This Saturday, Bellator's Raufeon 'Supa' Stots will compete for the interim title in the opening round of the organisation's Bantamweight Grand Prix.
After being matched up initially against long-time teammate (and champion) Sergio Pettis, a change in opponent due to injury means that Stots will now take on Juan Archuleta.
Unbeaten as a Bellator fighter, Stots will compete for his first belt in the promotion while riding a nine-fight winning streak.
So how does a guy who got knocked out via a devastating spinning back fist in front of UFC president Dana White manage to turn his fortunes around to become one of the most feared Bantamweights on the planet?
Supa Joins Bellator
Stots entered the Bellator cage in December 2019 after an impressive run in LFA where he went undefeated in the promotion. His inaugural Bellator appearance came against 7-1 Cheyden Leialoha; he entered as a heavy favourite and demonstrated why with a unanimous decision win.
The two-time NCAA D2 wrestling champion displayed all of the tools in his arsenal that, three years later, would make up a skill-set that has seen him victorious time and time again: his stalking forward pressure, the prodding leg kicks and body kicks, elite distance management, and truly world-class grappling.
Unfortunately, due to the Coronavirus pandemic, we wouldn't see Stots in a Bellator cage again for another 8 months.
Taking Necks and Cashing Cheques
Stots (and Bellator) returned to action in July 2020, marking the promotion's first card since the Coronavirus outbreak.
Stots was handed 5-0 prospect Cass Bell in the prelims and made his opponent look every bit like a regional-level fighter.
Stots opened the fight by catching a stray kick to the body by Bell and immediately looking to sweep his opponent. As the two tangled up, Bell managed to get Stots to the ground but fell into a guillotine attempt. Instead of burning his arms out looking for a quick submission, Stots pulled his hips out and transitioned to a front headlock which allowed him to control a hyper-defensive Bell for a large majority of the round.
Back on the feet, Stots established a fine kicking game to back Bell up against the fence. By digging to the body with his kicks and chopping at the legs of his opponent, Stots went back to his stool with a dominant round in the bag.
It may come as a surprise to some that this credentialed wrestler displays such comfort on the feet but it's worth noting a few factors: Stots grew up kickboxing before he even wrestled and he has been training at Roufusport under head coach Duke Roufus. Duke is a former American kickboxer who coaches the likes of Anthony Pettis and his brother Sergio while formerly coaching Paul Felder, too. All three men have strong karate, taekwondo, and kickboxing backgrounds that have rubbed off on Stots over the years.
After another round and a half of prodding kicks, slam takedowns, trip takedowns, and strikes in the clinch, Stots looked well on his way to a resounding 30-27 on the judges' scorecards. That is until he landed a thunderous right kick to the body of Bell that brought a wince out of his opponent and allowed Stots the chance to pounce. Circling to the back of his opponent up against the fence, Stots dragged him down and began to land heavy ground and pound. By controlling one of Bell's wrists, Stots was preventing the undefeated prospect from defending himself against the strikes - a testament to his adaptation from collegiate wrestling to MMA wrestling. Unable to resist the strikes of Stots, Bell began to fight the hand of Stots clutched on his wrist. However, Supa wasn't trying to end the fight via ground-and-pound. The controlling of the wrist was a masquerade for a submission. Bell took Stots' bait, left his neck exposed and Stots obliged with a quick rear-naked choke.
Main Card Spot
Four months after his resounding victory over Bell, Stots re-entered the Bellator cage with a spot on the main card as his reward for a dominant performance. Across the cage from him stood Keith Lee, brother of then-UFC-fighter Kevin Lee, who was riding a four-fight win streak and undefeated in the promotion much like Stots.
Opening the fight as a moderate favourite (-220), Stots quickly proved that the odds were nowhere near what they should have been.
It was clear from the get-go that Stots had little respect for the striking of Lee, immediately pressing forward and slugging it out in the pocket with his opponent. After a short brawl, Stots reset his position and continued stalking forward. Landing a beautiful inside leg kick, Stots forced Lee to immediately switch stances which allowed him to back Lee up against the cage to work the takedown.
Stots' use of hip pressure is masterful. He doesn't exert himself physically to dominate fighters on the ground - you will never see intensive movements requiring all of his core strength to keep a guy down. By using his hips to control them, Stots keeps fighters grounded with ease while he looks for the submission or lands cumulative damage. When wrestling at the University of Nebraska, Stots was mentored by UFC champion Kamaru Usman and so it's impossible not to see a bit of the Nigerian Nightmare's style infused in Stots' wrestling, in particular their hip pressure.
