralph Acosta. In contrast, Leialoha’s loss came to Combate Americas mainstay John Castañeda, while his biggest win came over Yuto Sekiguchi. Leialoha’s resume is full of low-level opponents, and he’s likely not equipped to handle what Stots brings to the cage.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
The lightweight clash between Nainoa Dung and Zach Zane.
The main-card opener gives us a glimpse at Dung, an undefeated prospect set to make his Bellator debut. The 20-year-old has only been fighting professionally since August 2018, but he’s looking good so far. His two most recent victories have come against fellow undefeated upstarts under the Bellator banner. This time, though, he’s set to encounter a grizzled veteran in Zane.
The 29-year-old Zane has 22 pro fights under his belt. The Hawaiian has had his ups and downs, but he’s won 13 outings, all via finish. Zane has 10 submission victories, so Dung should be careful about engaging Zane on the mat. However, Zane has also been submitted numerous times. Four of Zane’s last five losses have come against undefeated fighters, but he’s also handed out the first career setbacks to a handful of prospects.
Zane is a great test for Dung, and his tendency to avoid the scorecards makes this a potentially fun battle.
Main Card (DAZN, 10 p.m. ET)
Women’s FlyW Championship: Ilima-Lei Macfarlane vs. Kate Jackson
FW Tournament Quarterfinal: A.J. McKee Jr. vs. Derek Campos
WW: Neiman Gracie vs. Kiichi Kunimoto
Women’s FlyW: Juliana Velasquez vs. Bruna Ellen
BW: Raufeon Stots vs. Cheyden Leialoha
LW: Nainoa Dung vs. Zach Zane
Preliminary Card (DAZN and Bellator.com, 8:30 p.m. ET)
BW: Swayne Lunasco vs. Kaylan Gorospe
LW: Keoni Diggs vs. Scotty Hao
FlyW: Nate Yoshimura vs. Chas Dunhour
FW: Kai Kamaka III vs. Spencer Higa
WW: Kona Oliveira vs. Ben Wilhelm
LW: Dustin Barca vs. Brandon Pieper
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