Bellator 290 breakdown: Can Johnny Eblen survive Anatoly Tokov’s power for first title defense?

MMA Junkie analyst Dan Tom breaks down the UFC’s top bouts. Today, we look at the co-main event for Bellator 290.

Bellator 290 takes place Saturday at Kia Forum in Inglewood, Calif. The main card airs on CBS following prelims on MMA Junkie.

Johnny Eblen (12-0 MMA, 8-0 BMMA)

Johnny Eblen

Staple info:

  • Height: 6’1″ Age: 31 Weight: 185 lbs. Reach: 74″

  • Last fight: Decision win over Gegard Mousasi (June 24, 2022)

  • Camp: American Top Team (Florida)

  • Stance/striking style: Orthodox/kickboxing

  • Risk management: Good

Supplemental info:
+ Bellator middleweight champion
+ Division-1 wrestling experience (Mizzou)
+ 2015 NCAA national qualifier
+ State champion wrestler (high school)
+ 5 knockout victories
+ 1 submission win
+ 6 first-round finishes
+ KO power
+ Consistent pace and pressure
+ Steadily improving striking
^ Will switch stances on attack
+ Excellent wrestling ability
^ High-percentage takedown game
+ Solid positional grappling
+ Shows good fight IQ/decision making

Anatoly Tokov (31-3 MMA, 7-0 BMMA)

Anatoly Tokov

Staple info:

  • Height: 5’10” Age: 32 Weight: 185 lbs. Reach: 78″

  • Last fight: TKO win over Muhammad Abdullah (June 24, 2022)

  • Camp: Fedor Team (Russia)

  • Stance/striking style: Orthodox/kickboxing

  • Risk management: Good

Supplemental info:
+ ACB middleweight title
+ ACB middleweight grand prix winner (2015)
+ Master of Sports in hand-to-hand combat
+ 17 KO victories
+ 7 submission wins
+ 11 first-round finishes
+ KO power
+ Solid boxing technique
^ Good eyes in exchanges
+ Strong inside of the clinch
^ Knees, footsweeps, tosses
+ Works well from front-headlock
^ Dangerous guillotine
+ Heavy-handed ground striker

Point of interest: Seizing the initiative

Johnny Eblen, Bellator 276

The co-main event for Bellator 290 features a middleweight title fight between two men who aren’t afraid to take the initiative when they need to.

A hard-working wrestler who found his way onto the mats at American Top Team, [autotag]Johnny Eblen[/autotag] has made some solid improvements since stepping into the Bellator cage.

Embracing the striking side of the sport, Eblen appears to be bolting down the fundamentals of his boxing game. From staying on balance to taking his feet with him, Eblen seems to be getting a real feel for his power and preferred style.

The former University of Missouri Tiger likes to lean on his jab when gauging distances, and will smartly mix things up to the body both with punches and kicks. In his last fight, Eblen showed off a lot more of his skills from the southpaw stance, demonstrating solid setups in the process (particularly when he walked Gegard Mousasi into a shifting right hand in the opening frame).

Regardless of Eblen’s choices of stances and tactics, I suspect that his improved head movement off of punches will be more important than ever when facing a pinpoint puncher like [autotag]Anatoly Tokov[/autotag].

Like many Russians who carry the designation of a “Master of Sport in hand-to-hand combat,” Tokov appears to be an ultra-cool customer with a natural feel for counter fighting.

Akin to his stablemate Vadim Nemkov, Tokov fights with a noticeable bounce to his step as he keeps his lead hand fairly active. Whether Tokov’s producing the patent Fedor Team feints or smartly mixing up the targets of his jab, the 32-year-old seems to have a solid sense of range and good radar for incoming kicks.

Tokov will occasionally rip hard kicks to the body or legs, but his primary weapon is a crushingly-accurate right hand that he either counters or crashes distance with. Even though both men are ok with sticking and moving on the outside, Tokov tends to find himself fighting along the fence more – which could invite grappling entanglements.

Point of interest: Winning the wrestling

Anatoly Tokov, Bellator 218

Considering wrestling usually is a key junction for both parties, I’ll be curious to see how often Eblen elects to test out his on-paper advantages.

Akin to former Bellator champions like Michael Chandler or Ben Askren, Eblen comes from the same wrestling program and will be looking to, once again, make his alma mater proud.

Although the former Mizzou Tiger has admittedly fallen in love with improving his striking, Eblen utilizes a very efficient wrestling style for MMA that fits seamlessly into his game. Whether he’s shucking behind opponents off of a bodylock or changing his level for a double against the cage, Eblen always seems to make smart, high-percentage choices within this realm.

That said, Tokov – who has experience in judo and sambo – is no slouch in this space.

Fighting to his frame, Tokov is as strong as he looks when fighting from the clinch. Whether he’s utilizing hefty whizzers to pull opponents up off of his hips like a pair of breakaway trousers or quietly plugging away with gut-checking knees, seldom will you see Tokov taken down or muscled around in closed quarters.

In the spirit of his mentor, Fedor Emelianenko, Tokov is also good about using de-basing trips or foot sweeps to create separations that allow for both strikes and takedown opportunities of his own. Nevertheless, the former ACB champion will still need to be careful about tangling with Eblen for prolonged stanzas.

Even though Tokov has a nasty guillotine and some vicious ground-and-pound to boot, we have seen him tire in the past when forced to wrestle at a high pace or level (as seen in fights with Ramazan Emeev and Arbi Agujev). Not only will Tokov be facing a credentialled wrestler, but he’ll also be facing someone who rarely puts himself in bad spots.

Continuing his theme of high-percentage choices, Eblen is good about securing safe rides or positions from topside that allow him opportunities to both score with hard strikes and kill the proverbial clock. If Eblen is allowed to grapple with Tokov early and often, then we could be in for a gritty war down the stretch.

Point of interest: Odds and opinions

Johnny Eblen

The oddsmakers and public like the American with Eblen at -260 and Tokov +220 at Tipico Sportsbook.

Even though this line is starting to get a bit wide for my liking, I don’t disagree with who is favored to win.

Tokov is the more potent finishing threat with fight-changing power, so no one should be shocked if the Russian is able to pull off the upset this Saturday. That said, Tokov is not beyond being stung in fights – particularly from the southpaw stance.

With that in mind, I wouldn’t be shocked to see Eblen continue the stance-switching trends that helped him secure the title in his last outing.

Tokov may be the more dangerous counter striker, but he sometimes lacks the initiative that Eblen appears to have in spades. Eblen also carries a more reliable process and has proven to have the fight IQ and stamina to make good decisions down the stretch.

Unless Tokov is able to make something happen in the first ten minutes, I suspect that we’ll see Eblen steadily take over the steering wheel. Even though a late stoppage wouldn’t necessarily surprise me (especially if Eblen is able to take Tokov down early), I’ll officially pick the champion to retain his title by decision.

Prediction: Eblen by decision

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Story originally appeared on MMA Junkie