Ahead of their big bouts at Bellator 297 in Chicago, hear from three world champions about fighting in the Windy City, spreading their wings as entrepreneurs, and more.
In 2023, professionally sanctioned facepunching enthusiasts have never had so many options for genuflecting at belligerent bacchanal. From Singapore-based ONE Championship crashing the gates of the US on Prime Video to the UFC’s prolific, expansive ESPN deal to a global boxing biz increasingly likely to stream cards featuring a TikTok influencer co-maining for a world champion, you’re looking at a consumer marketplace that could only be described as thicc.
Against that brawl-tastic backdrop, Bellator MMA’s approach to combat sports entertainment is in a favorable position.
Setting itself apart from its mixed martial arts brethren through its $1 million Grand Prix tournaments and willingness to co-promote events with overseas organizations like Japan’s Rizin Fighting Federation, this outfit has wind in its sails entering Friday’s Bellator 297 card at Chicago’s Wintrust Arena, and to ring in the occasion, Boardroom caught up with three of its world champions to get an insider’s view of what’s to come:
- Patricio “Pitbull” Freire, featherweight champion, former lightweight champion, and consensus Bellator GOAT chasing MMA history as a three-division titlist in the 135-pound bantamweight division
- Sergio Pettis, the incumbent bantamweight champ looking to deny Pitbull his shot at glory
- Vadim Nemkov, light heavyweight champion seeking his fourth title defense against ageless boogeyman Yoel Romero
Check out our conversation with these three belt-holders as below as we dove into what makes fighting in Chicago special, their thoughts on Bellator’s positioning in the global business of MMA, and how they’ve evolved as businessmen in their own right after cashing so many main event checks.
The following responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Talking Bellator 297 with Vadim Nemkov, Patricio Pitbull & Sergio Pettis
The story combines three conversations that took place separately. Nemkov and Pitbull’s responses are via translator.
What do you anticipate about your opponent’s game plan for you on Friday night?
VADIM NEMKOV: I think [Yoel Romero]’s going to try to make a counter-punch. I think he’s gonna work on his style and he’s gonna try to make explosive moves. That’s how I think he’s gonna work with me.
SERGIO PETTIS: A lot of people, when they fight me, they go out there that first round, they start to feel me, they think they’re gonna walk through me. They’re like, “Oh, this guy’s a gamer. This guy could compete.” I feel like this fight is gonna show my level of skill. We’ll see how the weight cut plays against [Patricio Pitbull]; I think he’s gonna come hard for the first couple rounds. I like when these guys try to go out there and try to inflict their will on me, and by the time it’s third, fourth, fifth round, I start finding my groove and I start finding these shots and start really trusting in my game and believing in myself.
I’m not gonna lie, I’m a slow starter. I’ve had that throughout my whole career, but even though I’m a slow starter, I have amazing defense. I have amazing IQ and range control, so we’ll see how he does with that. As far as the standup game, I think this man’s gonna shoot on me, to be honest. I think he’s gonna try to take me down, hold me down.
What’s it like to fight in Chicago — the atmosphere, the fans, the whole experience?
PATRICIO PITBULL: The only thing I can really remember from that night [at Bellator 221] is when we were at the hotel hallway and I was telling my coach how I would knock [lightweight champion Michael Chandler] out, and I was doing that movement and I was showing him how I would hit him with a straight white overhead jab and he would fall, which ended up happening. From that moment on, it’s like I had tunnel vision and I didn’t see anything anymore until I got into the fights. Rather than pay attention to the crowd or anything, I just said that in my mind [that] I would do it and then I went in there and do it, and that’s what still reverberates with me.
NEMKOV: I have been in Chicago. I had a second fight with Corey Anderson there [at Bellator 288]. I know this arena. I know the fans — I love the Chicago fans and I’m looking forward to see them again.
PETTIS: I’m from the midwest, man, so I think they’re definitely gonna, be on my side, and we got a Brazilian coming in the US — USA, baby, Team USA — but I got a lot of family and friends coming out to support me and I’m putting on not only for Milwaukee MMA, but midwest MMA. We got a big MMA scene out here, man, just starting to see us keep growing more and more. We got some great champions from the midwest: My brother, Anthony, myself, we got Jamahal Hill, Rose Namajunas is from the midwest, so the midwest breeds a lot of tough fighters.
It comes from the code, man. A blue-collared city, you know, over here in Milwaukee, a lot of hard workers. I think the code definitely changes, that toughness, that grittiness, having to go to practice even though there’s snow, you can’t even get outta your house, you gotta shovel just to go to work, you know? So, I think the code definitely makes for killers.
What do you make of Bellator offering things a lot of other MMA promotions don’t, including million-dollar Grand Prix tournaments and co-promotions with organizations like Rizin in Japan?
PETTIS: I think it’s beautiful, you know, the fact that two organizations could promote together. It’s a beautiful thing. We see it in other sports like boxing, but to be in an organization [for which] I could possibly fight in Japan and I could possibly become a millionaire by fighting for a Grand Prix is awesome. You’re not seeing that in other organizations, so Bellator has been doing well for some years now, man, and I think they’re only getting better and better and becoming one of the main players over here in MMA.
I feel like I gotta get over there [to Japan]. I have a lot of fans out there that reach out to me, and I’ve only fought in Mexico City, Canada, and the US, so I really never left where I’m at right now. I’d like to go out there and get the opportunity to fight anybody at those other organizations, too, man. I’d like to go and fight for a Rizin belt. I like to go and possibly fight for a [flyweight] belt if the opportunity presented itself, but as of right now, none of that matters to me. I got Patricio Pitbull June 16. That’s my main goal.
