Bellator is back on Friday night with its third card in six weeks and one of its most high-profile champions.
Ryan Bader, the champion at both heavyweight and light heavyweight, defends his light heavy title against Vadim Nemkov in the Bellator 244 main event at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut. For Bader, who was a perennial light heavyweight contender in the UFC, this will be the first time he defends the 205-pound title while holding both belts. Nemkov, a protégé of Fedor Emelianenko, has won six straight.
Along with Bader sitting atop the mountain in two divisions, there are several other storylines to watch out for leading into Bellator 244. Let's take a look.
What exactly is Ryan Bader's legacy in Bellator?
Forget everything you know or think you know about Bader and read this résumé. A record of 5-0 (1 NC). A grand prix tournament victory. Heavyweight and light heavyweight champion. Three finishes in those five wins. A knockout of Emelianenko. Almost quietly, Bader has put together one of the best runs in Bellator history. Two weeks ago, we were talking an awful lot about what Michael Chandler has meant to Bellator. Well, since signing in 2017 from the UFC, Bader has been as good as anyone in Bellator, save for maybe Patricio "Pitbull" Freire.
Going back even further, into his time with the UFC, Bader has only one loss in his past 14 fights. It came against Anthony "Rumble" Johnson. With Jon Jones leaving the UFC's light heavyweight division after nearly a decade on and off as champ, it would have been interesting to see where Bader would fit in a division with new blood like Dominick Reyes coming up. Right now, ESPN has Bader ranked No. 2 in the world among light heavyweights, behind only Jones. That's no accident. "Darth" has proved himself and can continue to do that Friday night.
Where does Corey Anderson fit in the Bellator light heavyweight picture?
What a timely acquisition for Bellator. No Bellator champion needs fresh challengers more than Bader does at light heavyweight. In strolls Anderson, who has been a perennial UFC contender. Anderson wasn't even a free agent; he requested his UFC release and was granted it. Remember, if Anderson had beaten Jan Blachowicz in February, he might have been next up for a title shot against Jones. Anderson lost that fight but was on a four-fight winning streak prior to that. He's just 30 years old. More than that, "Overtime" has the kind of skill set -- great wrestling and power in his hands -- to give Bader some trouble. If Bader beats Nemkov, it might be time to pull the trigger on that title fight.
Can Jessy Miele earn a title shot against Cris Cyborg?
Arlene Blencowe seemed like a clear choice to challenge Cyborg for the Bellator women's featherweight title next. But Blencowe is from Australia, and there could be travel issues caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Miele has a chance to snatch that title shot with a win over former champion Julia Budd on Friday. Miele has won four straight. Budd was competitive for most of her title fight loss to Cyborg in January. A win over Budd, who had won 11 straight before falling to Cyborg, is a heck of a notch in the belt for anyone in the division. If Miele gets this victory, she would probably be a shoo-in to face Cyborg next.
Which prospect will emerge as a future title contender?
There are a few to keep an eye on, including a pair with Emelianenko's team in Russia: Valentin Moldavsky and Vladimir Tokov. Moldavsky has a big main card fight against Roy Nelson. If Moldavsky can get by "Big County," it signifies that he's ready for some contender fights at heavyweight. Moldavsky, 28, has won four straight, and his only career loss came in Rizin to wrestling standout Amir Aliakbari. Tokov is a 5-0 lightweight going up against fellow undefeated prospect Chris Gonzalez. And then there's Yaroslav Amosov, the 23-0 welterweight prospect from Ukraine. He has already won four straight in Bellator, including his most recent bout against blue-chipper Ed Ruth. If he beats Mark Lemminger here, he'll be close to a title shot.
Can any veteran rejuvenate his or her career?
Nelson and Budd have a chance to get back on a winning track on the main card. But the two interesting veterans who really stand out on his card are fighting each other: Erik "Goyito" Perez and Josh Hill. Perez, 30, was stopped in under a minute by Toby Misech in his Bellator debut last December. But before that, Perez had won five straight -- including three UFC wins in a row before he left that promotion as a free agent for Combate Americas. Hill, 33, used to be the clear No. 2 at bantamweight behind Marlon Moraes in World Series of Fighting. The Canadian "Gentleman" has lost to only two men in his career: Moraes twice and UFC veteran Taylor Lapilus. This will be a great litmus test for both of these men.