Bellator Season Six Preview – Lightweight Tournament
Two weeks into Bellator’s Sixth season and yours truly is 6 of 8 when it comes to picking the first round fights. Nothing spectacular, but that sort of success rate is pretty decent when it comes to the sport of MMA, and if you’re the betting type it’ll likely net you some money. So let’s try to keep that going, and finally score the thus far elusive (or allusive, if you will) perfect week. This Friday begins the search for Michael Chandler’s first challenger in the Lightweight division, while former champion Eddie Alvarez is off getting a big name fight against Shinya Aoki.
Matchmaking messiness in the division aside, the Lightweight tournament continues Bellator’s trend of consistently making their divisions deeper and more talented. Whereas previous iterations of the 155 bracket have had a few solid fighters (Alvarez & Jorge Masvidal in Season One, Pat Curran & Roger Huerta in Season Two, Chandler & Patricky Freire in Season Four), in some cases it wasn’t discovered until during or after the tournament how good some of those men were.
Heading into Season Six, we have last year’s Lightweight and Welterweight finalists, Freire and Rick Hawn, respectively. Brent Weedman, who is dropping down from 170 – and who many thought beat eventual tournament winner Jay Hieron – could be a contender, and some of the first time tournament participants like Rene Nazare (10-1) and Ricardo Tirloni (14-1) make this tournament more interesting than those of seasons past. As we’ve become accustomed to, the odds are not out yet for the quarterfinals (let’s hope that changes for subsequent rounds), so we’ll run down the bout order.
Although Thiago Santos and Eric Prindle occupy the official main event slot, I don’t imagine anyone is anticipating that fight more than the tournament headliner of Patricky ‘Pitbull’ Freire taking on Lloyd Woodard. Both fighters were defeated by Chandler in their previous tournament bout, and have the goal of exacting some revenge on the champion. Since returning to MMA after a near three year hiatus, ‘Pitbull’ has gone 6-1, finishing five of those opponents – two with flying knees – and just generally being an exciting devastating fighter. Woodard doesn’t bring the level of highlight-making ability of his opponent, but has only gone to decision twice in his 11 career victories (one against ultra-tough veteran Ryan Healy). Despite having a fairly well-rounded game, Woodard’s strategy in this fight should be to take it down early, as Freire is simply too dynamic on the feet for even far more seasoned strikers to survive, just ask Rob McCullough. The problem for Woodard lies in getting the fight down, as Patricky’s takedown defense is stout, and has only really failed him as he began to tire against Chandler. I favour the elder ‘Pitbull’ to pick up another knockout in this bout, and would be mildly surprised if he doesn’t earn himself a spot in this season’s final.
The man I favour to join Freire in the final is another man who knows what it feels like to fall just short in the finals of a Bellator tournament. Olympic Judoka Rick Hawn bested Jim Wallhead and Lyman Good in the last Welterweight tournament, two fighters just as skilled as any of the Lightweight entrants. The biggest question for Hawn, who competed at 178lbs in Judo and 170lbs in MMA, is how he will deal with a significant weight cut for the first time in his combat sports career. Not to undersell Hawn’s opponent Ricardo Tirloni – who’s only career defeat came to current UFC Lightweight Champion Benson Henderson – but I see Hawn’s striking and incredible ability to remain on his feet being the determining factors in this fight. Perhaps Hawn’s power will carry with him down to 155, as he did being his career with seven TKO’s in his first nine fights and he stops Tirloni, but more likely I see a unanimous verdict for Hawn.
The next bout features two fighters who have previously competed at 170 pounds, in Brent Weedman and J.J. Ambrose. Ambrose is a relatively talented submission grappler, but his quality of competition has been lacking, to say the least. Looking over some tape of Ambrose, I saw one of his opponents tap to a one-armed guillotine from side control. In the one fight where Ambrose took a step up in competition, he was defeated rather easily by Mike Pyle. Losing to Pyle is nothing to be ashamed of, but Brent Weedman is much closer to Pyle’s skill level than that one the scrubs Ambrose has built his record against. Weedman has the grappling skills to nullify Ambrose’s primary attack which is his top position grappling, but also the striking to best Ambrose on the feet. The one danger with any Weedman fight is that he can fight to his own detriment at times, but against Ambrose I see his skills being too much for that to really turn into an issue. Weedman moves on to the semis where he is capable of giving either Freire or Hawn fits, but ultimately moves no further along than that.
Finally, in one of the matches Bellator has made with obvious disregard for previous results, Rene Nazare takes on Thiago Silva, despite losing in his last bout to Jacob Kirwan – who takes on another guy who could be considered a LW Tournament snub, Dave Jansen in an undercard match. Nazare has shown the ability to finish opponents with strikes or by using his BJJ Blackbelt, and had gone 3-0 in Bellator prior to the Kirwan bout. He is someone the promotion has high hopes for, but at the same time his presence in the tournament contradicts Bellator’s philosophy of having fighters earn their opportunities rather than being given them. Across the cage from Nazare is a guy who is in the tournament for his entertainment value, as there are better Brazilian Lightweight prospects that the organization likely could have considered. When it comes to the type of fighters you want to feature on TV, it’s hard to argue with a guy who has all nine of his victories by T/KO, and his only two losses by submission. It’s clear what Silva brings to the cage, and Nazare has the ability to exploit that one-dimensional style to move forward. Again, he has the skills to make for a difficult foil in the semi-finals, but I don’t see him getting past that round.
The Lightweight Tournament should deliver more exciting fights, and certainly some memorable moments, but each fight seems pretty clear to pick. Unlike some of the other tournaments, where the tournament feels wide open, the path to the Lightweight title clearly goes through the two fighters who have already seen a Bellator final in their career. When it comes down to the final, I see Patricky Freire getting the better of Rick Hawn. I think Hawn has fallen in love with his striking, but he lacks the aptitude in that area to really trouble ‘Pitbull’. It will be interesting to see how Hawn’s transition to 155 goes, because that could sway my opinion on this potential fight, but based on what we’ve seen thus far he has made himself far too one-dimensional to find that next level of success which his tools indicate he could reach.
Patricky Freire def. Lloyd Woodard via Round 2 T/KO
Rick Hawn def. Ricardo Tirloni via Unanimous Decision
Brent Weedman def. J.J. Ambrose via Round 2 Submission
Rene Nazare def. Thiago Silva via Round 1 Submission
In the finals, Patricky Freire defeats Rick Hawn to become the second ‘Pitbull’ brother to earn a Bellator title shot. Agree or disagree with my picks? Let me know on twitter @bradtaschuk. Be sure to check back for next week’s tournament preview, when we take a look at the Welterweight division.