NEMKOV: It’s really great that Bellator [does] such good things for the fans. They [are] open for all opportunities, and for me, it’s an honor to be part of this. If Bellator gave me the chance to fight with a champion of another organization, I will be ready. I will stand [with] Bellator ’til the end.
Let me finish this fight, and I will ask [Bellator President] Scott Coker about the fight in Japan, ’cause I wanna go there. The MMA fans in Japan treat you like you are God, like you are God of War. That inspires you to give the fans as [much as] you can give. That’s why I love to be there. If Bellator give me this opportunity, they are special.
PITBULL: I think [Bellator] has many things to teach the other organizations, with the cross-promotion and all that. And also, this sport is not [just] about the fights; it’s also about entertainment. You have that with the [walk-up] ramp, the lighting, the flying cage — you know, they have the cage coming down [from above]. It’s gonna happen now in Japan as well, changing the scenario of the fights.
So, there are many things that Bellator does that other organizations could learn, and I think it’s great. It’s great for the sport, it’s great for everyone. Bellator thinks of all the aspects that the fans might enjoy.
We know you as a fighter, but who are you as a businessman? As an investor?
PITBULL: Ever since I start, the money that was left for my purse — like, I’ve paid my bills and all that — I invest all that in land, so I have a lot of land here in Brazil. I have some other property that I receive rent from, and I have a farm where I have animals like cows and bulls that produce milk and to produce their next generation and all that. I have an egg farm, too, and we starting producing eggs there for sale.
I’ve been making many business. I also have the gym, the Pitbull Brothers gym. It’s growing big. After I started putting my name after doing things, after some international fighters started coming over, some of those guys and the other kids that we had coming up on the team, many of them have international contracts with the UFC, with Bellator, and this produces some net revenue for the gym as well. So, I have all those fronts and I’ve been working on that so I can be perfectly happy once my career is over.
PETTIS: I’m at an age now where that all matters. At 29 years old, definitely the main goal is still fighting. The main business is fighting, this is what I love to do — the hurt business — and something that’s gonna be hard to get away from when it’s all said and done. But after having this ACL injury, it really shows you that you do need to have some options outside of fighting. I got some good ideas coming up, and [with] the drive and the competition that I have, I’m gonna be able to transfer that over to something else when it’s said and done.
NEMKOV: Of course, right now, I have more money than before and I’m trying to help my family. I have a big family, so I support them and I’m trying to be a farmer.
What kind of farmer I am? I have a lake, I have a fish farm. I’m a fish farmer, and also I made a garden of — how in English? — The nuts. Nuts. So, fish and nuts [laughs].
Final prediction for Friday night: How does your bout go and what’s the final result?
NEMKOV: I’m ready for everything. I can’t say to you how it’s gonna end, but I want to finish it by knockout or by submission. I’m ready for five rounds. I’m ready for everything. For me, very important that the fans watching live or on TV just enjoy this fight. They will remember it for me.
PITBULL: You’re gonna see history being made. You’re gonna be seeing Patricio Pitbull tap into that cage and leave as the first three-division champion in MMA history of life and the first real triple-champ in the sport. I don’t know how exactly I’m gonna finish this fight, but you can be certain that it’s not going to the judges’ hand. I’m gonna get it done within the five rounds and I’ll have my hands raised in the end.
I have a feeling that I’m gonna smother [Pettis] and submit him.
PETTIS: For sure, I think that’s his game plan, honestly — I think he’s gonna try to go out there and put me in these guillotines. He’s got a killer guillotine, he’s got good pressure on the floor. You know, him being the bigger guy, I think he’s gonna try to use that size advantage on me, but I’m a strong dude, man, at 135. I feel he’s gonna be surprised with how smart I am.
These guys are gonna try to take me down to hold me down. These guys don’t wanna go out there and stand and bang with me, so I see that going exactly the same way. He can try to submit me; I really hope he puts a lot of gas on that submission trying to take me down and trying to get me tired. I think he’s just gonna tire himself out.
Other Bellator Champion Highlights
Pitbull on the decision to chase history as a three-division world champion:
A series of factors [contributed], but the main thing was the short amount of difference between featherweight and lightweight, and then I was able to go up and knock out Michael Chandler in one minute, the guy who, at the time, was a monster. He was the biggest, the best lightweight to have a fight in Bellator history, and so it was a huge thing for me, for my career — and of course, all the personal things we had involved.
Now, after 10 years dominating the featherweight division, I wanted more and I was thinking what I could do more to make things even more impressive. The dropdown to bantamweight isn’t so far away, either, and the opportunity present itself to me and I decided to grab it and go ahead and do this as no one has ever done before.
Pettis on his dream endorsement deal:
You know, I’ve never been asked that question — personally, I think something like PlayStation. I’m a gamer, so having a gaming sponsor would be dope. You know, something kind of like what Demetrious Johnson is doing. I was trying [Twitch streaming] this summer a little bit and kind of just jumped back from it just to focus on fighting and stuff, but yeah,I feel like this next summer, I’m gonna definitely get back at it.
I already got some good ideas too. Like that guy who said “Let me, let me bang, bro,” I had an idea: “Let me game, bro,” you know? [Laughs] So, I got some ideas, I got some ideas that gotta put out in the world.
Pitbull on what he makes of the Bellator GOAT conversation:
Talking about being the GOAT, I don’t even need to speak much about that, ’cause if you look at my numbers, everything that I’ve accomplished and how I’ve accomplished [it] and all the time I’ve been at the top, I don’t think there’s even a question about who belongs with me in that conversation. [I’m] far ahead of the curve on that.
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