Bellator typically plays second fiddle to the UFC, acting as a sort of AAA-level competition in the MMA world. But that won’t be the case on Friday when Ryan Bader defends his light heavyweight championship against Vadim Nemkov at Bellator 244 in what could be one of the biggest fights in the division this year.

Ryan Bader Vadim Nemkov Bellator
Ryan Bader (left) will defend his Bellator light heavyweight title against Vadim Nemkov on Friday at Mohegan Sun. (Image: Gregory Payan/AP)

ESPN rates Bader (27-5) as the No. 2 light heavyweight in the world, a ranking that includes all promotions including UFC.

Bader: Jones Exit Leaves Division Wide Open

MMA Junkie also rates Bader as third in the world at 205 pounds. That ranking includes former UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones at the top. Jones recently declared that he is vacating his light heavyweight title in order to focus on a run at heavyweight instead.

That potentially leaves the door open for Bader to make a claim as the best 205-pound fighter in the world. The two-division Bellator champion – he also holds the heavyweight crown – has been saying as much in the leadup to Friday’s fight.

“Arguably, right now, you can say the winner of this fight is one of the best heavyweights right now that’s out there,” Bader told MMA Junkie. “[Daniel Cormier] retired and had a great career. He was always up there. Then, obviously, Jon Jones was one of the greatest of all time. I think that the whole division was in his shadow. Him moving up definitely opens it up.”

Bader enjoyed a long and successful career in the UFC, going 15-5 in his time with the promotion. That gave him plenty of clout when he moved to Bellator. The company immediately threw him into a light heavyweight title fight against Phil Davis, which Bader won by split decision. He added the Bellator heavyweight title in January 2019 with a first-minute knockout win against Fedor Emelianenko.

Nemkov Seeks First 205 Title for Russia

In other words, Bader might have a legitimate claim as the top 205-pounder in the world if he wins Friday. But Nemkov (11-2) plans to ruin the party and make some history of his own.

“I want to bring back a title to Russia,” Nemkov told MMA Junkie. “This is probably not big news, but for me it is. If I succeed and win the title, I will be the first Russian to earn a title at 205 pounds in a major organization, so it’s a big deal for me.”

Bader enters the fight as a slight favorite, with FanDuel Sportsbook listing the champion as a -136 pick over Nemkov (+112). Those odds give plenty of respect to the challenger, however, and it’s easy to see why. Nemkov is 4-0 in Bellator, and holds wins over the likes of Phil Davis and Farael Carvalho in his last two fights.

“I have a game plan, and I hope to implement it on [Friday],” Nemkov said. “If it’s successful, you guys will see. Of course, I would like to finish the fight with a knockout or a quick submission, but you don’t know.”