Scott Coker woke up March 13 in a hotel room at Mohegan Sun Casino & Resort in Uncasville, Connecticut. Later that night, the Bellator president would be promoting a card featuring the start of the anticipated Bellator Featherweight World Grand Prix quarterfinals.
That morning, though, he got a phone call from members of his inner circle on the Bellator executive team. The NBA had postponed its season two days earlier due to the growing concern of COVID-19, and the NCAA had followed suit the following day, canceling its March Madness men’s basketball tournament. There was growing sentiment that maybe putting on a major sporting event wasn’t the appropriate thing to do at the time.
Coker called a meeting with his team, and they decided to cancel the event, even though all the fighters and their teams were already on site. The athletes had already weighed in.
“The consensus was that people are worried,” Coker told ESPN. “People don’t feel comfortable. And the fighters are worried. People wanted to get home and be with their families. So, I said, ‘OK, then the fight is off.’ It was a tough decision, but I think it was the right decision.”
Eight months later, Bellator will finally continue its tournament back at Mohegan Sun Arena with a pair of fights that were supposed to happen March 13. On Thursday, two-division champion Patricio “Pitbull” Freire will put one of his titles on the line in the Bellator Featherweight World Grand Prix quarterfinals against Pedro Carvalho. The co-main event will be another quarterfinal: Daniel Weichel vs. Emmanuel Sanchez.
The tourney was supposed to be a cornerstone of Bellator’s 2020, but like many plans, that was foiled by the pandemic. Bellator 252 will be held with no crowd inside a “bubble” environment with COVID-19 testing at Mohegan Sun. And the athletes are set to go again.
“It is a flashback to that [March 13] date,” Coker said. “It took a little bit more time than I had thought. Obviously, COVID is still here. It’s still an issue. It has not gone away. … Now, at least there’s protocols in place, there’s systems in place.”
Here’s a look at five of the top storylines going into Thursday’s card:
Can “Pitbull” Freire continue his run of excellence?
With Michael Chandler off to the UFC, Freire is now firmly cemented as Mr. Bellator. “Pitbull” is a two-time (and current) featherweight champion and also knocked out Chandler last year to win the lightweight belt. Imagine he could add to his prodigious legacy by also winning the Featherweight World Grand Prix? It’s surely within reach, though he has a tough test Thursday against Carvalho, a training partner of Conor McGregor who has won six straight.
Freire is also defending the Bellator featherweight title throughout the tournament, which only adds to the degree of difficulty. The stakes are high for Freire, who is ESPN’s No. 4-ranked featherweight.
“He’s been one of the OGs of this company for a long time,” Coker said. “And he’s still doing it and he’s still producing and he’s still knocking people out.”
Which other Featherweight Grand Prix competitor will stick out?
Carvalho has been one of the big stories of the past two years for Bellator, as a 25-year-old prospect who seemingly came out of nowhere despite training under John Kavanagh at SBG Ireland.
In the other Grand Prix quarterfinal are Daniel Weichel and Emmanuel Sanchez, who have been trusty, solid and consistent for Bellator over a number of years. If Sanchez gets through, a potential rematch with Freire would be interesting. The two fought a very close title fight in 2018, and Sanchez badly wants that one back. Weichel also had success in two title fights with Freire.
The Bellator Featherweight World Grand Prix has lost momentum because of the pandemic, but it still has a chance to be a success.
Will Aaron Pico continue on the straight and narrow?
The story of Pico will be an interesting one to tell a few years from now. It is still very much unfinished, but the start of his career has been unorthodox, to say the least. Pico stormed onto the scene as the most heralded prospect in MMA history, with a background in both elite boxing and wrestling. But the California native lost his MMA debut with Bellator and has been knocked out pretty viciously twice.
Now at Jackson Wink MMA, Pico has recommitted to his wrestling game and has won two in a row. His opponent Thursday is John de Jesus, an incremental step up from his previous two bouts.
Pico, his management and Bellator are back to taking things slowly in terms of development, which is the right move. He is still just 24 years old.
Is top prospect Logan Storley ready for prime time?
Storley, a former NCAA wrestling All-American out of the University of Minnesota, is one of Bellator’s best blue-chippers. He’s 6-0 in the promotion so far with three finishes and is still only 28 years old. Storley trains out of Sanford MMA, which has a history of turning grapplers into dangerous strikers — top UFC welterweights Kamaru Usman and Gilbert Burns are two pretty good examples.
Storley, a welterweight, has a huge test Thursday: a 24-0 grappler out of Ukraine, Yaroslav Amosov. It is a big step up in competition for Storley. The winner here gets christened as a legitimate welterweight contender.
Will a pair of family members of notable MMA names show out?
There are a couple of familiar last names on the prelims Thursday: Keri Taylor-Melendez and Khonry Gracie. The former is, of course, the wife of former Strikeforce champion and UFC veteran Gilbert Melendez. The latter is the son of MMA legend and UFC Hall of Famer Royce Gracie.
Taylor-Melendez, a longtime kickboxer, is 4-0 in Bellator. She faces Emilee King, who has won four straight and represents a step up in competition. Taylor-Melendez was one of three prelim fighters to miss weight on Wednesday, coming in at 116.2 pounds for her strawweight bout.
Gracie, just 23 years old, has won two straight after dropping his pro debut. He fights Trevor Gudde.
Bellator is hoping to strike gold with one or both, with the idea of gradually moving them toward bigger fights. Thursday will be another step.