Bellator may have the deepest 205-pound division in mixed martial arts at the moment, and this is a topic that's been heavily-discussed recently. It's a topic that's been scoffed at by UFC president Dana White, but Friday night as Bellator kicks off a weekend doubleheader, the evidence in its favor may be on full display.
During a time in which the UFC's light heavyweight division is going through a period of transition following the exits of Jon Jones, Daniel Cormier and Alexander Gustafsson over the past two years, Bellator is thriving. New champion Vadim Nemkov's demolition of Ryan Bader last month, along with Bellator's recent signing of Corey Anderson, was proof that a new light heavyweight era has arrived for the promotion.
Friday night's main event of Bellator 245 is another example of the division's depth as UFC veterans Phil Davis and Lyoto Machida enter a rematch seven years in the making (Paramount Network/DAZN, 10 p.m. ET) inside the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut, with a shot at Nemkov's title firmly at stake.
"I don't know how I could not believe that," Davis said, during Wednesday's virtual media day, when asked if Bellator's light heavyweight division currently bests that of UFC. "We stack up well. I wouldn't even say stack up -- we simply have the best fighters in the world."
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Davis (21-5, 1 NC), a former Bellator MMA Light Heavyweight Grand Prix tournament champion who went on to capture the promotion's 205-pound title in 2016, faced off against the current titleholder Nemkov in 2018 and dropped a competitive split decision.
Nemkov's victory over Bader, the man who took the title from Davis via split decision three years ago, seemed to open up a path for Davis to seek title redemption should he get past Machida. The 35-year-old rebounded from his loss to Nemkov with back-to-back TKO wins over Liam McGeary and Karl Albrektsson.
"I'm as motivated as ever. My ultimate goal is to get back to that belt and be the champion," Davis said. "I want that belt and this fight is standing in the way of me getting into a championship fight. That has been my thought process all along."
Although it has been a full decade since Machida (26-9) held the UFC's light heavyweight title, he remains a legitimate title contender within Bellator despite being 42. A 2019 loss to Gegard Mousasi by split decision ended a four-fight win streak, which included victories over Vitor Belfort, Rafael Carvalho and Chael Sonnen.
"Since I'm feeling so good and able to go to the academy without any injuries, that's so important," Machida said. "Most of my colleagues and friends that keep fighting have a lot of injuries. I'm lucky. Injuries are part of the training, but no serious injuries. I don't have a time limit. Of course, I'm not going to fight too long but I still want to fight and challenge myself. I still have goals in my life I want to achieve and once I do that, I'm done."
If there's anything to be learned from re-watching Davis' victory by unanimous decision over Machida from 2013 in the UFC, neither fighter believes it will help them in the rematch. Both Davis and Machida acknowledged how much they have evolved as martial artists during the seven-year gap and Machida specifically said he has never been motivated by revenge.
Still, beating Machida marked a significant turning point for Davis from a confidence standpoint and remembers it as a special night, especially considering he went into Machida's backyard of Brazil to secure the victory.
"More so than my self belief, it was more of the, 'I told you so,'" Davis said. "Machida is a hard guy to land a glove on. That looked very different from any fight he had previously. He doesn't get taken down a lot and he's very good at getting up. My confidence did grow. You can do what you do to anyone in the world, but I think the MMA fans grew some appreciation that there's something about Phil that is very different. [Machida] has a different skill set that is hard to match."
In terms of what to expect in the rematch, the only thing that hasn't changed from Machida's perspective is that he still believes Davis will be looking for takedowns throughout.
"He likes to score points and control the fight. That's my job to not let him fight. That's it," Machida said. "I'll be looking for the fight from the beginning. I'll be looking for the knockout and submission. But a fight is a fight. Phil Davis is a great fighter and former champion in Bellator. I have to be at my best and be ready for any situation."
- Phil Davis vs. Lyoto Machida, light heavyweights
- Cat Zingano vs. Gabby Holloway, women's featherweights
- Ed Ruth vs. Taylor Johnson, middleweights
- Raymond Daniels vs. Peter Stanonkik, welterweights
Davis has very quietly produced an exceptional run since leaving UFC for Bellator in 2015, having gone 8-2 with a pair of split-decision defeats against the division's best. The problem for Davis when he steps up in class has never been his athleticism or ability to take the fight to the ground when he pleases, it's typically whether he throws enough strikes to sway the judges.
Whether or not Davis can consistently take Machida down will certainly go a long way in helping him smother the karate-based style which makes the Brazilian legend so dangerous, just as he did in their first meeting. But he won't be able to get there without establishing himself first on the feet and committing with bad enough intention in order to diversify his attack.
This is still Davis' fight to win, even with Machida having not yet begun to show major signs of fading due to age. Davis can help him get closer to getting there by looking to be as explosive and sudden as possible to constantly make Machida feel like he's a step behind.
As long as Davis commits, he can avoid the type of chess match against a classic counter striker that tends to lead to boring fights and split-decision defeats.
Pick: Davis via UD