The eyes of the mixed martial arts world will turn to the Mohegan Sun Arena on Friday as Bellator 258 invades Uncasville, Connecticut, featuring a bantamweight title bout and the final quarterfinal pairing in the Light Heavyweight World Grand Prix.
Juan Archuleta will defend his newly acquired 135-pound title in the main event (Showtime, 9 p.m. ET) against Sergio Pettis while former two-time UFC title challenger Anthony "Rumble" Johnson makes his promotional debut, just not against the opponent originally desired.
Let's take a closer look at the biggest storylines entering the card this weekend. (Bellator and CBS Sports are both owned by ViacomCBS)
1. Losing Rumble-Romero won't be easy
Bellator MMA president Scott Coker made big headlines last December by signing a pair of big-name free agents in the hard-hitting Johnson and the ageless wonder Yoel Romero. Coker made an even bigger splash two months later when he not only announced that the former UFC stars would be joining the eight-man tournament at 205 pounds, but that they would be facing each other in the opening round. Just the thought of Rumble-Romero and the many unanswered questions surrounding the unique matchup created an incredible amount of intrigue from fans and media members to the two fighters themselves. This matchup was the fight equivalent of lighting a pair of firecrackers and placing them together inside a jar. Yet the MMA gods chose now wasn't the time when the 43-year-old Romero was forced to withdraw from the tournament last week after failing pre-fight medical exams. Although the nature of Romero's issue hasn't gone public, Bellator officials insist that he will still make his promotional debut in the coming months and that a fight against Johnson remains in the longterm plans. Yet it's had to overlook how much of a dent the fight's cancellation has on the mainstream perception of the tournament considering how star-studded it was on paper. Luckily, Johnson will remain on the card and will face replacement Jose Augusto (7-2), a 29-year-old member of Team Pitbull MMA, in the quarterfinal bout.
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2. Johnson's odds of winning the Grand Prix
It's an interesting question, especially considering Johnson (along with Romero) opened slightly behind defending light heavyweight champion Vadim Nemkov as the tournament's betting favorites. In theory, Johnson should have an easier hurdle to clear against the unheralded Augusto in order to advance to a semifinal matchup against Nemkov. Yet it's what we still don't know entering Friday's final quarterfinal bout that makes it most intriguing. At 37, Johnson hasn't fought in four years since a self-imposed retirement following his UFC title loss to Daniel Cormier in their rematch. Training camp pictures have shown Johnson to be in remarkable physical shape after ballooning up in weight during his hiatus. But aside from being a one-punch threat against anyone on the planet, the jury is still out regarding how much the time away has affected Johnson or whether he has improved some of the holes in his game. Augusto also brings with him a bit of the unknown. The Brazilian fighter has won five straight fights, including his Bellator debut last month when he submitted Jonathan Wilson in the opening round. His skill set and tenacity has been vouched for publicly by stablemate and Bellator two-division champion Patricio "Pitbull" Freire and his grappling skills could pair well opposite Johnson's weaknesses.
3. The main event is flying way under the radar
Fresh off his decision win over Patchy Mix to claim the vacant bantamweight title, the 33-year-old Archuleta has given the promotion's 135-pound division a shot in the arm of excitement. "The Spaniard" is 20-1 since 2015, with his only loss coming against Patricio "Pitbull" in the opening round of the Featherweight World Grand Prix in 2019. One can certainly expect action and a quick pace in any Archuleta fight yet a pairing against the battle-tested (and still somehow only 27-year-old) Pettis is among the best fights Bellator can make. Pettis, a veteran of UFC fights against some of the biggest names at 125 pounds over the past decade, appears to be peaking at the right time amid a three-fight win streak. The younger brother of former UFC champion Anthony Pettis has looked impressive thus far in two trips to the Bellator cage and the fight against Archuleta remains a virtual pick 'em from oddsmakers. One can expect the potential of a 25-minute track meet as Pettis -- who holds victories over Chris Cariaso, John Moraga, Brandon Moreno and Joseph Benavidez -- looks to secure the biggest victory of his career.
4. Patricky "Pitbull" can make things a lot more interesting at 155 pounds
The success of his younger brother Patricio, the face of the franchise for Bellator and its most winningest fighter, might have overshadowed in recent years just how good Patricky has become. At 35, Freire has won five straight under the Bellator banner (along with a 2-1 run in Rizin in 2019) and has let it be known publicly that he's ready for a second shot at the promotion's 155-pound title. The problem with that for Freire is that his brother currently holds the lightweight crown although Patricio said in February he might be willing to vacate the title (and move down to challenge for the bantamweight belt) provided Bellator gives Patricky a shot at fighting for the vacant crown. Freire will certainly need to defeat Peter Queally first on Friday as the heated rivalry between Team Pitbull and SBG Ireland adds another chapter. One thing to note regarding Freire's title hopes, however, is that Coker said during last week's virtual press conference that he isn't ruling out the Pitbull brothers' willingness to potentially fight each other for the belt. Imagine that.
5. It's now or never for Michael Page's full potential to shine
From the moment he debuted with Bellator in 2013, the hype surrounding the fighter known by his dual monikers of "Venom" and "MVP" was undeniable. At 6-foot-3 with a fighting style straight out of a video game, Page was a fan-friendly fighter who constantly took chances while playing the part of clown prince to help solidify himself as a must-see competitor. Yet for every highlight-reel finish Page collected, so too did he turn in frustratingly average performances against middling competition. In his two biggest fights to date, Page also failed to deliver on his enormous hype when he chose to fight passively amid a chorus of boos in a decision win over Paul Daley and when he was stopped in his lone pro defeat by current welterweight champion Douglas Lima during their 2019 Grand Prix semifinal bout. Since those two fights, Page has reminded fans of just how fun he can be by rifling off four straight wins including three by knockout. But "MVP" will face his toughest test in a while when he faces the criminally underrated Derek Anderson, who has won five of six overall and two straight since moving up to 170 pounds. Page badly covets a rematch against Lima for the title and he'll need to prove against Anderson in order to get there that, at age 34, there's still time for "MVP" to balance the sensationalism with the focus necessary to become a truly elite fighter.