Bellator 273 Report: Ryan Bader defeats Valentin Moldavsky to retain the Bellator Heavyweight Championship
By: Eric Marcotte
Bellator 273 took place on Saturday night, from the Footprint Center in Phoenix, Arizona. This marked Bellator’s first card of 2022 and the event was headlined by a title unification bout between Bellator’s Heavyweight Champion, Ryan Bader, and the Interim Heavyweight Champion, Valentin Moldavsky. Bader won his title in January of 2019 when he knocked out Moldavsky’s mentor, Fedor Emelianenko, in the first round. Since winning the title, however, Bader has been largely inactive at heavyweight, with his last three bouts taking place at 205lbs. This inactivity prompted Bellator to create an interim title for the division, which Moldavsky claimed by defeating Timothy Johnson in June of 2021. In the co-main event, former UFC and WEC Lightweight Champion, Benson Henderson, faced Islam Mamedov. Commentary for this card was provided by the team of Mauro Ranallo and John McCarthy, and the analytical team consisted of Josh Thompson and Amanda Guerra.
*Sullivan Cauley def. Ben Parrish by TKO at 4:35 of Round 1
*Lucas Brennan def. Ben Lugo by arm triangle at 2:27 of Round 1
*Nikita Mikhailov def. Blaine Shutt by TKO at 3:23 of Round 3
*Dalton Rosta def. Duane Johnson by unanimous decision (30-27 all)
*Christopher Gonzalez def. Saad Awad by KO at 0:36 of Round 1
*Enrique Barzola def. Darrion Caldwell by TKO at 3:01 of Round 3
*Sabah Homasi def. Jaleel Willis by arm triangle at 1:42 of Round 1
*Henry Corrales def. Aiden Lee by technical unanimous decision (29-28, 30-27, 30-27)
*Benson Henderson def. Islam Mamedov by split decision (29-28, 29-28, 28-29)
*Ryan Bader def. Valentin Moldavsky by unanimous decision (48-47 all) to retain the Bellator Heavyweight Championship
SULLIVAN CAULEY (2-0, 205.8) VS BEN PARRISH (5-1, 205.2) – LIGHT HEAVYWEIGHT
Cauley caught a kick in the opening exchange of the fight and took Parrish to the ground. Cauley moved into half guard, where he proceeded to cut Parrish open near his right eye with a sharp elbow. Cauley was able to posture up land some very strong ground and pound shots, and as we reached the rounds final minute, it became clear that Parrish was not getting out this position. Parrish shelled up, and with Cauley landing unanswered shot after shot, the fight was stopped with just under thirty seconds remaining in the round.
WINNER: Sullivan Cauley by TKO at 4:35 of Round 1
Cauley dominated every second of this fight, and he was able to extend his streak of first-round finishes to three in a row with this one. He was clearly the stronger grappler, and despite Parrish creating some opportunities for himself to return to the feet, Cauley was just a step ahead, and he maintained top position for the fight’s entirety. Cauley is now 3-0 in Bellator MMA.
LUCAS BRENNAN (5-0, 145.4) VS BEN LUGO (5-4, 146) – FEATHERWEIGHT
Brennan quickly pressed Lugo to the cage, where he was eventually successful in taking Lugo down. It didn’t take Brennan long to move into full mount, where he immediately sunk in a choke, forcing Lugo to submit.
WINNER: Lucas Brennan by arm-triangle choke at 2:27 of Round 1
The submission was identified as an arm triangle by the broadcast, but the submission actually came from the standard top mount guillotine position, so this was a very unique and spectacular-looking submission. Finish aside, this was a great performance from Brennan, who improved to 6-0 in Bellator with this win. Interestingly, he has won four of those bouts by submission, and he has finished each of those opponents with a different method of submission.
NIKITA MIKHAILOV (7-1, 135.6) VS BLAINE SHUTT (8-5, 134) – BANTAMWEIGHT
Shutt was dropped quickly by a straight right hand and began to aggressively hunt for a takedown in response. Mikhailov sprawled, and began to work from Shutt’s guard after turning him over. Shutt was largely able to keep Mikhailov from advancing or doing much damage, but was unable to escape from under Mikhailov. 10-9 Mikhailov.
Mikhailov was able to take Shutt back down in the second round after avoiding a guillotine attempt. Mikhailov was not terribly active from top position, but much like the first round, Shutt was neutralized by Mikhailov’s wrestling throughout this second round. Mikhailov connected with a few hard elbows from top position, as well as a powerful slam after Shutt attempted to scramble up to his feet, and that was enough to secure him this round. 20-18 Mikhailov.
