Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Bellator MMA in 2022: Four burning questions surrounding the biggest stars heading into the new year

Bellator MMA is primed to return in 2022 with tons of action. The promotion closed out a successful 2021 with arguably its biggest shocker of the year when Sergio Pettis stunned Kyoji Horiguchi with a spinning backfist knockout to retain his title after being dominated the entire fight. Now, with the Light Heavyweight Grand Prix nearing its conclusion and the bantamweight tournament about to kick off, things continue to look up for the promotion.

While we don’t know exactly how things will play out over the coming year, the CBS Sports experts sat down to give our answers to some of the burning questions before the 2022 calendar gets underway. Read on to see our thoughts on how the year will play out for some of the biggest stars in the sport.

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Let’s dive right in now to the questions and predictions from “Morning Kombat” host Brian Campbell as well as staff writers Brent Brookhouse and Shakiel Mahjouri.

Which champion will be the first to fall?

Brian Campbell, Shakiel Mahjouri: Ryan Bader

It’s hard to tell entering 2022 whether the rest of the field has caught up with defending heavyweight champion Ryan Bader or whether it’s simply the elite core of the 205-pound division. Bader, the former two-division king has been stopped twice over the past 17 months against light heavyweights Vadim Nemkov and Corey Anderson. But he also still holds the title in a division where age isn’t much of a concern for the 38-year old. Bader returns to heavyweight on Jan. 29 to face interim titleholder Valentin Moldavsky in their unification bout headlining Bellator 273 in Phoenix. Moldavsky, who is trained by Fedor Emelianenko, might just prove to be the wrong streaking fighter at the wrong time for Bader. The 29-year-old from Russia has won all six of his bouts since making his Bellator MMA debut in 2017 and would be wise to test the chin of Bader early.  — Campbell

Brookhouse: Gegard Mousasi

While Bader seems a very real possibility, I feel there’s a stronger likelihood that Gegard Mousasi drops the middleweight championship on Feb. 25 when he faces Austin Vanderford in Dublin. Vanderford is the younger fighter both in terms of actual age and “cage age.” Mousasi has a ton of miles on his body with 57 career fights. While Mousasi has looked very good in the Bellator cage, Vanderford has been very strong in building an 11-0 record. Assuming Vanderford can survive a few dangerous spots on the feet, he can control the fight by forcing Mousasi into some rough wrestling exchanges to emerge as the new king of 185 pounds.

Who emerges as the next breakout star?

Campbell: Usman Nurmagomedov

It won’t be long until the cousin and teammate of former UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov has the Bellator MMA lightweight division on lockdown. Nurmagomedov (14-0) made a memorable debut with the promotion in 2021 by sweeping a trio of fights, including two by stoppage wins. Although he’s more aggressive on his feet than his familial namesake, he’s nearly as dominant on the ground. At just 23, Nurmagomedov is still figuring out how great he can be, which is scary. A run to the title feels likely, as does the potential for a superfight down the line against current featherweight champion AJ McKee. 

Brookhouse: Aaron Pico

Is this cheating? Pico was arguably the most highly-touted prospect in the history of mixed martial arts. Then came a loss in his pro debut and two more losses in his sixth and seventh fights. It seemed Pico had turned out to be a bust in transitioning from incredible amateur wrestler to mixed martial artist. However, Pico has won five fights in a row and has really put together his skillset into a really complete package. This year may well be Pico’s breakout as he faces bigger and better opposition while closing in on a title shot and fulfills the promise so many saw in him before he ever set foot in the cage.

Mahjouri: Corey Anderson

Vadim Nemkov is no joke, but the stars appear aligned for Anderson to finally make good on expectations. Anderson unceremoniously parted ways with the UFC following a first-round knockout loss to Jan Blachowicz, who subsequently captured the UFC light heavyweight title. Blachowicz aside — though it’s worth noting he beat the Polish hammer by unanimous decision in 2015 — Anderson has won his last seven fights, including knockouts of Johnny Walker and, most recently, Bader. Don’t be surprised if “Overtime” kicks into overdrive this year. 

What’s next for Patricio Pitbull?

All (consensus): Despite teasing possible interest in cutting down to 135 pounds for a potential run at a third Bellator title, Pitbull’s name was not one of the eight chosen for the upcoming World Grand Prix tournament at bantamweight. Consider this to be Patricio’s decision to focus exclusively on retribution following the loss of his featherweight title to AJ McKee. It’s a decision made even easier by Pitbull vacating his lightweight title in 2021, which opened the door for his older brother Patricky to capture the belt. Given how abrupt Pitbull’s first-round submission loss was to McKee, much of the questions critics had coming in weren’t ultimately answered as to how the two fighters match up. — Campbell

Early favorite for the Bantamweight Grand Prix

Campbell, Mahjouri: Kyoji Horiguchi

As disastrous as former Bellator champion Kyoji Horiguchi’s return to the promotion was in December when he was knocked out cold via spinning strike from Sergio Pettis in their title bout, he still might be the bantamweight fighter in the promotion. A testament to that was how dominant Horiguchi was for every second leading up to the fourth-round finish. At 31, the native of Japan is still within the peak of his prime and would likely be the betting favorite against everyone in the tournament. He can do it all. — Campbell

Brookhouse: Raufeon Stots

While I believe Horiguchi is the obvious choice for the odds-on favorite heading into the Grand Prix, I’d like to throw out a darkhorse contender to survive a deep and dangerous tournament: Raufeon Stots. Stots has a grappling game based on wrestling fundamentals that give him the ability to potentially control any fight. Horiguchi’s chin is a bit of a question mark and Pettis isn’t always dominant in his performances. Those are the kind of factors that could play into an unlikely tournament winner emerging. Stots matches up favorably with Patchy Mix and James Gallagher, with a pace and style that should give both fits. He also already holds an exciting but very clear victory over tournament participant Magomed Magomedov. Stots has a much better shot at winning it all than people realize.

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