Bellator MMA will never be the same.
After 15 years in which 301 events were held, the top MMA promotion has been bought out by the Professional Fighters League. The PFL announced its ground-breaking acquisition of Bellator on Monday as well as its plans to run the company as a ‘one-off event product’.
While it’s being absorbed, the ‘reimagined’ Bellator will live on through the ‘Bellator International Champions Series’ which will hold 8 events a year. On top of that, Bellator’s reigning champions are to compete with this season’s PFL’s Champions that are to be crowned this weekend at the PFL Championships.
There’s a whole lot to unpack from that, but that’s a story for another time. Today, we look at the legacies of the top 10 greatest fighters to come from Bellator since its inception in 2008.
Bellator’s Best, Ranked
#10: Gegard Mousasi
Gegard Mousasi (7-3 in Bellator) enters the conversation at #10. After having an already long career that saw him fight in Pride, Strikeforce and the UFC, Mousasi looked into other options outside the world-leader. Going into free agency, the UFC contender would fight under another banner in Bellator MMA.
Mousasi would go on to defeat former champ Alexander Schlemenko (57-9 at the time) in his promotional debut. This granted the Dutchman the next title shot at middleweight against long-reigning champion Rafael Carvalho. Mousasi once again proved he was elite, destroying and dethroning the champ in one round.
In his first title defense, ‘The Dreamcatcher’ halted welterweight champion Rory Macdonald’s dreams of becoming a two-weight world champion by second round TKO. The Mousasi era was paused after this as the champ lost the belt to Rafael Lovato Jr. by majority decision back in 2019.
Mousasi moved past the title defeat by beating former UFC Champion Lyoto Machida. Then, returned the crown as Mousasi defeated another welterweight champion Douglas Lima to win the vacant strap. The two-time champion pieced together even more title defenses in his sequel title reign. It’d be back-to-back ground and pound finishes of top contenders John Salter and Austin Vanderford.
Gegard Mousasi would lose his title a second time with Johnny Eblen dominating him to a unanimous decision victory in 2022. Mousasi was also outmatched in his fight with Fabian Edwards earlier this year, but don’t let the recent losses fool you— Mousasi was the real deal and a terror to middleweights everywhere, during his momentous Bellator run.
#9: Ben Askren
On #9 of our list sits Ben Askren (9-0 in Bellator). After a wrestling career that saw him in the 2008 Olympics, ‘Funky’ decided to take his talents to MMA with Bellator being one of his first stops along the way. Askren debuted in the promotion in 2010 and won three in a row with his wrestling prowess to become the Bellator Season 2 Welterweight Tournament Champion.
The gold wouldn’t stop there as Askren defeated Lyman Good in his next fight to win the Bellator Welterweight title. A slew of tournament winners including Jay Hieron, Douglas Lima and Karl Amossou would face ‘Funky’ for the strap, but none got it done against Askren, who had an answer for everything.
Ben Askren defeated Douglas Lima via unanimous decision (50-45, 50-45, 50-45) for his second title defense of the Bellator welterweight title, eight years ago today.#Bellator #ONEChampionship #UFC— JReal (@BloodyCanvasJon) April 6, 2020
In the last fight of his contract, Askren defended his title against yet another tournament winner in Andrey Koreshkov. The champion TKO’ed Koreshkov in the fourth round to put the lid on a perfect four-year run at Bellator which saw him go 9-0.
Ben Askren might have left the promotion for ONE Championship (and then later the UFC) but his legacy still remains intact especially with four consecutive title defenses under the Bellator banner. He could have been higher in the list, had he stayed longer.
#8: AJ McKee
In what should be no surprise, AJ McKee (21-1 in Bellator) has also cracked the top 10.
‘The Mercenary’ is the definition of ‘home-grown talent’ with his pro debut as well as his last fight coming in Bellator. McKee put together one of the most impressive win streaks in Bellator’s history, going 14-0 with a win over Pat Curran to eventually earn his way into the Bellator Featherweight World Grand Prix.
McKee racked up finishes over Georgi Karakhanyan, Derek Campos and Darrion Caldwell on the road to the title. In the tournament’s finale, McKee dethroned divisional kingpin Patricio Pitbull with a first-round submission to win the featherweight title and the $1M prize.
Pitbull ended up running it back with McKee, putting a blemish on his perfect 18-0 record when he defeated McKee by unanimous decision to regain the title in 2022. Despite not having the title around his waist, McKee still fought like a champion in his move up to lightweight.
AJ McKee defeated the likes of Spike Carlyle, RIZIN Champ Kleber Koike and lastly Sidney Outlaw last weekend to end his quite legendary run with Bellator that sees him hold the second-most wins inside the promotion.
