Wanderlei Silva (R) (Lucas Noonan/Bellator MMA)

Toe-to-Toe: Bellator NYC and Bellator 180 Preview and Predictions

It’s that time of year again. Bellator MMA brings forward its tentpole event for 2017. Bellator will head to New York City for the first time with a double event, culminating in the promotion’s second-ever pay-per-view.

The pay-per-view portion of the show is headlined by a grudge match in the legend’s division, where Chael Sonnen will finally settle the feud that has been brewing for the past few years against Wanderlei Silva. Perhaps the bigger fight takes place in the co-headliner, where UFC veteran Matt Mitrione takes on perhaps the greatest fighter in MMA history, Fedor Emelianenko. Emelianenko makes his return to the United States after six years and five fights in Russia and Japan.

The main card for the pay-per-view also features two title fights. Douglas Lima defends his welterweight championship for the first time against UFC veteran Lorenz Larkin, who will make his Bellator debut. The lightweight title will also be on the line when champion and promotional poster boy Michael Chandler takes on Brent Primus. Former top wrestler and current top prospect Aaron Pico makes his MMA debut in a lightweight fight with Zach Freeman.


Bellator will also air another portion of the event as Bellator 180 on Spike TV. The main event for that card is a light heavyweight title fight between champion Phil Davis and UFC vet Ryan Bader, who will make his promotional debut. The two previously fought at UFC on Fox 14, where Bader took home the split-decision victory. The co-headliner features James Gallagher, a bright prospect hailing from Ireland, who seeks to continue his unbeaten run against Chinzo Machida in the featherweight division. This will be Gallagher’s first fight for Bellator in the United States.

Bellator 180 also houses a welterweight fight between the undefeated Neiman Gracie and his opponent, Dave Marfone. Bellator also heads to the women’s division for a showdown between flyweights Alice Yauger and Heather Hardy.

The Bellator 180 preliminary card airs at 6 p.m. ET on Spike.com. The main card airs live on Spike TV at 8 p.m. ET. The Bellator NYC pay-per-view event kicks off at 10 p.m. ET.

Chael Sonnen fights Wanderlei Silva in the main event, and Fedor Emelianenko returns in the co-headliner against Matt Mitrione. Which fight will be the more competitive battle?

Henderson: Both will be competitive fights, but for different reasons.

Sonnen and Silva are a pair of 40-year-olds. They’re not spry, young fellows. They’re the epitome of the term “grizzled veteran.” Sonnen has 44 pro fights under his belt, and Silva has 48 pro contests — and those are just the bouts we know about. Neither man has been truly relevant in the title mix in several years. Furthermore, Sonnen is just 1-5 over his last six fights and Silva stands at 4-7 over his last 11 outings. Silva hasn’t even fought since 2013. This is like watching two senior citizens brawl — you don’t know who’s gonna win, but it could get very ugly. I like Silva’s power over Sonnen’s wrestling in this one, but it could just as easily turn into a lengthy wrestling clinic if Sonnen shows up in top shape and Silva is rusty.

Emelianenko and Mitrione provide a more intriguing contest, simply because something could come out of this down the road. Emelianenko, also 40 years old, is no young buck, but he is riding a five-fight winning streak and still carries some of his formerly invincible aura with him. In a league where the top heavyweights are guys like Cheick Kongo and Bobby Lashley, Emelianenko could quickly enter the title picture. Mitrione, too, has a chance to pick up a signature win. This could turn out to be a real slugfest, but Mitrione has crumbled too often against solid competition. Emelianenko has a real opportunity to re-emerge as a heavyweight star in the present day, rather than just a legend hanging on.

DeRose: Define “competitive,” please. Sonnen and Silva shouldn’t even be fighting. The level of skill too will pale in comparison to every other fight on this card, too.

The enigma of Emelianenko makes this fight so much more interesting. Fedor was once the most dominant fighter on the planet. He is perhaps the greatest MMA fighter to ever live. His fight comes against an ex-UFC heavyweight who was one of the better fighters in the division.

