Ryan Bader revisits old rivalry
At the top of the bill was heavyweight champion Ryan Bader, who returned to Phoenix three months after coming up short in a bid to win back the light heavyweight title belt and got back in the win column with a unanimous decision over Valentin Moldavsky.
Bader didn’t have much time to celebrate his win on home turf before his next opponent, one-time heavyweight title challenger and former opponent Cheick Kongo, was facing off with him in the cage. That made clear another heavyweight, legend Fedor Emelianenko, would not fulfill his wish of rematching Bader after a knockout loss in the heavyweight grand prix. Coker said in this case, Kongo took precedence.
“This was a fight that we’d been putting together for a while,” the Bellator exec said. “It was an eye poke or something I think where it wasn’t a very clear decision or winner. We’ve been trying to put that fight on for some time, and we had a date in Paris that we wanted to go in May. It’s the week before the fight in London in May, with [Michael ‘Venom’ Page] vs. [Yaroslav] Amosov. So we said whoever wins, Moldavsky or Bader, will fight Cheick Kongo.
“Fedor did tell me before the fight, ‘If Ryan Bader wins, I’d really like to fight him for the belt.’ I said, ‘Well, Kongo is going to fight him in Paris, and we can see what happens.’ But May to July is not a lot of time. This is a very crazy business. Things change rapidly, so let’s see what happens.”
What happens to Fedor?
As for who Emelianenko will face in his homeland of Russia now that Bader is booked, Coker said the promotion will start the search for a suitable replacement. “The Last Emperor” turned back the clock in his most recent showing, a knockout of Tim Johnson at Bellator 269.
“This is his retirement fight, and now that Bader’s the champion, it’s like I’m not sure if he will be able to lock it up at some point,” Coker said. “But there’s other heavyweights that he could fight, so we’ll find somebody for him that makes sense.”
Benson Henderson’s future
Looking on as his protege Moldavsky also fell short to Bader, Emelianenko wasn’t the only fighter with a future in limbo. Co-headliner Benson Henderson said he may retire after a split decision win over Islam Mamedov, though he was also picked up on a hot mic appearing to tell Mamedov corner Khabib Nurmagomedov of his interest in a run with the upstart Eagle FC, which broke ground in the U.S. this past Friday.
Coker was at peace with Henderson’s next move, whatever it is.
“It’s really going to be up to him,” he said. “But to me, he’s already done it all. He’s been fighting a long time, and he’s been a great ambassador for the sport. If he decides to hang it up, I think he’s done everything there is to do, and we would wish him well. But if he wants to fight, we’ll have a conversation.”
Kayla Harrison and Bellator
Conversations, meanwhile, are ongoing between Bellator and the management for PFL two-time champ Kayla Harrison, who’s reportedly favoring another contract with the tournament-based organization. Coker didn’t sound overly optimistic about acquiring the dominant women’s lightweight, but he didn’t dismiss it outright.
“There wasn’t an official offer,” he said. “We talked to her manager, and we talked what a deal would look like. I think those conversations are ongoing. I don’t think anything is set. I don’t think she’s signed anything. And we’ll talk to [Harrison’s manager] either tonight or next week. She’s got a lot of offers right now, and we’ll see what happens.”
Cyborg vs. Zingano in jeopardy?
Zingano unsubtly hinted that Cyborg’s stance on drug testing was the holdup (Cyborg has previously tested positive and been suspended for a performance-enhancer), and Cyborg said it was her opponent that was the issue.
As of right now, it appears there’s a standoff that isn’t close to resolved.
“I would love for them to fight,” Coker said. “I think timing is going to be an issue on that fight when Cat is ready to fight her, and we would like that fight to happen as soon as possible.
“That is our plan, but we have to have both fighters agree to that plan. So we’re talking to the managers and Cat’s manager and find out whether she’s ready to fight and will she be willing to fight Cyborg.”
Bellator/Eagle FC co-promotion?
Undefeated UFC great Khabib Nurmagomedov flew across the country the night after promoting his first U.S. event, Eagle FC, to corner co-headliner Mamedov. The retired Dagestani champ winced and clutched his head as Benson Henderson squeezed a guillotine choke for dear life. In less tense moments, he also caught up with Coker, who’s known the champ for some time during his stint at American Kickboxing Academy in the promoter’s home city of San Jose, Calif.
Nurmagomedov emerged from Eagle FC with a new appreciation of what it takes to work behind the curtains. He’s got Coker’s support as he branches into a new job, and the two entities might be able to work together eventually.
“Khabib is a super honorable martial artist, and we have a good relationship with them, and we’ll support them when we can,” he said. “I told them, I said, ‘We have a business to run as well, but when we can support you, we will.’ There’s nothing off the table.”
Watch Coker’s full interview above.