The Bellator Light Heavyweight Grand Prix starts on Friday at Bellator 256. With the recent acquisitions that Bellator has made in this weight class, the company has a legitimate claim of having the best light-heavyweight division in MMA. The Bellator light-heavyweight championship and a million dollar prize await the winner of this tournament.
The first tourney bout pits Bellator heavyweight kingpin Ryan Bader against former UFC light-heavyweight champ Lyoto Machida. This fight is a rematch of a contest that took place in the UFC in 2012. Machida won that fight by second-round knockout.
Bader can take confidence from his previous experience of winning a Bellator tournament. He beat Muhammad “King Mo” Lawal, Matt Mitrione and Fedor Emilianenko on his way to the Bellator heavyweight throne in 2019. A factor that may damage the Arizona native’s chances of this time around is his lack of activity in this division. His last fight against Vadim Nemkov, where he lost the Bellator light-heavyweight title, was his first bout in the division in three years. He has become accustomed to carrying a heavyweight frame, and the cut down to 205 pounds isn’t likely to be easy for the 38-year-old.
Bader possesses explosive punching power and elite wrestling, though. Against Machida, he needs to close the distance without putting himself in danger of being countered. He also has to look to land big power punches early. He could take Machida down, where he can then utilize his size and strength to impose his will on the smaller man.
If Bader gets past the Brazilian, then the big question will be whether he can keep his composure against the hard-hitters in the tournament. An inability to do this in the past has hurt him, and it will be an important factor in his quest to regain the belt.
At the age of 42, Machida still has the ability to frustrate opponents with his unconventional movement and creative counter-striking. The elusive karate style is Machida’s trademark and has served him well for most of his career. He has been involved in seven fights that have gone to a split decision, a result of a style that is predicated on avoiding strikes while not throwing much output either. Machida will need to land a higher volume of strikes to ensure he secures a definitive victory against Bader and leaves no doubt in the judges’ minds as to who won the fight, if it goes that far. A lack of output and aggression cost him in his last two contests, which came against Gegard Mousasi and Phil Davis.
This is likely to be Machida’s last opportunity to win a world title, and he will take confidence from knowing he has a victory over Bader. In order to win this fight, he will likely need to employ a similar game plan to the one from their first encounter. He has to fight on the back foot and draw Bader into a counter. Machida will have to be wary of the American’s power early in the bout and also avoid being taken down, or else he could end up on the receiving end of Bader’s ground-and-pound.
It will be a tough task for Machida to win this tournament, but “The Dragon” has shown in recent years that he can still be extremely competitive against much younger fighters.
The grand prix resumes at Bellator 257 on April 16. In the co-main event, UFC veteran Corey Anderson takes on Dovletdzhan Yagshimuradov.
Yagshimuradov holds a professional record of 18-5-1. He makes his promotional debut in this contest. Yagshimuradov has managed to finish 15 of his victorie, including 10 in the first round. The Turkmen fighter is 5-foot-11, which is not tall for the division. However, he uses his smaller frame to his advantage. He is very light on his feet, and he has excellent speed and movement for a fighter in this weight class. The 31-year-old is also a very accomplished wrestler who is extremely adept at controlling his opponents and wearing them down against the cage.
Yagshimuradov has a sambo background, and he employs foot sweeps and trips to great effect. He does have a propensity to keep his hands low, which will help him prepare for takedown attempts from Anderson but could leave him vulnerable to the American’s power punches. Yagshimuradov will enter this tournament as an almost complete unknown to the Bellator audience. Consequently, he may benefit from the lack of expectation and could end up surprising many people with his performances.
Anderson left the UFC in 2020 after suffering a knockout loss to Jan Błachowicz, who would later become the promotion’s light-heavyweight champ. By this time, Anderson had already established himself as a top-five fighter in the UFC. He asked for his release, though, after voicing his displeasure with the management over a perceived lack of opportunities.
Anderson was granted his release and signed with Bellator in August. The 31-year-old was impressive in his first showing, where he dominated Melvin Manhoef from start to finish to secure a TKO victory in the second round.
Much like Bader, Anderson was primarily a wrestler when he first started his career. He, too, has since developed a solid stand-up game. The best example of this progression was at UFC 244, where he finished Johnny Walker on the feet at a time when Walker was considered to be one of the most dangerous fighters in the division. His victory over Ilir Latifi in 2018 illustrated his ability to take control of the striking exchanges and dominate a fight over a long period without using his wrestling.
Despite making significant improvements in his striking, Anderson still has a tendency to leave his chin exposed when throwing punches. This was how he got caught by Błachowicz. He will need to ensure that his defensive striking technique is secure enough to protect him from the hard-hitting fighters in this tournament. Anderson is in his prime and under the tutelage Mark Henry, one of the best coaches in MMA. He has a great opportunity to come out victorious.