The second round went much like the first. Stots attacked the body of Lee with more kicks and began to hunt that spot even further, ripping a hook to the body that significantly slowed Lee down. Whether on the feet or on the ground, Stots had Lee completely outclassed.
The highlight of the second round was found in a grappling exchange when Stots snuck a hand behind Lee, in mid-air, and pulled his foot from underneath him. This destabilised Lee and saw the round end with Stots in mount landing shots.
In the third round, Stots wobbled Lee with a leg kick that forced the fighter to fight in an awkward stance for the remainder of the fight. Stots remained patient and calm, attacking when the opportunity opened up and wrestling when he knew he would face little resistance.
After 15 minutes of bell-to-bell dominance, Stots won via unanimous decision.
2021: Year of the Rankings
In March 2021, Bellator announced that they had introduced a ranking system to all of their weight classes. Fighters were no longer solely judged on performance but also now a number next to their name that would dictate, in a perfect world, how close they were to a title shot.
Stots, on the back of three decisive wins and a then 14-1 record, was given the #4 spot in Bellator's bantamweight rankings. His following opponent? #7 ranked Josh Hill.
Hill was 20-3 at the time with two losses coming against one of the sport's most talented bantamweights in Marlon Moraes. While Stots once again opened as a moderate favourite (-225), Hill would be a true test of his quality and ranking number.
Stots started the fight much like expected: leg kick, body kick and with Hill immediately on the back foot. Unable to establish any offense whatsoever, Hill found himself frozen against the fence as Stots dragged him right to the ground.
Stots quickly laced one of Hill's arms to open him up to uncontested ground strikes, much like he did against Cass Bell.
What's interesting about Stots' wrestling is that he's always fighting with foot position in mind. There's a constant attack of his opponents' heels and a tangling of feet to get them to the ground. You can see this most in his clinch work but also when he gets them down. He's always extending his opponents' legs with his feet and working to flatten them on their backs. You're never going to see bombastic, explosive takedowns from Stots but rather highly technical positioning that gets the fight exactly where he wants it.
Just as the first round neared its end, Stots flattened Hill out and cinched in a rear-naked choke. Two seconds later, the referee separated the fighters as the round ended. Had Stots applied the move a few seconds earlier, he would have likely walked away with a first-round submission.
Boasting a 72.5" reach, Stots is one of the longer 135lbs fighters in MMA. He fights every bit like it too. Blending a mastery of range and distance management, Stots displays a striking game that makes him almost impossible to counter. He walks you down with a clean, snapping jab and crowds you against the fence where you are unable to establish any rhythm or string together combinations. In all of Stots' Bellator fights to date, it's hard to recall him getting hit with a combination or successive amount of strikes.
Just look at this slick one-two from the southpaw stance; he then blocks the shot in return and follows it up with a front kick to force a circling Hill back up against the fence:
Stots had him frozen for the entire fight.
When Hill started to load up on his singular shots in the final round out of desperation, Stots recognised the telegraphed efforts and adjusted immediately:
Another dominant decision win.
Enter Magomed Magomedov
Just three months after his win over Hill, Stots was back in the Bellator cage. For the first time in his career, Stots entered a fight as a heavy underdog (+400). His opponent, the surging Dagestani Magomed Magomedov, had a win over former UFC champion Petr Yan to his name. In addition to that, his sole career defeat at 18-1 was against Yan in the rematch. If he wasn't knocking people out or submitting them, Magomedov was dominating fights with his top-tier wrestling and array of spinning strikes.
And so 16-1 Stots met 18-1 Magomedov in a fight largely believed to be for the #1 contender spot.
Stots, undeterred by the unfamiliar territory that comes with being an underdog, claimed that he was "better in every area" than the Dagestani. He fought like it, too.
Stots' confidence was evident in the way he opened the round, throwing a head kick that landed on Magomedov. When the Dagestani attempted a takedown in the middle of the cage, Stots reacted with a lightning-quick sprawl that cancelled out the attempt.
On the feet, Stots' style was unchanged. The patented one-two and slick jab worked to keep Magomedov on the back foot and nullify his style of fighting.
