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Bellator 299
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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.”

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UFC 288: Sterling v Cejudo
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A new bantamweight title contender could be crowned when ex-champion Henry Cejudo faces Merab Dvalishvili in a featured bout at UFC 298 on Feb. 17 in Anaheim, Calif.

Multiple people with knowledge of the promotion’s plans confirmed the news to MMA Fighting on Sunday after Cejudo initially announced the matchup on his YouTube channel.

“This fight’s going to decide who’s actually going to fight eventually the winner of Chito Vera versus Sean O’Malley,” Cejudo said. “I’m excited. I’m not sure if we’re going to co-headline this fight with Ilia Topuria and Alexander Volkanovski but either way this fight is absolutely going to be bonkers.”

Cejudo will make his second appearance in the UFC since returning from retirement but he’ll still be looking for his first win after dropping a decision to Aljamain Sterling in a title fight back in May. The former two-division UFC champion hopes to return to title contention if he can get through Dvalishvili in February.

As for Dvalishvili, he’ll seek his 10th consecutive win in a row when he clashes with Cejudo. The Georgian born bantamweight hoped he would already get a title shot after dominating former champion Petr Yan in his last outing but the UFC opted to book Sean O’Malley against Marlon “Chito” Vera instead with that matchup set for UFC 299 in March.

Now Dvailishvili hopes to add another former champion to his resume when he faces Cejudo in early 2024.

“I give him respect and I give all my opponents respect, especially Henry Cejudo,” Dvailishvili said when addressing the matchup during the UFC Vegas 83 post fight show. “He’s the greatest champion, he was after [Aljamain Sterling] beat him. I’m excited. This is going to be a big test for me. Even if I feel I don’t need the test anymore.

“I have a nine fight win streak and I beat whoever they give me, whoever they put in front of me. I think I deserve to fight for a title fight but they give me another test in Henry Cejudo. I’m thankful. I have to do my best. I have to beat him and I have to earn it again, the title fight, and hopefully this time I will fight for the title and whoever will be the winner of Chito Vera and Sean O’Malley I will fight next.”

Cejudo vs. Dvalishvili joins a growing UFC 298 lineup with featherweight king Alexander Volkanovski defending his title against Ilia Topuria in the main event.

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UFC Fight Night: Cannonier v Gastelum Weigh-in
Alexandre Pantoja and Brandon Royval | Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Alexandre Pantoja is ready to make a statement in his first title defense.

In July, Pantoja won the UFC flyweight title after taking a split decision win over Brandon Moreno at UFC 290. Given the competitive nature of the fight and the fact that Moreno is so welled like, fans wondered if the UFC would set up an immediate rematch, despite the fact that Pantoja is now 3-0 over Moreno. Ultimately that didn’t happen, and instead Pantoja will defend his title against another former foe, Brandon Royval on Dec. 16 at UFC 296.

Pantoja believes this was the correct decision.

“Royval definitely deserves to fight for the belt,” Pantoja said on The MMA Hour. “It’s a guy coming off a few big wins. He knocked out Matheus Nicolau, a phenomenal fighter from Brazil. He finished Matt Schnell, and he [beat Rogerio Bontarin]. He deserves it. He’s fought with everybody in the top 10, he deserves to fight for the belt, and it’s a very good match in a very different moment for me.

“When I fought Brandon Royval for the first time, that time I was driving [for] Uber, I had an injury in my knee, and that fight had a lot of emotion. I think at one point, all the emotion was very heavy, but I could use that. My mind that fight was 200 percent, very strong. Now it’s very different moment. He wants something that I have and I need to take care. Brandon Royval is very, very real dude. He’s a guy I need to be prepared for. I’m going to make a lot of money for that fight and I’m going to deserve all the [pay-per-view] points because I’m going to put on a very good show for everybody watching.”

Pantoja and Royval faced off two years ago at UFC Vegas 34, where Pantoja scored a second-round submission finish and a Performance of the Night bonus. After that fight, Pantoja submitted Alex Perez to earn his title shot and then defeated Moreno to claim the belt, securing two more bonuses along the way.

