Despite being held to just 18 events in 2020 due to the global pandemic, Bellator was able to keep the proverbial ball rolling in regards to fostering new names and cultivating homegrown talent.
Sure, it’s been easy to get excited about big-name signings like Yoel Romero or Anthony Johnson, but I think the promotion carries a quiet value with the offerings that are often found on their undercards. So, with that in mind, I decided to steer away from mainstream names or past grand prix competitors in order to focus on the dark horses whom I see either making their marks or (in some cases) taking a stab at a title in 2021.
Without further ado, here are the top 10 dark horses that I think you need to be familiar with this year.
No. 10: Ilias Bulaid
Division: Featherweight Record: 2-0 MMA, 2-0 BMMA Team: SB Gym Summary: Although Bellator has invested in a lot of American wrestlers, the promotion's strong push into the European market has brought about some wide-ranging talent, as Ilias Bulaid makes this list. A Dutch-Moroccan kickboxer (159-9-2 with 52 knockouts) who has competed in notable organizations like K-1, Bulaid demonstrates a caliber of striking savvy that's not often seen in mixed martial arts. Moving incredibly well through feints and footwork, the 25-year-old talent seems to have an impeccable understanding of space, seamlessly mixing up his targets of attack. Like many kickboxers who have experience with muay Thai competition/competitors, Bulaid appears to be very competent inside of the clinch. Whether he's fighting for underhooks and establishing head position or hitting slick trips in open space, Bulaid appears to be well-schooled in these phases. Outside of training with UFC-caliber fighters like the Aizatar brothers (Ottman and Abu), I'm not sure what kind of ground training Bulaid is getting in given his small sample sizes in that area. However, if the native of the Netherlands is able to continue to pick up skills as I suspect, then I believe that Bulaid will end up on a lot of people's radar by year's end.
No. 9: Steve Mowry
Division: Heavyweight Record: 8-0 MMA, 4-0 BMMA Team: Sanford MMA Summary: Heavyweight may not have the highest barrier to entry on paper, but Steve Mowry has some size and skills that are worth getting excited about. Moving well at 6-foot-8 with an athletic build, Mowry fits the bill of a Travis Browne when it comes to initial impressions. But after watching the 28-year-old work, I quickly became impressed with the way in which the big man was able to change levels and chain off of his takedowns. Although the American mainly wrestled in high school and credits the base of his martial arts journey to jiu-jitsu, Mowry comes from a state in Pennsylvania that not-so-coincidentally produces solid wrestlers and wrestling programs. Once able to establish a control position from topside, Mowry displays almost catch-style submissions, typically attacking arms via Kimuras and Americanas. Like any tall fighter, head movement (or the lack thereof) tends to play a big factor in how hittable Mowry can be. That said, since moving shop down to South Florida to train at Sanford MMA, Mowry has been making marked striking improvements overall under the care of Henri Hooft, as I suspect he becomes a real player in Bellator's heavyweight division this year.
No. 8: Logan Storley
Division: Welterweight Record: 11-1 MMA, 6-1 BMMA Team: Sanford MMA Summary: Despite suffering his first career loss in 2020, I suspect that Logan Storley won't be slowing down anytime soon. Storley may not be the biggest welterweight at 5-foot-9, but the former four-time All-American wrestled at a similar weight (174 pounds) for his entire collegiate career and looks to be fine competing in his current division. The 28-year-old's striking is also steadily coming along under the tutelage of Henri Hoof at Sanford MMA – a place where Storley gets looks from the likes of Robbie Lawler, Gilbert Burns and many more. It's still a bit too early for me to confidently declare any projections for Storley's ceiling, but I do believe that his pace, pressure and wrestling scrambles will present problematic matchups for most from a stylistic perspective (especially if his durability holds). For that reason, I feel pretty good about putting Storley on this list.
