Bellator 186: “Bader vs. Vassell” takes place tomorrow night (Fri., Nov. 3, 2017) at Bryce Jordan Center in University Park, Pa., featuring a Spike TV-televised main event between Ryan “Darth” Bader — who makes his first defense of the 205-pound title since Bellator NYC — against Linton “The Swarm” Vassell, winner of three straight fights.

Former Light Heavyweight champion “Mr. Wonderful” Phil Davis is also on the card looking to get back into title contention and earn a third bout with Bader against a surprising undefeated foe, Leo Leite (10-0), facing him on “home turf” in the heart of his alma mater. Zach Freeman looks to follow up on his surprising Bellator NYC success on this card, too.

Let’s break it down:

205 lbs.: Ryan Bader (23-5) vs. Linton Vassell (18-5, 1 NC)

Going into Madison Square Garden on June 24, 2017, Ryan Bader vowed to ruin Phil Davis’ night and take his Bellator championship. He lived up to his promise, but edged out a split decision in the process, leaving as fans perplexed at the 25 minutes of fighting they had just witnessed. The old saying in combat sports is that you should dominate a champion to become the champion. Did Bader out-wrestle Davis, blocking the champion’s takedowns and scoring with his own? Yes. Did he dismantle or destroy Davis in the process? Not even close.

To earn his stripes as the 205-pound champion, “Darth” Bader needs to go out and take the fight to Linton “The Swarm” Vassell, the man who just dominated former champion Liam McGeary at Bellator 179. Three years ago Vassell was in this exact same position when he faced then-champion Emanuel Newton, and coming up short in the fifth round of that fight has fueled his hunger for a second chance ever since. That was evident in the way Vassell took down McGeary almost at will and then forced him to tap out for the first time in his career.

Vassell has more than just momentum in his favor. Standing 6’4” with an impressive 82” wingspan, he has a physical edge on the 6’2” Bader with a huge 8” deficit in the reach department. On the plus side for Bader, it’s not likely Vassell can out-wrestle him the way he did McGeary, given Vassell exposed an obvious hole in McGeary’s game that a NCAA All-American wrestler like Bader just doesn’t have. In fact the first time Vassell shot for a double, Bader would undoubtedly stuff it and light him up with his hands. He may not have the reach but with eight knockouts he sho’ nuff has the power.

It’s an intriguing time for Bellator’s Light Heavyweight division. A Bader win solidifies the picture going forward as challengers queue up behind Vassell to get next. If “The Swarm” becomes the third man to hold the title in 2017, throw all previous plans from Scott Coker and Rich Chou right out the window. Bellator’s concerns can’t be Bader’s, but what can be is he doesn’t want to get the “boring” tag and not become the marketable champion UFC never saw him to be despite having won The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) 8. He needs to block every shot Vassell takes, use footwork and speed to negate the reach advantage, but not be afraid to dump Vassell on the ground and maul him there even if the crowd boos. His first title defense should be a success.

Final prediction: Ryan Bader takes a unanimous decision from the judges

125 lbs.: Ilima-Lei Macfarlane (6-0) vs. Emile Ducote (6-2)

These two foes know each other well having previously met at Bellator 167. Macfarlane’s undefeated record gives away the result of that encounter, but the normally dominant Macfarlane was forced to take a hard fought decision, one in which she showed rare weakness in the first round and was visibly eaten up with striking exchanges that left her shooting for takedowns just to recover. Despite her inability to capitalize on a stellar first round over the next two frames, that performance has to remind Ducote that a path to victory exists in the rematch.

That said Macfarlane’s performance at Bellator 178 showed us the best version of “The Ilimanator” we’ve seen to date in her career. She went after Jessica Middleton hard and fast with a takedown, rapidly moved to a full mount, and before Middleton could even think of a strategy to counter that terrible position, she was tapping out to a decisive armbar. It was the kind of win that makes one think Macfarlane is ready to become the inaugural Flyweight champion tonight.

