If John Salter is hunting for a rematch with Bellator champion Rafael Lovato Jr., he could have a strong case if he keeps performing like he did on Friday.
The 10-year middleweight veteran became just the second fighter to defeat up-and-coming contender Costello van Steenis (12-2), out-wrestling the Gegard Mousasi protege to earn a unanimous decision win in the main event of Bellator 233 at WinStar World Casino in Thackerville, Okla.
Van Steenis entered the night on a six-fight win streak and an unblemished 4-0 record in the Bellator cage. He appeared poised for a future title shot and though he showed flashes of the offensive brilliance that have made him one to watch at 185 pounds, in the end it was the more experienced Salter (17-4) who prevailed.
Right off the bat, Van Steenis came out with high kicks and a flying knee, the last move prompting Salter to tie Van Steenis up and put him on the ground. Van Steenis stayed relaxed as Salter scored with short punches to the body. When Van Steenis went for a guillotine choke, Salter easily maneuvered out of it and maintained control for the rest of the round.
In round two, Van Steenis made the mistake of initiating the grappling, which played right into Salter’s hands. He quickly reversed position and took Van Steenis’s back where he forced Van Steenis to fight off a deep choke attempt. With two rounds in the books, it looked like Van Steenis would need a finish to steal the fight.
That almost came to pass in round three as Van Steenis landed a huge punch an a flying kick early, then a 1-2 down the middle. Salter absorbed the blows until he found an opening for a life-saving takedown with 90 seconds to go. From top position, Salter rode out the remainder of the bout.
In his post-fight interview, Salter called Van Steenis the hardest hitter he’s ever faced and joked about the damage that he took in the third round.
“What are you talking about? I thought that was perfect,” Salter said. “I could really see his fists starting to fade in that third. I know I’m gonna have a few stitches, but he’s not going to be able to hold any food after all those shots.”
Salter then said he’d like to have a second crack at Lovato. The two fought at Bellator 205 in September of last year—one fight prior to Lovato taking the middleweight title from Gegard Mousasi—with Lovato defeating Salter by third-round submission.
There was no fairy tale ending for Muhammed Lawal (21-10, 1 NC) as he was KO’d in just 82 seconds by Andrew Kapel (15-6) in what was being billed as his retirement fight. “King Mo” had actually retired earlier this year following three straight losses, but announced that he was coming back for one more fight in the hopes of going out on a high note. It wasn’t to be.
Kapel welcomed a striking battle with Lawal, absorbing a few hard punches to the head and body in the early moments of the bout. After landing a body kick, Kapel’s leg was caught by Lawal. However, as Lawal attempted to land a punch off of the counter, Kapel landed a short right on Lawal’s jaw that sent the former Strikeforce champion down to the mat with his eyes rolling. Several unnecessary ground punches followed before referee Jerin Valel stepped in to wave off the bout.
Though he didn’t get the win he was searching for, Lawal left his gloves in the center of the cage and celebrated his retirement with his two daughters after a brief speech in which he referred to his very first MMA fight against Travis Wiuff back in 2008.
“Yeah man, it’s my last fight. I had a great time fighting. It is what it is,” Lawal said. “I had the opportunity to do a thing that Kapel did to me, I did to Travis Wiuff. Now it’s time to give back, he got that on me.”
A new No. 1 contender may have emerged at 145 pounds. Arlene Blencowe (13-7) used a precision kickboxing attack to counter the constantly advancing Leslie Smith (11-8-1), doing enough to earn 30-27 scores across the board in her favor. Both fighters had their moments in what was an entertaining tilt, but it was Blencowe who appeared to pick up steam and land more consistently after a wild finish to the opening round.
Blencowe’s jab was her weapon of choice on Friday. She threw it with frequency and accuracy, the strike causing a hematoma to develop over Smith’s right eye. Undeterred, Smith marched forward in rounds two and three looking to connect with looping hooks. Blencowe stuck with the jab and added in kicks to the leg and body to stay ahead on the scorecards.
The 36-year-old Australian has now won three straight fights and six of her last eight, with her two losses during that stretch both coming at the hands of current featherweight champion Julia Budd. Blencowe is now in prime position to face the winner of Budd’s upcoming title defense against Cris Cyborg.
In the main card opener, heavyweight Tyrell Fortune (8-0) continued his unbeaten start to his MMA career. The junior college and Division-II wrestling champion showed that his maturity as a fighter is growing as he took his time establishing a rhythm against Zu Anyanwu before finishing with a flurry of punches in round two.
Neither Fortune nor Anyanwu were able to get much going in round one, though it was Anyanwu who grew impatient as the time ticked away. That left him open to a right hand from Fortune early in the second round that led to the fight-ending sequence.
Afterwards, Fortune was asked what was next and he said he was interested in welcoming heavyweight boxing champion Tyson Fury to the cage.
Click here for full Bellator 233 results.