The MMA scene is back in the Valley as Bellator 268 takes place Saturday at the Footprint Center, and while the main event features two Europeans, the rest of the card is stacked with local Arizona talent, including Arizona State University alum and current heavyweight champion Ryan Bader.
“I’ve always wanted to fight in Phoenix on a big show and it never happened,” Bader said. “I’ve fought (at) Indian reservations three hours away but never had the opportunity to fight in Phoenix. My friends and family will be there, there’ll be tons of them … it’ll be that much sweeter after a win.”
Joining Bader out of the local MMA crop is longtime fighter and future Hall of Famer Benson Henderson, who is excited to be back fighting in the Valley, in front of his family and friends.
“I told Mike Kogan of Bellator, ‘Hey it’s awesome, we love fighting in Arizona, we’re glad to be able to fight here yada yada yada, let’s not ever have me fight here in Arizona again.’ I had to buy like freaking 50 tickets,” Henderson said, jokingly. “I’m super thrilled that so many of our friends and family and fans here locally will be able to check us out and come out and support and cheer us all on.”
By “us,” Henderson meant his wife, Maria, who started her own MMA journey in 2021. After earning her first amateur win in February, she looks to go 2-0 this weekend at the Footprint Center. The bout also marks the first time the couple have ever fought on the same MMA card. Even so, the pair have seen little change in their routine, as they strive to keep a balance between parenting and being MMA athletes.
“Pretty much the same just a little more extra training and then a little less of just one person being tired with the kids, now we’re both tired with the kids,” said Maria as Benson nodded in agreement.
Past Arizona residents have also returned for the week as Canadian fighter Lance Gibson Jr. is familiar with downtown Phoenix, being an ASU alum himself.
“You know what, I actually went to school down here before. So I went to Arizona State University and my campus was like a block away from where we’re staying right now at the hotel, “ Gibson said. “So it was actually really common for me to be passing the Footprint Center every week.
“Whenever I’d come down to my classes downtown, I pass the Footprint Center. And I always looked at it like, huh, I never knew exactly what was going to happen. But it’s crazy how things go full circle, I’m back here in Arizona, but I’m fighting on a big stage for Bellator.”
However, Gibson is aware the hometown crowd will likely favor his opponent Raymond Pina, a Tucson native, but doesn’t see that as a big hindrance on his overall performance come fight night.
“To me, like, it really doesn’t matter. At the end of the day, I know what I have to do, and that’s to go in and be the best martial artist that I can be and that can beat anybody,” he said. “So I think everybody, it doesn’t matter whether they’re his fans, or whether my friends or fans, they’ll be impressed by my skills in there.”
Gibson’s comments resonate with MMA veteran Corey Anderson as he relishes being the villain in front of a hometown crowd.
“I feel like coming here, being the villain of the hometown, you know I’m just excited. I love it because I’ve said a million times before I just don’t feel I’m ever a crowd favorite. I’m never a fan favorite,” Anderson said.
Known as “Overtime,” Anderson attributes the lack of fandom to his wrestling-heavy MMA style but hopes this lack of attention will contribute to the win column on Saturday, and he’ll advance to the Light Heavyweight Grand Prix Finals.
“My style isn’t that exciting but you’re going to feel my wrath even if I lose,” Anderson said. “When the fights are over, I’ve had the guys I lost to tell me, ‘Bro I would never want to fight you again, it’s just your pace, the combos, what you do is just tough to deal with.’ And my favorite part is just coming in, everybody’s gonna boo me. But when it was all over, said and done, it went from ‘Ooh’ to ‘Ah’ to everybody’s face drop and at the end, I got my hand raised.
“That’s the most exciting thing for me, just looking at the crowd and everybody has the same long face and I’m just smiling.”
Bader, the current heavyweight champ, acknowledged the rise of the MMA world in Arizona, and said he hopes more major promotions, like Bellator and the UFC, will continue to make noise in the Valley.
“It’s always been big,” Bader said. “We just haven’t gotten a lot of big fights out here. We got a bunch of great gyms, a bunch of great fighters coming out of Arizona. I would hope bigger shows, Bellator and all that, keep coming back.”
Story by Amiliano Fragoso, Cronkite News