Is Bellator’s bantamweight division the real deal?

On October 2, ESPN confirmed that UFC veteran Brett Johns, the first Welshman to be signed by the premier MMA organization, had penned a multi-fight deal with Bellator. The news came just hours after the likes of Usman Nurmagomedov and Rustam Khalibov signed with the promotion.

Bellator have seemingly switched their approach in terms of signing new talent, seeking up and coming, high-level prospects (or veterans) in regards to recycling stars from a previous era. Despite this new strategy only being implemented for a number of months, it has already begun paying dividends for President Scott Coker and his team, as a number of new spectators have flocked to judge the fresh talent for themselves. Expect this to continue with their newest signees.

Although each of the nine divisions in Bellator are deepening and acquiring more skillful athletes, one sticks out from the pack. Bantamweight is this division, currently ruled by blitzing striker Juan Archuleta and home to a wealth of exciting combatants.

Today, we will be looking at five of bantamweight’s finest in Bellator and giving an answer to the question – is this weight class the real deal?

Both Brett Johns and Jared Scoggins – the promotions latest additions to 135 – will not be featured.

4. Ricky Bandejas (13-4)

In 2018, a relatively unknown bantamweight by the name of Ricky Bandejas burst onto the MMA scene, showing shades of Shawn Michaels when he collected a first-round head kick victory over the undefeated James Gallagher. This knockout went viral across all social media platforms and gifted Bandejas instant overnight success.

When competing in the cage, the American Top Team standout prefers tagging the opposition with jabs or leg kicks at range. Finding and staying at this optimal range is extremely necessary for Bandejas, who performs best when his timing is down to a tee. A great example of this would be his right hand, which more often than not sneaks its way over the guard of his adversary.

Since arriving in Bellator, Ricky has amassed a record of 3-3; while that may seem average, it’s worth noting that these losses came at the hands Juan Archuleta, Patrick Mix and Sergio Pettis, all of whom feature on this list. Each of these losses highlighted an area in which Bandejas had to improve and after succumbing to the submission prowess of the aforementioned Mix, he began putting more of an emphasis on his grappling abilities. While we haven’t seen too much of these refined skills, his clinch and takedown game looked sharper against Pettis, therefore, it’s worth noting this for his future bouts.

At the time of writing, Ricky Bandejas is set to square off with former title contender Leandro Higo on October 15, in a fight that’ll move the victor one step closer to the world title.

3. Eduardo Dantas (21-7)

Coming in at third is Brazil’s Eduardo Dantas, a two-time Bellator bantamweight champion with a wealth of experience under the promotional banner.

A professional since 2007, Dantas has fought a number of crafty competitors across his 13-year career, most notably running through UFC veterans Wilson Reis and Zach Makovsky. These performances put him on the map in terms of the sports community and nothing but positive things followed, for a while.

In spite of his overall career success, Dantas has hit arduous times, dropping three out of his last four outings (albeit to top-level fighters). His most recent performance was at 145-pounds where Juan Archuleta, bantamweights current kingpin, rendered him unconscious with a hefty right hook. Before the finishing blow, Dantas was visibly struggling to track his opponent down and pile on the pressure, allowing plenty of space for Archuleta to work and begin his blitz-style attacks; we’ve seen better days from the 31-year-old.

“Dudu” enjoys keeping the opposition on the backfoot with their backs against the fence, landing his body kicks or jabbing to manage distance and build offense. I believe his best attributes are both hand speed and these body kicks, which haven’t been used effectively as of late. When used correctly they aid him in his gameplan of ruling the center of the cage, forcing his fellow fighter to either step back or shift sidewards.

While I think regaining bantamweight gold is now out of reach for Dantas, it’s evident that he remains one of the promotions best at 135. He has yet to compete since his 2019 defeat to Archuleta but a fight between him and any fellow ranked bantamweight remains a competitive one.

2. Patrick Mix (13-1)

Fresh off a five-round encounter with new champion Juan Archuleta, Patrick “Patchy” Mix has long been one of Bellator’s highest touted prospects, although his 2-1 promotional record may look like otherwise.

In 13 professional wins Mix has collected nine submissions, with his most common chokehold being the rear-naked choke. This familiar choke was on display in his debut performance as he strangled a helpless Ricky Bandejas, as pictured above. This marked his arrival on the big stage, and just 15 months later was competing for a world title. Although he fell short at the final hurdle, there was plenty to learn from his performance and this sole career defeat will stand as more of a learning curve for the youthful 27-year-old.

Patrick Mix’s keys to victory whenever he stands toe-to-toe from an opponent remain the same: lock in a submission. Whether that be through a back take against the cage or capitalizing on a rival’s mistake, the art of the submission is constantly circulating in his mind. With a 93% win ratio, it’s hard to argue against it.

It’s highly likely that we see Mix take some time off succeeding his recent defeat, making it hard to pinpoint who could be next for the American. It is evident that he’s among the very best in Bellator’s 135-pound weight class and the writer envisions this lasting for quite some time.

1. Sergio Pettis (20-5)

Bantamweight’s current number 1 contender hails from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and in just two appearances, has made his mark within the organization he now chooses to call home.

In the wake of his three-minute destruction of Alfred Khashakyan in January, UFC vet Sergio Pettis was booked in a main event slot adjacent to the fifth ranked Ricky Bandejas, where he obtained a clean unanimous decision win. This punched his ticket as the sole clear contender at 135, leading many to believe that a title bout is the only realistic next step.

Many will be aware of Pettis from his six year stint in the UFC, where he most notably defeated the likes of Brandon Moreno and Joseph Benavidez. Both these victories came at flyweight, and since switching promotions has returned to the weight class above. Experience at the highest level is an advantage he holds over everybody and this will play a factor in his eventual title fight with Archuleta.

Sergio boats impressive stand-up abilities and performs best when using his speed and kicks combined with volume; many are unable to prepare for such a challenge. Accompanied by a black belt in Taekwondo, Rofusport Kickboxing and Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, Pettis is an outright challenge for those laying in his path, leading many to believe that its only a matter of time until a belt is around his waist.

(C) Juan Archuleta (25-2)

Ultimately we land on Juan Archuleta, who presently serves as Bellator’s bantamweight king.

Capturing the title not too long ago, “The Spaniard” extended his professional record to 25-2, marking his return to bantamweight in incredible fashion. He’ll have little time to rest, though, as those layed poised in the wings will have their crosshairs fixated directly on his back.

Archuleta is one of, if not the divisons hardest hitter, having robbed lightweights of their consciousness before repping the Bellator banner; this is a relatively unheard of and unachieveable feat in the sport. This shattering power – mainly coming from the right hand – isn’t the only tool Archuleta uses to win fights, as his kicking and takedown game are actively improving.

Preferably, the writer would like to see him first defend his newly earned title against Sergio Pettis, the one distinct contender. A fight between the two has many variables, with Juan’s power more likely than not playing a big part in the outcome. Even with this threat, I’d be confident in Pettis to avoid being tagged (especially in the early goings) and bring the volume for a full 25-minute showdown.

Pettis, Mix or Bandejas, it doesn’t really matter to Archuleta, as this champion is here to stay.

After running through Bellator’s top five bantamweights, let us know your answer to the question – is this division the real deal?