No. 7: Jay Jay Wilson
Jay Jay Wilson
Division: Featherweight Record: 7-0 MMA, 6-0 BMMA Team: Alliance Jiu-jitsu Summary: Considering that Jay Jay Wilson beat one of my former dark horses in Tywan Claxton, it's hard to deny him a spot here on this list. A native of New Zealand who now resides in the United States, Wilson is a long and lanky action fighter that reminds me of a young Charles Oliveira. Recently acquiring a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt, Wilson seems to be dangerous from both top and bottom positions. Whether Wilson is hitting takedowns against the fence to get his positional grappling going or is pulling guard in order to catch triangles, the 23-year-old always appears to be playing for keeps. Even though Wilson's striking seems to be a bit more on the wild side, the young fighter has been showing to make strides in that department (which is to be expected at his age). I'm not sure how long Wilson will stay undefeated, but do not be surprised if he becomes more of a staple offering for the promotion this year.
No. 6: Cody Law
Division: Featherweight Record: 2-0 MMA, 2-0 BMMA Team: American Top Team Summary: With Bellator's featherweight grand prix taking up a big chunk of the spotlight for the last year, it's been easy to miss promising newcomers like Cody Law. In fact, despite falling in the middle of this list and only being 2-0 as a professional, Law is honestly one of the prospects whom I find myself most excited about. Another native of Pennsylvania who shifted camp to South Florida, Law is a two-time NCAA Division-II national champion and two-time All-American wrestler who looks to have real promise. Translating his work ethic and folk-style skills to MMA, Law amassed an undefeated amateur record of 5-0 before making his pro debut under the Bellator banner. And though Law only has a little over three rounds of fight time, the 25-year-old talent conducts himself with a composure and fight IQ that is well beyond his years. Carrying some amateur boxing experience in his back pocket, Law looks to be very comfortable on the feet, whether he's flashing feints or rolling off of the crosses he commits to. The American Top Team member also has no issue hitting takedowns in the open or against the fence, showing a proclivity for wrist rides and an overall positional awareness that smacks of the grappling meta popularized by Khabib Nurmagomedov. I know it's still very early and I definitely don't want the kid rushed, but I believe that Law is a future contender with eventual title potential (at either featherweight or lightweight).
No. 5: Dalton Rosta
Division: Middleweight Record: 4-0 MMA, 4-0 BMMA Team: Mat Factory Wrestling Club/American Top Team Summary: Despite what seems like a running theme of Pennsylvania natives who have relocated to South Florida, Dalton Rosta deserves a big shout on this list. Rosta doesn't carry the same wrestling credentials as other notables under the Bellator banner but the former Seton Hall rep is clearly well trained in the way in which he chains and executes his takedowns. Like many folkstyle wrestlers, riding comes second nature to Rosta – who has shown that he is not afraid to assert himself from mount should the situation call for it. Boxing in some form since the age of 12, Rosta also appears comfortable and confident on the feet, as he moves incredibly well considering his muscular frame. Rosta was able to amass an undefeated amateur record of 7-0 (all by way of stoppage), but the tough Hawaiian, Ty Gwerder, was able to provide a stern three-round test for the newly-minted American Top Team member last year. If Rosta is managed correctly, I could easily see him establishing himself as one of the division's top contenders by the end of 2021.
No. 4: Raufeon Stots
Division: Bantamweight Record: 15-1 MMA, 3-0 BMMA Team: Roufusport Summary: Although Raufeon Stots has been on the radar of many for quite some time, I still don't feel like he gets talked about enough for his current body of work. If not for a spinning backfist knockout at the hands of Merab Dvalishvili (15 seconds into the fight), then perhaps Stots still finds himself undefeated in some alternate universe. That said, I'd still argue that Stots is doing just fine in this one. A two-time NCAA Division-II national champion who was mentored by Kamaru Usman in college, Stots has seamlessly translated his folkstyle sensibilities to MMA, offering up suffocating wrestling pressure and rides whenever possible. The Roufusport-trained southpaw is not afraid to kick legs and keeps counter hooks at the ready, but largely prefers corralling opposition toward the cage for close-quarter combat. It will be interesting to see how Stots gets handled given his relationship with training partner Sergio Pettis (whom the promotion is currently pushing), but don't be surprised if Stots get more shine and meaningful matchups in the coming year.
