Bellator MMA CEO Scott Coker has made no secret of the burgeoning fight organisation's desire to drive their fight product into Europe - a stacked May 19 card in London evidences that with several high-profile protagonists - but on Friday the Viacom-owned combat sports company makes its eighth bow in Europe, and second visit to Budapest in seven months.
"When I wake up every day I don't focus on what everyone else is doing," Coker told The Telegraph. "We have enough work here to focus on ourselves and our expansion. We never stop. But saying that, look at the fighters who are coming over. Free agency, the fighters are the key. They are the product. I think we put on great fights and they speak for themselves. Internationally I think we're stronger or as strong in some territories as any fight organisation in the world."
Bellator 177: Dantas vs. Higo and Bellator Kickboxing 6 will play out in the Budapest Sports Arena on Friday night, with two titles on the line: Eduardo “Dudu” Dantas defends the Bellator bantamweight belt against former LFA king Leandro Higo, while Bellator kickboxing welterweight titleholder Zoltan Laszak, a Hungarian favourite, takes on Karim Ghajji of France in a championship rematch.
When two-time bantamweight champion Dantas, currently ranked as the No 5 bantamweight in the world and the No 1 bantamweight outside of the UFC (via fightmatrix.com), wakes up every day, he runs his hands over the belt he cherishes.
Facing Higo, who is on an eight-fight winning streak (overall 17-2), a submission grappler who favours strike and submit finishes, it is likely to be a fast-moving, frenetic battle of fists and submission tests.
Dantas has shown oodles of vim in his six-year Bellator career. There have been two comings as champion. Having won the belt from Zach Makovsky in 2012, going on to make two defences of the crown, Dantas faced veteran Joe Warren in a title unification bout on October 2014, at Bellator 128, losing the title via unanimous decision in Oklahoma.
Undaunted, nonetheless, the associate of the Nova Uniao gym which has overseen the stellar careers of Jose Aldo and Renan Barao through head coach Andre Pederneiras, Dantas won his delayed, solitary fight in 2015 over Mike Richman, who failed to make weight, and then went on to claim the belt back from team-mate Marcos Galvao, who had taken it off Warren, last June.
It was a unanimous decision which put him back in possession of the gold belt that he studies on his mantelpiece.
To cement his position, Dantas avenged his defeat to Warren in his first title defence last December.
With pull-outs and injuries blighting what could have been a busy schedule for the 28-year-old, Dantas was set to face Darrion Caldwell in his second title defence on Friday, but with Caldwell injured, Higo steps into the breach.
Dantas, a modest mixed martial arts practitioner, thanked his paymasters for the opportunity of fighting in continental Europe. “I’m very happy to be here. I want to say thank you to my opponent for accepting this fight. And I’m ready to show you what I do best, which is to punch his face." Enough said.
We know what to expect. Higo, meanwhile, from the Pitbull Brothers set-up, is ultra confident. "Thank you, Budapest, for the reception," he said this week. "I’m very happy to be here and I’m looking forward to putting on a good show this Friday. I feel no extra pressure because I’m here to do what I love, which is fighting. I’m looking forward to winning another championship belt.”
Elsewhere on the card, local fighter Adam Borics and American Anthony Taylor are looking to deliver a thriller. Taylor, known as 'Pretty Boy', offered his owe brand of smack talk, part narcissus, part fight king. "I am the 'Pretty Boy', the prettiest of them all. Of course, I bring numbers, you know, so I’m expecting this should bring over a million viewers, hands down.
"We’re going to put on a show - one hell of a show. We’re going to get these ratings up and have so much fun. Definitely. Hands down, pound for pound, everyone knows I am the strongest 145-er in the division and if anybody stands in my way or stands in the middle of the cage and wants to bang with me, they’re gonna get knocked out. I kid you not! Anybody in the featherweight division stands toe to toe with me is going to get knocked out.”
But Taylor faces a formidable foe in Borics. And he knows it. “I’m not going to take nothing from this man. He has a 9-0 record so he’s definitely put in work. He beat up nine people, but it doesn’t mean he’s going to beat up me. I tell you that! But I give him credit because he’s coming out here and sacrificing his time and being away from his family to put in his work just as I am. We’re going to put on a show for all you fans out there and all you media out there.
“You know in my eyes, this is the main event: The Hungarian versus the American. Everyone wants to see this fight. They want to see what this man can do with a record of 9-0. He earned his wins and I respect him as a fighter. But after Friday he will be 9-1.”
The Bellator Kickboxing Welterweight World Champion Zoltan Laszak faces France's Karim Ghajji. "This is a great chance to really entertain and I appreciate the support from all of the Hungarian fans," said the popular Hungarian fighter.
"I feel their cheers and support every day. This is the most important fight of my life because there has been much more promotion here in Budapest leading up to the event. I realise that most people in the arena will be cheering for me, and for Hungary. I’ve done my preparation and my homework. I’m excellently prepared and I’m looking forward to this challenge.”
Ghajji, meanwhile, believes Laszak is in for a shock. “Thank you for the rematch," he said. "It was a big mistake in the first fight. Now I’m going to make it right and bring the belt back home to France. Two days before the first fight I was sick and I had dealt with injuries during that camp, but this time I had a great camp, I’ve prepared myself very well, and this will be an explosive fight on Friday.”
On the main card, a feature flyweight women's bout sees Lena Ovchynnikova (11-4) face Helen Harper (4-1).
— Lena Ovchynnikova (@LenaUniongym) January 15, 2017
Complete Bellator 177
Bantamweight World Title Bout: Eduardo Dantas (19-4) vs. Leandro Higo (17-2)
Featherweight Feature Bout: Daniel Weichel (38-9) vs. John “Macapa” (21-1-2)
Flyweight Feature Bout: Lena Ovchynnikova (11-4) vs. Helen Harper (4-1)
Featherweight Feature Bout: Adam Borics (5-0) vs. Anthony Taylor (1-2)
Featherweight Preliminary Bout: Brian Moore (9-5) vs. Michal Horejsi (5-2)
Lightweight Preliminary Bout: Patrick Szombat (1-2) vs. Mate Kertesz (3-0)
Complete Bellator Kickboxing 6
Welterweight World Title Bout: Zoltan Laszak (83-2-2, 1 NC) vs. Karim Ghajji (23-5-1)
Middleweight Feature Bout: Joe Schilling (20-9) vs. Alexandru Negrea (9-2)
Welterweight Feature Bout: Raymond Daniels (10-3) vs. Gyorfi Csaba (20-5)
Women’s Featherweight Feature Bout: Jorina Baars (40-0-3) vs. Irene Martens (20-9-2)
Featherweight Feature Bout: Gabriel Varga (13-4) vs. Gabor Gorbics (30-10)