Justin Gaethje (left) at the 2010 NCAA Championships (photo courtesy of Tony Rotundo; WrestlersAreWarriors.com)
The MMA slate of wrestlers this weekend includes some veterans who are winding down their careers, some legitimate title challengers and some up-and-coming prospects. As always the sport of wrestling is well represented in its caged sister sport.
The second largest promotion in the U.S. will be the first major promotion to host a show in France after the sport was legalized there. Bellator 280 takes place Friday afternoon in Paris
Ryan Bader vs. Cheick Kongo
While Bader lost the promotion's light heavyweight title back in 2020, he successfully defended the heavyweight title earlier this year. He will put that belt on the line against Kongo, who is a 45-fight veteran. During his college days, Bader wrestled for Arizona State where he was a three-time Pac-10 champion and a two-time All-American. After finishing his college eligibility in 2006, he turned professional in MMA the following year. His record stands at 29-7 and he is a two-time Bellator champion.
Yoel Romero vs. Alex Polizzi
Romero is one of the highest decorated international wrestlers to ever compete in MMA. He is a six-time World/Olympic medalist with his Olympic medal coming when he took silver in 2000. The Cuban defected to Germany in 2007and fought mostly on small MMA shows until making his U.S. debut for Strikeforce in 2011. He then signed with the UFC in 2013. During his tenure with the UFC, he fought for the middleweight title three times, but came up short in each fight.
Polizzi was a three-time NCAA qualifier for Northwestern. After exhausting his eligibility in 2015, he turned to MMA and ultimately made his professional debut in 2018. Polizzi signed with Bellator in 2020 after building a 6-0 record. In his first fight for the promotion, he defeated former middleweight champion, Rafael Carvalho. He is currently riding a three-fight winning streak and is taking this bout on short notice. Polizzi just fought on March 12 when he scored a three-round submission over Jose Augusto Azevedo.
Both of these fights will be part of the Bellator 280 main card, which airs live on Showtime at 4:00pm ET on Friday afternoon.
Titan FC 76
Richie Lewis vs. Kelvin Bowen
Lewis started his college wrestling career at Iowa Central where he was a two-time NJCAA All-American. The New Jersey native then transferred to Rutgers where he was a two-time NCAA qualifier and won a gold medal in the 70-kg division at the 2017 U23 World Championships. As a senior in 2018, Lewis made the round of 12. He began his MMA career in 2021 and has won both of his fights over Banny Vega and Ernesto Rodriguez. Lewis will face off against Bowen who has been fighting professionally since 2019 and has a 1-0-1 record.
The Titan FC 76 card will air live on UFC Fight Pass at 8:00pm ET on Friday.
The UFC returns to pay per view with a lightweight title fight in the main event. A former Northern Colorado All-American will get a shot against current champion Charles Oliveira.
Justin Gaethje vs. Charles Oliveira
As a junior at Northern Colorado in 2010, Justin Gaethje finished seventh at 157 pounds at the NCAA tournament to become an All-American. In the process, he also became the first All-American for the Bears since 1970. After building an undefeated 16-0 professional MMA record, Gaethje signed with the UFC 2017. After losing two of his first three fights with the promotion, it looked like Gaethje might end up being better known for his entertaining fights than his accomplishments. However, he has now won five of his last six and earned a second crack at the lightweight title.
Oliveira will not be an easy challenge for Gaethje. He won the title over Dustin Poirier in 2021 and has since defended it against former Missouri wrestler Michael Chandler. He holds a 32-8 MMA record and has a UFC record of 15 wins by submission in the Octagon.
Carla Esparza vs. Rose Namajunas
Esparza was an All-American for Menlo. After graduating in 2009, she made her professional MMA debut in 2010. In 2014, she won the 20th season of "The Ultimate Fighter" reality show to become the inaugural UFC strawweight champion. Her opponent in the finals was Namajunas. Since then Namajunas has won the title and cemented herself as the top 115-pound fighter. Esparza earned a title shot after winning five-straight fights, but she will be the underdog here despite the history.
Michael Chandler vs. Tony Ferguson
Chandler signed with the UFC in 2021 after an extensive career in Bellator that saw him hold the lightweight title on multiple occasions. While putting on exciting fights, he has gone only 1-2 in his three trips into the Octagon. A win here should help him turn around his momentum. Chandler was a two-time Big 12 champion and a three-time NCAA qualifier for Missouri during his collegiate days.
Ferguson was a Michigan state champion in high school who went on to compete at Grand Valley. For the NCWA squad, he was a two-time All-American and won a national title at 165 pounds in 2006. Ferguson joined the UFC in 2011 after winning the 13th season of "The Ultimate Fighter." At one point he went on a 12-fight winning streak and held an interim version of the UFC lightweight title. However, he is now riding a three-fight losing streak and coming off a decision loss against Beneil Dariush.
All three of these fights will be part of the UFC 274 main card, which airs live on pay per view via ESPN+ at 10:00pm ET.