#7: Douglas Lima
Douglas Lima (15-7 in Bellator) may have experienced more setbacks than those listed above, but that’s bound to happen when you’re competing against the best fighters in the world – which Lima did time and time again.
Lima joined the Bellator roster in 2011 and began his run with three straight wins over Steve Carl, Chris Lozano and Ben Saunders. Having won the season five welterweight tournament, Lima faced the aforementioned Askren for the title in which he fell short of.
This wouldn’t be the end for Lima though as the Brazilian bounced back impressively with five finishes in a row, one being a title win over Rick Hawn. The newly-crowned champion would lose to Andrey Koreshkov, but later avenged that loss and got his title back in 2016 after dispatching of Paul Daley first.
Champ once again, Lima made his first successful title defense against ex-UFC fighter Lorenz Larkin. Lima’s title reign didn’t last too long as he lost a fight-of-the-year candidate against Rory Macdonald. Lima ultimately redeemed himself in the Bellator Welterweight Grand Prix by stopping Andrey Koreskov in their trilogy, giving Michael ‘Venom’ Page his first loss and this time doing enough to win a decision against Macdonald.
The Bellator Welterweight Champion and Grand Prix winner continued to chase greatness in a new weight division. Lima challenged Gegard Mousasi for middleweight gold, but failed by unanimous decision. Not too long after that, Lima also lost his title to the undefeated Yaroslav Amosov.
Lima also lost to Jason Jackson and ‘MVP’ before finally getting back on track with a win over Costello Van Steenis at middleweight last May.
#6: Cris Cyborg
Coming in at #6 is no other than Cris Cyborg (6-0 in Bellator).
Cyborg joined the ranks of Bellator in 2020 after a great title reign in the UFC. The Brazilian beat the brakes off of champion Julia Budd to win the featherweight title. This accomplishment made Cyborg a ‘Grand Slam Champion’ with title wins in Strikeforce, Invicta, UFC and lastly Bellator.
Having already amassed a great career, Cyborg would continue to do what she does best: destroy. Cyborg decimated Arlene Blencowe, Leslie Smith and Sinead Kavanagh, with none of those title defenses going the distance.
Cyborg went on to defeat Blencowe again before testing herself in the boxing ring. After two wins away from Bellator, the 38 year-old returned with a first-round stoppage over former UFC title challenger Cat Zingano in October. Cris Cyborg holds the most title defenses (5) out of any woman in Bellator history.
#5: Ryan Bader
For years, Ryan ‘Darth’ Bader (9-2, 1 NC) has reigned supreme as the Bellator Heavyweight Champion.
After years fighting in the UFC, Bader signed with Bellator in 2017. He was given an immediate title shot against then-champion Phil Davis in New York City, where he won the light heavyweight strap. Bader defended his title once against Linton Vassell before entering the Bellator Heavyweight Grand Prix.
Bader beat ‘King Mo’ Lawal, Matt Mitrione and then finally the legendary Fedor Emelianenko to win the $1M heavyweight tournament. Bader had become a two-weight world champion, simultaneously.
Bad luck followed though as Bader fought to a no-contest vs. Cheick Kongo and went on to lose light heavyweight gold to Vadim Nemkov in 2020. In an attempt to win back this title, Bader went through another gauntlet in the Bellator Light Heavyweight Grand Prix.
Bader defeated former UFC Champion Lyoto Machida before losing to Corey Anderson at Bellator 268. Bader wouldn’t be defeated in Bellator again as the heavyweight champion put together three more successful title defenses against Valentin Moldavsky, Cheick Kongo and Fedor Emelianenko.
#4: Vadim Nemkov
Vadim Nemkov (9-0, 1 NC) is a force to be reckoned with.
The Russian fighter rushed onto the Bellator scene in 2017. On his road to the title, Nemkov dispatched off Philipe Lins, Liam McGeary, Phil Davis and Rafael Carvalho to earn a shot against Ryan Bader. Nemkov passed the title test with flying colors as he TKO’ed Bader in two rounds.
Thus began the Bellator Light Heavyweight Grand Prix in which Nemkov would eventually walk away with $1M and his title still around his waist. This was made possible after victories over Phil Davis, Julius Anglickas and Corey Anderson.
Nemkov’s latest defense came against former UFC wrecking machine Yoel Romero, in which the champ utterly smoked the Cuban across five rounds of action. Vadim Nemkov enters this new era of Bellator with 4 title defenses to his name and yet he is still one the most underrated fighters on the planet.
#3: Eddie Alvarez
Eddie Alvarez (9-1 in Bellator) is one of the most accomplished fighters that Bellator has ever produced. While he might be best-known for capturing the UFC Lightweight title in 2016, don’t forget that Alvarez was a two-time champ in Bellator.