Royval has had similar success since their first encounter, scoring three consecutive wins and two Performance bonuses of his own.

Now set to collide again, Pantoja believes that given their current trajectories, this rematch should be pure fireworks.

“Fight of the Night, for sure,” Pantoja said. “It’s going to be a crazy fight again. Brandon Royval is a tremendous fighter. I love his style, very aggressive, very good jiu-jitsu. Like me, except he’s tall and a southpaw. Very impressive fighter. I love watching his fights and 100 percent this can be Fight of the Night. And he proved [he deserved the opportunity]. When that fight was over, I said to him, ‘You’re young. You have a lot to do.’ And now he’s going to fight with me one more time for the belt, and like I said, he deserves that.”

It’s clear heading into UFC 296’s rematch that Pantoja has a lot of respect for Royval, but come December, that respect has to be put on hold. And as he prepares for fight night, the newly crowned champion admits that while he intends to do everything he can to keep his title, there is a part of this whole thing that now seems strange.

“It’s very weird when you fight with somebody and at some point, you cross [out] the dream for somebody,” Pantoja said. “He dreams of that, I dream of that. I’m dreaming to defend my belt, he’s dreaming to take my belt, and I need to interfere with that. It’s very hard to do. This is a crazy sport, because all the good guys fight for their family, for everything, for your goals, for your dreams, and you need to go there and kill. That’s very weird. But I want to prove to the world who I am, how good I can be.

“That’s the only thing I try to do, is my best, and Dec. 16, I’m prepared for the best show of my life.”

Pantoja defends his flyweight title against Royval in the co-main event of UFC 296 in Las Vegas.

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UFC 293: Adesanya v Strickland
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The poster for the first UFC pay-per-view card of 2024 has now been revealed, with a pair of title fights headed to Toronto, Canada on Jan. 20.

The middleweight title will go up for grabs at UFC 297 when Sean Strickland clashes with Dricus du Plessis in the main event, while a new women’s bantamweight champion will be crowned when Mayra Bueno Silva takes on Raquel Pennington in the co-headliner.

Check out the UFC 297 poster below.

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Strickland makes the first defense of his middleweight title after pulling off a shocking upset with a win over Israel Adesanya in September. Despite entering the fight as a massive underdog, Strickland dominated the fight and ultimately earned a lopsided five-round decision to beat Adesanya and claim the championship.

Meanwhile, du Plessis comes into the fight off eight straight wins, including six in the UFC. Most recently, the South African fighter took out ex-UFC champion Robert Whittaker in impressive fashion to solidify himself as the No. 1 contender in the division.

As for the co-main event, Pennington enters the fight off five consecutive wins while making her second attempt at becoming champion. She came up short in her previous bid, falling to Amanda Nunes back 2018, but now she’ll fight for a vacant belt after “The Lioness” announced her retirement in June.

Bueno Silva hasn’t tasted defeat since returning to bantamweight, picking up wins over the likes of Lina Lansberg and Stephanie Egger. She also scored an impressive submission over former UFC champion Holly Holm, however the win was later overturned due to Bueno Silva testing positive for a banned substance.

The current UFC 297 fight card can be seen below, with a bout order still to be determined.

  • MAIN EVENT: Sean Strickland vs. Dricus du Plessis
  • CO-MAIN EVENT: Mayra Bueno Silva vs. Raquel Pennington
  • Neil Magny vs. Mike Malott
  • Arnold Allen vs. Movsar Evloev
  • Dominick Reyes vs. Carlos Ulberg
  • Brad Katona vs. Garrett Armfield
  • Chris Curtis vs. Marc-Andre Barriault
  • Charles Jourdain vs. Sean Woodson
  • Serhiy Sidey vs. Ramon Tavaras
  • Gillian Robertson vs. Polyana Viana
  • Yohan Lainesse vs. Sam Patterson
  • Jasmine Jasudavicius vs. Priscila Cachoeira
  • Malcolm Gordon vs. Jimmy Flick.

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Photos by Phil Lambert

The California State Athletic Commission has voted to approve bare-knuckle fighting in the state, following athletic commissions in states such as Florida, Utah and New York.

