Patricio "Pitbull" Freire (Lucas Johnson/Combat Press)

Bellator 255: Pitbull vs. Sanchez 2 Preview and Predictions

On Friday night, Bellator MMA returns to host its first event of 2021. Bellator 255: Pitbull vs. Sanchez 2 also marks the first event on the promotion’s new broadcast home at Showtime.

The main event is a semifinal in the Bellator Featherweight Grand Prix where Patricio “Pitbull” Freire looks to defend his title against Emmanuel Sanchez in a rematch of a 2018 contest that Pitbull won by unanimous decision. Both men have gone 3-0 since that first fight, and Pitbull even snatched the Bellator lightweight title in one of his three victories.

The co-headliner is a lightweight contest between undefeated Dagestani fighter Usman Nurmagomedov and Mike Hamel. This serves as the promotional debut for Nurmagomedov, who has worked his way to an 11-0 record on the regional scene while winning all but one of those fights by way of stoppage. Hamel makes his sophomore outing inside the Bellator cage while in search of his first win with the organization. Hamel dropped his promotional debut via split decision to Ádám Borics.


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A welterweight showdown between Neiman Gracie and Jason Jackson is also featured on the main card. Gracie lost for the first time as a professional in 2019 when he fell by unanimous decision to former welterweight champion Rory MacDonald. He rebounded from that loss nicely in his most recent outing, where he picked up a submission win over UFC veteran Jon Fitch. Jackson also notched a win over a former UFC fighter in his last outing when he topped Benson Henderson on the scorecards.

Two additional fights round out the docket. Former women’s flyweight title challenger Alejandra Lara returns to the cage against Japan’s Kana Watanabe. The main card opens at heavyweight, where Tyrell Fortune rematches Jack May on short notice. Fortune was originally slated to face Matt Mitrione, but Mitrione was forced to withdraw from the contest. The first fight between Fortune and May ended prematurely when an accidental knee from Fortune landed to May’s groin, rendering him unable to continue.

Bellator 255: Pitbull vs. Sanchez 2 takes place on April 2 inside the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn. The prelims kick off at 6 p.m. ET and can be seen on Bellator’s YouTube channel. The main card follows at 9 p.m. ET on Showtime. Combat Press writers Andrew Sumian and Matt Petela preview the action in this special edition of Toe-to-Toe.

The first time Patricio “Pitbull” Freire and Emmanuel Sanchez collided, Pitbull walked away with a unanimous nod. What adjustments does Sanchez need to make to turn the tables in their rematch?

Sumian: The pair’s first bout was a back-and-forth affair that resulted in two out of three judges scoring the bout 48-47 for Pitbull. Sanchez was able to stay in the fight for all five rounds and has arguably given the champ the most difficulty he’s faced through his last six bouts.

After suffering his fourth loss, Sanchez swiftly rebounded by rattling off three straight wins over Georgi Karakhanyan, Ty-wan Claxton and Daniel Weichel. His most recent performance against Weichel displayed Sanchez’s much-improved striking, cage control and versatility. It also earned him a shot at redemption against Brazil’s Freire.

Since suffering a TKO loss due to a leg injury against Benson Henderson in early 2017, Pitbull has returned with a vengeance. This has resulted in six straight wins over the likes of Sanchez, Michael Chandler and Juan Archuleta. With every performance, the Brazilian has looked consistently more relaxed, confident and dominant, which has translated into an impressive tournament run. Pitbull is one of those rare Bellator talents who would probably do very well in the UFC. He is truly a world-class competitor capable of defeating any featherweight or lightweight in the world.

While Sanchez has looked impressive and shown improvement since their first meeting, Pitbull has looked at least equally as impressive. To put it bluntly, anything Sanchez does well, the champ does better. This will translate to a victory for Pitbull. This time, it will come by way of a stoppage after Freire rocks Sanchez.

Petela: Sanchez really has looked great since he lost the pair’s first contest. He is fighting better than he has at any other point in his career. If there ever was a time for him to get the better of Pitbull, it would be now. He just has to stay within himself and not get drawn into a slugfest with the hard-hitting Brazilian.

Sanchez must look to set up calculated takedowns that allow him to wind up in dominant grappling positions. His best chance to pick up a victory involves neutralizing the striking offense of Freire while looking to gain an advantage in the grappling realm.

Unfortunately, this is much easier said than done. Even if Sanchez does get the fight to the mat, he is up against a fellow Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt. There is more than a small chance that his attempts to initiate the grappling backfire and he winds up in harm’s way on the canvas.

