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  • Photo: Tony Rotundo

    Photo: Tony Rotundo

    The Wrestling Fan's Guide to the MMA Weekend (2/3/23)

    Bellator fighter Darrion Caldwell at the 2009 NCAA Championships (photo courtesy of Tony Rotundo; WrestlersAreWarriors.com)

    This weekend, the two top MMA promotions in the world return. As per usual, the Bellator card is loaded with former wrestling talent. The UFC card is not as stacked with wrestlers, but there is one international prospect who likely has a bright future. The following looks at the top wrestlers in MMA action this weekend.

    Saturday: Bellator 290

    Ryan Bader vs. Fedor Emelianenko

    Bader was a three-time Pac-10 champion and a two-time All-American for Arizona State. He finished sixth as a senior in 2006 and then quickly made the transition to MMA. Bader won the eighth season of “The Ultimate Fighter” reality show and has held both the light heavyweight and heavyweight titles in Bellator. Despite losing the light heavyweight title in 2020, Bader has retained the heavyweight belt and will put it on the line against a legend.

    Emelianenko is widely regarded as the best heavyweight in MMA history. The 46-year-old fighter won the Pride FC heavyweight championship in 2003 and held it until the promotion was purchased by the UFC in 2007. Emelianenko has fought sparingly since 2016, but he has won five of his last seven and is coming off a first-round knockout of former Division II All-American Timothy Johnson.

    Bader and Emelianeko fought previously at Bellator 214 in 2019. On that night, Bader won by knockout in 35 seconds.

    Johnny Eblen vs. Anatoly Tokov

    Eblen spent his college days at Missouri, and he qualified for the 2016 NCAA tournament. The following year, he turned professional in MMA and started building his undefeated 12-0 record. After only four fights, Eblen signed with Bellator. After an extensive winning streak, he challenged Gegard Mousasi for the promotion’s middleweight title. Eblen took the belt in dominant fashion. This will be his first title defense.

    Tokov holds a 31-2 record, and he has won all seven of his fights since joining Bellator in 2017. In his last fight, he scored a first-round knockout over Muhammad Abdullah at Bellator 282.

    Brennan Ward vs. Sabah Homasi

    Ward wrestled for Division III Johnson & Wales. In 2010, he finished second to become an All-American. He actually made his professional MMA debut in 2008 before he even finished his college wrestling career. Ward is now a 22-fight veteran and fought for the Bellator middleweight championship in 2014. Early last year, he returned from a nearly five-year layoff caused by personal issues and won a pair of fights by stoppage.

    Homasi was on the 21st season of “The Ultimate Fighter,” but he went 0-3 after joining the UFC. He returned to Bellator in 2019 and has won five of his last seven fights.

    Ali Isaev vs. Steve Mowry

    Isaev represented Azerbaijan at the 2008 Olympics and also won the European Championships at heavyweight in 2009. His MMA career began in Russia in 2016 before he signed with PFL and won their 2019 heavyweight tournament. In the finals, he bested former Oklahoma State heavyweight Jared Rosholt. This will be the first action for the 39-year-old wrestler since New Year’s Eve 2019.

    Mowry holds an undefeated 10-0 MMA record and has won all six of his fights with Bellator since making his debut with the promotion back in 2018. In his last fight, he went to a “no contest” against Valentin Moldavsky after the fight ended via an illegal eye poke.

    Chris Gonzalez vs. Max Rohskopf

    Gonzalez was a junior college All-American for Harper before he turned his attention to Greco. In 2016, he made the non-Olympic world team and followed that up with a silver medal at the 2017 U.S. Open. Gonzalez made the transition to professional MMA in 2018 and won his first six fights including a stoppage over UFC veteran Roger Huerta. Unfortunately, he is looking to get back on track after dropping two of his last three fights.

    Rohskopf was a two-time NCAA qualifier for NC State who saw his college eligibility come to an end after the 2017 season. He made his professional MMA debut the following year and quickly moved up the ranks. Rohskopf made his UFC debut in 2020, but his fight against Austin Hubbard ended on the stool after the second round. On top of that, the UFC released him from his contract. Rohskopf has bounced back with two victories over Cage Warriors. He signed with Bellator last March and has had multiple fights fall through.

    Diana Avsaragova vs. Alejandra Lara

    Avsaragova reportedly claimed a bronze medal at the 2015 Russian cadet nationals. After two regional fights, she signed with Bellator in 2021. So far she has won all three of her fights in the promotion.

    Lara represents the most significant test to date for Avsaragova. Despiting riding a three-fight losing streak, she is a 15-fight veteran and fought for the Bellator flyweight championship back in 2018.

    Darrion Caldwell vs. Nikita Mikhailov

    Caldwell was a four-time ACC champion for NC State, and he famously defeated Brent Metcalf in the 149-pound final of the NCAA tournament. He made his MMA debut in 2012 and signed with Bellator two years later. In 2017, he defeated Eduardo Dantas to claim the Bellator bantamweight championship. Despite the early career success, Caldwell is currently riding a three-fight losing streak that dates back to 2020.

    Mikhailov signed with Bellator in 2021 and won his first two fights with the promotion. He comes into this fight after dropping a decision against UFC veteran Enrique Barzola on Bellator 278 last April.

    Isaiah Hokit vs. Peter Ishiguro

    Hokit started his collegiate wrestling career at Drexel before transferring to Fresno State. He went 28-15 with the Bulldogs before the program was dropped, once again. In 2021, Hokit made his MMA debut and lasted only 10 seconds. However, he has bounced back with a pair of stoppage victories over Theodore Macuka and Matias Nader.

    Ishiguro spent some time on the wrestling team at Boston University and made his professional MMA debut in 2019. He now holds a 2-1 record and is coming off a victory over Elias Anderson under the Bellator banner.

    The top three fights featuring Bader, Eblen and Ward will air live on CBS at 9:00pm ET. The preliminary card begins at 6:00pm ET on YouTube.

    Saturday: UFC Vegas 68

    Rinya Nakamura vs. Toshiomi Kazama

    Nakamura had a very strong 2017 on the freestyle mats. He won gold at that year’s U23 World Championships and finished fifth on the senior level. Nakamura made a run at the 2020 Olympics, but after the Games were delayed, he decided to pursue a career in MMA. He turned professional in 2021 and entered the “Road to UFC” tournament last year. He won bouts over Gugun Gusman and Shohei Nose to make this final fight against Kazzama. Nakamura’s opponent has gone 10-2 and is coming off a decision in his “Road to UFC” debut.

    This bout will be part of the preliminary card, which begins at 10:00pm ET on ESPN+.

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