A look back at Bellator in 2017

Scott Coker

Bellator MMA in 2017 were the second-most important MMA promotion behind the UFC and the second-busiest independent behind LFA.  That said Bellator are catching up to the UFC fast in terms of expanding the sport while being the most important independent for the amount of relevant UFC vets being signed.

If one counts the four Monster Energy Fight Series throwaway cards Bellator held 26 events in 2017 including one pay-per-view, the second pay-per-view in the promotion’s almost nine-year history.  The year was highlighted of course by the pay-per-view Bellator NYC/Bellator 180 on June 24th where the only championship fight of the night opened the pay-per-view segment.  Several UFC vets made their promotional debuts with Rory MacDonald, Michael McDonald, and Gegard Mousasi topping the list, the downside being the belts took a back seat and Bellator moved more into the role of “retirement home for Octagon vets”.

What really made Bellator stand out was in expansion.  Bellator’s aforementioned Monster Energy Fight Series cards were not televised due to Fox holding the broadcast rights but the live crowds were exposed to MMA beyond the UFC.  Bellator also held international events in Northern Ireland, Italy, Hungary, England, Israel, and New York City.

Current Bellator champions

  • W flyweight: Ilima-Lei Macfarlane
  • BW: Darrion Caldwell
  • WFW: Julia Budd
  • FW: Patricio Freire
  • LW: Brent Primus
  • WW: Douglas Lima
  • MW: Rafael Carvalho
  • LHW: Ryan Bader
  • HW: vacant since May 2016
Muhammed Lawal

Bellator’s heavyweight division has for the most part been on hold in 2017 with the news centered around the 2018 grand prix.  Cole Konrad was the original heavyweight champion having earned the inaugural belt in October 2010 and not relinquishing the belt until his retirement from MMA in September 2012.  Alexander Volkov held the title for 337 days nad Vitaly Minakov for 911 days but Minakov was stripped in May 2016 for failing to make a title defense and the belt has been vacant ever since.  That isn’t to say Bellator haven’t had high-profile heavyweight fights in 2017.  Bellator 175 was headlined by Muhammed Lawal vs. Quinton Jackson at heavyweight while Cheick Kongo and Sergei Kharitonov were on main cards in the weight class while several fights took place on undercards.  The 2018 grand prix looks to change that as the tournament features former UFC champions Jackson and Frank Mir, former Pride champion Fedor Emelianenko, and former Strikeforce champion Lawal as well as Bellator light heavyweight champion and UFC vet Ryan Bader.

Ryan Bader on top

Even though Ryan Bader is in the heavyweight grand prix he is still light heavyweight champion.  Bader took the title from Phil Davis on June 24th then defended it against Linton Vassell on November 3rd while Davis went on to defeat Leonardo Leite on the same card.  Former champion Liam McGeary is still in the rankings and on main cards while the June 24th Bellator in NYC card was headlined by Chael Sonnen vs. Wanderlie Silva at light heavyweight.  Aside from those stars however there were no light heavyweight fights on main cards in 2017 so with Sonnen and Bader in the grand prix it seems Bellator are giving up on this weight class until well into spring.

Rafael Carvalho

Arguably the most dominant Bellator champion is Rafael Carvalho at middleweight since he has made it through three title defenses, two of which took place in 2017.  Carvalho won the title in October 2015 then defended it twice against Melvin Manhoef and most recently against Alessio Sakara, his first UFC vet opponent.  In 2017 Bellator on main cards also featured UFC vets Kevin Casey, Gegard Mousasi, Charlie Ward and Kendall Grove at middleweight.  As far as up-and-comers go John Salter defeated Grove while Ed Ruth remained undefeated at 4-0.

Douglas Lima
Douglas Lima

Twelve Bellator main card fights took place at welterweight.  Champion Douglas Lima is on his second run as champion with his two reigns totaling 875 days, the downside being he has successfully defend the belt only once.  Lima first won the title in April 2014 when it was vacant but lost it in his first defense against Andrey Koreshkov in July 2015.  Koreshkov defended the belt against former UFC lightweight champion Benson Henderson then lost it in a rematch to Lima in November 2016.  Lima went on to defend the belt at last against Lorenz Larkin in June 2017 with Larkin being Lima’s first UFC vet opponent.  The big news in this division was the Bellator debut of Rory MacDonald who defeated fellow UFC vet Paul Daley for his Bellator debut in May.  Bellator are also making a big deal out of Kevin Ferguson Jr., the son of deceased Elite XC star “Kimbo Slice”.  So far Ferguson has gone 2-1 with his two victories this year on main cards against relative unknowns DJ Griffin and Fred Freeman.  Surprisingly at Bellator’s June pay-per-view Lima opened the main card while the co-main event slot was taken by Neiman Gracie at welterweight, a sign of how much Bellator cares about the belts.  Gracie also defeated Zak Bucia on the October 20th card.

Brent Primus

Just slightly more active was the lightweight class which had thirteen main card fights in 2017.  The current champion is Brent Primus who defeated Michael Chandler at Bellator’s pay-per-view show in April, taking the title while remaining undefeated at 8-0.  Patricky Freire who lost a title fight to Chandler had a strong 2017 with defeats of UFC vets Josh Thomson and Benson Henderson while other strong names in Bellator’s division include Goiti Yamauchi, Saad Awad, and Ryan Quinn.

Patricio Freire

For five years the featherweight title has bounced between Pat Curran, Daniel Straus, and current champion Patricio Freire with all three holding two reigns as champion.  Freire was first champion from September 2014 until November 2015 with two defenses in that time, one against Straus and one against Daniel Weichel.  The division was on hold after Straus defeated Freire in November 2015 in what was their third matchup with Straus not defending the belt until April 2017 when he lost the title in the fourth matchup against Freire.  All that seems a little ridiculous but Bellator found time to find featherweight standouts like Emmanuel Sanchez who went 3-0 in 2017, AJ McKee who is undefeated at 10-0 with all ten in Bellator, and Steve Kozola who’s first loss in his 8-1 career came in October.  Daniel Weichel is still in the rankings but only fought once in 2017.

Darrion Caldwell

The newest Bellator champion is bantamweight champion Darrion Caldwell who won the title October 6th by defeating Eduardo Dantas.  In his 11-1 career Caldwell only lost to Joe Taimanglo who Caldwell defeated in a rematch with both fights taking place in 2016, the Dantas fight being Caldwell’s only 2017 bout.  The bantamweight division didn’t kick off until July 14th when former champion Joe Warren defeated Steve Garcia while the only other two bantamweight fights all year were Leandro Higo defeating Taimanglo on the same card as Caldwell and the debut of UFC vet Michael McDonald on December 15th.

Julia Budd

Women’s featherweight in Bellator is all about Julia Budd.  Budd won the title in March with a defeat of former Strikeforce champion Marloes Coenen and defended it against Arlene Blencowe but the only other women’s featherweight bout was Sinead Kavanagh defeating Maria Casanova in 0:34.

Ilima-Lei Macfarlane

The final champion is Ilima-Lei Macfarlane at women’s flyweight.  This division has actually received a lot of support with twelve main card bouts in 2017, equal to men’s welterweight.  The most notable name in this division for Bellator is UFC vet Valerie Letourneau who finally made her promotional debut December 15th while boxing champion Heather Hardy made her MMA debut in Bellator in 2017.

So far four Bellator events are scheduled for 2018 with the first being January 20th.  Headlining that card will be Douglas Lima defending the welterweight title while Quinton Jackson faces Chael Sonnen in the opening round of the heavyweight grand prix.