Late last year, Johnny Eblen had an inkling that he might step into the Bellator 290 card, which goes down on February 4 on broadcast network CBS.
His hunch turned out to be correct: with Vadim Nemkov vs. Yoel Romero off the event due to a Nemkov injury, Eblen now gets his star turn, facing Anatoly Tokov in front of what is expected to be his largest audience yet.
“I knew I was going to fight Anatoly for a while, I didn’t know when,” Eblen (12-0) told Cageside Press in a recent exclusive interview. “Around that time, I would have to look up an exact date, but around that time I kind of knew okay, it’s going to probably be February 4, there’s a high percentage it’s going to be February 4.”
“I’m always ready though,” Eblen added. “Always training, always getting better, and I just stay ready.”
It’s a smart mindset to have, and paid off in spades ahead of the first Bellator event of the year. Which may be the biggest, given the legendary Fedor Emelianenko retires that same night. Tokov’s a member of Fedor’s circle, which makes things even better for Eblen.
“Tokov’s win streak, he’s the guy,” Eblen explained when asked about the field of potential foes, including Fabian Edwards and Gegard Mousasi, the latter of whom Eblen defeated to win the title. “Obviously it played out even better that we’re fighting on the CBS card and Fedor’s going to be on it, and he’s Team Fedor. That makes it even better.”
“I feel like Edwards needs another win; Gegard, I beat Gegard decisively so he can’t quite get a rematch. So he’s [Tokov] the only man that makes sense.” Aside from Tokov, the name Yoel Romero has also come up. Eblen questioned whether the Cuban could make weight at 185, a concern that proved to be on point when Bellator opted to move forward with Romero fighting for the 205lb belt.
That said, a fight between the two is not off the table. Some day in the future, Johnny Eblen could opt to move up in weight.
“Quite possibly. I’d be down for that. I think if it makes sense, it makes sense,” Eblen stated. “I definitely want to clear out the division, so I’m a decisive champ. And then whatever I need to do to continue my legacy— I want to be the GOAT at the end of the day, the greatest of all time. If that means going up to 205, then going up to 205 is what I’m going to do. I’m going to do whatever is necessary to be one of the best.”
Modern MMA has seen a belt in a second weight class become a requirement of sorts for the GOAT conversation, with Georges St-Pierre achieving the feat, and Jon Jones looking to do the same next March. Eblen may join that club in the future; for now, he sees staying busy as the key to his success both past and future.
“Staying busy, staying active. I know I don’t have all the time in the world, and I started a little bit later,” Eblen explained. “Started after college wrestling. And I just really love to fight. I like getting paid, I like getting in fistfights — obviously legal fist fights, where it’s consensual. But I mean it’s what I like to do. I like staying busy, I like training, I like getting better, I like putting on performances. So staying busy and active is definitely a big reason why I’m successful.”
As far as what to expect in the Tokov match-up, Eblen sees himself as having the advantage in perhaps all areas save one.
“I’m just going to overwhelm him with everything. Striking, wrestling, grappling. My pressure, my pace. I’m going to surprise him with my speed. He doesn’t quite know what it’s like to be in there with me until he’s actually in there with me,” said Eblen. “And maybe it’s the same thing with him. But I just know, the only thing he has over me quite possibly is strength. But even that, that’s going to fade. And I’m a strong motherf*cker too.”
Fighting on CBS on what could turn out to be the biggest card of the year for Bellator, thanks to Fedor’s swansong, feels huge. The Mousasi win, frankly, felt like a turning point for Eblen. He’s getting more respect these days — but he knows he can’t take his foot off the gas even now.
“I think that was a big turning point because I took out a legitimate guy, and did it all five rounds. Didn’t lose a round. Dominated. That was a big turning point, but now I’ve got to continue to do that. And Anatoly’s the next guy on the list, and I’m just going to keep doing it until I can’t do it anymore.”
Johnny Eblen faces Anatoly Tokov in the co-main event of Bellator 290 on Saturday, February 4, 2023 at the Kia Forum in Inglewood, CA. The main card airs live on CBS.