MMA is back in Chicago as Wintrust Arena hosts Bellator 288


Erik Uebelacker

Bellator 288 sold out Wintrust Arena in the organization’s first trip to Chicago since 2019.

For the first time since 2019, a major MMA organization returned to Chicago.

Bellator MMA, one of the premiere mixed martial arts promotions in the world, came to Wintrust Arena on Friday Nov. 18 for Bellator 288, a fight card that put two world championships on the line.

Light heavyweight champion Vadim Nemkov defeated Illinois’ own Corey Anderson by unanimous decision in the event’s headlining bout. The fight was a rematch from April, when an accidental headbutt from Anderson resulted in a no-contest.

Nemkov not only retained his championship on Friday with his win over Anderson, but he won Bellator’s light heavyweight grand prix tournament as well, taking home the $1 million prize for his efforts.

Light heavyweight champion Vadim Nemkov celebrates atop the Bellator cage following his win over Corey Anderson. (Erik Uebelacker)

The result disappointed the crowd, with many behind the local Anderson. That didn’t seem to bother Nemkov, however. He told reporters in the post-fight press conference that he was happy to retain his belt and looking forward to having the $1 million check hit his bank account.

A Russian native, Nemkov seemed eager to leave Chicago as early as Wednesday.

“It’s very cold,” he said via translator during pre-fight media on Wednesday. “I’d like to come back in the summertime.”

In the co-main event, the Bellator lightweight title changed hands. Heavy favorite Usman Nurmagomedov defeated champion Patricky “Pitbull” Freire via a dominant unanimous decision.

But the fight that stole the show on Friday night was the heavyweight matchup between Chicago’s Daniel James and highly touted wrestler Tyrell Fortune. Despite Fortune being a three-to-one betting favorite, James managed to score a second-round knockout that got Wintrust Arena on its feet.

The betting odds indicated James’ win as a big upset. James disagreed.

“I don’t think it was an upset,” James said in the post-fight press conference. “I think it was just him having a real beast in front of him.”

James was nearly defeated at the end of round one when Fortune attacked with a rear-naked choke that, James said, nearly rendered him unconscious. But the underdog escaped the submission attempt and reversed position, sending roars through the Chicago crowd.

“I felt myself blacking out, I’m not lying,” James said. “I just had to hold [my breath], and when I felt myself slip out of it, I heard Chicago. That momentum from the crowd turned me over. I don’t think I could have done it without that… Chicago got me out of that choke.”

Bellator president Scott Coker took note of the audience’s enthusiasm for James’ come-from-behind victory.

“You could see the crowd, how passionate they were and how much they loved it,” Coker said. “We’ll definitely have [James] back and keep him going and see how he develops.”

The emergence of Chicago’s hometown hero in James couldn’t have come at a better time for the city, which has been largely deprived of high-level MMA since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. The last time Bellator came to Chicago was in 2019 for Bellator 221. Earlier that year, the UFC held their most recent Chicago event, UFC 238, at United Center.

“We were booked here in 2020 before Covid hit,” Coker said. “We really like it here. There’s a big fanbase, I know we sold out tonight. It was a packed house, and they’re passionate. And there’s a lot of good fighters.”

Coker was complimentary of DePaul’s Wintrust Arena as a host venue for one of the biggest Bellator cards of the year.

“It’s a beautiful arena, I think it looks really good on TV as well,” Coker said. “You can hear the fans when they cheer. It’s loud in there. You saw the reception to some of the athletes. You can tell there were definitely some hometown favorites here tonight.”

Bellator’s next event, Bellator 289, will take place on Friday, Dec. 9 at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut. Coker indicated during post-fight media that he’d like to bring Bellator back to Chicago in the future. As of right now, nothing is explicitly planned.