SI: Bellator 292 Promises Fireworks With Lightweight Tournament Openers


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SAN JOSE, Calif.—Friday’s Bellator 292 event marks the start of an ambitious lightweight grand prix for the promotion, enlisting eight of the organization’s best 155-pounders all vying for a tournament title and the $1 million prize that comes with it.

With the athletes involved hailing from four different continents, each brings a particular flavor to the field, and picking one as surefire victor is a daunting task.

With 163 combined professional wins among them, not to mention a stunning 73.6% of those earned by way of knockout or submission, the matchups seem certain to produce fireworks.

Bellator president Scott Coker believes it’s the best tournament the promotion has ever put together, which is saying quite a bit since the California-based organization has been hosting annual competitions for the past 15 years.

“This is going to be, I think, arguably the greatest lightweight tournament in the history of MMA,” Coker told MMA Underground. “I mean, you guys saw the gauntlet of fighters that are going to be in this tournament, and I think there’s two or three dark horses that could upset a lot of these other fighters, and it’s going to depend on how they perform under pressure.”
The first two quarterfinal matchups take place Friday at SAP Center, headlining the Bellator 292 broadcast on Showtime (10 p.m. ET). The night’s main event sees reigning lightweight champion Usman Nurmagomedov (16–0 MMA, 5–0 BMMA) put his title on the line in a grand prix bout with former UFC and WEC champion Benson Henderson (30–11 MMA, 7–6 BMMA).

Meanwhile, the co-main event featured a few lesser-known but dangerous fighters with Russia’s Alexander Shabliy (22–3 MMA, 3–0 BMMA) taking on Azerbaijan’s Tofiq Musayev (20–4 MMA, 1–0 BMMA).

Coker said enlisting both household names and up-and-coming stars was a must for the field and thinks it could prove a breakout opportunity for some of the organization’s newer faces.
“This is a business where you need constant talent, and those young guys that we have coming up are the future of this company,” Coker said. “I guarantee you after this tournament is over, everybody is going to know all these guys because they’re all really, really good.”

Additional opening-round matchups scheduled for upcoming Bellator events include French-Tunisian newcomer Mansour Barnaoui (20–4 MMA, 1–0 BMMA) vs. former lightweight champ Brent Primus (11–3 MMA, 9–3 UFC) and former featherweight titleholder A.J. McKee (20–1 MMA, 20–1 BMMA) vs. former lightweight champion Patricky ‘Pitbull’ Freire (24–11 MMA, 15–9 BMMA).

Quite simply, there doesn’t seem to be an easy path for any of the eight competitors in the field, and Coker believes the winner will have a real claim at being the best 155-pounder in the world, regardless of organization. It’s a bold claim, but one he believes holds merit, and Coker points to the likes of American Top Team founder and industry veteran Dan Lambert to help support his belief.
‘Honestly, come on, how could you deny that?’ Coker asked. ‘The guy is not going through one, two—he’s going through three fights in a one-year period of the fighters of this quality, he’s got to be the best lightweight. And listen, talk to Dan Lambert. Who’s the best 185 in the world right now? Johnny Eblen. He’ll tell you, and he fights for Bellator. Who’s the best 170? [Yaroslav] AmOsov, right?

“These guys, you know, they don’t think they get the respect they deserve, but I’m telling you right now, they are the best fighters. We have the best 205 in [Vadim] Nemkov, the best 185 in Eblen. We’ve got the best 170-pounder, and then to me, the gauntlet is here. We’ll see in a year who comes out No. 1.”

UFC president Dana White would likely have a different opinion, but then again, so would the heads of other major promotions such as ONE Championship and the PFL, as well as top regional organizations around the world such as KSW, Rizin FF and more.

Traditional MMA business practices leave very few opportunities for these various organizations’ rosters to intermingle and back those claims up in an actual fight, but Coker—who partnered with Rizin FF CEO Nobuyuki Sakakibara for a co-promoted event in December—isn’t ruling out the idea of such an arrangement in the future.

“Listen, we wake up and focus on our business,” Coker said. “But should it happen one day? It definitely should happen one day, and it;s not us stopping it, right? And when it does happen, hopefully one day, it’ll be big, and it’ll be not just us or not just the UFC, but it’ll be ONE FC, it’ll be everybody—Rizin, and everybody all over the world. Let’s put together a World Cup, a true World Cup, not an intramural World Cup, and let’s get it on.”

Easier said than done, but it’s an idea for the future. In the meantime, Bellator officials will focus on their own brand, and Coker said he’s truly excited to see who will ultimately emerge from the grand prix that kicks off on Friday night.

“I’m really excited about this first night of fights because Shabliy and Musayev are killers, and Benson has been around a long time, but he’s still got it,” Coker said. “The guy is going to be scrappy, and he’s going to be in Usman’s face, he’s going to put a lot of pressure on them, and let’s see how Usman handles that pressure.

“I would say this tournament is super exciting. This might be the best tournament we’ve hosted yet to date, and it’s going to be a year of just great matchups, and I can’t wait to see who the finalists are.”


It doesn’t sound like Francis Ngannou will be fighting for Bellator MMA in the future. Indeed, in a new interview with promotion President, Scott Coker, it appears that “The Predator” might be pricing himself out of the mixed martial arts (MMA) league.

Just a few weeks back, Coker laid out the elevator pitch on how he’d draw UFC’s former Heavyweight champion and hot free agent into the fold.

