MMA Junkie analyst Dan Tom breaks down Bellator’s top bouts. Today, we look at the main event for Bellator 254, between flyweight champion Ilima-Lei Macfarlane and challenger Julilana Velasquez.

Bellator 254 takes place Thursday at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn. The main card airs on CBS Sports Network following prelims on MMA Junkie.

Ilima-Lei Macfarlane (11-0 MMA, 10-0 BMMA)

Staple info:

  • Height: 5’4″ Age: 30 Weight: 125 lbs. Reach: 66.5″
  • Last fight: Decision win over Kate Jackson (Dec. 21, 2019)
  • Camp: 10th Planet Freaks (San Diego, Calif.)
  • Stance/striking style: Orthodox/kickboxing
  • Risk management: Good

Supplemental info:

+ Bellator flyweight champion
+ 10th Planet jiu-jitsu brown belt
+ EBI flyweight title
+ 2 knockout victories
+ 6 submission wins
+ 3 first-round finishes
+ Consistent pace and pressure
+ Developing striking game
^ Shows fight-to-fight improvements
+ Strong inside the clinch
^ Knees, elbows, takedowns
+ Solid wrestling ability
+ Good submission grappler

Juliana Velasquez (10-0 MMA, 5-0 BMMA)

Staple info:

  • Height: 5’6″ Age: 34 Weight: 125 lbs. Reach: 67.5″
  • Last fight: Decision win over Bruna Ellen (Dec. 21, 2019)
  • Camp: Team Nogueira (Brazil)
  • Stance/striking style: Southpaw/muay Thai
  • Risk management: Good

Supplemental info:

+ Judo national team member
+ Judo black belt
+ Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt
+ 5 KO victories
+ 1 submission win
+ 1 first-round finish
+ Consistent pace and pressure
+ Accurate left cross
^ Coming forward of off the counter
+ Hard kicks and knees
+ Strong inside the clinch
^ Defensively and offensively
+ Good positional grappler

Point of interest: Striking with a southpaw

The main event for Bellator 254 features a flyweight title fight between two grapplers who have developed their striking games from opposite stances.

Initially starting off her career a bit raw in the standing department, Ilima-Lei Macfarlane has made legitimate strides to her game throughout her title reign. The Hawaiian champ still shows the patience to play on the outside or the ability to pressure her way forward, but she does so in a much more efficient manner than before.

Utilizing a steady dose of fakes and feints, Macfarlane now throws her punches straighter and with more purpose, smartly variating between simple combinations to maximize her effectiveness. That said, Macfarlane is not beyond mixing things up when feeling in stride, showing the occasional Superman punch or drop-step attack to keep her opposition honest and on their heels.

The 30-year-old talent has also displayed upgraded head movement in recent outings, rolling her head offline when committing to her crosses. That said, Macfarlane hasn’t had many southpaw looks in-competition, as I’ll be curious to see if her years spent training with Liz Carmouche pays any dividends here.

Enter Juliana Velasquez.

Despite being indoctrinated into the grappling arts as early as age four, Velasquez, the southpaw, has developed a savvy striking game since jumping over to MMA.

Stalking opposition in a stance and manner that resembles some of the greats who came out of Nova Uniao, the Team Nogueira product does a good job of coming forward and cutting off the cage without getting too greedy. Prodding with everything from jabs to kick feints/Thai marches, Velasquez keeps her left hand on a hair trigger.

Whether she is coming forward off a combo or countering her opposition in space, Velasquez’s left cross is one of her most accurate weapons. However, like any good lefty, Velasquez also accompanies her attacks with a sneaky check hook from the right side, as well as a multitude of kick offerings down the power lanes.

Still, Velasquez is not beyond being stung or having her system overloaded, so she’ll need to stay sharp when it comes to the champion’s level-changing intents.

Point of interest: Judo, jiu-jitsu, and everything in between

Dec 14, 2018; Honolulu, HI, USA; Juliana Velasquez (blue gloves) and Alejandra Lara (red gloves) during Bellator Hawaii at the Blaisdell Center. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Wright-USA TODAY Sports

Given both women are solid clinch fighters who can strike and wrestle in close quarters, expect grappling stanzas to be both fun and competitive across the board.

Macfarlane, who is not opposed to opting for a Thai clinch, throws everything from knees to slicing elbows in close, which could serve her well against the usually defensive-minded Velasquez. However, the Brazilian challenger – who represented her country in judo – has the style to change the scenery at the drop of a dime.

Like many of the more successful judokas who have transitioned to MMA, Velasquez has no issue hitting takedowns from the clinch, but will also smartly mix in more wrestling-style shots into her repertoire (especially if she can corrall her opponents toward the fence).

Thankfully for Macfarlane, the clinch and cage seem to be themes that, more often than not, tend to materialize in a positive way throughout most of her fights. Whether she is looking to establish connections in the open or utilizing her underrated wrestling along the cage, Macfarlane sticks to her opposition and the objective at hand.

The champion can also hit reactive shots in the open, which may come in handy given her opponent’s strengths. But even if Macfarlane is the one who ends up on top, she cannot sleep on the transitional skills of her counterpart.

Although Velasquez appears to be more of a positional-based player, the Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt is not beyond having to show off her transitional chops in the thick of things. From turning single-leg attempts into back takes to spinning out of leg lock attacks, the 34-year-old seems to have all of her defensive flows and fundamentals in check.

Nevertheless, Velasquez can’t afford to rest when in dominant positions considering the threat at hand.

Hailing from the 10th Planet Jiu-Jitsu system, Macfarlane displays an unorthodox but effective way of maneuvering through positions, reminding us that the craft of a high-guard game is something to respect in MMA. Macfarlane also works very well from topside, showing mean transitional chops and the ability to sink her hips into a mount or back-mount position as soon as she sees daylight for it.

Ultimately, this juxtaposition of defense vs. offense should provide a classic stylistic matchup within the grappling portion of this fight alone.

Point of interest: Odds and opinions

Despite initially opening as the underdog (+160), money has come in on the Brazilian challenger, favoring Velasquez -125 and Macfarlane +105 as of this writing.

Even though seeing a champion pushed to underdog odds can come off as an insult, I completely understand the sentiment behind the line movement here.

As someone who covered both Bellator Hawaii shows in person, I can tell you that Velasquez was the dark horse who most of us in the know had our eyes on this entire time – as seeing her thrive in this spot should not come as a surprise to anyone.

If Velasquez can defend the champion’s grappling advances and maintain momentum early, then I see the Brazilian fighter landing the more meaningful offense down the stretch. But if Velasquez shows her past propensities of getting stuck in the lower gears, then she runs the risk of allowing Macfarlane’s diversity to shine through in regards to both submission opportunities and the judge’s scorecards.

The ultimate irony of this matchup is that these are the two flyweights whom I currently feel provide the biggest challenge for the UFC’s Valentina Shevchenko (a narrative that I’m sure everyone will be running with after the fact regardless of who wins). And though I have a strong inkling that Velasquez will be that person, the feeling isn’t strong enough to overcome what is an admitted bias toward the Hawaiian champ here.

But bias aside, I honestly have a hard time seeing either fighter finish the other, as I suspect we get a competitive, five-round affair from start to finish.