This rematch makes sense given we’re no longer waiting to give someone the gold. Ducote has just as many wins by submission as her foe, but she has to earn the “it girl” tag by knocking off the woman who is the poster child for this division and not just winning one round out of five. Giving up both height and strength to Macfarlane though leaves me convinced that it’s not going better for her this time around, especially given Macfarlane has learned to start hard and fast.

Final prediction: Ilima-Lei Macfarlane wins the title via rear naked choke in the second round

205 lbs.: Phil Davis (17-4, 1 NC) vs. Leo Leite (10-0)

This prediction article has already alluded to the fact Davis is the former Bellator champion, and the odds are you knew who “Mr. Wonderful” was even before he jumped ship from UFC, so the real question here is who the hell is Leo Leite? It turns out the 39-year-old Brazilian is a sleeper who quietly amassed a perfect record on Brazilian and Legacy Fighting cards over the last four years. He may have made a late start in MMA but you can’t argue with the results, particularly the fact that six out of his 10 wins come by finish — three knockouts and three submissions. With multiple medals in judo and BJJ competition, there’s no question that Leite is a bonafide certified stud.

Leite gets a chance to prove himself on the biggest stage of his career at Bryce Jordan Center on Nov. 3, but Davis has to be eyeing the man wearing the title that was once his in the main event, knowing that a loss to Leite puts him far away from ever putting that gold around his waist again. Davis certainly has no problem humbling credentialed Brazilians — he’s done it to Lyoto Machida and Glover Teixeira in the past, and he doesn’t fear taking down BJJ artists no matter what degree of belt they wrap around their waist. In physical size they are well matched, but Davis is six years younger in age. After losing a wrestling war against Bader for the second time it’s almost a guarantee the Penn State graduate will look to win won in front of his Nittany Lion fans.

Final prediction: Phil Davis takes a lopsided unanimous decision from the judges

155 lbs.: Zach Freeman (9-2) vs. Saad Awad (20-9)

Bellator put wrestling blue chip stud Aaron Pico on the pay per view portion of their Madison Square Garden debut to show off why they were so high on the young man. Instead Bellator NYC showed off the skills of the previously unheralded Zach Freeman. After tagging Pico with an uppercut and finishing a choke just 24 seconds into the first round, “The Altar Boy” went from a guy selling furniture by day to MMA’s newest undiscovered star. Saad Awad will look to send him back to his day job with a bionic left hand he’s not afraid to use repeatedly.

The good news for Freeman is that Awad is inconsistent as a fighter. He’s had three and five win streaks in his career, but he’s 2-3 over his last five and a tendency to stand and bang can at times backfire spectacularly. The bad news for Freeman is that Awad is vastly more experienced in both his total number of fights and his tenure on the big stage in Bellator. Freeman wins 78% of the time by submission (seven out of nine) but Awad gives both striking and jiu-jitsu their due (eight knockouts, seven subs) and finds a finish in 75% of his wins. Otherwise their height and reach are nearly identical, which makes this as close to a coin flip as this card might have.

Final prediction: Saad Awad takes a split decision from the judges

185 lbs.: Ed Ruth (3-0) vs. Chris Dempsey (11-5)

Phil Davis isn’t the only Penn State alum to compete on this card in University Park. Ed Ruth is another guy who got the “blue chip” tag upon signing with Bellator, and so far the three time collegiate national champion has lived up to the hype. All of his fights have ended by TKO and none have gone past the second round, so it may be that he needs stronger competition even at this young point in his career. Bellator obliged with the UFC veteran Dempsey, who has five times as much experience, but also comes in having been knocked out in three straight fights dating back to 2015. I think the writing is on the wall here.

Final prediction: Ed Ruth remains undefeated via first round technical knockout

That’s a wrap!

MMAmania.com will deliver coverage of Bellator 186 tomorrow with “Prelimsundercard results at 7 p.m. ET and Spike TV fights starting at 9 p.m. ET. To check out the latest Bellator MMA-related news and notes be sure to hit up our comprehensive news archive right here.