Emelianenko fought Fabio Maldonado in his last fight. It was extremely close and showed that Emelianenko looked a lot different than in years prior. I’m still kind of intrigued by what he once was, though. If the Fedor of the past shows up, Mitrione has a lot on his hands.

Mitrione has simply looked like the better fighter in recent fights. This says something. Mitrione hasn’t been the big, bad heavyweight he could have been when he made the move to Bellator. This is heavyweight, though, and anything can happen. It’s perhaps the most random division in MMA. These guys are big and often lack cardio. Every fighter at this level has fight-ending power, too. It’s a really close fight and could go either way, but it’s dependent on what version of each fighter shows up.

Between the pay-per-view and the Bellator 180 card on Spike TV, there are three title fights. Douglas Lima defends the 170-pound strap against Lorenz Larkin, Michael Chandler puts his lightweight belt on the line against Brent Primus, and Phil Davis clashes with fellow UFC veteran Ryan Bader for the light heavyweight crown. Will any of the titles change hands on Saturday night?

DeRose: The most likely bet lies either in Lima’s defense or the light heavyweight title fight.

Davis has been nothing short of unbeatable in Bellator. This makes his fight with Bader very interesting. Davis hasn’t faced a fighter of Bader’s caliber — we’re talking a fighter among the very best at light heavyweight in MMA — since he left the UFC. The last fight Davis had in the UFC came against Bader, and that was a split-decision loss for Davis.

In their first fight, neither of these guys was able to implement their wrestling, which they have been able to do so well against other foes. It ended up being a matter of who got the better of the striking exchanges, and that was Bader. This isn’t a particularly exhilarating fight, but neither are some of the other top fights Bellator is putting on during this night.

Lima is also a shaky pick. Larkin can be one of the dark horses in Bellator after making his way over from the UFC. Larkin isn’t a big, flashy signing like Rory MacDonald or the aforementioned Bader, but he is one of the better veteran signings Bellator has made. He’s certainly a sneaky good pick. Larkin is one of the rare fighters who didn’t even leave on a losing streak. In fact, he is riding a two-fight winning streak, having beaten Neil Magny and Jorge Masvidal. Those are two great fighters in their own right, and they’re certainly better than the competition Lima has faced in Bellator. Larkin is a big, flashy name, but he certainly isn’t a fighter you should overlook. Expect him to push Lima and become the next welterweight champion.

Henderson: Two title changes in one night is a bit optimistic, but it could happen. However, I’ll be a bit more conservative and predict just one title shuffle.

Larkin has the absolute best chance to snag gold out of a champion’s hands. The 30-year-old has only lost one welterweight fight out of five under the UFC banner. The loss came to Albert Tumenov in a close decision. He had scored previous victories over John Howard and Santiago Ponzinibbio, and he really upped his game after the loss to rebound with victories over the aforementioned Magny and Masvidal. Masvidal currently sits at No. 4 in the UFC’s welterweight rankings. Magny is fifth and Ponzinibbio lands at No. 13. So, Larkin has victories over three of the UFC’s top 15.

What does Lima have? Well, the Bellator title, at least. He also has a record that features a loss to Koreshkov, whom he defeated in a rematch to recapture the belt, and defeats at the hands of such unheralded fighters as Brent Weedman, Charles Blanchard and Eric Dahlberg. Granted, Lima has improved a lot since that trio of losses, but he also suffered defeat against Ben Askren and faltered in his first meeting with Koreshkov. Those last two fighters are the toughest opponents in a long list of quality rivals that Lima has encountered. Larkin ranks right up there, too. Lima’s biggest struggles have come against wrestlers, but Larkin could serve up a striking assault that Lima just can’t combat. Bellator has made a minor mistake in bringing in these UFC fighters, because they are proving to be superior to the league’s homegrown talent.

As for the other two title fights, the champs should retain their belts.

Chandler is a world-class lightweight who has been in some wars through the years. His challenger, Primus, is undefeated through seven fights with some solid wins to his credit, but he’s just not ready for what Chandler brings to the cage.