‘The Underground King’ fought at Bellator’s first event in 2009 and has been making history ever since. Alvarez defeated Toby Imada to win the lightweight championship at Bellator 12 and defended the crown against Pat Curran by decision. Alvarez would lose the title to ultimate rival Michael Chandler, who was also creating a legacy of his own in the early days of Bellator.
Alvarez rebounded with victories over Shinya Aoki and Patricky Pitbull before exacting his revenge on Chandler to win back his lightweight title. This marked Alvarez’s final fight in Bellator as he signed with the UFC shortly thereafter.
Bellator 106 (2013.11.02)— Alexander Volkara France (@VolkaraFrance) October 2, 2023
Eddie Alvarez def. Michael Chandler (C)
S-DEC (48-47 x2, 47-48)
Alvarez earns a title shot with two 1st round finishes. The win is secured on two of three judge’s scorecards. Multiple momentum swings and coraçon distinguish another great fight. pic.twitter.com/n4n4cWgWX7
#2: Michael Chandler
Michael Chandler (18-5 in Bellator) would follow in Eddie Alvarez’s UFC footsteps but not before going on to do more work in the promotion.
Chandler, who was 3-0 on the regional scene, found a home within Bellator in 2010. Chandler defeated five foes in a row to earn a shot at the lightweight belt. Chandler would best Alvarez in their first battle, in what was considered one of Bellator’s greatest fights of all time.
Michael Chandler vs Eddie Alvarez 1 is still one of my favorite fights of all time pic.twitter.com/Xu8L8QtpDd— The Filthy Casual (@MMAfilthycasual) November 11, 2022
Following it up, Chandler defended his belt twice by way of finish against Rick Hawn and David Rickels. Chandler did lose his next three title fights against Eddie Alvarez and Will Brooks (2X), but he’d come back to defeat Rickels once again to secure a shot at the vacant title against Patricky Pitbull.
Chandler knocked out Pitbull in devastating fashion before edging out former UFC Champ Benson Henderson to defend his regained title. However, ‘Iron’ did lose gold one more time as he rolled his ankle against Brent Primus in 2017. Chandler kept busy after the loss, beating Goiti Yamauchi and Brandon Girtz on the way to winning the title back from Primus.
Patricio Pitbull would avenge his older brother’s past loss to Chandler by dethroning the three-time champion in a controversial TKO stoppage. Michael Chandler wasn’t given another title opportunity and finished his run with Bellator with two highlight-reel performances over Sidney Outlaw and Benson Henderson.
Chandler may not have left Bellator on the absolute top, but his resume is one of the best the promotion has ever seen.
Before we reveal the #1 spot, here are some more Bellator fighters worth mentioning that fell short of these rankings:
Pat Curran (13-6) 2 title defenses, Ilima-Lei Macfarlane (12-3) 4 title defenses, Julia Budd (9-1) 3 title defenses, Andrey Koreshkov (16-4), Liz Carmouche (7-0) 3 title defenses, Alexander Shlemenko (12-5) 1 NC 3 title defenses, Johnny Eblen (10-0) 2 title defenses.
#1: Patricio Pitbull
Nobody in Bellator has done more than Patricio ‘Pitbull’ Freire (23-6) and that’s just the simple truth.
The featherweight Champion began his Bellator career in 2010 with wins over Wilson Reis (x2), Georgi Karakhanyan, Daniel Straus and more. Pitbull won the world title at 27 years old, where he defeated former foe Pat Curran. He defended the belt twice before losing it to Straus in 2015.
Pitbull eventually won it back from Straus in a rare quadrilogy. Pitbull went on to defend the featherweight title a total of five times, with wins over Daniel Weichel, Emmanuel Sanchez, Juan Archuleta, Pedro Carvalho and Emmanuel Sanchez. Throughout this time, Pitbull also took the lightweight belt from Chandler to become a two-weight world champion in 2019, the promotion’s first fighter to accomplish the feat simultaneously.
In what was one of Bellator’s biggest fights, Pitbull dropped the title to fellow star AJ McKee in 2021. Freire regathered himself and went at it again with McKee, defeating him over the distance in their rematch a year later.
Pitbull would beat top contender Adam Borics in another title defense and RIZIN Champion Kleber Koike in a cross-promotional event held in Japan. After this, Pitbull challenged for a third world title against then-champ Sergio Pettis at bantamweight.
Unfortunately for him, Pitbull wasn’t able to add this belt to his collection after being defeated by unanimous decision in June. A triple champion or not, Patricio Pitbull’s career accomplishments in Bellator stand above the rest with him having the most wins, title wins and title defenses out of any fighter in the promotion’s history.