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Bellator 258: Juan Archuleta has been the headliner all along, but now he really gets his moment

Juan Archuleta will make the first defense of his bantamweight championship against Sergio Pettis in the main event of Bellator 258 on Friday night in Uncasville, Connecticut. That’s the fight most prominently displayed on the event’s promotional poster, but until last week a different bout on the card was drawing all of the attention. It seemed that the whole MMA world couldn’t wait to see the power-packed light heavyweight co-main event between Yoel Romero and Anthony “Rumble” Johnson.

Then Romero failed a medical screening and was pulled from the matchup of former UFC title challengers, which was to be part of the Bellator Light Heavyweight World Grand Prix. It was a huge blow to this event. Johnson remains on the card at Mohegan Sun Arena, now making his Bellator debut against Jose Augusto in the tournament’s only remaining quarterfinal. But that is not as high-profile of a matchup, so Archuleta vs. Pettis has been thrust under the spotlight befitting a main event.

This has been a turbulent week for the MMA fight schedule. Aside from the changes at Bellator 258, the UFC did not announce its Marina Rodriguez vs. Michelle Waterson main event for Saturday’s fight card until Tuesday, and the announcement did little to soften the blow of losing TJ Dillashaw vs. Cory Sandhagen from that fight card’s marquee. On top of that, the PFL’s Thursday night event lost a fight featuring 2019 heavyweight champion Ali Isaev.

What remains of Bellator 258 does have some interesting storylines. Here are three things to watch for on Friday night:

1. Archuleta can make a name for himself

Archuleta has won 20 of his last 21 bouts and has not lost since 2015. He owns a championship belt after capturing the vacant title in September by winning a decision over previously unbeaten Patchy Mix. But as Bellator titleholders go, Archuleta is not a star on the level of, say, two-division champ Patricio “Pitbull” Freire, who handed him his one recent loss when Archuleta challenged for the featherweight title in 2019. The 33-year-old Californian has a lower profile than most Bellator champions, in fact, from Cris Cyborg to Ryan Bader, Douglas Lima to Gegard Mousasi.

Friday’s fight could give Archuleta a boost in visibility. Pettis is a strong challenger and a name fighter, from his time in the UFC and simply by being the brother of former UFC lightweight champion Anthony Pettis. He has won three in a row, including his first two flights in Bellator. As someone who owns victories over UFC title challengers Joseph Benavidez, Brandon Moreno and John Moraga, Pettis brings legitimacy to this title bout. If the champ can get by him, it will have been an accomplishment.

The cancellation of Rumble vs. Romero hurts the cause of casting a brighter spotlight on Archuleta, though, because that co-main event would have drawn a large audience, which likely would have stuck around to watch the main event. Now the champ might just have to be an attention grabber all on his own.

2. ‘Rumble’ debut still surrounded by possibility

The last time we saw Johnson, he was challenging Daniel Cormier for the UFC light heavyweight championship in April 2017. Immediately after his second-round submission loss, Johnson announced his retirement. “I’ll miss MMA and every aspect of the game,” he wrote on social media, “but my time is over and I’m ready to watch the new generation take over.”

More than four years later, Johnson is returning in hopes of generating his own takeover. Among the eight 205-pounders in the Grand Prix, the 37-year-old probably is the one with the most fan interest behind him. And that is in a tournament field that also includes two reigning Bellator champions, one former champ and an ex-UFC champion. But there’s always been something intriguing about “Rumble” and the violence he brings to the cage. He lives up to his nickname.

A fight with Romero would have put Johnson’s return under a brighter spotlight. Instead, Augusto simply presents a tricky test. The 29-year-old Brazilian protege of the Pitbull brothers has won his last five fights, most recently his Bellator debut, a first-round submission of Jonathan Wilson five weeks ago. That means he’s an active fighter, not someone ending a four-year absence from the sport. But this is Johnson’s night to shine. If ring rust doesn’t get the best of him and he earns a win on Friday, he’d be propelled into a title fight against Vadim Nemkov in the tournament semifinals. So much for the new generation.

3. Page still has a chance to be the MVP

Michael “Venom” Page has won four straight fights since suffering his only career loss in a 2019 welterweight title bout against Douglas Lima. But the image of that devastating knockout lingers.

Had Page won that fight, he would have earned a date in the Bellator Welterweight World Grand Prix against the promotion’s biggest star at the time, Rory MacDonald. Instead, MVP’s career buildup lost all momentum. On Friday, he will be in the kind of fight that could help him build upon his recent success against lesser-known competition. Derek Anderson is a Bellator stalwart.

Page and Anderson have been scheduled to meet twice before, in 2017 and 2019, but injuries scuttled those matchups. It’s good that it’s finally going to happen. Anderson has won his last three fights and, like Page, is building toward something bigger. He is a tough test, and Page needs this kind of test in order for Bellator to know what it has in MVP.

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