Prospects to Watch at Bellator 259: Austin Vanderford, Valerie Loureda, Davion Franklin and more!

Austin Vanderford raises his right fist while being introduced in the Bellator cage. Austin Vanderford will fight on the main card of Bellator against Fabian Edwards. Photo Credit: Bellator MMA / Youtube

Bellator’s 259 offers nearly every type of prospect. The busy 13-fight card sees some prospects just getting a start on their careers, with others edging one step closer to breaking out of the “prospect” genre altogether.

Take for example main card fighter Austin Vanderford, who is looking for his 11th consecutive victory – he’s a prospect, but not in the same way as someone like Sumiko Inaba, who is returning on the prelims after scoring her pro debut win last year.

There’s something for everybody on the card this weekend. To further understand the show, the MMA-Prospects team looked at the lineup and broke down some of the names involved.

Austin Vanderford

There are a lot of names on the Bellator 259 card. A lot of them kind of got their name off of someone or something else. You have Geoff Neal’s brother Grant Neal (5-0), and Tyree Fortune (5-0), known as the brother of NCAA champion Tyrell Fortune. Austin Vanderford (10-0), is no different. You may know him as Mr. VanZandt. Vanderford has been busy the last few years doing everything he possibly can to make a name for himself. When looking at the resume of where he is visiting, it’s no doubt that he has put in hard work to get where he is now.

He is training in Portland, Oregon at Gracie Barra. He has also been a protégé of Chael Sonnen (31-17-1). Who better to learn the art of promotion from than Chael P.? He’s also spent time at American Top Team in Florida. From going to Southern Oregon and winning an NAIA wrestling title to training at ATT, the Alaskan is clearly making every effort he can to get the best training and tutelage possible. Mike Goldberg also said during his last fight that Muhammed Lawal (21-10) loved Vanderford’s work ethic so much that he took him under his wing, attended all his sparring sessions and cornered him in his last fight.

The track that Vanderford is taking reminds a lot of a UFC contender in Gilbert Burns (19-4). Both have been competition mavens over the last several years. For Burns, it culminated in a shot at his former teammate Kamaru Usman for the UFC Welterweight Championship at UFC 258. Burns was knocked out by Usman on February 13. About 10 weeks later, Burns was back to competing when he grappled Rafael Lovato Jr. and won. Vanderford is cut from the same cloth. While Bellator was shutdown, Vanderford competed three times in Submission Underground and won two of those contests. His loss was in overtime to Gabriel Checco (11-5 MMA). Now, he’s back in the Bellator cage for the second time since the promotion rebooted last summer.

Like Sonnen and Burns, Vanderford is willing to compete anytime, anywhere. He has competed four times in each of the last two years and is clearly getting better. He does a great job of blending his wrestling and grappling. He was scheduled to fight Chris Curtis at Bellator 259, but Curtis pulled out so he will instead take on Fabian Edwards (9-1). This will be another test for Vanderford and a chance to continue making a name for himself. If he wins, we’ll probably see him on the next Submission Underground card. If he loses, we’ll probably still see him on the next Submission Underground card. Vanderford is committed to getting better every day. – VINCE RODEMER

Valerie Loureda

Valerie Loureda (3-0) may have one of the smaller pro MMA records on Friday night’s card. She might have only been a pro for a couple of years. However, you can’t say she isn’t one of the most popular fighters in the lineup, and you have to admit she has the potential you like to see in a prospect early in their career.

With over 800,000 followers on Instagram, Loureda has a bigger following online than any fighter on the card besides headliner Cris Cyborg. Along with that, she has gained TikTok fame, with over 1.2 million likes since joining the platform in March of 2020.

Of course, clout doesn’t (or arguably shouldn’t) earn people title shots. And it doesn’t seem like Loureda is being given any shortcuts because of her fame. On Friday night, Loureda will look to continue to build her pro record against Hannah Guy (2-1).

Loureda is coming off a strong win last summer, where she connected with a right cross that stopped Tara Graff in the closing moments of the second round. The victory was her third as a pro.

The fight was her return after an injury and the delay of events due to the COVID-19 pandemic kept her out of action for months. She had previously fought twice in her rookie year as a pro, stopping Colby Fletcher within a round and going the distance against Larkyn Dasch.

Loureda’s appearance on Friday night will see her fight on the main card for the first time since her early 2019 pro debut. Under the big lights of Showtime, the American Top Team talent has a chance to add a fourth win to her resume. – JACK WANNAN

Davion Franklin

Undefeated heavyweight Davion Franklin (2-0) is one of just two heavyweights competing at Bellator 259, facing regional heavyweight veteran Tyler King (12-9) as part of the preliminary card.

