The Bellator World Lightweight Grand Prix officially kicks off at Bellator 292 from the SAP Center in San Jose. Lightweight champion Usman Nurmagomedov, Benson Henderson, Tofiq Musayev and Alexander Shabliy enter the cage on Friday night with distinct motivations.
Nurmagomedov vs. Henderson headlines Bellator 292 with the lightweight championship at stake as each man looks to advance in the tournament. Nurmagomedov enters the fight as a gargantuan favorite against former UFC and WEC champion Henderson, the latter of whom is on the hunt for one last taste of glory.
Fighting on the opposite end of the bracket are Musayev and Shabliy. The fierce, somewhat frustrated competitors have a tough road ahead. Friday's winner will find themselves fighting former featherweight champion AJ McKee or former lightweight champion Patricky Pitbull. Only by beating McKee or Pitbull will they find themselves across the cage from whoever wields the world title.
Let's take a look at what each fighter has at stake in addition to the lightweight world championship and the $1 million cash prize.
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Henderson's final stand
Henderson has already carved out a Hall of Fame career as a former WEC and UFC champion who has bested household names. The clock is winding down on his career and he has one brief window to experience glory again. Consecutive wins over Islam Mamedov and Peter Queally gave Henderson the ammunition to justify a spot in the Grand Prix. Bellator rewarded the 17-year fight veteran with a world championship match. Henderson has repeatedly stated that he will retire after completing his existing contractual obligations.
His decision is primarily fueled by his wife Maria Henderson signing with Bellator. Maria Henderson put her career ambitions aside to raise their four children. The time has come for Benson Henderson to care for the nest as his wife takes flight. Before he does, a grounded Benson Henderson yearns for the glory days once more.
"People don't realize how few opportunities you get fighting for the title," Henderson told CBS Sports. "I was 24 when I won my first world title. I thought, 'Oh yeah, this is going to happen. I'm going to always fight for a title.' I've pretty much always maintained that high level of success, but getting that belt strapped around my waist, it's been a long time and I forget that. For me, it's being able to stop and actually smell the roses and enjoy the process along the way. Not just gloss over it.
"This Bellator belt means everything. It literally means everything. Everything I've done in life, everything I've tried to strive for in my career. I started wrestling when I was 13 or 14, I did Taekwondo before that. All of it has built and grown on top of one after the other and it's all led here to this moment and getting the Bellator belt. It makes every decision I ever made, every rock in a hard place or hard road or tough decision or road less traveled, it makes all those tough decisions worthwhile. I made the right decisions, I did the right things."
Nurmagomedov's greatest rival is himself
Nurmagomedov has expressed an interesting blend of respect and apathy to his fellow Grand Prix participants in the build to Bellator 292. The champion acknowledges the difficult road ahead of him but finds the biggest challenge in besting himself fight after fight.
"The way I see it for myself, it's more about advancing as a professional fighter," Nurmagomedov told reporters at Wednesday's media day. "The fact that we have a Grand Prix is a bonus, but I see this as being about continuing to win and improving each fight. I don't like to lose in anything. This is about defending my belt and improving, and that's what it means for me."
Nurmagomedov drowned Patricky Pitbull to capture the Bellator lightweight championship in May 2022. It was great validation for a man buoyed and not burdened by the legacy of his last name. Now a world champion with a spotless 16-0 record, Nurmagomedov can begin to craft a legacy distinct from his famous cousin, Khabib Nurmagomedov. Defeating a former world champion in Henderson and running through the Grand Prix will go a long way to building on his already brimming confidence.
"I don't see how he can become a champion if I am the champion right now," Nurmagomedov told CBS Sports when asked about the Henderson fight. "But I think he's a great fighter. He's experienced but I will not let him do that.
"I think all these guys have had a great career and they can all be challenging. But the only way to find out is to be in a fight with them. I wouldn't say that anyone stands out specifically. The only way to test them is to meet them in the cage."
Musayev fights with a chip on his shoulder
Musayev considers himself a man of few words, but he has repeatedly expressed his frustration with his current standing in Bellator. Ranked No. 2 in the promotion's official rankings, Musayev believes he is entitled to the world title wrapped around Nurmagomedov's waist. Musayev starched Sidney Outlaw in a spectacular 27-second debut last summer. That, combined with his status as a Rizin Lightweight Grand Prix champion and a win over former champion Patricky Pitbull, has Musayev itching for more.
"I came to this organization, I fought the No. 1 contender. In my opinion, I should have fought the champion," Musayev said on Wednesday. "Then, some things changed and Usman [Nurmagomedov] fought for the belt. Of course, I would love to have it on my legacy that I fought for the Bellator belt. So, I look forward to earning the chance in the Grand Prix.
"I don't like talking too much. I don't care about the other guys in the tournament. I'm here to be the strongest and the best, so I'll let my fighting do the talking."
Shabliy is chomping at the bit after battling inactivity
Shabliy (22-3) is a helpful hand in Bellator's claims to having a lightweight division that can rival UFC's. He is a perfect 3-0 in Bellator and stopped former Bellator lightweight champion Brent Primus in his last fight. Unfortunately, Shabliy has struggled with inactivity. The gaps between his three Bellator fights range from six to nine months. Shabliy expressed his frustration this week but is relieved to be in the world title mix.
"It's been a long time coming since my first fight in the COVID times," Shabliy said. "I won, and they took me right out, so I didn't let to get out my emotions. With the last fight against Primus, that's when I started to feel like myself. With the Grand Prix, this is the best thing Bellator has done. I am excited to be a part of the tournament and put on a show.
"I was waiting around, waiting for a UFC contract. I spent a lot of time being inactive. Looking back, I'm very glad to be in Bellator as a part of this Grand Prix. I'm very grateful to be a part of this event and to have been happy to build my career in Bellator."