Bellator 131 has come and gone. Now, Bellator is free from the season and tournament formats. The promotion is poised to head in a new direction in 2015 under new leadership and with many new champions crowned over the last year.
In fact, only one champion remains who held Bellator gold in 2013. That man is heavyweight champion Vitaly Minakov, who hasn’t fought since beating Cheick Kongo at Bellator 115 in April. Bellator could very well see more change in 2015 as the current crop of champions defend their newly minted titles and become battle tested in the Bellator cage.
With the tournament format scrapped from Bellator’s schedule, though, there are plenty of questions for the coming year. The champions no longer have clear-cut challengers via the tournament. So, who will they have to fend off if they want to keep their belts? What does Bellator’s future hold?
Champion: Joe Warren
Legit Threat: Marcos Galvao. Bantamweight is a shallow division for the promotion. In his title fight with Warren, Eduardo Dantas didn’t really show himself to be a threat. The Brazilian had a couple of moments, but nothing really big. Galvao, meanwhile, is the guy in line for a title shot early in 2015.
Galvao, a third-degree Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt and two-time BJJ World champion, could pose some trouble for Warren, a wrestler who often seeks to bring the fight to the ground. The Brazilian mounted an unsuccessful challenge against Dantas in 2013, but he has returned to contender status with wins in his two most recent Bellator outings.
Dark Horse: Mike Richman. Richman isn’t what you would expect for a “dark horse” candidate, but he’s only had one fight at bantamweight, so he is far from an established contender within the division.
Richman has yet to really take the next step in Bellator. He has advanced to a tournament final just once in three tries, but he really proved a lot at Bellator 131. The former professional boxer took out Nam Phan quickly using his striking and was able to get the knockout victory in the first round. Warren and Richman exchanged some words after the fight, too, which could speed up Richman’s ascent to contender status.
If Richman can beat the next guy they put in front of him—because Warren already has a fight lined up—then Richman could be the one to take out Warren.
Champion: Patricio Freire
Legit Threat: Daniel Straus. Straus got lucky when Pat Curran dropped the belt to Freire. Straus is a good wrestler and was in a bind with Curran as champ after their previous fight at Bellator 112. Straus remains the biggest threat to claim the belt, especially against a striker like Freire. The two men have met before, but Straus has evolved since they last fought.
Straus has legit wrestling and can very well take down the Brazilian and control him on the mat this time around. Straus could get his title back by unanimous decision in a fight where he uses that wrestling advantage and completely dominates Freire on the ground. Freire has a solid jiu-jitsu background, but Straus’s wrestling has been proven to be a game-changing factor in his past Bellator fights.
Dark Horse: Goiti Yamauchi. Yamauchi is a great grappler, but his loss to Will Martinez in the season-10 featherweight quarterfinals left a lot to be desired. Yamauchi is still a guy to look out for, though. The 21-year-old has two straight victories, and one of those wins came against Mike Richman. Yamauchi submitted Martin Stapleton in the first round of his last fight. If he keeps winning, Yamauchi could be challenging for the belt by the end of 2015.
Champion: Will Brooks
Legit Threat: Michael Chandler and Marcin Held. These are two legitimate guys who could pry the strap away from Brooks.
Chandler has been in the Bellator championship mix for quite a while now, and he will always hang around despite his two previous losses to Brooks. Bellator won’t want to keep Chandler on the sideline, so he will get another shot before the close of 2015. Brooks still beats him, but Chandler is a big guy for the organization.
Held won the most recent lightweight tournament, making him one of the last title challengers left to have earned their shot in the tournament format. He is a great grappler with a wide-ranging arsenal of submissions. However, Held will need to work on his striking if he wants to beat Brooks. The champion will not go to the ground and risk a submission defeat, so Held will have to have other ways of creating offense. Held has a good guard and, if the fight does hit the mat, he could end the night in quick fashion.
Dark Horse: Bubba Jenkins. Jenkins has gone on a four-fight winning streak since his loss to LaRue Burley in September 2013. He has a really high-quality wrestling background as an NCAA Division I All-American and national champion at Arizona State.
Jenkins has come a long way since his fight with Burley. His striking is getting better and, of course, his wrestling is always a big weapon. A couple more wins over legit guys could very well be all he needs to earn a title shot. It’s time for Jenkins to take that step up in competition.
Champion: Douglas Lima
Legit Threat: Andrey Koreshkov. The Russian fighter has already had one title shot in Bellator, but his second one will come soon thanks to his season-10 welterweight tournament victory.
Koreshkov’s lone career loss came in his title fight with Ben Askren. Askren was able to make Koreshkov look bad, but current champion Lima isn’t at Askren’s level. Koreshkov has knockout power and the striking to compete against another good striker like Lima. He flashed those abilities with two stoppage wins in his march through the season-10 welterweight bracket. His upcoming title challenge against Lima could be a great fight for the fans.
Also, honorable mention here: Michael Page. Can’t forget him.
Dark Horse: Adam McDonough. McDonough is 3-1 in his Bellator tenure. He was on a tear until he met Koreshkov in the welterweight tournament finals at Bellator 122. That remains the lone loss on his record. If his previous three Bellator fights are any indication, he will turn around and come back strong. McDonough has some power in his hands, as seen in his knockout of Nathan Coy at Bellator 116. It will take a couple of fights for him to come back, but his hands provide the means for him to live up to the challenge.
