Bellator MMA announced in April the creation of a 16-fighter featherweight grand prix tournament, and on Monday the promotion explained the first-round matchups.
Division champion Patricio “Pitbull” Freire, who also holds Bellator’s lightweight belt, will defend his title against rising star Juan Archuleta (23-1) on Sept. 28 in Los Angeles. Freire has won four in a row, most recently defeating longtime champion Michael Chandler by first-round TKO in May. Archuleta has not lost since 2015. This is the only first-round fight that will be five rounds, the rest three.
Other featherweight matchups on that card include 24-year-old undefeated prospect A.J. McKee (14-0) vs. Georgi Karakhanyan (27-9-1); Daniel Weichel (39-11) vs. Saul Rogers (13-2); and former Bellator bantamweight champion Darrion Caldwell (13-3) vs. Henry Corrales (17-3).
Daniel Straus (25-8), previously the Bellator featherweight champion, will face Derek Campos (19-9) in San Jose, California, on Sept. 7. Also fighting that night: Sam Sicilia (17-9) vs. Pedro Carvalho (10-3); Emmanuel Sanchez (18-4) vs. Tywan Claxton (5-0); and Pat Curran (23-8) vs. Adam Borics (9-0).
Borics, just 26, most recently knocked out Aaron Pico in June at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
“I feel really good about these 16 athletes,” Bellator President Scott Coker said on Ariel Helwani’s MMA Show. “We have a killer division and all of the heavy guns are going to be throwing it down on September 7. This is going to be a lot of fun to watch.”
Coker says the next rounds will be determined at random. The eight remaining fighters will draw numbers out of a basket to figure out their opponents, and it will air live for fans to watch.
Pico, once considered the top prospect in MMA, is not part of the initial group. After beginning his career 4-1, the 22-year-old has lost two in a row by knockout.
“Aaron is an athlete we have a tremendous amount of respect for,” Coker said. “We are still in the Aaron Pico business. But we thought this might be a good time for him to take a step back before he moves forward … maybe he ends up on the alternate slot. He might be competing, just in a different way. “