This was the type of fight Bellator MMA envisioned when it signed Benson Henderson.
The former Ultimate Fighting Championship and World Extreme Cagefighting lightweight titleholder will meet Patricio Freire in the Bellator 160 main event on Friday at the Honda Center in Anaheim, California. Whichever man emerges with his hand raised will become the No. 1 contender to reigning Bellator lightweight champion Michael Chandler’s throne.
A taekwondo and Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt who was an NAIA All-American wrestler at Dana College in Blair, Nebraska, Henderson made his promotional debut at Bellator 153 on April 22. It did not go according to plan, as he failed in his bid to unseat current welterweight champion Andrey Koreshokov, the lopsided decision loss snapping a two-fight winning streak. Henderson, 32, operates out of the MMA Lab in Glendale, Arizona, where he hones his skills under the director of Royce Gracie protégé John Crouch. Against Freire, “Smooth” returns to the more hospitable confines of the 155-pound division, where wins over Frankie Edgar (twice), Donald Cerrone (twice), Josh Thomson, Gilbert Melendez, Nate Diaz and Jim Miller dot his outstanding resume.
Freire has already held Bellator gold at 145 pounds. The 29-year-old owns an 8-1 mark cross his past nine appearances, a decision loss to Daniel Straus the only hiccup. “Pitbull” last fought at Bellator 153 in April, when he submitted Henry Corrales with a second-round guillotine choke. Durable and dangerous in all phases, he has never been finished in his 28-fight career. Freire in recent weeks has engaged the aforementioned Chandler in a heated war of words on social media, this after the Bellator lightweight boss cut down his older brother, Patricky Freire, with a wicked right hand at Bellator 157 on June 24.
With the Henderson-Freire showdown as the feature attraction, here is what to watch for at Bellator 160:
A Mulligan for ‘The Highlight Kid’
Bubba Jenkins has a chance to right one of his wrongs.
“The Highlight Kid” will lock horns with Georgi Karakhanyan in the featherweight co-headliner, as he tries to avenge his January 2015 submission defeat to the former Tachi Palace Fights and World Series of Fighting champion. A two-time NCAA All-American wrestler who won a national championship at Arizona State University in 2011, Jenkins will carry a three-fight winning streak into the cage. The 28-year-old last competed at Bellator 151 on March 4, when he captured a three-round unanimous decision from Goiti Yamauchi.
Karakhanyan, 31, has dropped back-to-back bouts for the first time in his 31-fight career. The Millennia MMA-trained Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt sports 18 finishes among his 24 career victories, 14 of them submissions.
Paving His Own Way
A.J. McKee is carving out a niche of his own.
The son of former Maximum Fighting Championship titleholder Antonio McKee, the 21-year-old featherweight prospect will put his perfect 4-0 record on the line against Legacy Fighting Championship veteran Cody Walker in a main-card clash at 145 pounds. The “Mercenary” has spent his entire pro career competing in Bellator, having last appeared at Bellator 152 on April 16, when he stopped Danilo Belluardo with first-round punches. None of McKee’s first four opponents has lasted longer than 3:19 against him.
Walker needless to say has his work cut out for him. The 26-year-old Texan has won four of his past six fights but has not competed in Bellator since he knocked out Treston Thomison with a second-round head kick nearly two years ago. All seven of Walker’s victories have come by knockout, technical knockout or submission.
Joey Davis should have everyone’s attention based on amateur credentials alone.
Davis will make his pro MMA debut against Keith Cutrone in an undercard battle at 170 pounds. The 22-year-old Compton, California, native wrestled collegiately at Notre Dame College, a Division II institution in Euclid, Ohio, where he finished his career with a staggering 131-0 record and four national championships. Davis became the third college wrestler in history -- Cael Sanderson and Marcus LeVesseur are the others -- to win four national titles while going undefeated.
Cutrone went 2-0 as an amateur and touched off his professional career with a first-round technical knockout against Edgar Khachatryan at a regional event on March 4 in Los Angeles.
The Other Machida
Chinzo Machida’s involvement in mixed martial arts can only be described as sporadic, but after back-to-back wins under the Resurrection Fight Alliance flag, he answered the call from Bellator.
The older brother of former Ultimate Fighting Championship light heavyweight titleholder Lyoto Machida, the 39-year-old Brazilian karateka will lock horns with Mario Navarro in a preliminary featherweight pairing. Machida has not fought since he was awarded a unanimous decision over Dmitry Gerasimov at RFA 15 in June 2014. He agreed to terms with Bellator six months later. The Shotokan karate black belt made himself a fixture on highlight reels with his flying knee knockout on Brian Wood at RFA 11 in 2013.
Navarro has lost four of his past five bouts, including two straight. Like Machida, he faces the hurdle of a lengthy layoff, as the Californian last competed at Bellator 116 in April 2014, when he submitted to a rear-naked choke from Brandon Bender. Navarro has not tasted victory in nearly four years.