This certainly wasn’t the ending Ryan Bader envisioned for his first official heavyweight title defense.
After a strong start against Cheick Kongo in the Bellator 226 headliner at the SAP Center in San Jose, Calif., on Saturday night, an inadvertent eye poke from Bader rendered the Frenchman unable to continue. As a result, the bout was ruled a no contest at the 3:52 mark of Round 1. Meanwhile, Quinton Jackson entered the cage to scuffle with Bader for injuring his training partner. That drama shouldn’t lead to a rematch between Bader and “Rampage,” because the former Arizona State University wrestler was too much for Jackson when both were under the UFC banner some seven years ago. Instead, it might be nice to see Bader defend the other belt in his possession in his next promotional appearance.
As for the featherweight grand prix, all quarterfinal matchups are expected to be determined by a random drawing upon the completion of the first round, which concludes with Bellator 228 on Sept. 28. Nonetheless, we’ll try to select some interesting potential pairings based on tonight’s winners — even if there’s no guarantee they will come to fruition.
In the aftermath of Bellator 226, here are five matches that ought to be made:
Ryan Bader vs. Vadim Nemkov: While a return date with Kongo is a logical next move, Bader appeared to be well on his way to a convincing victory against the French veteran. Besides, the Power MMA Team standout claims that he plans on returning to defend his light heavyweight belt, and it’s been nearly two years since he set foot in 205-pound waters. Let’s assume Kongo needs time to heal and Bader wants to make good on his word. In that case, Nemkov is a solid choice for No. 1 contender. The 27-year-old Russian is currently on a five-bout winning streak that includes triumphs over a pair of ex-Bellator titlists in Phil Davis and Liam McGeary as well as a knockout of 2018 PFL heavyweight king Philipe Lins.
Derek Campos vs. Patricio Freire-Juan Archuleta winner: If the featherweight grand prix were seeded, it’s quite possible that Campos might be the low man remaining on the totem pole. Based on that rationale, it only makes sense to put him up against the winner of the championship bout in the quarterfinals, which would include the presumed No. 1 seed, Patricio Freire. Campos is not without intrigue, however. “The Stallion” authored a lopsided three-round verdict over ex-champ Daniel Straus on Saturday in one of the most dominant performances of his career to date and looks absolutely massive competing at 145 pounds.
Adam Borics vs. Darrion Caldwell-Henry Corrales winner: After taking out what was once the promotion’s most prized prospect in Aaron Pico at Bellator 222, Borics punched his ticket to the grand prix quarterfinals with an even more impressive finish of former featherweight king Pat Curran. “The Kid” took a measured approach, waiting for his golden opportunity before stopping Curran with a furious salvo of ground-and-pound at the conclusion of the second stanza. The 26-year-old Hungarian is unbeaten in 14 professional appearances and could be a tournament dark horse. A clash with the Caldwell-Corrales winner would make for an interesting next test.
Emmanuel Sanchez vs. Pedro Carvalho: Sanchez remains perpetually underrated despite having one of the best featherweight resumes in the promotion. The Roufusport product proved to be too experienced for Tywan Claxton, as he showcased his crafty guard in securing a triangle submission win over the highly-touted — and previously unbeaten — prospect. “El Matador” has crossed paths with many of the tourney’s participants, including a competitive five-round defeat to reigning champion Freire. However, a new foe could be more interesting here. Carvalho, who was supremely impressive in dispatching Sam Sicilia in another first-round tilt on Saturday, fits that bill. The SBG Ireland representative wore down the UFC veteran with pressure on the feet before stuffing a takedown, taking his opponent’s back and getting the tapout with a powerful face crank at the 1:56 mark of Round 2. Carvalho hasn’t lost since November 2015, and he looks ready to meet the challenge an experienced adversary like Sanchez can provide.
Tywan Claxton vs. Daniel Carey: Claxton spent the early portion of his Bellator MMA tenure racking up highlight-reel victories against overmatched opposition. However, a showdown with former title challenger Emmanuel Sanchez proved to be too much for the 26-year-old Strong Style Team representative, as he was submitted in the second frame. Now that he has been eliminated from the 145-pound bracket, Claxton can go back to focusing on his development. A matchup with Carey, who upset the highly-regarded Gaston Bolanos in the evening’s opening main card bout, might give Claxton a chance to get back on track — or further establish that it’s Carey who’s the featherweight talent worth watching.