There really is no clear path to victory for Sanchez. This will end up being another win for Pitbull as he marches toward the featherweight grand prix throne. After he comes out of the tournament unscathed, there really will be nothing left for him to accomplish inside Bellator. He will have cleaned out the featherweight division yet again. Still, the 33-year-old has a lot of fights left before his athletic prime comes to an end. He will go down as the greatest fighter in Bellator history, but only time will tell if he moves on to join the UFC or another major promotion to prove that he truly is one of the greatest fighters on the planet at 145 pounds.

Heavyweights Jack May and Tyrell Fortune open this first Showtime card for Bellator. Is this the right choice for the company?

Petela: Absolutely.

Fortune’s lone professional setback came against Tim Johnson, who caught Fortune with a leaping right hand to end the fight. While that loss did slow his momentum somewhat, Fortune is still one of the promotion’s top homegrown talents. The possibility of a win over a veteran on a high-profile fight card is the perfect way to boost his profile among a wider audience.

Both of these heavyweights like to keep their fights standing. Bellator has lined up a fan-friendly fight — for as long as it lasts — in which both men will have their moments. Ultimately, this will be a coming-out party for Fortune, who will pick up a big knockout victory. It’s a great way to kick off the main card on Showtime.

Sumian: May replaces Matt Mitrione on a week’s notice after the former football player pulled out of the bout with Fortune. Thus, this will be a rematch of a Bellator 245 contest that resulted in a no-contest due to a knee to the groin that prevented May from continuing.

Fortune will have a huge opportunity to establish himself as a Bellator staple if he is able to deliver a memorable performance against the less-talented May, who is 1-4-1 over his last six appearances. The odds are definitely stacked against the late replacement. Fortune will either deliver a memorable knockout or a dominant decision victory. In all likelihood, he will then be slated to face Mitrione at a later date.

Of the competitors in the remaining three main-card fights, who makes a star turn on Friday night?

Sumian: The only correct answer to this question is Usman Nurmagomedov. The Dagestani sensation has compiled a perfect record through 11 fights and makes his Bellator debut after turning in five straight finishes. He trains out of the highly touted American Kickboxing Academy, and the lightweight prospect will come into his bout ready to make a splash against Mike Hamel.

Hamel made his promotional debut at Bellator 243 in a split-decision loss to Ádám Borics. Now, his Bellator record will fall to 0-2 after he suffers a grueling defeat courtesy of Nurmagomedov. It won’t be long until Nurmagomdeov’s name will be preceded by the words “Bellator lightweight title challenger.”

Petela: That is certainly a good answer, but it’s not the only correct one.

Alejandra Lara will also have a breakout performance and pick up the most impressive win of her career when she beats the previously undefeated Kana Watanabe. The Japanese judoka looked great in her Bellator debut with a late finish over Ilara Joanne. While Watanabe might not be well known to the American audience, fans across the globe have seen how talented she is as a mixed martial artist. By defeating Watanabe, who has put together a record of 9-0-1, Lara will prove she is more than ready for another crack at the women’s flyweight belt.

FIGHT PICKS
Fight Sumian’s Pick Petela’s Pick
Main Card (Showtime, 9 p.m. ET)
FW Championship and Tournament Semifinal: Patricio “Pitbull” Freire vs. Emmanuel Sanchez Pitbull Pitbull
LW: Usman Nurmagomedov vs. Mike Hamel Nurmagomedov Nurmagomedov
WW: Neiman Gracie vs. Jason Jackson Jackson Gracie
Women’s FlyW: Alejandra Lara vs. Kana Watanabe Lara Lara
HW: Jack May vs. Tyrell Fortune Fortune Fortune
Preliminary Card (YouTube, 6 p.m. ET)
WW: Mukhamed Berkhamov vs. Herman Terrado Berkhamov Berkhamov
MW: Fabio Aguiar vs. Khalid Murtazaliev Murtazaliev Aguiar
MW: Jordan Newman vs. Branko Busick Newman Newman
WW: Roman Faraldo vs. Trevor Gudde Gudde Faraldo
BW: Magomed Magomedov vs. Cee Jay Hamilton Magomedov Magomedov
LW: Mandel Nallo vs. Ricardo Seixas Seixas Nallo
Catchweight (160 pounds): Roger Huerta vs. Chris Gonzalez Huerta Gonzalez