“Look, we have the same parent company as Showtime pay-per-view boxing,” he said on The MMA Hour. “So, if you want to come here and have a home in MMA and you’d also have a home in Showtime pay-per-view boxing. It will be like a one-stop shop and you don’t have to juggle around different leagues.”

Now, in a new interview with the MMA media filmed leading up to Bellator 292, Coker sounded less optimistic about Ngannou fighting under the Bellator banner.
“My guys have been talking to Francis, I know they’ve met,” he said. “Stephen [Espinoza, Showtime Sports president] met with him on the boxing side. I’ve always said it’d be a perfect fit for him because he could do boxing, he could do MMA, but I don’t think that there’s anything close to a deal being presented back-and-forth. So, let’s see what happens.

“Anything can happen, but I’m not sure we’re gonna be in that business on the MMA side,” Coker continued. “Maybe on the boxing side, it might work out. To me it’s like, it has to be equitable for everybody, and that’s how I feel. We have a pretty robust purse amount every year, and we can spread that around, we can take a lot of that purse and pay our guys, and sign other fighters, and keep building divisions, right? So to me, I’d say it’s 50/50 at this point.”

SAN JOSE, Calif. – If a championship belt and $1 million prize weren’t enough motivation for the eight-man field of the Bellator lightweight grand prix, company president Scott Coker says the status of No. 1 in the world is on the line.

Bellator’s 155-pound tournament begins on Friday at Bellator 292 with a pair of quarterfinal bouts. In the main event, undefeated champion Usman Nurmagomedov (16-0 MMA, 5-0 BMMA) begins his quest to defend through the grand prix field when he meets former UFC and WEC titleholder Benson Henderson (30-11 MMA, 7-6 BMMA). And in the co-main event, Tofiq Musayev (19-4 MMA, 1-0 BMMA) takes on Alexandr Shabliy (22-3 MMA, 3-0 BMMA).

“This is going to be arguably the greatest lightweight tournament in the history of MMA,” Coker told MMA Junkie and other reporters following Thursday’s Bellator 292 ceremonial weigh-ins. “You guys saw gauntlet of fighters that are going to be in this tournament, and I think there are two or three dark horses that could upset these fighters. That is going to depend on how they perform under pressure. I’m really excited about this first night of fights.”
The other pair of quarterfinals in the grand prix will see A.J. McKee vs. Patricky Freire, which does not have an official date, and Brent Primus vs. Mansour Barnaoui, which goes down at Bellator 296 on May 12.

Whomever emerges from the brackets are going to have to endure three fights scheduled for five rounds in order to complete the mission. That’s a significant task, and Coker thinks it would elevate the winner’s global ranking above any other organization’s champion.

“How could you deny that?” Coker said. “The guy is not going through one (or) two, he’s going through three fights in a one-year period of fighters of this quality, he’s got to be the best lightweight.”

The Bellator 292 main event is particularly compelling to Coker, he said. Nurmagomedov is listed as a significant betting favorite over the decorated Henderson, and although the odds point to it being a one-sided fight, Coker said he’s not ready to count out the underdog out.

“Benson’s been around a long time,” Coker said. “He’s still got it. He’s going to be scrappy. He’s going to be in Usman’s face and putting a lot of pressure on him, and we’ll see see he handles it. This tournament is super exciting, this might be best tournament we’ve hosted yet to do.”

Kyoji Horiguchi vs. Ray Borg

A pivotal Bellator bantamweight matchup is headed to Hawaii.

Kyoji Horiguchi (31-5) is set to take on former UFC flyweight contender and promotional debutant Ray Borg (16-5) at Bellator 295, which takes place at Neal S. Blaisdell Center in Honolulu on April 22. The matchup was first reported to be in discussion by ESPN.
The event marks Horiguchi’s return to Honolulu. He most recently fought there in April 2022, losing a unanimous decision to Patchy Mix in the quarterfinals of the Bellator Bantamweight World Grand Prix. Horiguchi has bounced back with consecutive wins since then, including a unanimous decision win over Hiromasa Ougikubo at the Bellator MMA vs. RIZIN show this past December. The 32-year-old previously held 135-pound titles in Bellator and RIZIN and he challenged Demetrious Johnson for the UFC flyweight title in April 2015.

Borg is also a former UFC flyweight contender, having fought Johnson in a championship bout at UFC 216. “The Tazmexican Devil” saw inconsistent results after that, going just 2-2 in the UFC while struggling to make weight at both 125 and 135 pounds. Since parting ways with the UFC in 2020, Borg has won three straight fights.
Vieira vs. Brundage is a rescheduling from UFC Vegas 65, which Vieira was forced to withdraw from. Eurosport was first to report the new booking.

Vieira (8-2) looks to rebound from a decision loss to Chris Curtis after a third-round submission of Dustin Stoltzfus put him back in the win column. He is 3-2 since making his UFC debut in 2020.

Following the cancellation of his fight with Vieira, Brundage (8-3) instead fought Michal Oleksiejczuk a month later at UFC Vegas 66. Brundage lost that fight by first-round knockout, dropping his UFC record to 2-2.

Quinlan (6-0, 1 NC) looks to remain undefeated in his second UFC fight when he takes on Loosa (9-3). Both fighters most recently fought this past August, with Quinlan scoring a first-round knockout of Jason Witt in his UFC debut, and Loosa outpointing A.J. Fletcher.

The bout was first announced by Quinlan’s management.