The vote passed unanimously, 6-0, for the state to begin regulating bare-knuckle fighting events in the near future. The CSAC will oversee bare-knuckle fighting under the same guidance in sports such as MMA and boxing.

BKFC — the largest bare-knuckle fighting promotion — has already announced plans to take a card to California in spring 2024 with a date and location still to be determined. BKFC has aggressively expanded its footprint in recent years, with more and more states regulating the gloves-off promotion.

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California approving the slap fighting will likely lead to other athletic commissions around the U.S. following suit. The Golden State is widely considered one of the gold standards for commissions and is led by executive director Andy Foster.

In addition to bare-knuckle fighting being approved in California, the commission also voted unanimously to approve slap fighting. UFC CEO Dana White immediately celebrated the announcement on Instagram; the UFC exec has pushed to get slap fighting legalized in Nevada, where his Power Slap promotion routinely holds events.

There’s no word yet when White will bring Power Slap to California, but it seems like only a matter of time now that the sport will be regulated there.

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UFC 213: Mein v Muhammad
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Belal Muhammad wants his title shot and he’ll do anything to get it.

It turns out that includes serving as the backup for the upcoming UFC 296 main event where Leon Edwards will defend the welterweight title against Colby Covington. Muhammad, who is currently riding a 10 fight unbeaten streak, will hit the scales and weigh-in as the backup just in case something happens to either fighter in the title fight.

Sources close to the situation confirmed the news to MMA Fighting on Sunday after Muhammad first revealed his role as the backup fighter to MMA Junkie.

After a dominant win over Gilbert Burns in May, Muhammad was promised he would become the No. 1 contender in the division but Covington had already been promised the next title shot at welterweight.

Unfortunately for Muhammad, the UFC didn’t actually schedule Edwards vs. Covington until December so he’s been on the sidelines awaiting his opportunity to compete for gold.

He’ll now serve as the backup for UFC 296 with hopes that a fight with the winner is awaiting him in 2024.

Edwards addressed Muhammad as a potential contender when speaking with MMA Fighting ahead of his title defense on Saturday. The welterweights met previously in 2021 with the fight ending in a no contest after an accidental eye poke from Edwards ended Muhammad’s night prematurely.

“Is he the No. 1 contender? I don’t know. Would I fight him again? Absolutely,” Edwards said. “That’s easy work. That’s easy money. If he is the guy next, he’s the guy. But does anyone want to see that? Probably not but if he’s the guy, then I’ll happily silence him.”

While Muhammad is backing up the main event, former UFC flyweight champion Brandon Moreno will take on the same duty for the co-main event where Alexandre Pantoja defends his title against Brandon Royval.

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UFC Fight Night: Song v Vera
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Song Yadong has his sights set on the top of the bantamweight division after his latest win over Chris Gutierrez in the UFC Vegas 83 main event.

Following a dominant victory where he won every round on the scorecards, the 26-year-old bantamweight wasted no time calling for a fight against ex-champion Petr Yan at UFC 299 in March. That event is headlined by the bantamweight title fight as champ Sean O’Malley takes on Marlon “Chito” Vera in Miami.

While Yan seemed uninterested in the fight, dropping a yawning emoji on Twitter, Song quickly fired back. He reminded the Russian he’s coming off a less than stellar performance in a lopsided loss to Merab Dvalishvili in March.

“I already told everybody I want to fight Petr Yan,” Song said at the UFC Vegas 83 post-fight press conference. “He posted the emoji, it means the fight was boring, but his last fight was boring, too. Like, s***.

“So let’s fight at [UFC] 299. I heard he wants to fight in March. OK, let’s fight in March. We both don’t go back. Let’s go face-to-face, let’s go. Let’s see who has better boxing. Let’s see who has the best boxing in this division.”

Assuming he gets his wish, Song would share the card with Vera, whom he defeated in a “Fight of the Night” performance in 2020.

Vera secured his title shot largely due to a past win over O’Malley, putting him in a perfect position for a rematch once the always-flashy Contender Series veteran claimed the UFC title.

