Everything we know about the new version of Bellator

Once again, it’s back to the starting line for Bellator MMA. The second-fiddle fight promotion seems to always be starting over, redefining itself or making a comeback. Friday will bring the latest incarnation at Bellator Belfast, with the fight card in the Northern Ireland capital putting a pair of championship belts on the line.

That is the matchmaking plan for all Bellator events going forward now that the promotion is owned by its former rival, the PFL. Eight events will be held worldwide each year, each headlined by two title bouts. That’s why they’re calling it the Bellator Champions Series.

Friday’s main event will pit title fight veteran Corey Anderson against hometown upstart Karl Moore for the vacant light heavyweight championship. In the co-main, Jeremy Kennedy will challenge Bellator’s winningest fighter, featherweight champ Patricio “Pitbull” Freire, who has ridden the company seesaw long enough to have experienced most of Bellator’s ups and downs.

Freire was not there for the inaugural Bellator event in 2009, but a year later, he made his debut as part of a tournament, the format on which founder Bjorn Rebney hung his hat. Freire made it to the final of the 2010 featherweight tourney, and while he lost that one, he went on to win the tournaments held in 2011 and ’13. He is currently in his third reign as featherweight champion, to go with one at lightweight. Call him Mr. Bellator.

“Pitbull” won a Bellator belt for the first time in 2014, a few months after Scott Coker succeeded Rebney. With the change at the helm, Bellator evolved from tournaments to more conventional matchmaking, which later evolved — perhaps devolved would be more apropos — into booking headliner spectacles involving older fighters with not much left but name recognition. Freire plowed through that sad/comical time like the champ that he was, not missing a beat as Bellator moved on through a back-to-the-future era of grand prix tourneys and, ultimately, the company’s purchase by the PFL last fall.

Now we are at the dawning of the Bellator Champions Series, which will continue May 17 in Paris with an event featuring title defenses by lightweight Usman Nurmagomedov and bantamweight Patchy Mix. Those and this weekend’s championship fights are the only headline bouts booked at this point, but the rest of the 2024 slate looks like this: June 22 in Dublin, Sept. 7 in San Diego, Sept. 14 in London, Oct. 12 in Chicago, Nov. 16 back in Paris and Dec. 31 at a site to be determined.

“We’re incredibly excited to officially launch the repositioned Bellator property,” Peter Murray, CEO of the PFL, told ESPN this week. “We’re excited about the format, which is to have two title fights and one big contender fight on the top of each card, with the rest of the card being drawn from the best of the Bellator roster.”

Matchmakers will need to do some clever math to put together a pair of title bouts for each of the eight fight cards this year. Bellator has nine weight classes, but the champs in both women’s divisions are out of play. Flyweight titlist Liz Carmouche will compete in the 2024 PFL season, and featherweight champ Cris Cyborg, the biggest star in the expanded company, is slated for PFL pay-per-views.

“Women will actually play a role in the Bellator Champion Series,” Murray said. “We’re going to sign more women and make that an emphasis.”

One other missing detail, as of just days before fight night, was where fans in the United States can watch Bellator. The company finally announced a TV deal on Tuesday: Bellator will be on Max.

But in terms of matchmaking, it’ll be up to the seven men’s weight classes to fill the year’s 16 title fight slots. Will it add up?

That calculus will be solved on another day. For now, the focus is on Friday’s title bouts at light heavyweight and featherweight, both of which have storylines behind them. Here’s a look at the drama about to unfold.

Will the third time be a charm or a curse for Corey Anderson?

It was April 2022, and Anderson was on the verge of becoming Bellator champion. He was in full control of his challenge of Vadim Nemkov when, seconds before the end of Round 3, an accidental clash of heads left the Russian unable to continue. The bout was declared a no contest, with Nemkov keeping his belt.

They met again seven months later, and this time it was Nemkov’s night. He dropped Anderson with a spinning head kick in Round 1, negated the challenger’s wrestling attacks throughout and walked away with his belt and the $1 million prize for winning the Bellator Light Heavyweight World Grand Prix.

So the stakes behind Friday’s fight are something Anderson (17-6, 1 NC) has been thinking about for a long time — going back to long before his near-miss in Bellator. During his five-year UFC run, Anderson lost a No. 1 contender bout to Jan Blachowicz in 2020 while then-champ Jon Jones was sitting cageside. So close.

“This is everything I’ve always worked for,” Anderson told reporters last week. “Everybody that’s followed me since 2014, when I came into the game, I’ve always said, after every fight, that the win is nice, but I’m only here to get the belt. That’s it. The money and everything that comes with it are great, but the main focus is to get the belt. At the end of the day, when it’s all said and done, I get to say I had that belt wrapped around my waist when I’m walking off into the sunset.”

