Bellator women’s flyweight champion Juliana Velasquez attempts to make her second defense against one of MMA’s most battle-tested veterans in Liz Carmouche at Bellator 278. Velasquez vs. Carmouche headlines the first of two consecutive nights of Bellator action in Honolulu, Hawaii.
Velasquez’s ceiling as a world champion is still in question. Her unanimous decision win over Ilima-Lei Macfarlane in December 2020 could have served as a launching pad. After all, Bellator was positioning Macfarlane as a cornerstone of the brand. However, Velasquez (12-0) had a messy first title defense against Denise Kielholtz in July, eking out a split decision win over the Bellator Kickboxing women’s flyweight champion. A decisive victory over an established, battle-tested veteran like Carmouche is exactly what Velasquez needs to put some respect on her name.
“Carmouche is a very experienced fighter but today I am the world champion, not her,” Velasquez said at media day. “I look at the poster and I’m super stoked to be here. But I think I should be in the women’s pound-for-pound discussion. I have one fight coming up and my name is for sure going to be on the list after this matchup.
“Carmouche is definitely my most experienced opponent, but I don’t think she’s my hardest task. A fight is a fight so let’s see what happens. I think Lara from Colombia and Ilima-Lei Macfarlane were my toughest opponents.”
Carmouche mapped her road to the world title and it didn’t intersect with Velasquez. Carmouche was intent on fighting close-knit training partner Macfarlane for Bellator supremacy until Velasquez intercepted. Carmouche had an unexpected and disappointing split from UFC following a decision loss to reigning UFC women’s flyweight champion Valentina Shevchenko. Carmouche made the move to Bellator with something to prove, cruising through three opponents to secure a championship fight. Carmouche has momentum on her side after obliterating Kana Watanabe in 35 seconds at Bellator 261. One half of UFC’s first women’s fight — opposite Ronda Rousey in the main event of UFC 157 — capturing Bellator gold would be a major feather in the cap of the Invicta and Strikeforce veteran.
“I think everybody talks about Velasquez being a black belt in judo. That’s the most challenging thing but at the same time, if the ground is where she wants to go, I’d love to show her what the ground looks like with me,” Carmouche said. “I don’t think that’s something she’s going to want to use. I think she’s going to want to keep it standing.
“I think in part it’s a front that she’s saying I’m not her toughest test. If I am being overlooked, great. I love being underrated. It just makes it that much sweeter for me… I saw zero evolution in Velasquez from the Macfarlane fight to the Denise Kielholtz fight. She looked like the same fighter in every fight that I’ve seen so far.”
Elsewhere on the card, Bellator kicks off its latest Grand Prix tournament in the bantamweight division. This version features a unique twist as Friday night brings a pair of wild card matchups for the right to qualify for the quarterfinals. Enrique Barzola takes on Nikita Mikhailov for the right to face Magomed Magomedov. And Danny Sabatello battles Jornell Lugo with the winner taking on Leandro Higo.
“I wasn’t even supposed to be in the tournament, obviously. For me to get in, two people had to fall out. Not one, but two. That happened. The fact that I’m even ranked, I’m 8-0. I’m not supposed to even be ranked,” Lugo said at media day. “I just so happen to have more fights in Bellator than most of these other guys like Brett Johns, Danny Sabatello, Enrique Barzola. These guys are veterans and they’re not ranked. But because I’ve been here for so long and have five fights, I was ranked.”
Bellator 278 viewing information
Date: April 22 | Start time: 10 p.m. ET
Location: Neal S. Blaisdell Arena — Honolulu, Hawaii
Juliana Velasquez vs. Liz Carmouche: Velasquez and Carmouche are far from the most devastating finishers in the game. Velasquez has gone to the scorecards in more than half of her professional fights. Carmouche recently walloped Watanabe, but that was her first knockout or TKO win in nearly a decade. Carmouche can do damage on the inside and from top position, assuming she can get the fight there. Velasquez is a relatively risk-averse fighter who is content to slow things down and pick away at opponents from a distance. Her high-level judo skills should empower her to fend off takedowns. The betting odds have Velasquez as a small favorite and that sounds about right. Carmouche has advantages she can exploit at Bellator 278, but finding those openings will be difficult. Velasquez UD