Julia Budd has been waiting for this moment for a long time.
For the past few years, Budd has made a convincing argument that her name deserves to be mentioned among the very best at 145 pounds and she’s publicly campaigned for a chance to prove it against the woman who was the undisputed queen of the division for so long, Cris Cyborg. With Budd having cleared out her competition in Bellator, and Cyborg set to make her debut with the promotion on Saturday at Bellator 238, the stage is set for the Canadian veteran to make the ultimate breakthrough. Either that or Cyborg adds yet another title to her overflowing list of achievements.
The co-main event could see the emergence of a future champion as unbeaten 26-year-old Adam Borics meets former bantamweight champion Darrion Caldwell in the quarterfinals of the Bellator Featherweight World Grand Prix. Borics made it here by knocking off two-time featherweight champ Pat Curran, while Caldwell outpointed the streaking Henry Corrales to advance in the tournament. The winner will face A.J. McKee for a spot in the $1,000,000 finals.
In other main card action, Corrales and Juan Archuleta mix it up to stay in the featherweight title picture, former UFC flyweight contender Sergio Pettis makes his Bellator debut against Alfred Khashakyan in a 135-pound bout, welterweight kickboxing transplant Raymond Daniels hunts for another highlight when he fights Jason King, and boxing champion Ava Knight meets Emilee King in a strawweight bout.
What: Bellator 238
Where: The Forum in Inglewood, Calif.
When: Saturday, Jan. 25. Preliminaries begin at 7:30 p.m. ET on MMA Fighting (unaired prelims will take place after the main event). The six-fight main card airs at 10 p.m exclusively on the DAZN streaming service.
One knockout loss doesn’t change the fact that Cris Cyborg is almost without peer at 145 pounds. I’ve always been of the belief that when Cyborg faced an opponent the caliber of Amanda Nunes, it would be her downfall, but the result of that outcome spoke more to the greatness of Nunes (and the chaos of MMA) than any decline on the part of Cyborg. She showed in the Felicia Spencer fight that she is still a cut above the rest.
Budd has been an excellent Bellator featherweight champion, defending the title against opponents with a variety of skill sets and imposing her will in those matchups with her superior strength and well-timed takedowns. In her most recent title defense, she even showed how her kickboxing has evolved, patiently picking Olga Rubin apart before hurting her badly with a front kick to the body that set up the finishing sequence.
One criticism of Cyborg was always that she was simply too physically strong for most featherweights. That certainly won’t be the case against Budd, who has one of the most impressive physiques in the sport. Cyborg’s elite clinch skills will be tested and she’ll have to be smart about balancing the urge to slice Budd up in close while defending against the champion’s trips.
Outside of Holm, Nunes, and maybe Gina Carano, I’d say Budd is the toughest opponent Cyborg has had to face in her 24-fight career. My reluctance to pick Budd stems from the tact that it’s dependent on her being able to overwhelm Cyborg and that isn’t something I can see any fighter doing. Though Budd could have success early fighting from distance, and tying Cyborg up when the challenger flurries, that strategy will only work for so long before Cyborg downloads Budd and shuts her down.
Cyborg by second-round knockout.
Darrion Caldwell has made it clear both in his opening round bout with Henry Corrales and his previous two fights against Kyoji Horiguchi that he is fine with leaning entirely on his wrestling ability to grind out wins. A Division-I wrestling champion, Caldwell’s strategy can he hit-or-miss. He outpointed Corrales, but failed to curry favor with judges in his rematch with Horiguchi.
Despite those mixed results, expect “The Wolf” to close the distance early and work to take Adam Borics down. The 26-year-old Hungarian is an explosive finisher and Caldwell will be in danger for every second that this fight stays on the feet. Borics can fight off of his back too, so it’s not as if Caldwell will be safe down there. He will have to be more active with ground-and-pound both to dissuade Borics from going for submission attempts and to put some points on the scoreboard.
There’s nothing wrong with Caldwell’s wrestling-heavy approach. It’s a good way to stifle a hungry fighter like Borics and to preserve one’s health with two more tough opponents to come in the Grand Prix. It just won’t be enough to stop the hard-charging Borics, so in all likelihood Caldwell is saving his best performances for tournament bouts that will never come.
This is a great bit of matchmaking, putting two high-level fighters in a competitive contest and giving them an opportunity to build their resumes while they wait for the Grand Prix to end.
As boring as it sounds, I’m going to lean towards the more versatile Juan Archuleta here because his wrestling will allow him to control where the fight goes. He also has the chin to withstand Henry Corrales’s striking flurries, at least until he can get his own offense going. Archuleta can’t play around in the pocket though, because Corrales will put his lights out in a flash.
This one could just come down to who makes the first mistake, so there’s a coin-toss factor to it. However, I see Archuleta as being better at working out of sticky situations and coming back from behind so I’ll give him the slight edge.
Sergio Pettis may have the more famous name, but nobody should expect it to carry him to a win here over the dangerous Alfred Khashakyan.
Also making his Bellator debut, Khashakyan has dynamite in his hands and he’ll try to drag Pettis into a brawl. UFC pedigree be damned, if Pettis allows Khashakyan to draw him into a dog fight, he might just get bit.
The younger Pettis has long been praised for his flawless technique and while pure fundamentals were never quite enough to get him to the top of the heap in his old promotion, it should be easy work for Pettis to cruise past Khashakyan. A steady diet of jabs and leg kicks will keep Khashakyan at bay and if he goes for broke, Pettis will be there with a counter takedown.
It’s on the ground that I expect Pettis to finish the fight, methodically working to take the back before securing a rear-naked choke and his first Bellator victory.
In a quirky bit of matchmaking, husband and wife Jason and Emilee King have been booked in back-to-back fights to open the main card. They’ve also been put in the unenviable position of being enhancement talent for kickboxing star Raymond Daniels and boxing champion Ava Knight, at least on paper.
Say what you want about Bellator’s matchmaking, but they make it clear when they’re invested in certain fighters and do their best to put them in situations where they can showcase their skills. It doesn’t always work out (just ask Aaron Pico, James Gallagher, or “Baby Slice”) and it almost didn’t work out for Knight in her debut when she was immediately taken down by Shannon Goughary. Still, she found a way to survive on the ground and still got a highlight finish, just as Raymond Daniels did in his first Bellator fight last May.
That said, if anyone thinks the Kings are here to be punching bags, they’re mistaken. Keep in mind that Jason is nine years younger than Daniels and has considerably less battle damage especially when you take all of Daniels’s kickboxing contests into consideration. He also has a legitimate ground game so Daniels’s team will have to be well-prepared for an opponent who is going to bring a well-rounded skill set to this matchup.
Emilee also brings submission skills into her fight, so the matchmakers must have been encouraged enough by Knight’s performance against Goughary to throw her back in the cage with someone who could legitimately take a limb home if Knight isn’t careful. I’m still confident that Daniels and Knight will live up to expectations here, just don’t be surprised if they end up getting an MMA reality check instead.
Pick: Daniels and Knight