And even though Friday’s opponent, the 12-2 Moore, is a relative unknown outside of Northern Ireland, with just four Bellator bouts under his belt, Anderson knows from experience not to gaze at that golden sunset until the job is done. “I’m not looking past anybody,” he said. “For every fight, I do training camp like I’m fighting the best man in the world. The one time I didn’t, I paid for it. That was the last Nemkov fight. I thought for sure I had it in the bag, I took it easy in camp a little bit, and it cost me. Never again.”

A ‘dream come true’ for hometown hero Karl Moore

Moore has fought 14 times as a professional, but not once in his hometown of Belfast. He did compete there many years ago in his third amateur fight, and after he won, he jumped on top of the cage and celebrated — with a fantasy-world thought running through his mind.

“At that age, I had a dream of fighting in front of the Belfast crowd and winning a world title,” he recalled. “But you think, like, when is Bellator ever going to come to Belfast? When are they going to stick me in the main event for a world title? But it’s happening, and I’m going to win that belt in front of my people.”

Moore is unconcerned about the added pressure of fighting 20 minutes from home. He believes Anderson is the one who should be concerned.

“You ain’t never fought in Belfast,” Moore warned his opponent during a joint call with reporters.

“That’s all right,” Anderson countered. “You ain’t never fought nobody like me.”

Anderson is looking forward to entering enemy territory, having done it several times before. During his UFC days, he fought twice in Brazil, facing Fabio Maldonado in his hometown of Sao Paulo, and then Mauricio “Shogun” Rua in Curitiba, where the former champ was born and is still based. After moving on to Bellator, Anderson fought Ryan Bader in Phoenix, his hometown. Anderson won two of those three bouts.

Now, this visit to Belfast. “The energy is going to be electric,” he said, “and I feed off of that.”

After falling twice, can Patricio “Pitbull” make a stand?

Chasing greatness has come with a cost for Freire.

Last June, the fighter with more Bellator victories than anyone (23) attempted to achieve an MMA first: winning championships in three weight classes. “Pitbull” was (and still is) the featherweight champ, and he had previously reigned at lightweight, before vacating the title in 2021 to give space for his brother Patricky to go for the belt. To try for a third title, Patricio dropped to flyweight and challenged Sergio Pettis. He lost a decision.

Six weeks later, Freire (35-7) took a short-notice bout on a Bellator cross-promotion in Tokyo with the Japanese promotion Rizin, and it didn’t go well. Chihiro Suzuki knocked him out in the first round.

The Brazilian attempted to right the ship at last month’s PFL champions vs. Bellator champions event, but his bout with 2023 PFL featherweight champ Jesus Pinedo was canceled a week before fight night after Pinedo injured his back. Gabriel Braga, the PFL season finalist, was brought in as a replacement but withdrew on weigh-in day.

So Freire accepted this short-notice title defense against Kennedy, who has lost only once in his past eight bouts. “It’s the perfect fight for me to show that I’m really back, I’m back in full force,” Freire said through a Portuguese interpreter.

Freire was unswayed by another change in opponent. “We trained for southpaws, we trained for orthodox, we trained for tall guys, we trained for wrestlers, we trained for short guys. We cover every scenario, so I can be ready for anyone at any time,” he said. “I’ve never said no to a fight before, and I didn’t want to start now.”

In addition, the most decorated fighter in Bellator history feels it’s only fitting that he be part of the promotion’s first card under new management. “Bellator is my home,” he said. “I made pretty much my whole career here, and it means a lot to me to be defending this belt.”

The wait is over for Jeremy Kennedy

“This has been a long time in coming,” Kennedy said. “I’ve been chasing this guy around.”

By “chasing,” he means he’s been standing still. Kennedy (19-3, 1 NC) has not fought since beating Pedro Carvalho in February 2023 for his third straight win. He believed that victory earned him a shot at Freire’s belt, so he waited. And waited.

“I know he’s had his hands full, doing other things,” Kennedy said, “but he could have fought me instead of fighting in Japan.”

When “Pitbull” booked a fight on the recent PFL vs. Bellator card, Kennedy decided he had waited long enough. He accepted a Bellator Belfast bout against James Gallagher.

Then, after last month’s Freire fight didn’t happen, the matchmakers came calling, hastily arranging the fight Kennedy had stopped waiting for. There’s probably a lesson there.

“The circumstances surrounding this — you know, the last-minute change — don’t faze me. I was training for a fight, he was training for a fight, so this is perfect,” Kennedy said. “It’s just a quick switch of opponent, a bigger opportunity, more reward.”

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