PHOENIX – Four local favorites highlighted Bellator 273, the promotion’s first MMA event of the new year, at Footprint Center Saturday.
They didn’t disappoint.
After Bellator 268 did not go their way, lightweight superstar Benson Henderson and heavyweight champion Ryan Bader, earned wins in their respective fights. The heavyweight unification bout crowned Bader as the undisputed champion, capping off a highly anticipated return to Phoenix, and a memorable night for Arizona fight fans.
Sullivan Cauley, former Arizona State wrestling standout, kicked off the prelims with a win over Ben “Big Tuna” Parrish. He finished his opponent in the first round, moving to 3-0, all wins coming via first round TKO.
As he continues to climb through the Bellator ranks, Sullivan, who trains with Bader and ASU legend C.B. Dollaway, is eager to cement a name for himself, hoping to build a fan base across the world, similar to his rapidly growing audience in Arizona.
“It feels really good to feel that energy behind me, to feel like a real pro fighter with fans,” Cauley said.
Henry “OK” Corrales, also managed to emerge victorious, despite the fight ending with an accidental eye poke in the third and final round.
Corrales, who just fought his 15th and final fight on his contract with the promotion, aimed to put on a show for the hometown crowd, unsure if he will have the opportunity to do so again moving forward.
“I just wanted to bring value to these Phoenix fans and my employer, so yeah we’ll see what happens,” Corrales said.
Henderson, who also just completed the last fight on his contract with Bellator, was overcome with emotion after the final bell rang throughout the arena, realizing the moment as his wife and children joined him in the cage.
“I for myself wanted to step back and take a look at it and enjoy the night – enjoy being in Phoenix, Arizona,” Henderson said. “Looking up into the crowd and seeing my friends, my family. … I don’t know how much longer I’ll be doing this for Bellator, so I wanted to soak it all in.”
While Henderson is yet to make up his mind regarding what the future holds, he feels that this win over Mamedov would be a special means to finish his illustrious career.
“If this was the last one, it was a great way to go out,” Henderson said.
The main event saw heavyweight champion Bader take on the interim champion, Russian Valentin Moldavsky. Moldavsky, Fedor Emelianenko’s protege, was unable to avenge one of his mentor’s very few losses in MMA, a TKO loss that came at the hands of Bader.
Bader won the fight by unanimous decision, as all judges scored the heavyweight bout 48-47, with Bader taking round one, and both championship rounds – four and five.
While Bader made clear that he did not require any added motivation, he acknowledged his supporters and how they make him feel as if he’s not alone when he steps foot in the cage.
“When you hear people that are invested in you, your coaches, training partners, and the whole crowd going, ‘come on you can do this,’ do it for us kind of deal, it gives you some motivation, you know,” Bader said.
The former Sun Devils wrestler mentioned ASU’s program, recognizing how much his teammates and fellow alums have helped him throughout the years.
“Those guys and that program, they’ve bred some warriors for sure, and those guys will always be by my side,” Bader said.
Bader was overjoyed to be able to redeem himself in front of his local supporters, and plans to continue making waves within MMA.
“To come back to Arizona after the last fight, have a re-do, win, lose or draw just go out there and fight my ass off, and show everyone what I’m all about,” he said. “There’s plenty more I want to get done, and definitely solidify myself not only in Arizona, but the whole sport.”
Following the unanimous decision victory, Bader was met by Paris native Cheick Kongo in the cage, where Bellator announced Bader’s next match: a rematch against Kongo. The bout will take place in Paris, as Bader goes from fighting with the crowd at his back to meeting his challenger in hostile territory.
Though many expected Bader’s next fight to be against Emelianenko in Russia, including Bader himself, the champion is excited to get back in there against Kongo, as their last fight was ruled a no contest due to an accidental eye poke.
“I mean, unfinished business, right? I always wanted to get that fight back,” Bader said.
After another successful event at Footprint Center, Bellator President Scott Coker remains eager to put on yet another show for fight fans here in Phoenix.
“We would love to (come back to Footprint Center),” Coker said. “I think we’ll be back before the end of ‘22.”