Following a four-week hiatus, Bellator is back with a full weekend of action from Neal S. Blaisdell Arena in Honolulu, Hawaii that starts Friday with a USO Salute to the Troops event.
The main event of that show will be a heavyweight showdown between Josh Barnett, who is making his return to mixed martial arts for the first time since 2016, and former King of the Cage heavyweight champion Ronny Markes.
Rising welterweight star Joey Davis will be featured on the undercard against veteran challenger Chris Cisneros. Former women's flyweight title contender Alejandra Lara is going for her second straight victory this year when she takes on Veta Arteaga.
On Saturday night, the headline bout will be Ilima-Lei Macfarlane putting her flyweight championship on the line against Kate Jackson. The show also features the start of Bellator's Featherweight World Grand Prix with undefeated A.J. McKee taking on Derek Campos in a quarterfinal matchup.
Bellator USO Salute to the Troops Card
Heavyweight Bout: Josh Barnett (35-8) vs. Ronny Markes (19-7)
Bantamweight Bout: Toby Misech (11-7) vs. Erik Perez (19-6)
Women's Flyweight Bout: Alejandra Lara (8-3) vs. Veta Arteaga (5-3)
Featherweight Bout: Tywan Claxton (5-1) vs. Braydon Akeo (3-0)
Welterweight Bout: Joey Davis (6-0) vs. Chris Cisneros (19-10)
Bantamweight Bout: Cass Bell (4-0) vs. Pierre Daguzan (5-2)
Welterweight Bout: Hunter Ewald (0-0) vs. Bryson Bolohao (0-1)
Middleweight Bout: Ty Gwerder (4-0) vs. Joseph Creer (5-1-1)
Date: Friday, Dec. 20
Network: Paramount Network
Main Card Start Time: 10 p.m. ET
Preliminary Card Live Stream: Bellator.com (Starts at 8:45 p.m. ET)
Barnett's last MMA fight came in September 2016 when he defeated Andrei Arlovski by submission in the main event of a UFC Fight Night show. The 42-year-old has remained active in combat sports over the past three years, working in various professional wrestling promotions.
In April, Bellator President Scott Coker announced on Twitter that Barnett signed with the promotion:
Friday's bout with Markes is the first step in a journey that Barnett anticipates ultimately ends with him beating Ryan Bader to become Bellator's heavyweight champion.
"Tough dude, (Bader) really asserted himself in that (Bellator heavyweight grand prix) and had some great performances," Barnett told MMA Junkie's Danny Segura. "I think it would be foolish to ever discount Bader or to undermine what he's done, but I don't see him as someone that could keep me from being champion. I'm a better fighter, and I'm bigger."
Barnett has the skill set to emerge as a title contender. The former Pancrase openweight champion has finished 29 of his 35 career victories. His diversity as a power puncher and wrestler allows him to match up against anyone in the heavyweight division.
Bellator isn't making things easy on Barnett in his quest to be crowned champion, though. Markes, who is making his debut for the promotion in this match, briefly overlapped with The Warmaster in UFC from 2013-14, but their paths didn't cross at that point.
Now, though, Markes can make himself into a potential title contender in his highest-profile fight to date. The Brazilian last fought in June when he defeated Sigi Pesaleli via second-round TKO in the Professional Fighters League.
The 31-year-old has made it clear he's excited to challenge someone of Barnett's stature, but he's not coming into this matchup intimidated.
"I watched a lot of fights of Josh," Markes told MMA Junkie's Farah Hannoun and George Garcia. "I watched live in the day, Josh fighting 'Minotauro' in 2006, and now I'm so happy. I'm so happy to fight the guy—he's a legend in the sport. But now is my time."
Markes has 19 wins in his career, with 12 of them coming by TKO or submission. This will be his first fight as a heavyweight since February 2017, but his past experience should make it easy for him to adjust carrying the additional weight against one of the most renowned 265-pound fighters in MMA history.
Bader has been king of Bellator's heavyweight division since moving up in weight to take part in the world grand prix last year. He's 3-0 with one no-contest in the weight class.
Barnett and Markes are bringing their own distinct styles into Bellator. The winner will be able to send a loud and clear message to the champion that they are coming for him in 2020.
Bellator 236 Card
Women's Flyweight Championship: Ilima-Lei Macfarlane (c) (10-0) vs. Kate Jackson (11-3-1)
Featherweight World Grand Prix Quarterfinal: A.J. McKee (15-0) vs. Derek Campos (20-9)
Welterweight Bout: Jason Jackson (10-4) vs. Kiichi Kunimoto (20-8-2)
Women's Flyweight Bout: Juliana Velasquez (9-0) vs. Bruna Ellen (5-2)
Bantamweight Bout: Raufeon Stots (12-1) vs. Cheyden Leialoha (7-1)
Lightweight Bout: Nainoa Dung (3-0) vs. Zach Zane (10-7)
Lightweight Bout: Keoni Diggs (7-0) vs. Scotty Hao (4-2)
Featherweight Bout: Kai Kamaka III (5-2) vs. Spencer Higa (6-8)
Lightweight Bout: Dustin Barca (3-0) vs. Brandon Pieper (11-13)
Welterweight Bout: Ben Wilhelm (3-0) vs. Keali'i Kanekoa (2-2)
Bantamweight Bout: Swayne Makana Lunasco (0-0) vs. Kaylan Gorospe (0-0)
Flyweight Bout: Nate Yoshimura (0-0) vs. Chas Dunhour (0-1)
Date: Saturday, Dec. 21
Live Stream: DAZN.com (Subscription required)
Start Time: 10 p.m. ET (Main Card); 8:30 p.m. (Preliminary Card)
On the second night of Bellator's weekend extravaganza, Ilima-Lei Macfarlane puts her flyweight title and perfect record on the line against Kate Jackson in the main event.
Macfarlane has been an unstoppable machine since her career started in 2015. The Honolulu native is 9-0 in Bellator and each of her last five wins have come via stoppage, including three straight in the third round.
Jackson could be the fighter to test Macfarlane's submission skill set, though. The 33-year-old does have three losses on her resume, but she's never been submitted in 15 professional fights.
Speaking to Cole Shelton of BJPenn.com, Macfarlane did cite Jackson's diverse fighting style but pointed out she's had success recently against opponents who have never been finished:
"I was thinking about it, basically four [of my previous] opponents, none of them had been finished before. [Emily] Ducote had never been submitted before, Valerie [Letourneau] had like 16 fights and never been submitted before. So, I ended up finishing all of them. Even though Kate has never been submitted before and has a good ground game defense, she hasn't dealt with 10th Planet [Jiu Jitsu]. Our style is different and we do go for the attack and always are on the attack. Never say never, maybe I'll be her first finish."
The Ilimanator has come into her own as a submission specialist. Her go-to finisher is the armbar and if she can get this fight to the ground, expect her to attack Jackson's arms.
Jackson has quietly emerged as a force in the women's flyweight division for Bellator. The English fighter has won each of her last two bouts since a unanimous-decision defeat against Valerie Letourneau in Dec. 2017.
If Macfarlane's best shot to win is on the ground, Jackson will do everything in her power to keep this fight standing. Six of her 11 career wins have come by knockout or TKO, including a first-round stoppage against Lena Ovchynnikova in June.
Even though Jackson comes into this matchup as the underdog, her knockout power is going to give her a chance to capture her first Bellator title. All she has to do is land the right punch to put the champion back on her heels.