Johnny Eblen plans to pack a lifetime of legacy into an abridged run at the top of Bellator's middleweight division. Eblen's title defense against Anatoly Tokov at Bellator 290 on Saturday is the beginning of his blitz through the 185-pound ranks.
Eben and Tokov got the call to co-main event underneath Ryan Bader and Fedor Emelianko, Tokov's mentor, on roughly five weeks' notice. The relatively fast circumstance in which the fight came together is a pace the champion welcomes. Eblen, only a dozen fights into his professional career, already has an exit strategy. If Eblen wants to stitch together a legacy on par with the very best the sport has seen, he needs to do it in short order.
"I don't want to fight forever. I would probably say I have about maybe five years left," Eblen told CBS Sports. "I know I started a bit late, but I plan on being very, very active for the next few years that I'm fighting.
"I don't want to be one of those guys that fight past their prime and after they fight past their prime, they continue to fight. You don't ruin a legacy, but it doesn't end on a high note. I'd rather end like Khabib [Nurmagomedov] or George St-Pierre."
Eblen was 26 when he made his professional debut. By contrast, Gegard Mousasi -- the man he defeated for the middleweight title -- was 17 when he got his start. It was far and away Mousasi's most lopsided loss in the last six years. Eblen went from MMA debutant to Bellator middleweight champion in just five years. If Eblen wants to make good on his self-assigned deadline, Tokov is the man to beat. And if Eblen can mirror the performance he had against Mousasi, it bodes well for his middleweight crusade.
"The guy's record is pretty much spotless," Eblen said. "He's a damn good fighter. He's a physical fighter. You just look him up and you're like, 'Jesus, this guy's jacked.' Even the casual can just look this guy up and be like, 'Okay, well, I don't know him, but he looks like he's damn good.'
"The hardcore fight fans know this is a tough fight and it's the reason why I'm taking it."
The hardcore fans may be aware that Eblen and Tokov are the goods, but it is hard for a legacy to endure without the validation of a wider fanbase. Fortunately, Eblen's philosophy of dishing out dominance and entertainment pair well with a major opportunity to showcase himself to a large audience at Bellator's CBS premiere.
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"If I'm exciting to fans, that's going to make me happy because that means I'm performing to a level I want to," Eblen said. "When I watch a fight back, I want to be excited when I watch my fight, like, 'Holy shit! I look great, man. I look like a world-beater,' you know? When it's a boring fight, even if it's a technical fight, that's going to upset me. Half the time, I don't want my fight to be boring so I'm not bored myself when I watch it back.
"It's my craft. It's what I work on 24-7. It's my profession. So I want to be as good as if not the best in the world in my profession. Guys that are very, very good in MMA tend not to be boring. They don't just go in there to win the fight, they go in there to dominate."