The Bellator featherweight tournament begins on Sept. 7 when the promotion heads to the SAP Center in San Jose, Calif., for Bellator 226. However, the headlining bout isn’t a part of the tournament. Instead, it features Bellator’s big men: newly-crowned heavyweight champion Ryan Bader and UFC veteran Cheick Kongo.
This will be Bader’s first defense of the heavyweight belt. He has won five fights since leaving the UFC. This streak includes wins at heavyweight over Fedor Emelianenko and Matt Mitrione, plus a victory at light heavyweight against Phil Davis. Bader has been remarkable since making the switch to Bellator, where he is now a two-division champion. Kongo has been on a different path. The former UFC fighter hasn’t lost in four years. That equates to eight straight victories since his loss to Muhammed “King Mo” Lawal.
Of course, a big part of this card is the featherweight tournament that will occupy four slots on the main card. The most recognizable names will take part in the co-main event, where former champion Daniel Straus meets Derek Campos. Pat Curran, another former featherweight champ, is also part of the fun. Curran fights undefeated prospect Adam Borics. Meanwhile, former title contender Emmanuel Sanchez takes on Tywan Claxton, and UFC veteran Sam Sicilia clashes with another one of Bellator’s European prospects, Pedro Carvalho. The main card also features a featherweight alternate bout between Gaston Bolanos and Daniel Carey.
The preliminary card airs live on Bellator.com at 7:30 p.m. ET. The main card follows on DAZN at 10 p.m. ET.
Cheick Kongo has long floated around just outside the top 10 in the heavyweight division. Can natural light heavyweight Ryan Bader finally convince the masses that he’s a top heavyweight when he takes on Kongo, or will he lack the size to get it done?
Size shouldn’t have anything to do with it. Bader has already fought bigger opponents in the Heavyweight Grand Prix en route to the belt. As a light heavyweight, he tangled with big 205-pounders Jon Jones and Anthony “Rumble” Johnson in the UFC. He met Matt Mitrione in the aforementioned tournament. Bader has put the work in. If he loses, then it will be due to a skill differential, and, frankly, Bader is a better fighter than Kongo.
Kongo is going to look to stall this fight out as long as possible. He uses a top-heavy game to wear out his opponents over the course of the fight. Bader is going to be a completely different animal, thanks to his background in wrestling. This should enable him to keep Kongo’s game plan in check. It’s hard to get Bader to the ground. Even Phil Davis, an elite wrestler, had trouble doing it.
Bader has become a much better fighter in Bellator. Whether that is due to lack of strong competition or because he has actually improved is up for debate. However, to simply say it comes down to a size difference between the two fighters downplays all the other work Kongo is putting into this fight. If the Frenchman wins, it’s because he turns out to be the better fighter that night.
That said, Bader should take this fight by keeping it on the feet and outpointing Kongo.
Much of the Bellator 226 main card is devoted to the featherweight tournament. Which four men advance to the next round?
There are a lot of veterans in this field, but, interestingly, two of the best fight against each other in the quarterfinal round.
Daniel Straus is one of two former featherweight champions in this bracket. He ended his two-fight skid when he submitted Shane Kruchten in his last fight. Straus fights Derek Campos, another longtime Bellator staple. Campos is on a three-fight skid that includes losses to two other fighters in this tournament, Pedro Carvalho and Sam Sicilia. Campos is making the drop down in weight after previously fighting some of the best fighters Bellator has to offer at lightweight.
Neither Straus nor Campos seem to be what they once were, but nonetheless they do enjoy plenty of experience. This is going to come down to whether or not Straus can use his wrestling to dictate the action. Straus has demonstrated improved striking over the past few years, but his wrestling is what has won him fights at the championship level. Straus is only a couple inches shorter than Campos, but he will have a one and a half inch reach advantage. Straus needs to use his reach to close the distance and draw Campos out of his game plan while also sapping his strength. Straus has been the hotter hand lately, and he should advance past Campos and into the semifinals.
