Bellator Season Six Preview – Bantamweight Tournament
So the results just aren’t going my way lately. The Welterweight quarterfinals brought another 2-2 night to my tally for the year, despite some very pickable fights. Neither Amoussou or Rickels winning was shocking, I just didn’t pick them. Alas, MMA you are a cruel mistress. Let’s see if I can redeem myself in this hybrid Bantamweight quarterfinal/Featherweight semi-final/Welterweight title card, which is one of the best Bellator has put on.
As I alluded to, this card isn’t quite the same as the four cards Bellator has put on thus far in Season Six, as the first round of the 135lb tournament is spread between this week and next. Still, I’ll preview the whole Bantamweight tournament field, and get into an incredibly intriguing fight in the 145lb division. Also, the first of a string of Bellator title fights begins on Friday in Windsor, so you can bet we’ll cover what should play out as an entertaining style clash at Welterweight.
Before we get into the business end of this card, the Bantamweight tournament fights deserve some attention. The two fights taking place this week are the lower profile tournament fights, as they are accompanied by some more well-known fighters at the top of the card, but they are fantastic fights nonetheless, and feature the most accomplished of the eight tournament participants.
First, Hiroshi Nakamura (-110) will take on Rodrigo Lima (-120), in what is probably the toughest fight to call in the first round of the tournament. Nakamura has the more impressive resume of the two, having notched wins over Masakazu Imanari and Yoshiro Maeda in 2011. His style isn’t necessarily an exciting one, as he normally chooses to use a grinding style and intelligent gameplanning to stifle opponents who appear to have him outclassed in the skill department. Lima may fall into the category of those who seem more skilled, as the Team Nogueira product sports a 10-0 record, with eight first round stoppages among them. The problem is that the 20 year-old hasn’t faced the same level of competition as Nakamura, and I don’t think he is more skilled as a grappler than someone like Imanari, who was unable to really threaten when their fight went to the ground. One concern when favouring Nakamura is that his chin has proven it isn’t the sturdiest out there, but Lima’s game is more grappling oriented than based on one punch knockout power. I feel that as long as the change of scenery doesn’t negatively impact Nakamura, he is the choice in this bout. Once again, his ability to make the fight happen where it gives him the best chance to win will be what allows him to prevail.
The other quarterfinal features a man who has already defeated the #1 contender in Bellator’s Bantamweight division, Masakatsu Ueda (-390). Ueda is one of the early tournament favourites, and for good reason. The former Shooto champion sports a 15-1-2 record, with his only loss coming to a very inventive submission of the year candidate in 2010 from Shuichiro Katsumura. Since that bout, Ueda has reeled off another five wins coming into this tournament. His style has always been primarily a wrestling and positional game, although he does possess solid submission skills. Recently he has developed his striking into a more potent weapon, but his grappling will be what he goes to if he feels pressed. From Ueda’s perspective, Travis Marx (+300) is the ideal opponent. Another fighter who is primarily a grappler, but a lesser skilled one and really offers little danger on the feet, unless Marx can simply outwrestle Ueda for three rounds, he’ll find picking up the victory a difficult proposition.
While the Bantamweight fights this week all feature newcomers to the Bellator tournament, next week’s bouts feature four fighters who have all participated in previous 135lb tournaments. Alexis Vila made some serious noise last tournament, by knocking Joe Warren into another sphere of reality before bowing out in the final to Eduardo Dantas. Luis Nogueira on the other hand exited the tournament in the first round, as he failed to get anything substantial going against Ed West. Vila has a different style than West, but presents many of the same issues in that Nogueira will struggle mightily to get the fight to the ground and cannot win a striking battle. Alexis Vila is the clear pick in this bout, and with his wrestling and power presents a difficult test for everyone else in the field.
The aforementioned Ed West will take on Marcos Galvao in the final first round match, and what is an intriguing clash of two men who are well-seasoned grapplers but will likely take place on the feet. Galvao is a Nova Uniao BJJ black belt and multiple time world champion, but despite those credentials has never won an MMA bout via submission. West on the other hand does not possess the grappling credentials of his foe, but has notched nine of his 17 MMA wins by tapout. However, West also employs a high volume kicking game coming from his Tae Kwon Do background, so is happy to keep fights on the feet. He would be best served to take that route against Galvao, who while a serviceable striker has proven chinny in the past, and is nowhere near as dangerous standing as on the ground, regardless of what his submission total may say. If West plays this smart, uses his wrestling and movement to keep it standing and works his kicks, he should be able to stymie any real offence Galvao can bring to him.
