Marlon Sandro signs with Bellator

Top-10 featherweight Marlon Sandro will make his United States debut in 2011, Bellator Fighting Championships' officials announced Wednesday.

Sandro, a former Sengoku titleholder and current King of Pancrase, campaigned exclusively in Japan since 2007. With a 17-2 professional record, Sandro, the similarly sized Nova Uniao teammate of top-ranked UFC featherweight champion Jose Aldo, has signed to compete in non-tournament action for Bellator.

Nova Uniao founder Andre Pedenereiras told ESPN.com that Bellator was the preferred destination for Sandro so the Brazilian could attempt to capture "another organization's belt for the team."

Sandro lost the Sengoku featherweight title in December via unanimous decision to Hatsu Hioki, who ranks just behind Aldo in the division.

Sandro's defection from Japan is yet another sign that a fighter exodus from the country's struggling MMA scene is well under way. Last week, Bellator announced a deal with well-traveled featherweight Ronnie Mann (18-2-1), also a Sengoku veteran. Likewise, the UFC recently benefited from the signing of heavyweight Dave Herman.

A source familiar with Sengoku told ESPN.com that the company is granting releases for fighters who ask for them. The big fish would be Hioki (23-4-2), who has one bout remaining on his contract with the financially strapped promotion. If he leaves for the U.S., said the source, UFC is his top option. UFC officials are said to be extremely interested in signing the 27-year-old Japanese fighter.

For Bellator, Sandro adds world-class depth to perhaps its most compelling weight division.

"Marlon Sandro is a phenomenal talent at 145," Bellator chairman and CEO Bjorn Rebney said in a statement. "Our featherweight division is absolutely stacked and Sandro pushes that talent pool to an even higher level. I'm thrilled to have him on board."

American Joe Warren captured the Bellator featherweight title last year with a stoppage of previously unbeaten Joe Soto.

Josh Gross covers mixed martial arts for ESPN.com.