Bellator middleweight champion Johnny Eblen wants to fight sooner rather than later, but since the PFL doesn’t currently have his division, he won’t get the chance to engage in a champ vs. champ fight at the promotion’s planned pay-per-view in early 2024.
That being said, Eblen knows there are other options available to him — the most notable being UFC veteran Derek Brunson, who made a successful PFL debut with a lopsided win over Ray Cooper III in November. If that’s a potential opponent who would get him back in action as early as February, Eblen is ready to sign on the dotted line immediately.
“I would love to fight him,” Eblen told MMA Fighting. “One thousand percent down for that. I would love to fight him. The guy has fought everybody. The who’s who in MMA, UFC veteran coming over to PFL, it would be a great matchup for me. I would love that. I would love that matchup.”
As for Brunson, he made his first appearance in PFL after an 11-year run in the UFC, where he was widely considered one of the best middleweights in the sport. He ultimately split with the UFC on his own accord, with hopes to rejuvenate his career with a fresh start somewhere else.
That’s exactly what he found with PFL, and while Brunson still plans on joining the light heavyweight tournament in 2024, he welcomes the chance to fight Eblen at middleweight.
“For sure, there’s a chance,” Brunson told MMA Fighting. “Johnny Eblen is a top guy, a top fighter. I’ve heard from a lot of accounts that he dominated Sean Strickland. I know they trained together. That’s hearsay but I’m just hearing that he’s that good.
“We can get it done. PFL, they know how to get it done. You want to motivate me to run every single day and invest into the camp, we can definitely get that fight and go out there and put on a good fight. I’m confident in my abilities to get the win there.”
Eblen may be considered one of the top middleweights across all MMA, but he’s always faced the stigma that he’s competing against competition from outside the UFC, which hinders the perception about where he sits among the elite fighters at 185 pounds.
Facing an established veteran like Brunson would look great on his résumé as Eblen continues to cement himself as one of the best fighters in the world in his division.
“Brunson is a good name to add to the list,” Eblen said. “Since I’m not in the UFC, I’m going to take any UFC vet out. I’m going to take everybody out. That’s what I have to do to solidify my name, so I’m going to continue to do that.
“I think he was fighting smart [against Ray Cooper]. I was impressed with his wrestling ability, to get the fight to the ground. He did well with his fight IQ. The only thing is there were no elbows so it was kind of hard to tell. I think that fight’s a little bit different if you have elbows allowed.”
As far as fighting in February, Brunson sounds up to the challenge if the PFL wants to book him against Eblen. While it would be a quick turnaround from fighting in November, Brunson has no problem jumping right back into a training camp, especially if the PFL makes it worth his while.
“Like I said, money talks,” Brunson said. “There’s a possibility. It’s a quick turnaround but I like how PFL does things. They’re going to pay you your value and I’m sure they know that guy’s a top guy, a champion, so if they want to get it done, they know how to reach out to my agent and put together some numbers, and we can put together a tough, hard-nosed training camp and get the job done.”
If Brunson isn’t available or PFL opts to go in a different direction, Eblen has one other challenger still available to him from the Bellator roster who remains an option as well. More than anything, Eblen just wants to fight as soon as possible, which is part of the reason February makes for the perfect time to return.
“I think the only other guy in the talk is Aaron Jeffrey. I’d smoke him, too. I’d love to smoke him. All of them. All of them can get it. I’m just here to solidify my name and collect checks and cash them and beat some ass and showcase my skill sets to the world. That’s what I’m here to do.
“I’m not too worried about the future. I’m more so worried about, how are they going to utilize me around my prime? Because the worst thing that could happen would be sit me on the sidelines and have me fight once a year against mediocre competition and not putting on great shows and so on and so forth. I don’t want to be sitting on the sidelines when I could quite possibly be the best guy in the world and I’m wasting my talent and doing nothing. That’s the one thing I fear.”