Champion: Brandon Halsey
Legit Threat: Sam Oropeza. This division might feature the murkiest title picture of any weight class in Bellator. Everybody seems to have lost recently, either to Halsey or someone else, and those who haven’t still need to make up some ground to get to Halsey. Therefore, the best bet might be Oropeza.
In his middleweight debut, Oropeza scored a TKO finish of Gary Tapusoa at Bellator 130. Oropeza was originally fighting at welterweight in Bellator, and he was even scheduled to face Koreshkov in the welterweight semifinals. However, Oropeza struggled to make weight at welterweight and decided to go up a weight class instead. He likes to trade on the feet and has good striking, but he can also get the finish on the ground. Oropeza has yet to go to the judges’ scorecards, but that might change if he gets a shot against Halsey.
Dark Horse: Joe Schilling. It’s weird to single out Schilling as a dark horse, but he holds an uneven 2-3 record in MMA and has a lot to work on with his grappling to even take that step to the top of the division. Halsey would eat him alive on the ground.
However, what makes Schilling intriguing is his great kickboxing background from fighting in GLORY and the like. He will show tremendous heart in every fight and always maintains a puncher’s chance at scoring the victory. His Bellator 131 battle with Melvin Manhoef is a perfect example. Manhoef had Schilling on the ropes in the first round and had a chance to finish, but Schilling somehow got through and returned in the second round to claim a vicious knockout victory. Schilling’s finish of Manhoef registers as an emphatic win to start his tenure with Bellator, but he remains a guy with only an outside chance at the title.
Champion: Emanuel Newton
Legit Threat: Liam McGeary. McGeary, the winner of Bellator’s 2014 Summer Series light heavyweight tournament, is undefeated and has yet to go past the first round in Bellator. That alone makes him threat enough for Newton, and the 32-year-old English fighter already has a date for his title shot. He’ll meet Newton at Bellator 133 in late February 2015.
McGeary has it all. He is a very well-rounded fighter who has finished opponents by both submission and knockout under the Bellator banner. McGeary has power in his hands, and he’lll enjoy a five-inch height advantage and a six-inch reach advantage against Newton. It’s a nightmare of a title match-up for Newton, who will have to worry about a knockout fighter who can keep Newton on the outside.
Dark Horse: Philipe Lins. Lins needs to rebound from his loss to Kelly Anundson at Bellator 122. Lins injured his knee early in the contest, directly resulting in the loss. Lins has a great camp behind him at Nova Uniao. He is actually pretty well rounded and has seven finishes—four by knockout, three by submission. Lins looked great in his Bellator tenure before the Anundson fight. He had two rear-naked choke victories, and both finishes came in the first round. He’ll come back strong from the loss.
Champion: Vitaly Minakov
Legit Threat: Alexander Volkov. Volkov is the former Bellator heavyweight champion, but he lost the belt to Minakov in his first title defense. Minakov defeated Volkov in the first round by TKO to capture the championship. Volkov is still a legit threat because he is a talented fighter in a shallow division. It also helps that he claimed the win in the season-10 heavyweight tournament, which puts him at the front of the line for a title shot.
Volkov is a big striker with great power in his hands as well as his kicks. His march through the season-10 tourney included a head-kick knockout of Mighty Mo and a TKO finish of Mark Holata. He has a large range thanks to his immense size, making his striking all the more deadly. Volkov could certainly return the favor and avenge his prior loss with a knockout victory against Minakov.
Dark Horse: Bobby Lashley. Lashley certainly fits in this category. He has fought a relatively easy slate of opponents for Bellator, but he has picked up two stoppage victories and carries the added benefit of star power from his work as a pro wrestler.
Heavyweight is very thin, and Lashley could very well make a run at the title if Bellator continues to schedule him against guys that are relatively easy to beat. Nobody expects Lashley to compete for a title, but think about this scenario: Lashley takes down his opponent, controls him and then wins by TKO. That could happen multiple times. If it does, then why would Bellator just overlook Lashley? It would be an opportunity Bellator couldn’t pass up. However, Lashley would lose to any of the top guys Bellator has on its roster, including Minakov and Volkov.
The women’s featherweight division is just getting off the ground. There isn’t a current champion, nor are there any legit threats and dark horses in a division that is still in its earliest stages of development.
However, Marloes Coenen looks like the potential champion Bellator will build around. She is a very well-rounded fighter whose last fight against Annalisa Bucci was a perfect showcase of her skill set. Coenen is a great grappler, but she also has a kickboxing background honed through years of training at Golden Glory. Coenen is going to be Bellator’s first female featherweight champion.
That is, of course, unless the company somehow pries Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino away from Invicta. She could be a likely candidate if she doesn’t fully commit to dropping to bantamweight. Justino is a top striker with extreme power. Another Cyborg/Coenen fight isn’t exactly on anyone’s wishlist, but it could end up happening despite the lopsided outcomes of the first two fights.
Another fighter to look out for, possibly, is Gina Carano. Carano is a huge longshot given her Hollywood career, but there have been rumors of her return and she has worked with Bellator’s new head, Scott Coker, in the past. Surprising as it might sound, Carano is more likely to go to Bellator than the UFC.