For thousands of years, people have enjoyed the thrill of watching men go at it in the arena, from ancient sports like wrestling and boxing to the infamous and bloody gladiatorial games of imperial Rome. Combat entertainment has become a bit more civilized in the modern era, but if it is blood you want to see, then mixed martial arts — which has exploded in popularity over the past two decades — is the sport for you, and if you’re already familiar with UFC but aren’t quite getting your fill, then Bellator is another league you need to check out.
Bellator’s name, derived from the Latin word for “warrior,” harkens back to the days of the Roman gladiators (although with a bit less death). Nonetheless, MMA is arguably the bloodiest sport you can legally watch today and Bellator is the second-largest league in the U.S. after the UFC, so it’s definitely one that fight fans should have on their radars. If you’ve been following MMA for a while already then this isn’t news to you, as many UFC stars both past and present have earned their stripes by cracking heads in Bellator.
Events and How to Watch
Bellator was founded in 2008, so it’s more of a newcomer to the MMA scene than the UFC which was established almost three decades ago in 1993. Bellator held its inaugural event in 2009 and has hosted more than 250 numbered shows since then. The league’s first-ever pay-per-view event, Bellator 120, came in 2014 and featured talent like Quinton Jackson, Tito Ortiz, Alexander Volkov, and Michael Chandler.
Despite competition with the UFC, Bellator has proven to be highly successful and has grown to become the second-largest MMA league in the U.S. since its inception more than a decade ago. The promotion is a subsidiary of ViacomCBS, and after 2011, its fights have been broadcast on Viacom-owned networks like Spike TV. In the wake of Viacom’s re-merger with CBS in 2019 to form ViacomCBS, it was announced that Bellator events would be broadcast on Showtime and the CBS Sports Network. Bellator also signed a five-year deal with DAZN in 2018 for online streaming rights.
Bellator hosts regular events — usually at least two or three a month, although often weekly — but the schedule is not quite as regimented as that of the UFC. The vast majority of Bellator shows are numbered, including both the free-to-watch fights along with big pay-per-view exhibitions. The 2020 COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the Bellator schedule (six events were canceled that year), but as of now, fans can look forward to two to four shows per month as the league has largely gotten back up to speed.
The Bellator roster boasts some of the best MMA talent in the world and more than a few famous UFC fighters have cut their teeth fighting in these esteemed ranks. Some notable Bellator alumni who also fought with the UFC include Michael Chandler, Alexander Volkov, Ben Askren, and Edward Alvarez.
Bellator recently rolled out its new official rankings, which you can check out here. The league also frequently picks up fighters who, for various reasons, leave or get dropped by the UFC. Don’t assume that this means that Bellator’s lineup is second-rate, however; here’s just a handful of the best combatants the promotion currently has to offer:
As the third-ranked light heavyweight MMA fighter in the world, 28-year-old Russian fighter Vadim Nemkov is one of the Bellator’s brightest rising stars. With a record of 14 wins (11 by KO) and two losses, he’s currently the league’s light heavyweight champion — a title he won from Ryan Bader last August at Bellator 244 — and sits at number two on the men’s pound-for-pound rankings behind Patricio Freire. Nemkov made his Bellator debut in 2017 after fighting with the Japanese MMA league Rizin, where he suffered his only two professional defeats (one against current UFC fighter and former Rizin Light Heavyweight Champion Jiri Prochazka).
Cristiane Venancio (23-2, 18 KOs), better known by her ring name Cris Cyborg, holds both the Bellator Women’s Featherweight Championship belt along with the number one spot on the league’s pound-for-pound women’s rankings. The 35-year-old Brazilian-American martial artist has fought with several notable promotions including Invicta FC, Strikeforce, and the UFC before signing on with Bellator in 2020, where she immediately claimed the featherweight title with a TKO in her debut match at Bellator 238. She had her first successful title defense later that year at Bellator 249 and is the only fighter in MMA — male or female — to hold world championships in four major MMA leagues.
Yoel Romero (13-5, 11 KOs) is something of an ageless wonder: Despite being 44 years old, the Cuban fighter’s statue-like physique, explosive power, and incredible athleticism draw everybody’s attention every time he steps into the octagon. Nevertheless, several unsuccessful bids for the UFC Middleweight Championship and a string of three losses in a row led to Romero’s departure from the league in 2020, but not even two weeks had passed before he announced that he had signed a multi-fight deal with Bellator. His first fight was canceled after he failed to get medical clearance to fight due to an eye injury, but Romero is expected to make his Bellator debut at light heavyweight soon.
Bellator has one of the best light heavyweight rosters of all the MMA leagues and Anthony Johnson is one of the jewels in that crown. Like Romero, Johnson is a seasoned UFC veteran (he competed in the league for almost a decade) who is slated to make his Bellator debut and was in fact going to face Romero before the latter had to pull out of the fight for medical reasons. Known for his striking power — 16 of Johnson’s 22 victories have come via knockout — the American fighter sat at the top of the UFC light heavyweight roster, but unsuccessfully challenged Daniel Cormier twice for the title. Johnson will no doubt be a strong contender for the light heavyweight championship in what is arguably Bellator’s most competitive weight class.
Ryan “Darth” Bader (28-6, 12 KOs) currently reigns as Bellator’s heavyweight champion, and previously held the light heavyweight belt as well. The former double champion lost the light heavyweight title to Vadim Nemkov in August 2020 during his stint at that lower weight class, but subsequently moved back up to heavyweight to win his most recent fight against Lyoto Machida at Bellator 256 in April of this year. Nonetheless, Bader still officially remains the number-one ranked light heavyweight on the Bellator roster — right below current champ Nemkov — and it’s not unlikely that he’ll have a go at getting his old belt back sooner or later.
Patricio “Pitbull” Freire has the unique distinction of being Bellator’s number one pound-for-pound fighter while also simultaneously holding both the lightweight and featherweight titles, making him the only double champion in the league as of now. The Brazilian mixed martial artist, who has been fighting with Bellator since 2010, boasts 32 wins (11 by knockout) with only four losses to his name. He claimed the featherweight championship in 2017 and defended it twice before moving up in weight to take the lightweight title two years later. Since then, Freire has defended the featherweight belt three times and is on a streak of seven consecutive wins, having not lost a fight since 2016.
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