Franklin, 26, trains out of the renowned JacksonWink MMA gym in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a gym home to some of the most recognizable names in the sport. He signed to Bellator MMA prior to his MMA debut, originally scheduled to face Christian Adams (3-3 Am.) back in 2019, and is a recipient of JacksonWink’s scholarship program.

In 2020, he amassed a 2-0 professional record by scoring victories over J.W. Kiser (5-4), whom he scored a ground and pound win over in the first round, and regional veteran Ras Hylton (6-5), whom he bested by unanimous decision.

Currently ranked ninth in the Bellator heavyweight rankings, Franklin has a sizable amount of hype behind him so far in his young career. Franklin fights more patiently than one would expect of a fighter so green in their career, almost lulling opponents to sleep before exploding forward with powerful strikes or takedown attempts.

On the ground, Franklin uses hellacious ground and pound strikes to batter his opponents, but questions about his volume and cardio were raised in the fight against Hylton.

The 26-year-old will look to continue his ascent through the Bellator division and show the improvements he has made as a fighter against his most experienced opponent to date in King, who most recently suffered a knockout defeat to newly-crowned CFFC heavyweight champion Jamelle Jones (11-6). – MICHAEL FIEDEL

Leah McCourt

It did not take long for Leah McCourt to become a contender in the women’s featherweight division of Bellator and it is easy to see how she did. The rising star had proven herself long before her arrival to the promotion with a near perfect amateur career that was highlighted by a several wins — and championships — during her time with the International Mixed Martial Arts Federation (IMMAF). Having found success in the IMMAF, McCourt then took the next step in her career and went pro. Her professional debut did not go as planned as she was finished by Rizien Zouak in the second round of their fight at Cage Warriors 85, but that did not stop McCourt from moving forward.

McCourt rebounded from the loss to Zouak with a split decision win over now-UFC fighter Manon Fiorot almost a year later at Cage Warriors 95. She signed with Bellator months later and has remained undefeated under their banner ever since. She now has an opportunity to show everyone why she is currently ranked sixth in the division and poised to be a future world title contender. A win over someone like Harding could help with that, so it is crucial for her to put on a memorable performance at Bellator 259.

As her record suggests, McCourt is very skilled on the ground, so expect her grappling to play a major role in her approach to fights. She is quite aggressive, often trying to move into better position for control on top or looking for a submission. – KRISTEN KING

Christian Edwards

EDITOR’S NOTE: Unfortunately, Christian Edwards is a prospect that won’t be seen on Friday night. While booked to fight Ben Parrish, his bout was withdrawn from the lineup on Thursday due to not being cleared by the athletic commission. Despite this, Edwards is being mentioned in the article because he is still a prospect to watch the next time he competes.

To be the first recipient of an honor program developed between Bellator and JacksonWink MMA is one of great impact, responsibility and expectation. It means Bellator officials and coaches Greg Jackson and Mike Winklejohn all believe in a fighter’s skillset, potential and success.

And so far, it seems Christian Edwards (4-0) has lived up to his expectations.

The 22-year-old has a perfect 4-0 in his professional MMA career. All four fights have come in the Bellator cage, three have seen him get a finish, with two coming in the first minute.

Edwards — a previous mention on MMA-Prospects’ The Future — has some great size, even for 205-pounds, coming in at 6’5” with a 78.5” reach. And with his training at JacksonWink and competition at Bellator, Edwards has been getting world-class experience early, and he is making the most of it thus far. This has included partnering with some of the best MMA fighters in the world, including former longtime UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Jon Jones.

While Edwards has some terrific striking, he’s been developing a more all-around game of late. He has stated in interviews that though he did not get the finish against Marco Hutch (3-3), he felt great being able to showcase cardio and more advanced ground and grappling skills.

That extra ground work seemed to pay off in his most recent outing, too, submitting Hamza Salim (5-4) at Bellator 249 in October.

But perhaps just as important as a fighter’s skills are for his potential, so, too, is character. And Edwards previously told FanSided MMA about how much he feels his life has changed since receiving the scholarship.

“Even when I still think about it today, you know, it’s just such a humbling and great feeling. Knowing that they had that kind of belief in me, before they got a chance to meet me, it really, really changed my life. And I hope my coaches know that — and my manager, of course — because without them none of this would be possible. I hope they know that it really changed my life for the confidence in me that I don’t think I’ll be ever able to get rid of.”

With his youth, size, progress in all aspects of MMA and a seemingly great attitude to go with it, there’s a lot of reason to believe in Edwards and his potential. – TOM ALBANO