The clash between the two was always going to be determined by who could establish their high-pressure style first. In the opening round, it was clear that Stots had won that battle.
Defending another takedown attempt, Stots caught a body kick from Magomedov and took the Dagestani down.
In round two, Magomedov attacked the single leg and managed to get Stots down. After a few seconds of tussling for position, Stots worked his way back to his feet with a stunning hip-in reversal:
On the feet Stots' double jab was forcing Magomedov to second guess loading up on spinning strikes and continued to back the Dagestani up. When you're used to always fighting on the front foot, it's hard to adjust to a different style mid-fight.
Magomedov shot for another takedown which Stots sprawled on.
Heading into the final round, Stots was arguably up by two rounds and had defended one-of-four takedowns which is not common in a Magomedov fight.
Stots continued to manage distance and chip away at Magomedov. Magomedov wasn't interested in catching any of Stots' kicks in order to force the grappling exchange. Instead, he was incessant in his pursuit of the double leg. In the fight's most entertaining moment, Stots stuffed another takedown attempt and ankle picked Magomedov to jump on the Dagestani's back and initiate a rear-naked choke.
Magomedov fought the hands intelligently to defend against a choke which Stots would describe in his post-fight interview as having the Dagestani "gargling." Magomedov eventually worked his way into top position and with a few seconds left on the clock, found Stots' arm and attempted a submission out of desperation. Stots defended the armbar and the round ended.
Magomedov hadn't been a cakewalk for Stots but he had hardly faced any adversity. He looked better on the feet, and certainly on the ground, against a fighter who many believed was a shoo-in for the Bantamweight belt.
Sweeping a decision on every single judges' scorecard (29-28, 30-27 x2), Stots extended his undefeated streak to nine and shot his shot on the microphone:
"I'm the best wrestler in the division [...] what I would love is a Bantamweight million dollar tournament! If I gotta fight Sergio, I love you, but we gotta do it!"
Bellator president Scott Coker heeded Stots' wishes and now, fast-forward to April 2022, Stots will fight for the belt in the opening round of the Bantamweight million dollar Grand Prix.
How Does Stots Beat Archuleta?
In a fight that was initially supposed to be between teammates Stots and Sergio Pettis, Juan Archuleta stepped in to replace the injured champion. As such, Bellator decided to create an interim belt to preserve the stakes in this fight and tournament at large.
Archuleta, the former Bellator Bantamweight champion who lost his belt to Pettis in 2021, will be looking to reclaim gold and enact revenge over Pettis' teammate. He's 25-3 with his only losses in the organisation coming against Patricio Pitbull and the aforementioned Pettis. Archuleta is a serious power-puncher and by far the hardest hitter Stots has faced in his career.
After his last outing where he found himself a heavy underdog, Stots is back in 'favourite' territory and while the odds haven't yet settled, he hasn't dropped below -200 at any point since they opened. Archuleta's experience in 5-round fights might give him a little cardio advantage over Stots who has only gone 5 rounds once - way back in 2017 against UFC veteran Rob Emerson for the Victory FC bantamweight title.
While Archuleta is a brilliant striker, he does his best work on the front foot and puts shots behind forward pressure. Stots has yet to be backed up in any of his Bellator fights and managed to stay on the front foot against a fighter in Magomedov who is best known for going 50 minutes with Yan - inarguably the most effective pressure-fighter at 135lbs in the entire world.
Stots will approach this fight like many of his others - and he has to in order to nullify the game of Archuleta. Stots' leg kicks will be key as they should eventually reduce Archuleta's punching power. Pettis executed a similar game plan and, aside from one contentious round, completely shut Archuleta out. When you consider the fact that Pettis and Stots have the same head coach - and you parlay that with Stots' supremely strong wrestling - it comes as no surprise that Stots enters the biggest fight of his career as a favourite.
We have seen Stots freeze strikers up in the past and while none of those fighters were of the calibre of Archuleta, it's a style that Stots tends to dominate against.
While the proposed Pettis fight would have forced Stots to change his style to a more wrestling-heavy approach, the Archuleta fight shouldn't force a change out of Stots' game.
If Stots can secure the interim belt on Saturday, he'll cement himself as one of the very best bantamweights in the world - and not just under the Bellator banner. For anyone who has followed Stots since his rise through the regional circuit, it feels like a long time coming for the 33-year-old who is very much a star in the making.