Davis and Bader makes for a competitive battle, no doubt, but Davis should be able to avenge his prior loss. Bader’s simply too inconsistent to trust, and a Bellator debut at such a major event might be just enough to rattle him and give Davis the edge.

Debuting pro Aaron Pico — do we need to know this name?

Henderson: Absolutely.

Pico might be a debuting pro on the MMA scene, but he’s a highly decorated freestyle wrestler who tried out for the U.S. Olympic Team and also has experience in pankration competition and amateur boxing. He’s one of a handful of “blue-chipper” prospect wrestlers Bellator has scooped up.

Pico isn’t getting an easy first outing, either. His opponent is 10-fight veteran Zach Freeman, who has eight pro victories under his belt. Freeman has headlined a Resurrection Fighting Alliance card and co-headlined a Titan FC event — both appearances ended in defeat for the lightweight fighter.

Pico trains out of the American Kickboxing Academy camp. He has spent time with Eddie Bravo’s 10th Planet Jiu-Jitsu and Freddie Roach’s Wild Card boxing gym, so his grappling and boxing work have come under elite supervision. This 20-year-old kid could be a big star in Bellator’s future, and he’ll kick things off by getting some big-time pay-per-view experience under his belt.

DeRose: “Absolutely” isn’t even a hyperbolic statement. Pico, one of the best prospects on the Bellator roster, is a name fans should know.

While Freeman doesn’t make for an easy first fight for Pico, Bellator wouldn’t set up a prospect of his status with a first fight against someone who he couldn’t definitely beat. It just isn’t their style when it comes to building up young, talented fighters.

This will go down very easily, as Pico uses his wrestling to assure victory. AKA should be a great spot where Pico can learn how to set up his high-level wrestling with other former top wrestlers, like former UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez and current UFC light heavyweight champ Daniel Cormier. This is probably the best camp Pico could have landed in.

Pico won’t be one of those wrestlers who just shoots for the double leg and hopes it lands. He’ll set it up with strikes and throw Freeman off his game before working in his wrestling and winning the fight from top control.

Who’s the biggest winner at Bellator NYC/Bellator 180?

DeRose: James Gallagher, hands down.

The SBG product could very well be the next big thing. He submitted his last two opponents in the co-main events at Bellator 169 and Bellator 173. Gallagher is fighting on Bellator’s tentpole event for 2017, inside Madison Square Garden as one of the company’s better up-and-coming prospects. Furthermore, he gets to fight a member of the respected Machida clan. A win here over a Machida in front of a lot of eyes would do wonders for Gallagher’s career. This is truly a gift to Gallagher, who has been fighting on Bellator’s cards in England and Ireland. This is his first big trip to North America, and he’ll put himself on the map if he extends his unblemished record with a win over Machida.

The biggest winner could easily be any of the fighters we picked to win the belt on this card — or even Mitrione, if he beats Emelianenko — but in terms of future output, a win for Gallagher would launch him past everybody else. A lot of stars have aligned for Gallagher on this card.

Henderson: Lorenz Larkin.

While Larkin had notched wins over Jorge Masvidal and Neil Magny, it was highly likely that he would have encountered some sort of roadblock to the UFC’s welterweight title. Now, he’ll compete for Bellator, where the path to a championship isn’t quite as rough. If Larkin defeats Lima — which he should — then the UFC veteran will be able to boast a major-league title. When he next becomes a free agent, he should be able to attract even better offers from Bellator and the UFC.

Who’s the biggest loser at Bellator NYC/Bellator 180?

Henderson: How about Phil Davis and Ryan Bader? These guys are headlining Bellator 180 on Spike TV, sure, but their inclusion on the pay-per-view would have been a bigger selling point than what is sure to be a wrestling-heavy main event on cable TV.

This also demonstrates that Bellator feels it can get more play out of Chael Sonnen and Wanderlei Silva on pay-per-view, when, given the implications of the fight and the age of the competitors, Sonnen and Silva really should be the pair scrapping on the Bellator 180 portion of the card. The organization brought in fighters like Davis and Bader to add some world-class competition to its roster, but now it’s prioritizing grudge matches in the senior division instead. It’s difficult to imagine Davis or Bader being happy about this.