While Song doesn’t like Vera’s chances to secure a second win over O’Malley, he will definitely be rooting for him, because he knows that would fast track his own path to a championship opportunity.

“I pick Sean [to win],” Song said. “Sean is smart, good footwork and good speed but I hope Chito can win the fight and have a rematch with me. That would be very good.”

Much like O’Malley wanted revenge for the only loss on his record, Song knows that Vera would love to run that fight back with him. While Vera may not have been happy with the decision that night, Song feels confident in his victory, especially knowing what he had to endure just to get to that fight in the middle of the global pandemic.

“Our first fight, this guy he has been preparing for six months, no one fought with him,” Song explained. “His opponent kept getting injured and the UFC told me about the fight two weeks [before it happened].

“At that time, COVID just started. I was in my home for one month, no training, even no running. Coach said I can do it so I took the fight. But I don’t have good conditioning. But the fact is I won the first two rounds. You guys can look again.”

If Vera gets the job done and becomes UFC champion, Song would love nothing more than to challenge him for the title while giving his former opponent the chance to avenge a past loss.

Of course, Song feels ultra-confident that he would deliver an even more impressive victory in the rematch, but he just needs to chance to do it.

“Standup or on the ground, I can beat him up,” Song said about Vera. “He don’t have confidence for a fight with me. I’m not a kid right now. I’m 26 years old right now.”

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UFC Fight Night: Smith v Rountree
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One-time UFC light heavyweight title challenger Anthony Smith apologized to fans after his knockout loss to Khalil Rountree Jr. at UFC Vegas 83.

Smith was flattened by a left hand from Rountree early in the third round of the ESPN+ event. If not for Rountree’s restraint, Smith may have taken extra damage after teetering to the canvas 56 seconds into the final frame.

Smith, 35, refrained from making any definitive statements about his career, which takes another correction after a second win over Ryan Spann in his previous outing.

“Congrats to Khalil and his team,” Smith wrote on Instagram. “Helluva performance. You deserve it. Sorry to everyone who supports me. I gave it my all. Sometimes that’s not enough.”

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A regular UFC analyst in addition to his fighting career, Smith took the fight against Rountree on short notice after Rountree’s original opponent, Azamat Murzakanov, fell ill and was forced to withdraw from the card.

Rountree used his post-fight speech to call out light heavyweight champ Alex Pereira. It was his fifth straight octagon win after a 1-3 stretch deflated hopes of his title-worthiness.

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UFC Fight Night: Smith v Rountree
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Surging UFC light heavyweight Khalil Rountree tries not to take in what fans say – unless, of course, they have a really good idea.

When Alex Pereira captured the UFC title at 205 pounds, adding his second octagon title in his seventh UFC fight, Rountree said his social media blew up. Fans liked the matchup.

The problem was, at that point, Rountree couldn’t make a very strong case for the fight. He needed to beef up his resume.

On Saturday, Rountree did just that by stopping one-time title challenger Anthony Smith, who fell prey to his preternatural power in the co-headliner of UFC Vegas 83. Rountree used his post-fight speech to call out Perreira, who knocked out ex-champ Jiri Prochazka to claim the light heavyweight title.

“I don’t think you guys have any record of me ever calling anybody out, but in my mind, knowing that if I beat Anthony Smith, that would get me into the top 10,” Rountree explained at the post-fight press conference for UFC Vegas 83. “And I know that the way the rankings kind of work, I have to be in the top 10 to even be worthy of fighting for a title.

“Say they put me at No. 10 [in the rankings] and not No. 8, where Anthony was. So from 9 up, in my opinion, and I think in the fans’ opinion, the most exciting fight would be me vs. Pereira. That’s just what I’ve seen from comments. After Alex’s win, I got flooded, people tagging me, and I think it makes sense.

“Two dynamic, powerful strikers. I don’t plan to shoot any takedowns. I don’t think I’ve ever shot for a takedown in my career. I don’t think he’s necessarily going to shoot for any takedowns, because the guy’s a warrior. So then you have two explosive, dynamic [fighters] in my mind, it just makes sense.”