It took Mikhailov less than 15 seconds to drag Shutt back to the ground. This round was playing out in largely the same fashion as the previous two rounds, but a stand-up due to inactivity provided Shutt with a brief moment of hope. Unfortunately for him, it was Mikhailov who capitalized on the opportunity, rocking Shutt badly with a left hand, before finishing him with ground and pound.
WINNER: Nikita Mikhailov by TKO at 3:23 of Round 3
There were very few moments throughout this fight, in which Mikhailov was not in complete control. He clearly possessed the edge in power on the feet, rocking Shutt with everything he landed cleanly, and his wrestling ability allowed him to rack up over ten minutes of control time throughout this bout as well. In short; a dominant performance, highlighted by the third-round finish. Mikhailov is now 2-0 in Bellator MMA, and this marked his first finish since 2016.
DALTON ROSTA (5-0, 184.6) VS DUANE JOHNSON (6-2, 185.6) – MIDDLEWEIGHT
Johnson was talking to Rosta constantly throughout the opening minute of this fight. There were some wild exchanges early, with Rosta seemingly landing with a bit more power. Rosta stagged Johnson with a straight right hand at one point, but Johnson seemed to recover quickly. Rosta’s confidence grew as the round continued, and he was tagging Johnson repeatedly whenever they traded hands. Johnson never stopped talking, however, and he chipped away at the body with numerous kicks throughout the round as well. 10-9 Rosta.
Johnson continued to attack the body with heavy kicks in the second round, prompting Rosta to change levels and take Johnson down. Rosta began to work from half guard, where he smothered Johnson with his weight for the next few minutes. Despite Johnson’s best efforts, he was unable to escape to his feet, and Rosta controlled the near entirety of this round from top position. 20-18 Rosta.
Rosta and Johnson exchanged powerful hooks to begin this final round. Rosta was trying to put on a show, taunting Johnson and playing to the crowd as he pushed forward. Johnson was tired by this point in the fight, and offensively, he just didn’t have the activity that he needed to in order to make something happen here, especially considering Johnson was likely down on the scorecards. Ultimately, the fight went the distance, and I scored it 30-27 for Dalton Rosta.
WINNER: Dalton Rosta by unanimous decision (30-27 all)
They continued to jaw at each other after the fight, but the situation didn’t escalate. Johnson had his moments throughout this fight, but by and large, this was a one-sided win for Dalton Rosta, who seemed to have a considerable advantage in speed, as well as slighter advantages in the categories of power and grappling respectively. Rosta improved his professional (and Bellator MMA) record to 6-0 with this win.
SAAD AWAD (24-13-1, 1 NC, 156) VS CHRISTOPHER GONZALEZ (6-1, 155.6) – LIGHTWEIGHT
Roughly thirty seconds into the fight, Gonzalez threw a left high kick that dropped Awad hard, and Gonzales immediately moved in and finished the fight with some brutal ground and pound.
WINNER: Christopher Gonzalez by KO at 0:36 of Round 1
There is really not much to break down from this one considering the fight ended so quickly, but this was an absolutely brutal knockout from Christopher Gonzalez. The head kick was perfectly placed, and the follow-up shots gave Awad no chance of recovering. This was a strong way to rebound after being on the wrong end of a first-round knockout in his last bout, and Gonzales is now 6-1 in Bellator MMA following this win. Gonzalez called out Peter Queally in his post-fight interview.
DARRION CALDWELL (15-5, 135.8) VS ENRIQUE BARZOLA (16-5-2, 136) – BANTAMWEIGHT
Caldwell began the fight with a straight left hand, before shooting for a takedown that Barzola defended, before taking Caldwell down himself. Barzola began to work from half guard, but Caldwell was able to sweep into top position, where he eventually worked his way into side control. Barzola attempted to pick himself up against the cage, but was unable to create any separation before the round’s conclusion. This was a close round.
It didn’t take Caldwell long to get the fight back to the ground in the second round. This time, however, Barzola was able to escape to his feet, and he began to march forward in pursuit of Caldwell. Despite being on the retreat, Caldwell was landing the better strikes, and he changed levels with a single leg takedown to return the fight to his comfort zone. Once again, Barzola was able to escape, and he took Caldwell down with a minute remaining in the round. Caldwell was able to sweep his way into top position, and he returned to his feet to end another close round.
