After a clean sweep in Tokyo to end 2022, Bellator MMA is back with their first event of the new year, Bellator 290: Bader vs. Fedor (Saturday, February 4, 6 p.m. PST / 9 p.m. EST CBS and Paramount+). And let’s make no mistake about it. This might just be the biggest event in the history of the Bellator promotion.
If you’re familiar with Bellator MMA, then you know that during the 14 years since the organization launched, they’ve promoted some exceptional fights (all-time classics like Alvarez vs. Chandler come to mind), launched the careers of some top talent like Patricio “Pitbull” Freire and A.J. McKee, and booked events at notable venues like Madison Square Garden in New York and Saitama Arena in Tokyo. But this Saturday, at the KIA Forum in Los Angeles, Bellator ups the ante with a heavyweight title clash, a rematch between incumbent champion Ryan Bader and MMA legend Fedor Emelianenko, who will enter the cage one last time before retiring for good.
The blockbuster headliner will not only air on the Paramount+ streaming service, but for the first time Bellator will be broadcast on CBS. Yes, thee CBS.
Pride Never Die
Newer MMA fans might not remember Japan’s Pride Fighting Championship, but between 1997 – 2007, Pride was home to the world’s best MMA fighters and fights. While MMA was struggling in North America and nearly non-existent in Europe, Pride was packing 40, 50, 60, and sometimes even as many as 90,000 fans into stadiums in Japan for events.
MMA was a different sport in that era. There were fewer fights, fewer fighters, and the landscape was much less well-rounded, geared more towards specialists in different disciplines of mixed martial arts. However, there was a consensus number-one fighter in the world back then, and his name was Fedor “The Last Emperor” Emelianenko.
Having never lost in the Pride ring, Fedor was an exceptional, other-worldly MMA fighter. A master of Sambo, Fedor was deceptively quick, powerful, and agile, beating Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira for the Pride heavyweight title in 2003. He would go on to defeat big names like Mark Coleman, Mirko Cro Cop, Mark Hunt, and Kevin Randleman in Pride. The last fight in particular demonstrated Fedor’s toughness and resilience, battling back from a head-spiking suplex to secure the win via kimura submission.
Fedor was one of the first true MMA icons, and in the 15 years since Pride folded, he’s bounced around promotions like Strikeforce, Rizin, Affliction, and M-1, ultimately signing with Bellator, where he has fought since 2017.
A Rematch for the Bellator Heavyweight Title
A member of the Bellator roster for the last five-and-a-half years, Fedor Emelianenko has, at times, looked every bit a fighter in his forties going on one last run, cashing on his legacy and name. However, he has also shown flashes of his old brilliance, compiling a 4-2 record in the Bellator cage, earning first-round knockouts over Frank Mir, Chael Sonnen, Quentin “Rampage” Jackson, and Timothy Johnson. And, while both of his Bellator losses have come by first-round KO (to Bader and Matt Mitrione), Fedor still carries a lethal punch in his deceivingly fast hands.
Bellator 290 presents a special kind of challenge for Fedor, however. He’s never actually had the chance to avenge a loss during his entire 22-year MMA career, so this fight with Bader, an athlete seven years his junior, for the Bellator heavyweight title, is a massive opportunity.
Last time these two fought was 2019 as part of the Bellator MMA Heavyweight Grand Prix, and Bader needed all of 35 seconds to viciously knock Fedor out. But that’s sort of how it goes in mixed martial arts. It’s kill or be killed, as they say, especially in the heavyweight division, where one punch can change everything.
Some Fight Analysis
In the years since their previous fight, Bader, a former Bellator champ-champ, has suffered a pair of knockout losses, dropping his light heavyweight title in the process. Still, at heavyweight he’s remain unbeaten, defending his title twice in 2022, leading up to Bellator 290.
Stylistically, Bader, who enters as a -230 favorite, is a tough matchup for Fedor, as evidenced by their first bout. Bader is a strong Division-I wrestler from the famed Arizona State program, with quick hands and a well-rounded game. He’s also plenty experienced, having already fought on some of the biggest stages in MMA, so there’s no chance that he’ll become lost in the moment or fade under the bright lights.
Conversely, Fedor, who is a +195 underdog, owns a bit of an edge in the speed department. He uses kicks more than Bader, setting up some sneaky punches, and as a grappler Fedor is adept at using the cage to set up the trips and footsweeps synonymous with his Sambo and Judo backgrounds. It’s kind of ironic actually, considering he fought in a ring for the majority of his career.