No. 3: Joey Davis
Division: Welterweight Record: 8-0 MMA, 8-0 BMMA Team: Team Bodyshop Summary: Despite already being on the radar of those in the know, I suspect that many more will be familiar with Joey Davis' name by the end of 2021. When you're the only person on the planet to win four national titles at an NCAA Division-II level with no losses – high expectations tend to follow. Thankfully for Davis, he seems to be crushing it on all fronts. Between staying under the longtime mentorship of both his father and uncle (Antonio McKee), Davis has made more than a seamless transition into mixed martial arts. Demonstrating an eyes-open comfort on the feet, Davis offers dynamic and accurate answers within striking space. Though his ability to accurately launch spinning kicks is a scary prospect, I'm happy to see Davis stick to his wrestling roots in recent appearances. The 27-year-old has an undeniable double-leg takedown in open space and displays all of the ground-fighting fundamentals that I like to see, whether it be elbows off of wrist controls or relentless positional rides. The sky is the limit for a fighter like Davis, as I wouldn't be shocked to see him fighting some of the promotion's top welterweights this year.
No. 2: Magomed Magomedov
Division: Bantamweight Record: 17-1 MMA, 1-0 BMMA Team: DagFighter Summary: As someone who's been following Magomed Magomedov since his epic battle with Petr Yan back at ACB 32 in 2016, it admittedly feels a bit silly to put him on a list of "dark horses." However, despite my hipster posturing, I'd argue that Magomedov is a valid selection given the two-year hiatus prior to his recent promotional debut. And though Magomedov wasn't able to produce a highlight-reel finish against Matheus Mattos at Bellator 254, the Dagestani fighter was able to log some much-needed mat time in what was ultimately a dominant performance. Magomedov hails from Makhachkala, which is a region of Dagestan rich in Wushu Sanda (a combat sport that Magomedov is a world champion in). Sanda is a striking-heavy martial art that incorporates takedowns – an area that "Tiger" Magomedov clearly excels in. Akin to his more popular Sanda-based stablemates like Zabit Magomedsharipov, Magomedov also throws a healthy array of spinning assaults despite not having the same offerings within the boxing department. Nevertheless, it is ultimately the relentless pace and pressure of Magomedov that makes him so formidable. The Russian representative sits high on this list for a reason, as I'd probably pick Magomedov over almost anyone in Bellator's bantamweight division right now.
No. 1: Yaroslav Amosov
Division: Welterweight Record: 25-0 MMA, 6-0 BMMA Team: Team Germes Summary: Despite Yaroslav Amosov being another fighter whom I admittedly feel a bit weird about labeling as a "dark horse," I still don't believe he is getting the respect he deserves – which is why he takes the number one spot here. Hailing from Ukraine, Amosov is a multiple-time combat sambo world champion and has also earned European and Eurasian titles. Luckily for Amosov, his natural abilities and proclivities toward sambo have translated over to his MMA career, as the depths of his well-rounded skill sets continue to impress me. Amosov demonstrates technical, well-versed striking from both stances and is able to apply his craft off of the backfoot when he needs to. The 27-year-old talent has also spent time training at some of the top camps around the world, ranging from Tiger Muay Thai to American Top Team (which explains a lot about his wrestling). As we've seen highlighted under the Bellator banner: Amosov can wrestle with the best of them. Last year, Amosov impressively outworked Ed Ruth in the wrestling department, as well as offered up some amazing scrambling sessions in an incredibly fun fight with Logan Storley. Although Douglas Lima is a tall ask for anyone at welterweight, I suspect that Amosov has the style to possibly outwork and upset the sitting champion should that fight ever happen. Regardless of Lima's plans or those possibilities, I wouldn't be surprised to see some groundwork laid in 2021 for an Amosov-Davis trilogy down the road.
Mandel Nallo Adam Borics Linton Vassell Saul Rogers