The Bellator featherweight grand prix will crown its first finalist at Bellator 253 as the promotion prepares to host its latest fight night at the Mohegan Sun Arena on Thursday night.
Once again, the featherweight tournament will take center stage, with the semifinal clash between former bantamweight champion Darrion Caldwell and undefeated phenom A.J. McKee headlining the event, while former WEC and UFC lightweight champion Benson Henderson returns to action against welterweight contender Jason Jackson in the night’s co-headliner.
Undefeated prospects Joey Davis and Jay Jay Wilson are also set for action in as they bid to extend their perfect professional records, while bantamweight contenders Keith Lee and Raufeon Stots will face off as they attempt to progress toward a shot at championship gold at 135 pounds.
Bellator 253 takes place Thursday at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn. The main card airs on CBS Sports Network following prelims on MMA Junkie.
Here are four burning questions ahead of fight night.
Thursday night’s main event between Darrion Caldwell and A.J. McKee features a fascinating clash between a man who knows what it takes to reach the top, and a fast-rising star looking to fulfill his burgeoning potential.
For Caldwell (14-3 MMA, 11-2 BMMA), challenging for championship gold is nothing new. The former bantamweight champion has made his name fighting, and beating, the best Bellator had to offer at 135 pounds. But now, after losing his belt to Kyoji Horiguchi, he’s switched gears, jumped weight classes and is fighting at arguably his natural weight.
His performances at 145 pounds certainly suggest he hasn’t lost any of his championship-winning qualities. He kicked off his tournament with a solid unanimous decision win over Henry Corrales, then handed Hungarian contender Adam Borics the first defeat of his career in the second round at Bellator 238. Now he plans on adding another undefeated contender to his resume.
McKee (16-0 MMA, 16-0 BMMA), meanwhile, carries the weight of expectation on his shoulders, but appears to be taking it all in his stride. “The Mercenary” is undefeated at 16-0 and already has the name of former featherweight champion Pat Curran on his list of victims during this tournament.
Now McKee will look to add Caldwell’s name to that list of vanquished former belt-holders. If he does, he’ll prove his championship credentials and book himself into the biggest fight of his career, where the Bellator featherweight title and a big check for a cool $1 million await.
Both men are full of well-founded confidence, but only one can progress. Will it be the former bantamweight king, or will the undefeated super-prospect claim the biggest win of his career?
Former UFC and WEC lightweight champion Benson Henderson arrived in Bellator and immediately challenged for the promotion’s welterweight title. His tilt at then-champion Andrey Koreshkov at Bellator 158 fell short on the scorecards, prompting “Smooth” to return to his usual weight class of lightweight in search of championship success.
Henderson (28-9 MMA, 5-4 BMMA) took then-champ Michael Chandler the distance in a losing effort for the lightweight belt, then was on the wrong end of a split decision verdit against Patricky Freire before embarking on a four-fight winning streak. That run came to an abrupt end when he was knocked out for the first time in his career by Chandler in their non-title rematch.
Now Henderson is back at 170 pounds as he keeps his options open in his quest to capture Bellator gold. Standing across from him will be Jason Jackson, who is riding high after capturing back-to-back decision wins over Kiichi Kunimoto and Jorden Mein in his most recent appearances.
Jackson (12-4 MMA, 3-1 BMMA) will be keen to add a big name to his resume, while Henderson will be looking to claim a decisive victory to position himself for a potential shot at gold at 170 pounds.
Which man will move one step closer to a title shot?
Earlier in the night, a pair of talented bantamweights will go head to head in a matchup that will propel one of them toward a possible title shot at 135 pounds.
Keith Lee (7-3 MMA, 2-0 BMMA) will bid to complete a hat-trick of wins under the Bellator banner against a man who has designs on a title shot of his own. Raufeon Stots (14-1 MMA, 2-0 BMMA) is also looking to register his third straight win in Bellator, and heads into the fight on a six-fight winning streak.
Both men are unbeaten as Bellator fighters, and both fancy their chances of breaking into title contention. Stots is the betting favorite, but Lee’s confidence seems to be rock-solid heading into the bout. The winner could potentially find themselves within striking distance of a title shot, but which man will prevail?
Bellator 253 also features a pair of talented unbeaten prospects looking to raise their stock as they move their way up the ranks toward big-name opposition.
Kiwi featherweight Jay Jay Wilson will look to continue his impressive run of form when he faces former CFFC contender Sergio de Bari, while undefeated welterweight Joey Davis will welcome Bobby Lee to the Bellator cage.
Wilson (6-0 MMA, 5-0 BMMA) reeled off four straight submission wins – three by rear-naked choke – to kick off his Bellator career, and most recently edged fellow prospect Tywan Claxton by split decision at Bellator 242. Now he’s set to face New Jersey native de Bari (5-1 MMA, 0-0 BMMA), who arrives in Bellator looking to claim a notable scalp and halt Wilson’s unbeaten run in the process.
Davis has been nothing short of outstanding since transitioning from the wrestling mat to MMA as one of Bellator’s hot-prospect signings. He remains undefeated, and has registered five first-round finishes to date, including in each of his last three outings.
Lee arrives on the Bellator roster after capturing the CFFC interim welterweight title last September. An LFA veteran, Lee has won his last two outings, and has claimed three of his last four wins inside the distance.
With both Davis and Wilson facing solid opposition, can they both enhance their respective reputations and improve their unblemished records?
MAIN CARD (CBS Sports Network, 7 p.m. ET)
- Darrion Caldwell vs. A.J. McKee – featherweight grand prix semifinal
- Benson Henderson vs. Jason Jackson
- Joey Davis vs. Bobby Lee
PRELIMINARY CARD (MMA Junkie, 4:15 p.m. ET)
- Keith Lee vs. Raufeon Stots
- Matt Bessette vs. Jeremy Kennedy
- Mark Lemminger vs. Jaleel Willis
- Sergio de Bari vs. Jay Jay Wilson
- Kevin Ferguson Jr. vs. Kaheem Murray
- Sullivan Cauley vs. Jason Markland