Eduardo Dantas may have started the night off slowly, but all was forgotten once the reigning Bellator bantamweight champion brought the house down with an early ‘Submission of the Year' candidate en route to the second defense of his belt on Friday night at Bellator 111.
Fighting for the first time in 13 months, things did not look promising early for Dantas. The 25-year-old Brazilian spent much of the opening frame defending short punches and elbows off his back after 2013 Summer Series runner-up Anthony Leone transitioned a caught kick into a single leg takedown within the first few moments of the bout.
Leone (13-7) methodically controlled the pace to handily win round one, then looked to repeat the favor in round two. This time around, though, Dantas (16-3) did not relent, defending takedown attempt after takedown attempt from Leone along the fence. The mad scramble for position eventually led Leone to over-pursue on a low double leg. Sensing an opening, Dantas simply stepped backward and fell right into a picture-perfect rear-naked choke, forcing a quick tapout from Leone.
The official time of the stoppage came at 2:04 of the second frame.
"I'm a black belt at jiu-jitsu," an elated Dantas said through a translator. "I'm really good at jiu-jitsu, but sometimes I don't need to prove my ground."
Next up for Dantas is a match-up against season nine tourney winner and former Bellator featherweight champion Joe Warren.
As for Bellator's season 10 heavyweight bracket, UFC veteran Lavar Johnson (18-8) made a resounding statement for himself in the night's co-main event, earning a booming first-round TKO victory over one-time tournament finalist Ryan Martinez (10-4) to top off his second appearance in the Bellator cage.
Looking to exploit Johnson's chief weakness, Martinez took the fight to the mat early and held Johnson there for several minutes, slowly unloading a procession of hammerfists and short punches from half guard. Johnson eventually scrambled to his feet, and from there the 36-year-old began to headhunt with unhinged looping shots.
Martinez managed to avoid the worst of it for a few exchanges, until finally Johnson connected on a powerful left hook just behind Martinez's ear. Martinez toppled to the mat and Johnson capitalized with a trio of big right hands that forced referee Dan Miragliotta to intervene at 4:22 of round one.
"I didn't expect him to take me down, but he did. He had good wrestling. I couldn't get up," Johnson said afterward. "But once I get up, I do my thing."
With the win, Johnson snaps a career-worst three-fight losing streak and advances to the semifinals of Bellator's heavyweight tourney, where he'll take on Bulgarian Sambo artist Blagoi Ivanov.
Ivanov (10-0, 1 NC) defeated Rich Hale (21-7-1) via unanimous decision (29-28, 29-28, 29-28) on the night's preliminary card to remain undefeated, helped in part by a furious second-round assault which nearly saw referee Dan Miragliotta step in as a grounded Hale ate a seemingly endless salvo of unanswered strikes.
Elsewhere on the night's main card, "Mighty Mo" Siliga (6-2) emerged victorious over Peter Graham (10-7) following an exhausting back-and-forth duel between the two K-1 veterans, although the manner in which the fight ended was unexpected to say the least.
Graham seized the momentum early, chopping away at Siliga with low kicks and trading shots from outside the pocket. Siliga battled back by connecting on a pair of smothering takedowns in the second frame, then continued that strategy in the opening seconds of the third, catching a knee from within the clinch and transitioning it into a single leg takedown.
Siliga settled into side control, then to the surprise of virtually everyone in the arena, cranked down and submitted Graham with suffocating makeshift head and arm choke. The official finish came at 2:31 of round three, and marked the second submission win of Siliga's career, both of which have come in his last two fights.
"Hey man, the old man got new tricks!" the Samoan exclaimed afterward.
Siliga now advances to the semifinals of season 10's heavyweight tournament, where he'll meet former Bellator champion Alexander Volkov.
Volkov (20-4), the 6-foot-7 Russian who lost his belt to Vitaly Minakov last September, rebounded to make the first definitive step of his march back to the title on the night's televised opener. The lanky 25-year-old dropped American veteran Mark Holata (12-5) early in the opening frame with a flurry of short left hands from within the clinch, before finishing off his handiwork with a fight-ending salvo of punches to signal an end to the contest at 1:21 of round one.