Anticipating Who Might Take Part in Bellator’s Featherweight Grand Prix

AJ McKee bellator MMA
AJ McKee vs Blair Tugman. Credit: Mike McClory/Cageside Press

Bellator MMA has a featherweight grand prix coming, but with sixteen spots announced for the tournament, there are a lot of question marks when considering who might be involved.

Sixteen men enter. One man leaves. No, not on the same night, you sadist! But yet again, Bellator will embark on a grand prix tournament. Having recently completed the heavyweight grand prix, and still in the midst of the welterweight tournament, the next weight class getting the treatment will be featherweight.

Scott Coker hinted as much last week in Connecticut. On Monday, he made it official while speaking to Ariel Helwani. Featherweight was really everyone’s first guess anyway, especially when Coker dropped the line “think smaller.” Lightweight at Bellator is decent, but featherweight is arguably more competitive at the moment.

What threw everyone for a loop, however, was a number. Not 145, but 16. Sixteen fighters are taking part. That is a lot of slots to fill, given both the heavyweight and welterweight grand prix tournaments have featured eight fighters.

Still, the 145lb division in Bellator boasts some interesting names. First up, champion Patricio Freire, better known as Patricio Pitbull. The Brazilian is fighting his arch-rival, lightweight champ Michael Chandler, at Bellator 221 in Chicago. The lightweight belt will be on the line that night, so win or lose, Pitbull will retain his 145lb belt. You can bet he’ll be in the mix. If the format stays true to the welterweight grand prix rules, Pitbull’s title will be on the line in each fight he appears in throughout the grand tournament.

Pitbull told Cageside Press previously that he was interested in a featherweight grand prix.

Also fighting at Bellator 221, A.J. McKee and Pat Curran. Curran is a former two-time Bellator featherweight champion. McKee is the undefeated, 13-0 wunderkind who would be knocking at the door of a title shot should he win. A safe bet is that both these men will be in the grand prix, with the winner facing Pitbull right out of the gate. The timing, with all three being on the same card, is just perfect.

The division’s most recent challenger, Emmanuel Sanchez, is a lock for the grand prix. Henry Corrales is as well, coming off a shock knockout of Aaron Pico. Speaking of Pico, he’s the one big name who likely won’t be competing. McKee and Pico are friends and training partners, and have long said they will not fight one another. If McKee is in, it’s likely that Pico is out. Which is good, as Pico, though extremely talented, has some work to put in before he’s ready for something of this nature.

Former title challenger Daniel Weichel is a question mark. He recently moved to lightweight against Goiti Yamauchi, but that did not go as hoped. Yamauchi himself is a former featherweight, but hasn’t fought there since 2016. Then there’s former champ Daniel Straus, who has not fought since 2017. Straus has been recovering from a terrifying motorcycle accident, although it appears his career isn’t over. Still, jumping into a grand prix could be a tall order. We’ll have to wait and see.

Forget Darrion Caldwell, as the Bellator bantamweight champ has a date with Kyoji Horiguchi planned for later this year. Horiguchi is fighting in RIZIN FF in a few months, which means the Caldwell rematch (they met at RIZIN 14 in December) is a way’s off. On top of that, bantamweight is thin. Does Bellator really want to make it thinner?

That said, Juan Archuleta should be in the mix. He dabbled at bantamweight just one fight ago, but has more frequently fought at 145lbs.

Outliers include names like John Macapa, Sam Sicilia, and Chinzo Machida. The latter, especially, brings some name value. Leandro Higo moved to the featherweight division recently, and while he came up short, he’s an option as well.

James Gallagher, after winning a number of Bellator bouts at featherweight, continues his bantamweight experiment at Bellator: Newcastle this weekend. He’s obviously out if he stays at 135lbs, but a return to featherweight could add some star power to the mix.

Another young star, Tywan Claxton, could be added to the mix. At 4-0, he’s still pretty green, but very familiar with tournaments from his wrestling days. Adam Borics is 8-0 as a pro with six finishes, and it seems like he would be a shoo-in.

What people aren’t talking about — yet — is the possibility of a free agent signing or two before the tournament starts. That’s a very real possibility as well.

Patricio Pitbull, A.J. McKee, Pat Curran, Daniel Weichel, Daniel Straus, Henry Corrales, Emmanuel Sanchez, John Macapa, Sam Sicilia, Adam Borics, Tywan Claxton, James Gallagher, Chinzo Machida, Juan Archuleta, Leandro Higo, Goiti Yamauchi. Right there are sixteen names, either currently or formerly at featherweight, who could take part. Throw in Aaron Pico as an alternate, should McKee fall out.

Will those be the final sixteen names? Probably not — it’s likely some won’t be available, and in the case of fighters currently in other divisions, they may not want to drop/rise up. But you can safely expect at least half to make the cut.