After a week off, Bellator MMA is back with a solid five-fight card. In the main event, Bellator Women’s Featherweight Champion Cris Cyborg defends her title against #4 Leslie Smith. This is a rematch of a 2016 bout that saw Cyborg get it done within 90 seconds via TKO.
In the co-main event, we have a pivotal bantamweight rematch between former champion Darrion Caldwell and Leoandro Higo. Darrion Caldwell is coming off a failed campaign in the Bellator Featherweight Grand Prix, and Higo has won two straight.
Before we get into those two fights, lets start at the bottom of the main card and work our way up.
Light Heavyweight: Christian Edwards vs. Ben Parrish
Christian Edwards (4-0, 4-0 Bellator) is an athlete out of Oklohoma, but he he does his camps with Jackson Wink MMA. Edwards was actually the first recipient of a scholarship designed to help upcoming talent get training for the next level. This guy is being groomed for big things under the Bellator banner. He is only 22, but he’s been signed with Bellator since his professional debut. In terms of skills, Edwards fights a bit like a lesser Jon Jones. That is not to disparage Edwards, it’s actually a complement. Edwards is clearly a cerebral fighter, and he has a wide array of weapons. He fights long with front kicks and oblique kicks. In close, Edwards uses elbows and knees. Edwards clearly works on his wrestling and it seems to be better with every fight. All that said, he still looks like an athlete with only four fights under his belt. This fight is another step to better refine Edwards.
Ben Parrish (4-1, 0-0 Bellator) is an athlete out of Doom Crew in Tennessee. He has bounced between middleweight and light heavyweight during his young MMA career. He is well-rounded, mixing in kicks and punches on the feet. There is not a ton of footage out there of Parrish. This bout is very important for the young fighter. His last bout, his first loss, was the result of a broken leg from a kick. That gruesome injury happened in 2019, and this is Parrish’s comeback fight.
What to Expect: This fight is clearly a step towards building Christian Edwards. They are of a similar record and skill level, but the gap between the two athletes are in the questions that hang over Parrish. In addition to being out of action for 18 months, he is coming back after suffering a terrible leg break in his last competition. Ring rust combined with trying to restore his faith in a broken tool, Parrish is going to have to fight through a lot of doubt before he even steps in the cage with Edwards. I think Edwards has the skills to beat Parrish without the ring rust and the broken leg, but they add to my certainty in an Edwards victory.
Welterweight: Jaleel Willis vs. Maycon Mendoca
Jaleel Willis (14-2, 2-0) is a fighter out of Memphis Judo & Jiu Jitsu in North Memphis, Tennessee. He is a former LFA Welterweight Champion, a belt he won a mere three months before his Bellator MMA debut at Bellator 253. He was actually due to fight Patricky Pitbull a month prior at Bellator 249, but Pitbull withdrew the night of the event. He is currently on a five-fight winning streak which dates back to 2019. Willis is a striker, but not the devastating kind. He has great timing, solid footwork, and an ability to maintain his distance. Willis is comfortable switching stances, and he is able to incorporate stance switches into his offense. He is not a volume striker, and he seldom throws more than a two-part combination, but he is able to maintain his pace over 15 or 25 minutes.
Maycon Mendoca (11-4, 0-0 Bellator) is an athlete out of Black House MMA. He is also a former LFA Welterweight Champion and he was the first man to hold it after it was vacated by Jaleel Willis. Similar to Willis, Mendoca is on a five-fight winning streak that also dates back to 2019. Mendoca is a big welterweight at 6’2″. His striking a bit “bread and butter”, but it is still solid Muay Thai that incorporates a lot of jabs and leg kicks. Mendoca will also throw roundhouse kicks to the legs, body, and head. His punches are long and powerful, but he does have a tendency to over-extend himself in the race for a finish. Mendosa is also solid on the ground, with multiple submission wins in his recent five-fight winning streak.
What to Expect: I expect for this fight to stay on the feet. Mendosa is a great test for the style of Willis. Willis is typically a sniper, able to pick is shots and maintain a safe distance from his opponent’s offense. In this bout, Willis will need to be inside to be able to connect with his punches. I am curious how he’s able to adjust and avoid the strong strikes of Mendosa. I think Mendosa won’t have to change his style much to deal with Willis. While Mendosa will need to stay composed, I think he might be able to stun Willis with consistent offense and forward motion. This is an interesting test for two athletes on the verge of having a number by their name in the Bellator Rankings.
Middleweight: #4 Fabian Edwards vs. #3 Austin Vanderford
Fabian Edwards (9-1, 4-1 Bellator) is an athlete out of Ultimate Training Centre in Birmingham, England. He is the brother of UFC welterweight contender Leon Edwards. Edwards is a counter-striker with a long stance. He is great at framing opponents on the feet and staying out of danger. Being a southpaw, Edwards’ most dangerous weapon is his straight left which he is able to throw while advancing or retreating. If I had to name the biggest hole in the game of Edwards, it would be his wrestling. It’s not bad, but he seems a bit too relaxed when he’s being held or controlled – especially against the fence. Edwards is usually pretty good about getting back to his feet, but he can be controlled by superior wrestlers. I put this down to being risk-averse when it comes to scrambles. Scrambles are risky in that there are no static positions, and they are usually where fighters get caught in submissions. All that said, Edwards has shown to be a threat from his guard.
