There is once again no shortage of big fights this weekend for mixed martial arts fans. You may have heard of UFC 217 taking place on Saturday, Nov. 4. But before that, Bellator MMA presents its latest offering on Friday, Nov. 3, from Penn State University. With a main card featuring two Nittany Lion alumni (Can anyone tell me what “Nittany” means, anyway?) and two title fights, Bellator 186 should more than whet the appetite for a weekend of action.
Saad Awad (20-9) vs. Zach Freeman (9-2) (Lightweight – 155 lbs.)
If Freeman’s name sounds familiar, you probably remember him as the guy who, at least temporarily, derailed the Aaron Pico hype train at Bellator’s card at Madison Square Garden earlier this year when he submitted the highly-touted Pico in the first round. Fun fact: That fight was also Freeman’s Bellator debut.
Freeman’s reward is a fight against one of the toughest fighters in one of Bellator’s deepest division. Awad has shared the cage with the likes of Brennan Ward, Derek Anderson, Patricky “Pitbull” Freire, David Rickels and former Bellator lightweight champion Will Brooks.
Awad is probably a good example of one of Bellator’s “gatekeepers” – a fighter familiar with fans who provides a good litmus for whether a fighter who appears on the rise is truly ready to step up to the next level. Submitting Pico was a good first step for Freeman, but Awad will be his toughest challenge to date. With six submissions on his resume, Freeman appears to have the ground game to be dangerous. But Awad has 15 finishes out of his 20 overall wins, and I think he just has too much experience and skill to let Freeman sneak up on him.
Winner: Awad by TKO
Phil Davis (17-4) vs. Leo Leite (10-0) (Light Heavyweight – 205 lbs.)
This is the first of two fights at Bellator 186 to feature a Penn State alumnus. Davis is looking to rebound from losing the Bellator light heavyweight title by facing a newcomer to Bellator in Leite. While undefeated on the regional MMA circuit, with six finishes among his 10 total career wins, it’s a bit surprising to see a former champion in Davis face a newbie to the Bellator cage in his first post-title loss fight.
Simply put, Davis is one of the best light heavyweights in the world. I expect him to use his elite wrestling skills, smother Leite early and often and make Leite’s first experience in Bellator a not-very-pleasant one. I also fully expect Davis to get right back in the title hunt after this fight.
Winner: Davis by unanimous decision
Ed Ruth (3-0) vs. Chris Dempsey (11-5) (Middleweight – 185 lbs.)
Ruth is the other Penn State alumnus competing at Bellator 186. All three of his career victories have come in Bellator, and all three have come by knockout against relatively unknown competition. So it’s obvious Bellator is taking its usual slow-build approach with a prospect they’re extremely high on.
Dempsey has lost three fights in a row and four out of five, all by knockout. He went 1-3 in the UFC while winning seven out of eight to begin his MMA career. So Dempsey is basically the definition of a bipolar fighter. Ruth may still be pretty green, and Dempsey may have enough tough veteran savvy to last a couple rounds with Ruth, but this is a fight with two guys whose careers seem to be going in opposite directions.
Winner: Ruth by TKO
Ilima-Lei Macfarlane (6-0) vs. Emily Ducote (6-2) (Flyweight Title – 125 lbs.)
I’ve said repeatedly that this is the fight I’m looking forward to the most on this card. Macfarlane and Ducote previously met last year, in a fight that was one of the better ones of 2016 that not many people talk about. Both Macfarlane and Ducote have excellent ground games, and they were on full display in that fight. They traded top position and went back-and-forth for all three rounds. While Macfarlane won by unanimous decision, I thought the fight was much closer and could have gone either way.
Bellator has spent the better part of two years trying to build its flyweight division for women. A couple different women seemed poised to become the “face” of the division, including Anastasia Yankova and Heather Hardy. But Macfarlane has surpassed both of them and now seems like the ideal candidate for that mantle. Ducote is tough, scrappy and doesn’t give an inch. I think she will make Macfarlane earn every inch like she did in their first meeting. But I think Macfarlane is getting better in each of her fights, and I think she becomes the inaugural flyweight champion.
Winner: Macfarlane by unanimous decision
Ryan Bader (23-5) vs. Linton Vassell (18-5) (Light Heavyweight Title – 205 lbs.)
Bader finally realized his championship dreams over the summer, as he edged out Phil Davis to win the Bellator light heavyweight title. Like Davis, Bader is an elite wrestler who uses that skill to completely neutralize and smother his opponents. Bellator seems like the perfect home for Bader, but his first test as champion is not an easy one.
Vassell has only lost twice in seven years and has won three in a row, including a submission of former Bellator light heavyweight champion Liam McGeary. Vassell also has six knockouts to his name, so he’s one of the better well-rounded fighters in Bellator and needs to use his striking to keep Bader at bay and out of the reach of his wrestling.
However, I believe a good wrestler can nullify a good striker. I think Bader takes Vassell down early and often and prevents him from doing much of anything. I think Bader is poised for a long reign as light heavyweight champion, and on a night where wrestling will be on full display, Bader’s wrestling will reign supreme.
Winner: Bader by unanimous decision
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