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Juan Archuleta demanded ‘Pitbull’ matchup in Featherweight Grand Prix opener

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Juan Archuleta (pictured) fights Patricio “Pitbull” Freire in a featherweight championship bout on Saturday at Bellator 228 in Inglewood, Calif.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

The Bellator matchmakers might owe Juan Archuleta a favor.

Putting together a 16-man tournament field understandably would have its complications, especially when a current titleholder is thrown into the mix. That’s the scenario officials faced when building the roster for the Bellator Featherweight World Grand Prix.

The tournament features current 145-pound king — and 155-pound king, for that matter —Patricio Freire along with a bevy of former champions, future contenders and battle-worn veterans.

The question for Bellator brass was whether the competition would be hungry to knock Freire out of the tournament in the first round, or whether would most prefer to build to a matchup with the fearsome “Pitbull.”

According to Archuleta, it was the latter. He said his willingness to jump at the opportunity opposite Freire perfectly suited Bellator’s plans.

Now, Archuleta is just one day from facing Freire on Saturday at Bellator 228, with the world title and a spot in the Grand Prix quarterfinals on the line.

Following his last win, a second-round knockout of former bantamweight champion Eduardo Dantas, Archuleta said he’s getting exactly what he wanted.

“(Bellator is) like, ‘Would you like to do the tournament?’” Archuleta recently told MMA Fighting. “I said, ‘I don’t care what I’m in next, what position you put me in. I just know I’m fighting for a title fight next.

“My manager said, we’ll fight Pitbull first round. They said, ‘That’s easy, because no one wants to fight ‘Pitbull,’ so that makes the rest of the matchups a lot easier for us to deal with.’”

Archuleta had campaigned for a 135-pound title bout with Bellator and Rizin champion Kyoji Horiguchi, but with Horiguchi suffering a shocking knockout loss to Kai Asakura in a non-title bout this past August in Japan, it didn’t make much sense for officials to match the two up anymore.

Instead, “Spaniard” brings his 23-1 record back to the featherweight division, where he’s already 3-0 inside the Bellator cage. Archuleta is no stranger to title fights, having competed in multiple five-round battles in three different weight classes for the King of the Cage promotion before joining Bellator.

Archuleta’s fight with Freire will be a 25-minute affair, as will the rest of the Featherweight Grand Prix bouts from round two onward. That’s also part of Archuleta’s plan.

“I’ve been asking Bellator for main event spots, for five-round spots since I signed with the company and they were like, ‘Well, we don’t do that yet,’” Archuleta said. “I’ve been trying to push the issue, they just haven’t given me the opportunity and now the opportunity is presenting itself.

“I can fight five rounds now, I can go out there and show that this is gonna be the best Juan Archuleta that fans get to see a full five rounds (and) what I’m actually able to accomplish in championship rounds.”

To prepare, Archuleta has set up shop in Huntington Beach, Calif., alongside champions and contenders from numerous promotions, namely T.J. Dillashaw, Joseph Benavidez, Cub Swanson, and Lance Palmer. Archuleta has been in the trenches with Dillashaw for the former UFC titleholder’s biggest fights, and he believes that experience has helped prepare him for the biggest fight of his career.

“It’s not the advice that he’s given, it’s just the overall experience that I’ve had being around them,” Archuleta said.” I’ve won a title fight with them, I’ve lost a title fight with them. I’ve already been through the ups and downs of real life and understand the emotions behind it and the feelings that go with it, you know?

“So it’s been awesome being able to be part of [Dillashaw’s] career and tagging along and having the experience, because now I’m ready.”

These days, sharing in others’ losses is the only way that Archuleta can talk of setbacks, given that he’s won his last 18 fights. And yet, his sole loss a professional continues to motivate him.

That setback, four years ago at a World Series of Fighting event, still sticks in his mind.

“It haunts me every day I wake up and before I go to sleep,” Archuleta said of his March 2015 submission loss to Andres Ponce. “Knowing I was fully prepared, felt the best I’ve ever felt, and then just knowing that I didn’t fully dive into my MMA career at that point. I was still working full time and training full time.

“That’s what cost me the most and after that loss. It woke me up, and I realized I have to go all in on MMA. I went full-board MMA and trained full time, and it’s led me to where I’m at now.”

Check out more of Archuleta from his Bellator 228 open workout scrum: