Bellator 301: So many questions, not enough answers

Every fight card is built upon questions that the bouts then proceed to answer. Can the fighter who enters the cage as champion walk out still in possession of the belt? Will the competitor with an unbeaten record or a winning streak keep the run of success alive? Who will step up within reach of a title shot?

Bellator 301 will answer those questions on Friday in Chicago (9 p.m. ET, Showtime). But a more existential matter could very well remain an open question following Bellator 301: Will there be a Bellator 302?

Bellator MMA is reportedly on the verge of being bought by the PFL. Bellator president Scott Coker has spoken about the negotiations, as have PFL officials. However, all talk of the potential sale has been cloaked in the vagueness that comes with unfinished business. Adding to the uncertainty, Bellator has yet to schedule any fights beyond those on Friday at Wintrust Arena.

One thing we can say for sure: If this is the end for Bellator, the company is going out with a bang. Bellator 301 features a pair of championship fights, the renewal of a heated rivalry with an added geographic twist, the return of a homegrown star and the continuation — or culmination? — of a tournament.

Here are the questions Friday’s fights will set out to answer.

Should a certain retired fighter over in Dagestan be getting nervous?

Providing the answer: Welterweight championship: Yaroslav Amosov (c) vs. Jason Jackson

When Khabib Nurmagomedov retired in 2020 as UFC lightweight champion, he walked away at 29-0, still the winningest undefeated record in MMA history. But footsteps are creeping up from behind. Amosov, who defends his welterweight championship against Jackson in the main event, is 27-0 and counting.

Amosov might have passed Nurmagomedov already if not for his 20-month hiatus from the sport to defend his home country, Ukraine, from the Russian invasion. Amosov returned to the Bellator cage in February and put on a dominant performance against Logan Storley. Now comes Jackson (16-4), who has won six in a row but has not competed in nearly a year and a half.

Should Bellator go belly up and its fighters set free, Amosov would be a hot commodity — if he keeps his “0” this week.

Which belt will make a winning fashion statement?

Providing the answer: Bantamweight championship: Sergio Pettis (c) vs. Patchy Mix (ic)

Pettis (23-5) is 5-0 inside the Bellator cage since coming from the UFC in 2020. The last two of those wins have been special. He won the bantamweight title in 2021 with ESPN’s Finish of the Year, a spinning backfist that produced a comeback KO of former champ Kyoji Horiguchi. Then, after missing a year and a half to undergo knee surgery, Pettis defended his belt against the greatest Bellator fighter ever, Patricio “Pitbull” Freire, and won a lopsided decision.

But Mix (18-1) might be the most formidable challenge of all. He became an interim champ in April when he knocked out Raufeon Stots in 80 seconds in the final of the Bellator Bantamweight World Grand Prix. Mix is explosive and versatile, with finishes in 12 of his last 13 wins. His only loss was a 2020 bid for this same title, and here comes a second opportunity. This fight — champ vs. interim champ — has a good shot at being Fight of the Night.

At Bellator’s prefight press conference on Wednesday, both fighters sat with shiny belts slung over their shoulders. But Mix let it be known that he’d come to Chicago to trade in his strap. “This belt, it doesn’t mean much,” he said. “It’s for the pictures and stuff up here. But I want the real, undisputed belt. That’s the belt that I failed to capture a few years ago, and that’s the goal that I set for myself. So Friday I get that opportunity.”

Who rules the turf alongside Lake Michigan?

Providing the answer: Bantamweight: Raufeon Stots vs. Danny Sabatello

The record shows that Stots (19-2) and Sabatello (14-3) have fought once before. But anyone who lived through the nasty leadup to their December 2022 bout, won by Stots via split decision, witnessed a lot of verbal combat — the real first fight between these two.

An added factor for this second (third?) meeting: Chicago is Sabatello’s hometown, and Stots has trained for nearly a decade 90 miles up the road in Milwaukee. So, who really owns the Midwest turf?

“Now we’re in my backyard,” Sabatello said during one of many contentious back-and-forths during the press conference. “I run Chicago.”

“It’s pretty funny that it’s his hometown,” countered Stots, “but I bet I get a bigger pop from the crowd.”

Sabatello: “You think the crowd is going to be on your side?”

Stots: “I definitely do. I think the people in your hometown hate you.”

Is this finally a night for the star to shine?

Providing the answer: Lightweight: AJ McKee vs. Sidney Outlaw

McKee is 20-1 in his MMA career. His record in Bellator: 20-1. He is the promotion’s shiniest homegrown star, but the 28-year-old has not fought in nearly a year. It’s time for him to remind everyone how elite he is.

The former featherweight champ suffered his only loss in 2022 against another former champ, Patricio Pitbull, whom McKee had submitted in under two minutes the year before. McKee is now three fights into his run at 155 pounds, and if he wins and Bellator survives beyond this weekend, the lightweight division will have a force to contend with.

McKee and Outlaw (17-5) were part of the original Lightweight World Grand Prix bracket, but both had to drop out because of injury. Those withdrawals might prompt some to overlook this matchup, but in Outlaw’s eyes, he and McKee are two of the best 155-pounders in any fight organization. “It’s going to be a monster against a monster,” he said.

When a semifinal happens at a (possible) finale, can we just call it a final?

Providing the answer: Lightweight: Patricky “Pitbull” Freire vs. Alexander Shabliy

This fight is a semifinal of the Bellator Lightweight World Grand Prix. But both men are treating it like a final — and not simply because the fight company’s future is up in the air.

The winner here would have been slated to go for the tourney championship against the division’s reigning titleholder, Usman Nurmagomedov, except Nurmagomedov tested positive for a banned substance after last month’s semifinal victory against Brent Primus. Nurmagomedov was suspended, and his win was overturned to a no contest. So what does that mean for the Freire-Shabliy winner?

“The way I see it,” Shabliy (23-3) said through a Russian interpreter, “our fight is for the championship.”

Freire (25-11) agrees. “The rules is the rules,” he said. “If he test positive to the drugs, he needs to vacate the belt — that’s the rules — and go out of the tournament.”

Semifinal or final, this bout appears to be an uphill fight for Freire, a former champ in the division. He has lost three of his last five, while Shabliy has not lost a fight in seven years.

For the record, press conference moderator Josh Thomson noted that he’d been told Primus was being put back into the Grand Prix. Still, he left the rest of the story as an open question — just like everything surrounding Bellator’s future.

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