Not everything the fans bring to Rountree gets the same consideration. In fact, the 33-year-old UFC vet tries to ignore most of it – the critics that accompany fame and notoriety are toxic to his mental health.

Even with a win over Smith, Rountree didn’t expect the tenor of his timeline to change much. Those that like him would continue to like him, and those who believed he didn’t show up for big fights would fill the air with negativity.

“I don’t think people will ever shut up, and I think after this fight, there’s going to be people that still don’t believe and that still have bad things to say,” Rountree said. “I’ve just come to acceptance of that. There’s going to be a large percentage of people that have just really s*** opinions.

“And the thing that sucks, too, and to be quite honest, obviously, it’s about me, so there can be a little bit of truth to it. Because there has been times in the past where I wasn’t consistent, and I didn’t show up for big fights, so if I read things like that, I’m like, man. And that’s why I don’t read things like that. I just keep doing what I’m doing. As much as I love the people, I have to create a huge separation, because I care about people too much. Sometimes, opinions, I can let them have too much effect on my.

“So the way that I accept it is that there will always be s*** opinions, and there’s always going to be, until the day I’m done fighting, there’s going to be a gigantic portion of MMA fans that just don’t believe in me, or don’t like me for whatever reason. I just have to be OK with that and continue to do what I do for myself and my loved ones.

“The ones that do support me and are cheering for me, man, I love them to death, because they could so easily be on the other end.”

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UFC Fight Night: Song v Gutierrez
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Song Yadong didn’t get the finish he wanted but he still put on a dominant five-round performance to beat Chris Gutierrez in the UFC Vegas 83 main event.

After outstriking Gutierrez for the majority of the first 15 minutes, Song then turned to his wrestling and grappling game as he displayed incredible control and a ground and pound attack that helped him secure the victory. The final scorecards read 50-44, 50-45 and 50-45 with Song getting the nod from the judges.

Afterwards, Song admitted he was disappointed the card was moved from his native China back to the UFC APEX in Las Vegas but he he was still happy to get the win.

“I really wanted to fight in China, that’s my home,” Song said. “In the top 15, no one takes the fight but I’m coming to get the belt.”

Going against one of the most devastating finishers at bantamweight, Gutierrez showed quickness on his feet while circling away from Song’s power on the feet. Many of the early exchanges saw both fighters cracking away with some thudding leg kicks but neither Gutierrez or Song really gained an upper hand in those exchanges.

With Song struggling to close the distance, Gutierrez was able to dance on the outside while sticking straight punches in his opponent’s face. That led to Song finally diving for a takedown late in the second round, although he wasn’t able to do much damage with Gutierrez playing an effective guard game off his back.

Back on the feet again, Song was still throwing with a lot of power but Gutierrez’s movement was preventing him from really setting up any real combinations. It wasn’t until Song finally got Gutierrez backed up against the cage where he could unleash a barrage of shots in rapid-fire succession.

While Song was narrowly winning rounds, he wasn’t able to really hurt Gutierrez but that all changed in the fourth round when the Team Alpha Male fighter finally connected with a stiff punch that did some damage. With Gutierrez briefly stunned, Song threw a barrage of punches before eventually settling back down on the canvas where he began working his ground and pound offense.

Song continued to display his dominance on the ground where he clearly had an advantage over Gutierrez, who was simply stuck underneath him with little chance to escape. It wasn’t the most punishing performance but Song remained in control as he peppered away at the head and body while slipping in some crushing elbows whenever he found enough room to work.

Time ticked away to the final horn as Song secured the victory while improving his record to 5-1 over his past six fights with his long loss coming to perennial bantamweight contender Cory Sandhagen.

Following the win, Song immediately turned his attention to former UFC bantamweight champion Petr Yan, who actually tweeted out a yawn emoji after watching the main event on Saturday.

“Next one, Petr – I know you want to fight in March, OK let’s go in March,” Song shouted. “You’re last fight [was boring], too, bro. It looked like s***. Your boxing is good, OK let’s go. I’m coming.”

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