Austin Vanderford (10-0, 4-0 Bellator) is an athlete out of American Top Team in Coconut Beach, Florida. He is looking to keep his undefeated record alive against the formerly undefeated Fabian Edwards. A win here will most likely put Vanderford in the crosshairs of Bellator Middleweight Champion Gegard Mousasi. As far as prospects go, Vanderford is a rock-solid addition to your MMA “who to watch” list. He is an athletic former wrestler with a developing striking game that looks better in every contest. That said, he will probably need to threaten with his wrestling to set up any meaningful strikes. This bout against Edwards is an unmistakable step-up in terms of competition level. This is Vanderford’s third bout at middleweight since moving up from 170 pounds.
What to Expect: I expect for this fight to hinge on the takedown. Vanderford needs to wrestle in this contest to be successful. He’s not a lost cause on the feet, but he is going to be a hittable target against Edwards. Vanderford moves his head pretty well when he moves forward, but his offense is not sophisticated enough to trouble Edwards without the threat of the takedown. I do ultimately think that Vanderford will win out with his wrestling, but he will need to avoid getting stung by Edwards.
Bantamweight: Darrion Caldwell vs. #6 Leandro Higo
Darrion Caldwell (14-4-1, 11-3-1 Bellator) is the former Bellator Bantamweight Champion and he fights out of Sanford MMA in Deerfield Beach, Florida. This will be Caldwell’s first time at bantamweight in almost two years, but I’m not overly concerned about his weight cut. In terms of offense, Caldwell has done a good job incorporating kicks and long strikes into his game, but he is ultimately a grappler. His wrestling is fantastic and his top control is among the best in the world. He is good at mixing in positional advances with strikes. While Caldwell is sometimes fine with resting in top position, he is also a great submission finisher when the opportunity presents itself.
Leandro Higo (20-5, 3-3 Bellator) is a Brazilian fighter out of Fight Ready MMA and Pitbull Brothers. He has been with Bellator since 2017 and he has consistently competed against the top of the bantamweight division, making his debut against former champ Eduardo Dantas. Higo is a great striker that typifies a boxing-heavy Brazilian combat athlete. He has a great left hook that he uses in both offense and defense. Higo also has good kicks, especially to the legs. Higo is fantastic on the floor, and he has improved wrestling since he started training at Fight Ready MMA with Henry Cejudo. Higo is very much a Pitbull Brothers trained fighter and if his wrestling has evolved like the other Pitbull Brothers fighters, this bout will be very interesting.
What to Expect: Caldwell and Higo have shared the cage before. Caldwell defended his title against Higo in 2017, winning via first-round guillotine choke. I think we’ll see a different fight this time. Caldwell is less offensive and less explosive. That said, Caldwell still has a stellar ground game with submissions to boot. Higo moves different and seems more relaxed in the cage. He has much better wrestling than he did when he first fought Caldwell and that will likely be tested in this contest. I like the crossroads nature to this bout. Caldwell is looking to rekindle his bantamweight flame after not winning in the weight class since 2018. Higo, on the other hand, has finally put a win streak together with two straight wins. This rematch is a test for each man to truly measure how they’ve grown as martial artists since they first met.
Bellator MMA Women’s Featherweight Championship: Cris Cyborg vs. Leslie Smith
Cris Cyborg (23-2, 2-0 Bellator) is a fighter out of Chute Boxe Long Beach in San Diego, California. For those of us in the know, Cyborg needs no introduction. She is the former Strikeforce Champion, Invicta Champion, UFC Champion, and current Bellator MMA Women’s Featherweight Champion. Since coming to Bellator, Cyborg still seems to be the same imposing force we’ve come to expect. Cyborg hits hard, very hard. As time has gone on, Cyborg’s boxing keeps getting better. She continues to have great kicks as well. What I’ve noticed in the current iteration of Cyborg is a newfound patience. Earlier-career Cyborg was a destroyer and she would blitz opponents almost from the opening bell. Cyborg can still swarm opponents with strikes, but she’s much more reserved in setting those big moments up. Cyborg is now just as likely to pick an opponent apart as she is to KO them. Cyborg is simply a bad matchup for almost any woman in the world.
Leslie Smith (12-8, 2-2 Bellator) is an athlete out of Cesar Gracie Jiu Jitsu in Pleasant Hill, California. She is a veteran of Women’s MMA and she has fought quite a number of top-level competitors. Smith has hit somewhat of a stride in the last few years going 4-1 in her last five. That said, she is only 2-1 since 2019. Smith was the woman to introduce Cyborg into the UFC in 2016, and it did not go well for her. She was knocked down and finished via strikes within 90 seconds. Smith has cleaned up her game quite a bit since that failed assignment in 2016, but not to the point where her style is unrecognizable. Smith still likes to move forward, she still barrels in with hooks, and her defense is porous. She’s also still tough as nails.
What to Expect: It might seems lazy, but I more or less expect a repeat of their 2016 meeting at UFC 198. Cyborg is still Cyborg, and the reasons she was a problem for Smith then are the same reasons I’ll give you now. Leslie Smith is hittable and her toughness will only extend so far. I think we’ll either see another quick TKO for Cyborg or a drawn out beating where Smith refuses to go away. To be clear, this is not simply a power issue. This is a fluency issue. Cyborg, while also being insanely powerful, is technically sound in all facets of MMA. Her technical level is superior to Smith’s, which will allow her to capitalize with her power. I am actually confused by the matchmaking here. Smith is not vastly improved in any regard that would make this an intriguing rematch. Either way I will watch, and I will be rooting for the (+700) underdog.
And that’s it! Thanks for reading, and enjoy the fights!
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