Logic may indicate that the two winners from each card would face off in the semi-finals, but being that the events are merely a week apart, Bellator could choose to go in any direction. I see Ueda and Vila winning their fights by relatively wide margins, and Sam Caplan aiming for a final between those two, so the semis could potentially shake out as Vila/Nakamura and Ueda/West (should my picks come through). As always, I’ll preface this by saying that this can all change based on what fights are made as the tournament progresses, but I actually like Alexis Vila to meet Ed West in the tournament final, with West – somewhat surprisingly, perhaps – taking the tournament crown. His style is simply a very difficult one to deal with. Makovsky beat him because he was the better wrestler, and actually used his wrestling (which Vila won’t), and Dantas beat him by being a supremely talented and well-rounded young fighter, a description which eludes each of the participants in this season’s field.
Hiroshi Nakamura def. Rodrigo Lima via Unanimous Decision
Masakatsu Ueda def. Travis Marx via Unanimous Decision
Alexis Vila def. Luis Nogueira via R1 T/KO
Ed West def. Marcos Galvao via Unanimous Decision
In the tournament final, I see Ed West overcoming Alexis Vila to earn his shot at avenging a loss to either Zach Makovsky or Eduardo Dantas.
That takes care of the Bantamweight tournament, now on to what promise to be two very entertaining bouts to headline this card, and the fights that almost convinced me to make the four hour drive to Windsor to watch this event live. First, the season six tournaments will begin to move into the second round, with arguably the best fight that any tournament will provide this season. Top 10 Featherweight Marlon Sandro (-180) takes on incredible prospect Alexandre Bezerra (+150), in a match that will almost certainly crown the Featherweight tournament champion. Sandro has the edge in the striking game, based on his aggression and confounding power, and his submission game is phenomenal as well. That sentence would have you thinking Bezerra has no shot in this fight, but given the younger fighter’s wrestling edge, supremely aggressive submission game, and superior speed inside the cage he is very much in this bout. I still favour Sandro based on his edge in experience against high level competition. He should also be able to control the striking enough to keep Bezerra’s takedown attempts at bay. Even if ‘Popo’ succeeds in getting the fight to the ground, the only man who has been able to best Sandro there is Hatsu Hioki, and no offence to Bezerra, but he is nowhere near Hioki’s level on the ground. I think Sandro lays the leather on Bezerra for three entertaining rounds and comes out the victor by decision.
Finally, the Welterweight title clash between champion Ben Askren (-280) and challenger Douglas Lima (+220), is as wonderful a stylistic match up as you could hope for. Askren makes no bones about what he brings inside the cage at this point in his career. He is a phenomenal wrestler with excellent guard passing and control skills, but lacks the ability to finish quality opposition. Conversely, wrestling is the one thing Lima has been adding to his game to make him a force in the Welterweight division. He first gained notice for his slick ground game while making rounds in the MFC organization in Canada, then displayed some ferocious punching power in his run through the last Welterweight tournament. Lima is a finisher, as 18 of his 21 victories have come via stoppage, and that is exactly the type of fighter it will take to best Askren, as over five rounds Ben will find a way to take his opponent down and control them for stretches. Whether Lima’s ground game is potent enough to mitigate those periods will be his key to victory here. I don’t see him submitting Askren, who is an underrated submission grappler, but if he can threaten with sweeps and use them to stand he can make his massive striking advantage count. Although Askren is the heavy favourite on the books, I think Lima will be able to take advantage of his porous striking defence, eventually landing the same right hand that laid out Chris Lozano and Ben Saunders, earning him the Bellator 170lb strap.
Betting-wise, I like the long odds on Lima, but not a huge play, as Askren is that big of a favourite for a reason. Additionally, a parlay on Sandro, Ueda and Nakamura (or Rodrigo Lima, if you favour him) pays handsomely, as any parlay where you have two fighters less than -200 does. That’s about it, so until Bellator 66 rolls around, this may be the best card the promotion has put together in its history, so be sure to check it out Friday night on MTV2, ePIX or Spike.com, for those like myself who don’t get obscure, terrible American channels.