Iron sharpens iron, or so the saying goes.
In the case of Bellator middleweight champion Johnny Eblen and Sean Strickland, the new UFC champion at 185 pounds, that’s some glittery golden iron.
The world’s two most prominent MMA champions in their weight class have trained together as often as a pair of fighters based on opposite ends of the United States can since Eblen conquered Bellator’s division last spring.
“He helped me train for the [Gegard] Mousasi fight. I went out to [Las] Vegas. He hit me up. We started training a bit,” Eblen said of Strickland during a recent video call with The Post. “We became training partners and friends. And every time I’m out in Vegas, I make sure to get rounds with him and make sure to train with him. And anytime he’s in Florida, usually he comes by [American Top Team].”
As fate would have it, Eblen (13-0, six finishes) was already scheduled to defend his promotional title against Fabian Edwards on Saturday (4 p.m. ET, Showtime) at Bellator 299 in Dublin just two weeks after Strickland shocked Israel Adesanya to claim the UFC championship via decision.
While doubt remains in the combat sports world as to whether Strickland could do it again in a prospective rematch with the highly accomplished Adesanya — ESPN didn’t even move Strickland ahead of the ex-champ in its own rankings — the perception of Eblen is that of a clear No. 1 in his promotion and the best-regarded middleweight not under UFC contract.
Like Adesanya had before recent title losses to Alex Pereira and Strickland — with a win over Pereira in the rematch sandwiched between — Eblen earned his status through impressive victories over the top contenders at 185 pounds.
After an upset over longtime elite middleweight Mousasi in June 2022, he defended his belt with flair in February with an impressive win on points against Anatoly Tokov.
“He was the toughest test that I’ve come across,” Eblen said of Tokov. “He had really good timing; a great jab. It just took me a little bit to get my groove and get my distance in that fight. Once I started touching him and once I dropped him, then that’s when I started getting in my real groove.”
The former Missouri collegiate wrestler grooved his way to scores of 50-45, 49-46 and 49-46, keeping his career-long run of not losing a round on the scorecards going despite some resistance from Tokov in the second and third rounds, each of which saw the champ earn the frame on two of three judges’ scorecards.
The champ attributes that knack to being “very competitive” and in possession of a “high fight IQ.”
“I feel like I’m gonna win every second of every minute of every round,” the 31-year-old said. “That’s my mentality going in. That’s just how I fight. I like to dominate.”
Dominance has been common, but securing finishes against this next level of talent has eluded Eblen thus far.
Eblen had finished two of his previous three opponents before challenging champion Mousasi, but he had to settle for (lopsided) decision wins against the top foes he’s faced in his six-year MMA career: John Salter, Mousasi and Tokov.
The champ recognizes the “next step” for him is to end it within the distance in a title defense, but it’s not at the forefront of his mind.
“I’m more focused on just dominating, and if a finish comes [then] a finish comes. If I see an opportunity to get a finish, I’m gonna f–king take it,” Eblen explains. “That’s one thing that I’m learning as I go is to take opportunities when I see them presented during fights. It’s just something that you’ll learn as you go. I’m not necessarily putting any pressure on myself to try to get a finish. The less pressure I put on myself to get a finish, the more likely I get one.”
The next opportunity to get one comes across the pond in Ireland against Birmingham, England’s Edwards (12-2, seven finishes), the brother of UFC welterweight champion Leon Edwards.
Edwards enters on a three-fight win streak, the latest coming in May via five-round decision over Mousasi.
“He’s athletic, moves well, good kickboxer, fast. I’ve heard from one of my teammates he’s a pretty strong individual,” says Eblen of his opponent. “But the thing that doesn’t impress me is he doesn’t really want to be in the fire. He wants things to be a lot cleaner. He wants it to be more technical.”
And that, Eblen believes, plays right into his own approach.
“I’m going to put the pressure on you, and I’m going to make you uncomfortable, and I’m going to make you be in the fire, and I’m gonna break you. And that’s just how I fight.”