The other former champ in this tournament is Pat Curran. His fight is the biggest question mark of the tournament. Curran takes on Adam Borics, an undefeated prospect who rose out of the ranks of regional European MMA and took out blue-chip prospect Aaron Pico in his last fight. Borics hasn’t faced anybody of Curran’s level just yet in his career, but he clearly has enough power in his hands to knock out Curran. However, Curran has the huge experience edge. The former champion, like Pico, is a wrestler, but he doesn’t share Pico’s cockiness in the stand-up game. Curran should take this fight, but it wouldn’t be surprising if Borics made it an aggressive contest.
Emmanuel Sanchez has always been an interesting character in his Bellator tenure. He has gone to split decision four times in a row on his way up the featherweight ladder. Sanchez fights the undefeated Tywan Claxton. This is quite easily the biggest jump in competition for any fighter in the quarterfinal round of this tournament. Sanchez is a top contender at featherweight. Claxton may have a background in collegiate wrestling, but this will still be quite a task for him. Sanchez is a well-rounded fighter who has the ability to end this fight on the feet or on the ground. Sanchez is going to dictate the outcome of this fight.
Finally, we come to UFC veteran Sam Sicilia, who meets Pedro Carvalho. Hopefully no one has forgotten Sicilia’s knockout of Akira Corassani at UFC on Fox 14. The finish is a perfect illustration of why Sicilia is a dangerous fight for anyone. Carvalho, with wins in his last five fights, has been an unstoppable force. Carvalho, whose three most recent victories have come in the Bellator cage, is good on the ground, where he has handed out five submissions. Sicilia is efficient, but he has been inconsistent so far under the Bellator banner. Carvalho should emerge with his hand raised.
This card features an incredible amount of preliminary-card bouts. Is there any fighter in particular that fans should zero in on during the prelims?
Adam Piccolotti is the easy answer. He has been a really exciting fighter for Bellator and came close to beating former UFC lightweight champion Benson Henderson in his most recent appearance. However, Piccolotti hasn’t beaten anybody at the next tier of skilled fighters. His biggest victory is either his decision over Brandon Girtz or the submission of Carrington Banks. The 30-year-old has fought three times against some of the best in his division, though, including Goiti Yamauchi, David Rickels and the aforementioned Henderson.
After dropping the split verdict to Henderson, Piccolotti has a chance to get back to his winning ways when he clashes with Jake Smith. Smith has the ability to knock out just about anyone he faces — he has five such finishes within his seven professional wins. Smith is coming off a 57-second demolition of Steve Kozola. However, that victory came in January 2018. Smith’s long layoff should put Piccolotti at ease. Piccolotti will get back into the win column and get himself another shot against one of the big-name veterans on the roster.
Main Card (DAZN, 10 p.m. ET)
HW Championship: Ryan Bader vs. Cheick Kongo
FW Tournament Quarterfinal: Daniel Straus vs. Derek Campos
FW Tournament Quarterfinal: Pat Curran vs. Adam Borics
FW Tournament Quarterfinal: Tywan Claxton vs. Emmanuel Sanchez
FW Tournament Quarterfinal: Sam Sicilia vs. Pedro Carvalho
FW: Gaston Bolanos vs. Daniel Carey
Preliminary Card (Bellator.com, 7:30 p.m. ET)
FW: John “Macapá” Teixeira vs. Ashleigh Grimshaw
MW: Ivan Batinich vs. Daniel Compton
MW: Cornelius Savage vs. Evan Gubera
BW: Cass Bell vs. Isaiah Rocha
LW: Chris Gonzalez vs. Luis Vargas
Women’s FW: Amber Leibrock vs. Jessica Borga
MW: Favian Gutierrez vs. Alan Benson
LW: Adam Piccolotti vs. Jake Smith
FlyW: Daniel Gonzalez vs. Jonathan Adams
WW: James Terry vs. Batsumberel Dagvadorj
Catchweight (140 pounds): Peter Ishiguro vs. Elias Anderson
FW: Hyder Amil vs. Ignacio Ortiz
WW: Abraham Vaesau vs. Renato Alves
Catchweight (180 pounds): Albert Gonzales vs. Tyson Miller
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