The main event of Bellator 257 features the current divisional champion, the aforementioned Nemkov, against former champ Davis. This bout is a rematch of a contest that took place in 2018 in which Nemkov won by split decision.
Davis will take comfort from the fact that he gave Nemkov the toughest bout of his Bellator tenure thus far. All fights in this tournament are scheduled for five rounds, and this is something that Davis should look to use to his advantage. In their first fight, Davis took a visibly fatigued Nemkov down late in the third frame and attempted a couple of submissions that the Russian was able to defend. If Davis can keep pace with Nemkov early, he should look to get the fight into the later rounds, where he can utilize his superior conditioning and experience.
The 36-year-old Davis has a wrestling background and is now one of the most technically proficient strikers in Bellator. He uses his outstanding footwork and understanding of angles to evade strikes. This is a major reason as to why he has never been knocked out in his professional career, despite the fact that he has fought many big punchers over the years. Davis has the requisite fight IQ and veteran savvy to win this tournament and once again become the champion. He will just need to avoid the slow start that cost him in his last loss against Nemkov.
This brings us to the reigning champ, a protégé of Fedor Emelianenko. Nemkov is arguably the most well-rounded fighter in this bracket. He has dynamic striking, generating power and precision in both his punches and kicks. He is also a former combat-sambo world champion, and he likes to mix in his grappling in his fights. Nemkov won the belt in August when he knocked out Bader. He landed strikes at will before connecting with a head kick that dropped the American. Nemkov then landed follow-up punches to finish the fight.
The speed that Nemkov presented was ultimately too much for Bader, as has been the case for most of the Russian’s opponents. The only significant weakness that seems to exist in his game at the moment is his cardio. In the past, Nemkov has faded in bouts after making quick starts, as he did against Davis and in his loss to current UFC fighter Jiri Procházka. Nemkov has never fought longer than 15 minutes in his career, and his ability to win fights over a 25-minute distance will be questioned going into this tournament.
Nemkov will likely get the chance to dismiss this criticism against the durable Davis. At 28 years of age, Nemkov is the youngest fighter in the bracket. He’s in his athletic prime, too. The Russian is the betting favorite to win the whole thing. Provided he has been working on his conditioning, there is a strong chance that he does exactly that and retains the crown.
The most anticipated match-up of the tournament features Anthony “Rumble” Johnson and Yoel Romero at Bellator 258 on May 8. Both men make their Bellator debuts after receiving their walking papers from the UFC in 2020.
Rumble makes his return to the sport after a four-year absence. He started his career at welterweight, but repeated struggles to make weight at both 170 pounds and in his move up to middleweight led to a release from the UFC in 2012. He rebuilt his career outside of the promotion before he returned in 2014 and proceeded to have an incredible run in which he won seven of his next nine fights. All of those victories came by knockout within the first two rounds. This series of performances solidified Johnson as one of the hardest-hitting fighters in the history of MMA.
However, during that same stretch, Rumble lost two bids for the light-heavyweight title to Daniel Cormier. These setbacks exposed a glaring weakness in his game. He was taken down in both fights and fatigued rapidly. He ended up getting submitted on both occasions.
After four years away from the sport, Rumble has had the time to physically and mentally reset and work on improving his conditioning. On the other hand, there is no substitute for time in the cage. Whilst he is unlikely to be pushed to fight at a fast pace by Romero, there are other fighters who will test his cardio. The power that Johnson possesses means that he will always be a threat in fights. This alone makes him one of the favorites to win the tournament.
Romero joined Bellator after spending seven years in the UFC. His last fight was in March 2020 against Israel Adesanya for the UFC middleweight championship. The contest was a bizarre affair in which both fighters were very reluctant to engage. Adesanya retained his title by unanimous decision after marginally out-striking Romero over five tedious rounds.
In recent years, Romero’s game plan has involved fighting as a counter-striker, throwing very little output and drawing his opponents into his power punches. This seems to have been a conscious decision made by the 43-year-old after his first fight with Robert Whittaker where he fatigued badly after he had several unsuccessful takedown attempts. The 2000 Olympic silver medallist in freestyle wrestling now almost exclusively fights on the feet, seemingly to conserve energy.
Romero has lost four of his last five fights, but these bouts have been closely contested. The Cuban’s game plan is clearly limited, as it relies on him connecting cleanly with the few punches that he throws. However, it can be effective. The threat of his power deters fighters from over-committing, and it almost completely stifled the offense of Adesanya, who is one of the most sophisticated strikers in the sport.
Romero missed weight twice in the UFC at middleweight over the past couple of years. The move up a weight class could provide him with better stamina. Conversely, he has not fought at this weight since 2011, and the physical advantages he enjoyed at middleweight could be negated by fighting naturally bigger athletes at light heavyweight. In Johnson, Romero faces a fighter with greater one-punch knockout power than he has for arguably the first time in his career. The odds are against Romero winning this tournament, but his power and durability give him a chance of winning every fight he is in.