DeRose: I hate to call anybody a “loser” on this card. This is a big show for Bellator, and everybody is getting increased attention for not only a pay-per-view, but a trip to NYC in a major MMA promotion. However, when all is said and done, the biggest loser will be Douglas Lima.

Lima just got his title back from Andrey Koreshkov after initially failing to defend it in his first title defense against Koreshkov. Now, he gets one of the better signings Bellator has made from the UFC roster. Talk about bad luck.

Lima would be one of those examples of the debate as to whether you call someone a champion if that person has not defended the belt at least once. There are two sides to this coin, though. If Lima were to win, he would collect a major name to add to his victims’ list and would solidify himself as one of the better welterweights the UFC doesn’t have.

Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?

DeRose: On any other Bellator card, the names Couture and Gracie would get more attention. Here, though, they do not. However, Neiman Gracie’s fight against Dave Marfone has sleeper potential.

Gracie’s last three fights came under the Bellator banner, and two of those have ended in a submission. Gracie is slick on the ground, obviously. I’ll take Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu 101 as the sleeper.

Henderson: How about the women’s flyweight contest between Alice Yauger and Heather Hardy?

The 35-year-old Hardy is set to make her pro debut against Yauger. While she might seem like a late entry into the MMA world, Hardy is already a well-known boxer with an undefeated mark through 20 wins and one no-contest in the sweet science. She’s a WBC champ, but now she has her eyes set on an MMA run. Hardy brings a strong striking background to the cage, but she’ll encounter a veteran presence opposite her in the Bellator cage.

Yauger is one fight below the .500 mark, but the 38-year-old has been in action against the likes of Shannon Sinn, Rebecca Ruth and Jessica Middleton. The Texan “Soccer Mom” has one finish via strikes, but she tends to go the distance. Only the aforementioned Ruth was able to put her away.

Hardy has a strong, but beatable opponent in front of her. While Aaron Pico rightfully draws a huge rookie spotlight, fans should keep an eye on Hardy as well.

Pair this card with…

Henderson: A raise. If you’re a hardcore MMA fan who buys all the pay-per-views, your wallet is already taking a beating just from the UFC events. Now, you have to shell out for this show and, it would seem, Conor McGregor’s recently signed boxing match with Floyd Mayweather, Jr., in late August. Bellator has a good thing going on cable TV, so it’s unfortunate to see the company try to follow a business model that’s so far only worked for the UFC.

DeRose: A raise is a quality point, but I’ll take a good ol’ fashioned slice of New York pizza for this one. I’m one of the lucky ones, as I can do this fairly easily, but grab yourself a slice and watch the fights.

Fight Picks

Fight Henderson’s Pick DeRose’s Pick
Bellator NYC (Pay-per-view, 10 p.m. ET)
LHW: Chael Sonnen vs. Wanderlei Silva Silva Sonnen
HW: Fedor Emelianenko vs. Matt Mitrione Emelianenko Mitrione
WW Championship: Douglas Lima vs. Lorenz Larkin Larkin Larkin
LW Championship: Michael Chandler vs. Brent Primus Chandler Chandler
LW: Aaron Pico vs. Zach Freeman Pico Pico
Bellator 180 (Spike TV, 7 p.m. ET)
LHW Championship: Phil Davis vs. Ryan Bader Davis Bader
FW: James Gallagher vs. Chinzo Machida Gallagher Gallagher
WW: Neiman Gracie vs. Dave Marfone Gracie Gracie
Women’s FlyW: Heather Hardy vs. Alice Yauger Hardy Hardy
Preliminary Card (Spike.com, 6 p.m. ET)
WW: Ryan Couture vs. Haim Gozali Couture Couture
LW: Jerome Mickle vs. Anthony Giacchina Mickle Giacchina
Catchweight (168 pounds): John Salgado vs. Hugh McKenna McKenna McKenna
Catchweight (130 pounds): Matthew Rizzo vs. Sergio da Silva Rizzo Rizzo