Fedor and Bader actually match up rather well with each other, so I expect this bout to play out much slower and longer than the first fight. For sure Fedor will start a bit cautiously to gain better reads and understanding of Bader’s timing and tendencies. Bader, on the other hand, will likely try to repeat his success in the previous bout and look for an early finish. If the fight goes past the first round, it’s anyone’s guess how this one will go.
The 𝓗𝓾𝓶𝓪𝓷 𝓒𝓱𝓮𝓪𝓽 𝓒𝓸𝓭𝓮 🎮
The undefeated middleweight champ puts his title on the line at #Bellator290.
— BellatorMMA (@BellatorMMA) January 30, 2023
The Rest of the Card
While Fedor’s retirement fight against Bader for the Bellator MMA heavyweight championship is the big story of Bellator 290, the other two fights on the main card are rather intriguing.
Undefeated as a pro, Bellator middleweight champion Johnny Eblen looks to make the first successful defense of the belt he won last year, taking on Fedor’s teammate Anatoly Tokov, who is 7-0 since signing with Bellator in 2017.
Eblen is not only a sublime MMA wrestler, but “The Human Cheat Code” also has all the tools for MMA, as evidenced by his domination of former champion Gegard Mousasi last June. Eblen is a complete fighter, but he’s also still relatively young in his career, having only fought 12 professional fights. Tokov, on the other hand, has 33 fights to his name, and has not lost since before Eblen made his pro debut.
Stylistically, these two have very similar skill sets and match up incredibly well. And, while Eblen is listed as a -175 favorite, this fight will be closely contested, maybe even going the full five rounds.
Kicking off the Bellator 290 main card, welterweights Brennan Ward and Sabah Homasi will bring unbridled action and aggression to the cage. The pair, known for their exciting and entertaining styles, will become the first MMA fighters to compete on CBS since Jake Shields beat Dan Henderson to win the Strikeforce middleweight title in 2010, resulting in an in-cage brawl between Jason “Mayhem” Miller and the Diaz Brothers, Nick and Nate.
Ward, who returned to mixed martial arts in 2022 after a five-year absence to rehabilitate from drug addiction, is riding a two-fight win streak, earning a pair of second-round knockouts. A 22-fight veteran who has spent the majority of his career with Bellator, Ward has a 93-percent finishing rate, only going to a judge’s decision once in his career.
Homasi, an equally exciting “action fighter” who is riding a two-fight knockout streak as well, also has a reputation as a finisher, winning 82-percent of his fights by stoppage.
Stylistically, this fight will be a barnburner. Both Ward and Homasi throw with reckless abandon, so expect these two to trade punches from the opening bell. And, while Homasi is the -170 favorite to Ward’s +145 underdog, it’s nearly impossible to tell who will be the last man left standing in this one. Just don’t expect this one to go the distance.
Bellator 290 Fight Card
Bellator 290 Main Card (on CBS & Paramount+) 6 p.m. PST / 9 p.m. EST
- Ryan Bader vs. Fedor Emelianenko – for the Bellator heavyweight title
- Johnny Eblen vs. Anatoly Tokov – for the Bellator middleweight title
- Sabah Homasi vs. Brennan Ward
Bellator 290 Prelims (on YouTube) 3 p.m. PST / 6 p.m. EST
- Neiman Gracie vs. Michael Lombardo
- Lorenz Larkin vs. Mukhamed Berkhamov
- Henry Corrales vs. Akhmed Magomedov
- Ali Isaev vs. Steve Mowry
- Chris Gonzalez vs. Max Rohskopf
- Karl Albrektsson vs. Grant Neal
- Alejandra Lara vs. Diana Avsaragova
- Darrion Caldwell vs. Nikita Mikhailov
- Jornel Lugo vs. Jaylon Bates
- Isaiah Hokit vs. Peter Ishiguro
- Ethan Hughes vs. Yusuf Karakaya
*fight card subject to change
** all odds current as of time of writing
Dan Shapiro is a writer, editor, musician, and producer currently based in Los Angeles. In addition to covering some of the biggest fights in combat sports history, he’s also hunted down the world’s best sushi, skied the northern hemisphere in July, and chronicled Chinese underground music for publications like CNN, the New York Daily News, VICE, and Time Out. Dan also conjured up a ghost at the Chateau Marmont while out on assignment for RoadTrippers. Follow him on Twitter here.
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