Bellator 290 predictions -- Ryan Bader vs. Fedor Emelianenko: Fight card, odds, prelims, preview, expert picks
MMA returns to CBS on Saturday night when Bellator 290 becomes the first card to air on the network since 2010. The event will be held at Kia Forum in Inglewood, California.
In the main event, Ryan Bader will defend the Bellator heavyweight championship against Fedor Emelianenko. The fight will be the final one in the legendary career of Emelianenko, who is one of the greatest fighters in the history of the sport. The pair met previously, with Bader taking just 35 seconds to score the TKO victory, winning the then-vacant championship and the Bellator Heavyweight World Grand Prix in 2019. Bader has since successfully defended his title twice.
"There are a few things I can take away from our first fight, but it was 35 seconds. There was one punch thrown. You can't take much," Bader said this week. "This is a whole new fight. Every fight, I go out there thinking I'm fighting 25 minutes and my opponent is the best he's ever been. That's the way to approach a fight. I'm not resting on what happened last fight. I can't bring that fight into this fight. I picked up a little, like his quickness and everything like that. But it's a whole new fight, 35 seconds is not much you can take away."
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There's another championship fight on the card as undefeated Johnny Eblen defends his middleweight title against Anatoly Tokov. The fight is Eblen's first defense since winning the belt with a dominant performance against Gegard Mousasi in June 2022. Tokov has won seven straight since debuting in Bellator, five of those wins coming by stoppage.
"This is just another challenge for me. Another step in the right direction, and it's the reason I called [Tokov] out in the first place. I knew about his record," Eblen said this week. "I knew he was 7-0 in Bellator, and I know he's really good. So, I want to take him out and put on a show in front of all the fans and those tuning in on CBS.
"This is a wonderful opportunity. The fact that I'm a part of this card on CBS, fighting on the same card as the legend Fedor and Bader… this is a big card. A lot of eyes are going to be watching, and I'm excited to put on a performance and have fun."
Elsewhere on the card, Sabah Homasi and Brennan Ward are sure to get the blood pumping for fans around the world when they open the main card. Homasi has built a reputation as a madman inside the cage with five of his last seven bouts ending in a finish. He enters on a two-fight win streak with hopes of joining the short list of title contenders at welterweight. Ward, meanwhile, returned from a five-year absence in 2022 as he battled drug and alcohol addiction. He scored a pair of TKO wins as he has finished 11 of the 16 opponents he has beaten in his career.
"This event is monumental. It just shows and reinforces all the hard work we've put in for the last five or six years. This is the best fight roster we've ever had. The deepest fight roster; the most talented," Bellator president Scott Coker said. "I'm really proud of our bantamweight tournament which is ongoing right now. We just announced our lightweight tournament, which I believe is going to be an unbelievable tournament with AJ [McKee] and Usman [Nurmagomedov] and [Patricky] Pitbull. There's a lot of talent in there."
With so much happening on Saturday night, let's take a closer look at the full fight card with the latest odds from Caesars Sportsbook before we get to our staff predictions and picks.
With such a massive main event on tap, the crew at CBS Sports went ahead with predictions and picks for the main card. Here are your pick makers: Brent Brookhouse (Combat sports writer), Brian Campbell (Combat sports writer, co-host of "Morning Kombat"), Shakiel Mahjouri (writer) and Brandon Wise (senior editor).
Campbell: For as romantic as the idea of Emelianenko capping a storied 23-year career by walking away as champion, Bader remains as tough of a matchup as he was when he finished Fedor in 35 seconds back in 2019. Yes, Emelianenko still wields a dangerous mix of speed and power in his hands and is capable of ending a fight with one strike. But both his stamina and punch resistance remain far below the standard of elite MMA at the title level. Should Bader, an accomplished wrestler, stick to the game plan of tiring Emelianenko out by taking him to the ground, the dream of a storybook ending could quickly turn into a nightmare.
Brookhouse: It pains me to pick Bader here. Emelianenko is a legend in every sense of the word. But he is also 46, badly faded from his peak and his once great chin is no longer able to reliably hold up to the power always present in the heavyweight division. Bader possesses the kind of style that is just a bad matchup for this version of Emelianenko. Bader can grind down Emelianenko with wrestling, depleting the Russian's gas tank and taking over the fight. Or, Bader could do what he did in the first fight and just blast Emelianenko early. Emelianenko still possesses enough power to finish a fight if he lands but the fairy tale ending seems unlikely.
Campbell: Eblen's breakthrough title victory over Mousasi was impressive in just about every category. The unbeaten wrestler beat Mousasi to the punch throughout and relied on his motor to push an aggressive pace in a five-round decision win. But the one thing he still lacks through 12 pro fights is an extended level of experience, which Tokov, who is one year older at 32, has nearly double as a professional. Tokov, a native of Russia and talented member of Fedor Emelianenko's growing team, is 7-0 since making his Bellator debut in 2017. He is also physically strong enough, particularly in the clinch, to keep Eblen from dominating him on the ground. Tokov has been looking for a breakout moment of his own, similar to what Eblen achieved against Mousasi. And he's well-rounded and durable enough to be a live enough dog who is capable of adding yet another world title to the Team Fedor gym.
Brookhouse: It's easy to look at Tokov's experience edge as a big plus, but experience doesn't mean a ton in a heads-up fight, nor does Tokov have many fights against "top-level competition." Tokov is a heavy hitter and very strong, but Eblen is a master at forcing his will on opponents. Mousasi is not an easy man to completely erase from being competitive and that's exactly what Eblen did. This is likely to be the hardest fight of Eblen's young career, but he should be up to the task and be able to find a way to grind out a win.
Mahjouri: This is a toss-up. Eblen's one-sided domination over Mousasi was eye-opening for a fighter who is relatively young in the game. Tokov has nearly three times as much pro experience as Eblen with far less mileage than Mousasi. Tokov is a powerhouse and should yield a slight advantage in striking. Eblen is a stellar wrestler, but his ability to knock down Mousasi showed that his overall game is developing well. The biggest mystery is how well Eblen deals with adversity. Tokov hits like a truck and had the willpower to endure a tough first round against Gerald Harris. Eblen has a larger advantage in grappling than Tokov does in striking. For that reason, I'll side with the champ.
Brookhouse: Should this fight play out as it appears it will on paper, it's going to be a fantastic way to bring MMA back to CBS. Both men are aggressive and dangerous on the feet. There has been plenty of talk from both that they are willing to go out and trade strikes. Should that happen, the fight may simply come down to who lands the first bomb. Ward's story is a good one, returning to MMA after trouble with the law and drug addiction as he's scored two straight stoppage wins. Predicting who will win a slugfest between fairly evenly-matched fighters is something of a guessing game, but Ward may have the slight edge on pure power.
Mahjouri: Homasi vs. Ward has Fight of the Night written all over it, if not Fight of the Weekend. Nearly 88% of the pair's fights end in a stoppage, most of them knockouts. Ward returned from a five-year layoff in 2022 and defeated two unheralded fighters. It was a responsible decision for Ward to take some tune-up fights before taking on ranked opposition. Homasi is certainly not the most consistent fighter, but he can hit remarkably hard. It would be touching to see Ward enter the welterweight top 10 after overcoming his personal demons, but Homasi is more likely to land the fight-ending blow.