A spinning elbow from Caldwell landed cleanly before he shot for another takedown. Barzola was able to utilize a waist lock to reverse the attempt, and he began to throw down a number of ground and pound shots as Caldwell turtled up to defend himself. Caldwell could not improve his position, and the fight was eventually stopped by referee Mike Beltran.
WINNER: Enrique Barzola by TKO at 3:01 of Round 3
This was certainly a tough loss for Caldwell, who in my opinion, was likely up on the scorecards heading into the final round of this bout. Barzola was smart to empty the tank in the third round, especially as the finish came in a position in which many fighters would choose to focus on maintaining position instead of hunting for the finish. Barzola’s constant activity in this sequence was the difference-maker, as it was really the accumulation of shots as opposed to damage that forced Beltran to step in. Caldwell is now on a three-fight skid, and with a 2-5 record since his first bout with Kyoji Horiguchi, it is becoming more and more difficult to imagine Caldwell bouncing back into contendership status. For Barzola however, this was a great win to start off his run in Bellator, and despite missing out on the division’s recently announced grand prix, Barzola has cemented himself as a player in the division with this one performance.
SABAH HOMASI (15-10, 170.8) VS JALEEL WILLIS (15-3, 170.2) – WELTERWEIGHT
Just about a minute into the fight, Willis turned away from Homasi following an attempted kick, and Homasi capitalized by bringing Willis to the ground. He had the back of Willis, and while Willis was able to avoid a rear-naked choke, Homasi moved into top position, where he quickly locked in an arm triangle and finished the fight.
WINNER: Sabah Homasi by arm triangle at 1:42 of Round 1
Homasi capitalized perfectly on Willis’s early mistake, and it led to a very quick finish in what was expected to be a competitive fight. Homasi is obviously a dangerous fighter, but he is more well known for his knockout power than his submission skills, thus this was quite a surprising finish to the fight, especially against an opponent like Jaleel Willis. I was very impressed by Homasi here, and this was an excellent way to rebound from his recent losses to Paul Daley and Andrey Koreshkov.
HENRY CORRALES (19-6, 145.8) VS AIDEN LEE (10-5, 145.8) – FEATHERWEIGHT
Corrales began the fight with a heavy leg kick. A powerful left hook from Corrales floored Lee, but Corrales allowed him to return to his feet. Later in the round, Lee tagged Corrales with a solid right hand, but neither man was terribly active throughout the next three minutes. Corrales seemed content to chip away at the lead leg of Lee, with the knowledge that in all likelihood, the round was already his following the knockdown. 10-9 Corrales.
Lee was doing a better job of pressing forward to begin the second round. Corrales eventually re-took the center of the octagon, and his power appeared to be giving Lee problems whenever they would trade strikes. Lee eventually changed levels and began to search for a takedown, but Corrales was able to defend, and secure a takedown of his own. They were stood up, and the round concluded on the feet, with Corrales landing a strong right hand before time expired. 20-18 Corrales.
Lee partially landed a spinning elbow early in the final round. An eye poke from Corrales brought a halt to the action, and the doctor was brought in to check on Lee. Lee was unable to recover from the poke, and after the allowed five minutes passed, the fight was officially stopped, and we went to the scorecards. 30-27 Corrales.
WINNER: Henry Corrales by technical unanimous decision (29-28, 30-27, 30-27)
So as two rounds of the fight were completed prior to the poke, and referee Mike Beltran decided that the foul was unintentional, the fight went to the judges, who had to score what little we saw from the third round as well. I agreed with Corrales getting the nod, but there are few ways for a fight to end that are more unsatisfying than a technical decision, especially when it’s the victorious fighter who committed the foul. Corrales has now won his last two fights, and has a total record of 8-6 in Bellator.
BENSON HENDERSON (28-11, 155.8) VS ISLAM MAMEDOV (20-1-1, 155.6) – LIGHTWEIGHT
The fight began at a slow pace, as both fighters attempted to get a read on the others timing. Mamedov eventually closed the distance and pushed Henderson against the cage. Mamedov attempted a takedown, but Henderson went for a guillotine choke in response. It was a great attempt from Henderson, but Mamedov was able to escape the submission before time expired in the round. 10-9 Henderson.
