Let’s run it back.
Five-and-a-half years after their first encounter at a UFC show in Brazil, Lyoto Machida and Gegard Mousasi are meeting in a middleweight rematch that will close out Bellator 228 on Saturday. It was Machida who was the better man back in 2014, winning a clear-cut decision over Mousasi, but both fighters have gone on to varying degrees of success since.
Machida remained a contender at 185 pounds, even earning a UFC title shot, before making the move to Bellator where he has won his first two fights including a split nod over former champion Rafael Carvalho. Mousasi, on the other hand, went on to finish his time in the UFC on an 8-2 run and then win three straight fights in Bellator including a pair of middleweight championship bouts.
This is a rematch Mousasi has wanted for some time and he’s said on more than one occasion that he believes Machida may have had a few unseemly advantages in their first encounter (though Mousasi didn’t put it as diplomatically). He can exercise plenty of demons and put himself into position to regain the Bellator middleweight title if he can pick up that elusive win over Machida.
Though the former UFC fighters are closing the show, it’s homegrown stars Patricio Freire and Juan Archuleta that are receiving top billing, with their championship clash being relegated to co-headliner status only because officials wanted to put the draw for the second round of the Bellator Featherweight World Grand Prix immediately after Freire-Archuleta so as not to risk viewers tuning out of the broadcast when all the fights were over.
“Pitbull” is fresh off of his lightweight championship win over Michael Chandler and now seeks to re-assert his dominance in the 145-pound division as he defends his featherweight belt against Archuleta in what will also serve as a first-round Grand Prix tournament bout. Archuleta can become a world champion and knock off the biggest dog in the field in one fell swoop if he pulls off the upset this weekend.
The rest of the main card will see the remaining three first-round matchups resolved as former bantamweight champion Darrion Caldwell takes on Henry Corrales, 50-fight veteran Daniel Weichel fights dark horse contender Saul Rogers, and unbeaten A.J. McKee looks to make it 15-0 in the Bellator cage against former World Series of Fighting champion Georgi Karakhanyan.
What: Bellator 228
Where: The Forum in Inglewood, Calif.
When: Saturday, Sept. 28. The 12-fight preliminary card will be available to stream on MMA Fighting and the DAZN streaming service at 7:30 p.m. ET (un-aired prelims will take place after the evening’s main event). The five-fight main card begins at 10 p.m. ET and will air exclusively on DAZN.
On the surface, it may not seem like a lot has changed in the fighting styles of Lyoto Machida and Gegard Mousasi. Machida is still the methodical, master of counter-striking that he’s always been and Mousasi is as technically proficient in the standup as any fighter at 185 pounds. That breakdown is as apt today as it was when they first fought.
Now, Machida is on the other side of 40 and while he’s still capable of overwhelming opponents close to him in age (Chael Sonnen, Vitor Belfort) and eking out decision wins over fighters with considerably less experience (Rafael Carvalho, Eryk Anders), the timing is right for Mousasi to overcome this hurdle.
“The Dreamcatcher” should be a tic faster on fight night and he’s been the sharper, more precise fight finisher over the last few years. This shouldn’t look too different from the chess match that occurred inside the Octagon back in the day, with the only major change being who has their hand raised at the end of the contest.
Patricio “Pitbull” Freire’s Bellator featherweight tournament run is about to end before it begins.
One thing to remember about Freire is that his title reigns have never carried an aura of invincibility. He’s put together some impressive streaks and recorded back-to-back title defenses on two separate occasions, but he’s also been vulnerable to losing close decisions. That will be a problem against the technical and durable Archuleta.
The challenger does not need to overwhelm Freire, he simply has to outwork him for five rounds and convince the judges he’s the more busy fighter. He has some pop in his hands, though not as much as Freire, and he has good ground-and-pound as well so if he can take Freire down he’ll rack up points from top position.
A straight-up kickboxing battle will favor the champion and Archuleta has to protect his legs, lest Pitbull chew them up and leave Archuleta limping in the championship rounds. Freire is also a sneaky submission threat so if Archuleta telegraphs a takedown, Freire won’t hesitate to take his neck home with him.
This easily could have been the finals of the Grand Prix. Instead, fans are getting the chance to see an elite featherweight bout right out of the gates. Archuleta has looked like he’s ready for the next level of competition and while this is more of a leap than a step, he has the skill set to get the job done on Saturday.
A.J. McKee vs. Georgi Karakhanyan
Georgi Karakhanyan’s best bet for the upset here is if A.J. McKee makes a mistake early and gets caught in a submission. Otherwise, the longer this one goes, the better it will be for Bellator’s homegrown wunderkind.
So far, McKee has made the most of his physical gifts and then some, mixing in a strong takedown game with rapidly improving striking. He has convincing wins over opponents with more experience than him, like Pat Curran and John Teixeira, and it’s difficult to see where Karakhanyan gives him any significant problems.
That may sound disrespectful to Karakhanyan, who makes the walk to the cage for the 40th time, but McKee is a favorite in this tournament for a reason and he’s not bowing out yet.
Darrion Caldwell has a lot to prove after his last two performances. An outstanding wrestler, “The Wolf” may have leaned heavily on this aspect of his game plan in his two losses to Kyoji Horiguchi, getting caught with a guillotine in the first meeting and playing it way too safe in the second meeting en route to dropping a unanimous decision and his Bellator bantamweight title.
One major pitfall for Caldwell is that he’s yet to find a way to make optimal use of his reach. He should be picking opponents apart from distance, making his power doubles even more effective. That jab just hasn’t become a consistent threat yet.
Henry Corrales pushes the pace as well as anyone at 145 pounds and you can be sure Caldwell will be focused on avoiding a firefight. The takedown defense of Corrales will have to be on point lest he be dragged into deep waters by Caldwell. And unlike the remainder of this tournament, these first-round fights are only 15 minutes long so Corrales can’t afford to let Caldwell dictate the pace early, otherwise he could be forced to recklessly head-hunt in round three.
Corrales is peaking at the right time, it’s just a question of whether he can stay on his feet against a relentless wrestler like Caldwell. I have Caldwell eking out a close decision.
Twice, Daniel Weichel has had the opportunity to challenge Patricio Freire for the featherweight title and twice he’s fallen short. A premier submission grappler with plenty of high-level experience, Weichel will be a stiff test for the younger Saul Rogers, another fighter who is comfortable battling on the mat.
This should be a fun one to watch with plenty of scrambles and reversals in the early going, with the bout developing into a war of attrition as it goes on. I favor Rogers’s speed and conditioning here, and expect him to have the slight edge on the feet. He can’t play around with Weichel though, given that the 17-year veteran is known for showing flashes of dangerous striking.
Rogers has long been on the cusp of making major waves in North America (he made it to the finals of only to lose that opportunity due to visa issues) and a win over Weichel could be the start of him finally breaking through.