Vadim Nemkov had the biggest win of his career in April. The Bellator light heavyweight champion earned his first title defense by beating Phil Davis, the former Bellator champ and UFC stalwart at 205 pounds, via unanimous decision.
It was a victory that made it impossible for the greater MMA world to ignore the quiet Russian fighter. Nemkov is now firmly established as one of the best light heavyweights on the planet, regardless of promotion. ESPN ranks Nemkov No. 5 in the weight class worldwide.
Yet, despite the significance of the victory, Nemkov was unhappy about the sheer aesthetic of the fight.
"The way my last fight with Phil Davis unfolded was completely unexpected, and it didn't go according to my plan at all," he said in an interview with Bellator this month. "I couldn't relax. This is why the fight was so slow."
Nemkov is promising a different story this time around. He puts the title on the line against Julius Anglickas in the main event of Bellator 268 on Saturday in Phoenix. That bout will double as a semifinal in the Bellator Light Heavyweight World Grand Prix. Nemkov's original opponent, two-time UFC title challenger Anthony "Rumble" Johnson, withdrew due to "serious" illness.
That Nemkov will be a more than 3-to-1 favorite against Anglickas suggests there is no longer doubt surrounding the 29-year-old champ, a protégé of the legendary Fedor Emelianenko. Nemkov already had a win over Davis coming into the April bout, but it was by split decision in a fight many thought Davis won. Nemkov left no doubt in the rematch. And now, with that five-round fight under his belt, he believes he'll have an even better approach.
"The most important lesson I was able to take away from that fight was that now I know I can fight five rounds at a high speed," Nemkov said. "It gave me a lot more confidence in my cardio."
He will need those things in this tournament, even if not against the replacement Anglickas. If Nemkov wins Saturday, he'll defend his title in the final against the winner of the co-main event between Corey Anderson and Ryan Bader, a pair of former UFC contenders who have oppressive wrestling and knockout power. Nemkov took the belt from Bader via second-round TKO in August 2020.
"I haven't been thinking about the fight between Ryan Bader and Corey Anderson at all," Nemkov said. "I have to prepare for my fight. That's my only concern."
Here are two more interesting storylines heading into Bellator 268:
Can Corey Anderson make good on his move to Bellator?
In August 2020, surprising news broke that Anderson had asked out of his UFC contract, was granted that release and then signed with Bellator. It was a risky move. The UFC remains the destination where the vast majority of the best fighters in the world compete. But Anderson had his differences with the UFC on several levels and rolled the dice to bet on himself.
It seems like the move has already been successful for Anderson. In April, he tweeted that in just six months and two fights with Bellator he had made double what he'd earned in 15 fights in seven years with the UFC. That's no small deal, and Anderson being in a better position to support himself and his family is absolutely huge. Now, he's getting the chance to add significant athletic achievements to those paydays.
On Saturday, Anderson will fight Bader in the Bellator Light Heavyweight World Grand Prix semifinals. Bader is somewhat of a forebearer to Anderson. He left the UFC on a two-fight winning streak in 2017 to sign with Bellator, then became the Bellator light heavyweight and heavyweight champion. The latter title he still holds.
A win here for Anderson would be arguably the biggest of his career, setting himself up for a Bellator title fight. ESPN ranks Anderson No. 8 and Bader No. 9 in the world at light heavyweight. So despite the promotional name on the banner, this bout has real significance with regards to 205-pound bragging rights.
MMA couple comes full circle
Benson Henderson successfully defended his UFC lightweight title against Gilbert Melendez in April 2013. As part of his postfight interview, Henderson took a ring from his longtime coach, John Crouch, got down on one knee and proposed in the Octagon to his then-girlfriend, Maria Magana. She said yes.
Now, more than eight years later, Maria Magana is Maria Henderson. And she is fighting in MMA, too. On Saturday, for the first time, Benson Henderson and his wife, Maria Henderson, will compete on the same card. Benson will take on former Bellator lightweight champion Brent Primus. Maria will open the prelim portion of the event in an amateur bout against Collette Santiago.
Aside from the sentimental value of the situation, this is a big fight for the 37-year-old Benson. He has lost two straight following a four-fight winning streak and Primus is a very tough test. MMA is very much a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately type of sport. Benson hasn't been the UFC champ since 2013, but he's still one of the best 155-pound fighters in MMA history. He is tied with Khabib Nurmagomedov, BJ Penn and Frankie Edgar for the most successful title defenses in UFC lightweight history (3).
Penn is already in the UFC Hall of Fame and Nurmagomedov and Edgar will surely be, too. Benson should absolutely get the call for that induction one day in the future, but until then he has a chance to firm up an already outstanding résumé this weekend on the same card as his wife.
Saturday's full fight card
Showtime, 10 p.m. ET
Light heavyweight championship*: Vadim Nemkov (c) vs. Julius Anglickas
Light heavyweight*: Ryan Bader vs. Corey Anderson
Lightweight: Benson Henderson vs. Brent Primus
Men's featherweight: Henry Corrales vs. Vladislav Parubchenko
Bellator/Showtime YouTube pages, 7 p.m.
Light heavyweight: Dovletdzhan Yagshimuradov vs. Karl Albrektsson
Light heavyweight: Sullivan Cauley vs. Deon Clash
Lightweight: Nick Browne vs. Bobby Lee
Middleweight: Javier Torres vs. Gregory Milliard
Flyweight: Sumiko Inaba vs. Randi Field
Lightweight: Lance Gibson Jr. vs. Raymond Pina
Bantamweight: Raphael Montini de Lima vs. Jaylon Bates
Welterweight: Mukhamed Berkhamov vs. Jaleel Willis
Strawweight (amateurs): Collette Santiago vs. Maria Henderson
* = Bellator Light Heavyweight World Grand Prix semifinals
(c) = defending champion