Bellator's big season: 8 fights to watch this fall

Freire's 21 wins in Bellator are the most in the promotion's history. Bellator MMA

It's not easy being No. 2. You're habitually overlooked, an afterthought, banished to the background. But every so often, the orchestra's second fiddle gets to step under the bright lights at center stage and show their stuff.

This autumn brings several opportunities for Bellator MMA to take more of the spotlight. It all begins on Saturday when the greatest champion in Bellator's history, Patricio Freire, defends his belt. That same night, the fight promotion's most acclaimed homegrown star, AJ McKee, attempts to conquer a new domain. And in less than two months, one of the company's most prized imports, Corey Anderson, has an opportunity to make a case for being the best light heavyweight in the world, regardless of promotion.

Add it all up and Bellator's momentum has never been better.

When Scott Coker took over in 2014, Bellator had few stars so the promotion veered toward character-driven spectacles, and the results were mixed at best. In recent years, though, Coker has utilized the formula he had relied upon a decade earlier to establish Strikeforce as a respected outlet for high-level combat.

The net result? Bellator has some of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world and athletes in their prime. Yes, the roster isn't as deep with talent as the UFC's, but Bellator cobbles together monthly events anchored by fights of consequence.

The stretch between now and the end of 2022 features four Bellator fight cards, three headlined by title bouts. The top-notch run begins this weekend with Bellator 286 in Long Beach, California, where "Pitbull" Freire defends his featherweight championship against Adam Borics (Saturday, 10 p.m. ET, Showtime).

But that's not the only blue-chip fight on the Bellator slate this fall. Here are five title bouts to look forward to during the rest of the year and a few other contests of interest tossed in.

The title bouts

Men's featherweight championship: Patricio "Pitbull" Freire (c) vs. Adam Borics

Bellator 286, Saturday in Long Beach, California

Freire is in his third reign as the 145-pound champion. He was a two-division champ before vacating the lightweight title last year to make way for the championship aspirations of his older brother, Patricky, who now owns that strap. But it's Patricio who has brought the Freire family most of its Bellator glory. His 21 victories inside the round cage are the most in company history, as are his 11 wins in Bellator title bouts. "Pitbull" is Bellator royalty. And on Saturday, the 35-year-old Brazilian faces a legit challenger to the throne. Borics is 18-1 and on a four-fight winning streak following his only defeat, which came against former bantamweight champion Darrion Caldwell. Freire is in for a fight.

Light heavyweight championship: Vadim Nemkov (c) vs. Corey Anderson 2

Bellator 288, Nov. 18 in Chicago

Anderson is the challenger -- but only technically. When these two met in April, Anderson was in complete control and cruising toward dethroning the champion from Russia. But an accidental clash of heads opened a gash on Nemkov's forehead and he could not continue, making the bout a no contest. Can Nemkov make the adjustments necessary to prolong his reign in this rematch? Or is Anderson destined to become champion and perhaps even lay claim to being the greatest 205-pounder on the planet? Before his arrival in Bellator two years ago, Anderson defeated a pair of former UFC champs, Glover Teixeira and Jan Blachowicz. There aren't many fighters outside the UFC who can make a legitimate case for being the best in the world. This guy could be one.

Lightweight championship: Patricky "Pitbull" Freire (c) vs. Usman Nurmagomedov

Bellator 288, Nov. 18 in Chicago

As if it weren't confusing enough that the older Freire bears the same nickname as his brother, now Patricky owns the same championship belt that Patricio did last year. This Freire became champion in November, and his first title defense comes against the undefeated cousin of retired former UFC champ Khabib Nurmagomedov. Along with the family ties surrounding this matchup, there's also the strong likelihood that judges will not be needed. Nurmagomedov has finished his past three fights and eight of his previous nine. Freire has gone the distance in just one of his six most recent victories.

Interim bantamweight championship: Raufeon Stots (c) vs. Danny Sabatello

Bellator 289, Dec. 8 in Uncasville, Connecticut

Stots was scheduled to challenge Sergio Pettis for the 135-pound belt in April, but Pettis had to pull out with an injury that required surgery. So Stots fought for and won an interim belt, which he now will defend in a bout that also serves as a semifinal of the Bellator Bantamweight World Grand Prix. (The other semi, pitting Patchy Mix against Magomed Magomedov, is on this same fight card.) Stots and Sabatello both can wrestle, and both can talk. That makes the message loud and clear: The lead-up could be as entertaining as the fight.

Women's flyweight championship: Liz Carmouche (c) vs. Juliana Velasquez 2

Bellator 289, Dec. 8 in Uncasville, Connecticut

Velasquez is 12-1, with the lone loss coming in April when Carmouche took away the 125-pound title via fourth-round TKO. For Carmouche, that victory was her fourth in a row since coming to Bellator following a UFC title fight loss to Valentina Shevchenko in 2019. But Carmouche is better known for a different defeat -- an armbar tap out against Ronda Rousey way back in 2013 in the first women's bout in UFC history. Now the fighter known as "Girl-Rilla" is looking to add more Bellator accolades to her personal history.

The best of the rest

Lightweight: AJ McKee vs. Spike Carlyle

Bellator 286, Saturday in Long Beach, California

McKee is a former featherweight champ, dethroning Patricio Freire last year with a choke out in less than two minutes. But "Pitbull" got his revenge in April, regaining the belt by winning the rematch by unanimous decision -- the only loss of McKee's career. Trilogy time? Nope, time for a change. "I've been at 145 for years and years and years and years, cutting a lot of weight," the 27-year-old McKee, who is 18-1 in a career fought entirely in Bellator, said on the night of the loss to Freire. "[Move to] 155, why not? Faster, stronger, bigger -- yeah, I'm going to unleash that beast, monster-style, baby." Can Carlyle and his five-fight winning streak contend with that?

Men's featherweight: Aaron Pico vs. Jeremy Kennedy

Bellator 286, Saturday in Long Beach, California

Is Pico still a rising prospect? That label was hung on him before his 2017 Bellator debut, which was his pro debut. And then the much-hyped Pico, a 2014 U.S. Junior national champion wrestler, lost that first fight in 24 seconds. He bounced back by reeling off four straight first-round finishes before losing two fights in a row, and he followed the short skid with six more consecutive wins. At age 26, where does Pico now stand in his career? We'll find out in this fight, as Kennedy (17-3, 1 NC) is a step up in competition compared to Pico's recent conquests.

Middleweight: Fabian Edwards vs. Charlie Ward

Bellator 287, Oct. 29 in Milan, Italy

This fight, the co-main event to a lightweight bout between Adam Piccolotti and Mansour Barnaoui, doesn't stack up to the others on this list, honestly. But Edwards vs. Ward is here because it has some backstory to it. Edwards is the younger brother of newly crowned UFC welterweight champion Leon Edwards. Like his sibling, Fabian is coming off the biggest win of his career, a first-round knockout of Lyoto Machida in May. Ward is a friend and training partner of Conor McGregor, who infamously leaped over the Bellator cage at a Dublin show in 2017 to celebrate with Ward and accost referee Marc Goddard. There's no reason to expect a sideshow next month, but who knows what'll happen if Ward's most famous fanboy is in the building?