Henderson rolled out of another takedown attempt in the second round, but went for another guillotine choke, and this one was ill-advised, as Mamedov was able to avoid the choke and take Henderson’s back. Mamedov went for a rear-naked choke, however, Henderson escaped, and he attempted a heel hook to no success. Mamedov climbed Henderson’s back as Bendo picked himself up, and he nearly sunk in another rear-naked choke just before the round’s conclusion. 19-19.
Both fighters found success on the feet early in the third round. Once again, Henderson attempted a guillotine choke following a takedown attempt from Mamedov, but Mamedov was in no trouble this time, and he began to work from top position as Henderson attempted to use the fence to escape. Henderson rolled and attempted another heel hook, which prompted Mamedov to posture up and throw down ground and pound shots. The fight went the distance, and I scored it 29-28 for Mamedov.
WINNER: Benson Henderson by split decision (29-28, 29-28, 28-29)
I disagreed with the judge’s decision here. It was a competitive fight, but I thought Mamedov’s damage outweighed Henderson’s submission attempts in the final round. Regardless, this was an entertaining fight, and a huge win for Benson Henderson, who broke a three-fight losing streak (the longest of his career) with this victory. In his post-fight interview, Henderson seemed unsure of his future in the sport, but the cameras caught him talking to Khabib Nurmagomedov about the status of his contract, so perhaps Eagle F.C. is on the horizon for the former UFC and WEC lightweight champion.
RYAN BADER (28-7, 1 NC, 232.2) VS VALENTIN MOLDAVSKY (11-1, 234.4) – BELLATOR HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPIONSHIP
Bader quickly rocked Moldavsky with a right hand, and he proceeded to swarm him with strikes against the cage. Moldavsky was able to recover and secured a takedown just a minute later. Bader was doing his best to make it back to his feet but was repeatedly dragged back down by Moldavsky against the cage. With just over a minute remaining in the round, Bader escaped and went on the attack, securing a single leg takedown of his own before time expired. 10-9 Bader.
Moldavsky caught Bader with a pair of looping hooks in the opening minute of round two. Moldavsky defended a takedown attempt but found himself with his back pressed to the cage. A knee from Bader landed low, which brought a pause to the fight, as well as a separation from the cage. The action resumed as Moldavsky defended another takedown before securing one of his own. Moldavsky was able to maintain top position for the remainder of the round, although he did not do much with the control time. 19-19.
Moldavsky quickly wrapped Bader back up in the third round and dragged him down to the ground. Bader was able to return to his feet but just could not create any separation from Moldavsky. The near entirety of the round consisted of Moldavsky pressing Bader against the cage, and he completed another takedown before the round reached its conclusion as well. 29-28 Moldavsky.
Moldavsky defended a takedown attempt to begin the championship rounds. They exchanged right hands before Bader defended a takedown attempt as well. With just over half the round remaining, Bader successfully brought Moldavsky to the ground, where he racked up a solid amount of control time despite a pair of fence grabs from Moldavsky. This was a strong round for Bader, and I had the fight scored 38-38 going into the final round.
The fighters met in the clinch in the final round, with both fighters looking for what could very well be a fight deciding takedown. Neither fighter was initially successful, but after a brief exchange of strikes, it was Moldavsky who pulled ahead in a scramble to secure top position. Bader worked his way back to his feet, but was unable to separate from Moldavsky. The remainder of the round was spent against the cage, with Moldavsky securing one final takedown right before time expired. I gave the edge in the round to Bader based on damage, but this was about as close of a round as you’ll see. 48-47 Bader.
WINNER: Ryan Bader by unanimous decision (48-47 all) to retain the Bellator Heavyweight Championship
I was somewhat surprised to see all three judges agree on the final round, but damage weighs much higher than control time according to the scoring criteria, so I ultimately think that they got it right here. This was a very long fight, in which the vast majority of it was spent grappling against the cage, but there were enough shifts in momentum to keep things interesting, and the final round was certainly tense given that the fight was most certainly tied going into it. After the decision was announced, Cheick Kongo entered the cage, and Bellator announced that he will challenge Bader for the title on May 6th in Paris. This would be a rematch of their heavyweight title bout from September of 2019, which ended in the first round following an accidental eye poke from Bader, resulting a no-contest. To be frank, I think having the soon to be 47-year-old Cheick Kongo challenge for the heavyweight title is a puzzling choice, but that is the direction in which the promotion had decided to go, and having Kongo challenging for the title in France should ideally be a selling point in that market