My first piece for FTESWL was focused on Bellator’s model of using aging legends to draw in crowds. My biggest complaints about the model was that Scott Coker conspicuously left champions and top talents off of the legends’ cards and that the older fighters simply could not live up to their names after so much mileage. For its first show in MSG however, Bellator 180 is covering every base that I had hoped the organization would. They bring in a GOAT candidate and a grudge match to draw attention; pair the legends’ main events with two title fights (and a third on the undercard) and start things off with the biggest prospect in MMA. I’m skeptical of the quality of the main events, but there are three great fights that will showcase some of Bellator’s best talent before we ride a wave of nostalgia to the finish line.
Fedor Emilianenko returns against Matt Mitrione:
Bellator’s MSG debut concludes by bringing a fighter regarded by many as the greatest mixed martial artist of all time back into the ring. Fedor Emlianenko has been a finisher since his debut in 2000. The man is a legend in the sport, with knockout ability that is only topped by his incredible submission game. His opponent will be knockout artist Matt Mitrione. Of his eleven wins, Mitrione has won by knockout 10 times including a demolition of Derrick Lewis. Fedor will want to take this fight to the ground as soon as possible. Let’s not mince words, Fedor looked past his prime five years ago. He was nearly KO’ed in his last bout with Fabio Maldonado. His Sambo background does give him a big advantage in grappling exchanges for this bout though and a submission is probably where he needs to push his chips. For Mitrione, victory will come with patience. He’s explosive and has a size advantage, but has to fight smart to take out an MMA legend. Meathead will want to keep things standing and look to land a big blow.
Chael Sonnen and Wanderlei Silva finally settle the score:
Four years ago, Chael Sonnen and Wanderlei Silva brawled on the set of Ultimate Fighter before they could get into the octagon. That was the only fight they’d have at the time because Silva fled a drug test and Sonnen promptly failed a drug test after. Both men have made contributions to the sport, but this rivalry has been laughable. This is not the Silva of legend whose ferocity was unparalleled then or now. It’s not the Chael Sonnen who was seconds away of dethroning a prime Anderson Silva in the midst of the spider’s most dominant run. This is Chael Sonnen fresh off of a loss to Tito Ortiz that was so ugly, people thought he threw the fight. Silva hasn’t had the chance to show much, because he was suspended for three years after the incident with the drug test. In their primes it would be a matter of Sonnen getting the fight to the ground before Silva could land a flurry. At this point, the fight is hard to predict at all but expect Sonnen to shoot early and often. If Silva can fend off the takedowns, he can work in space to score a KO but his takedown defense is hard to predict after the long layoff.
Douglas Lima defends the welterweight titles against Lorenz Larkin:
In a bout that virtually guarantees a stand-up war, Douglas Lima will defend his welterweight title for the first time against newcomer from the UFC Lorenz Larkin. Lima is fresh off of back to back wins against Paul Daley and Andrey Koreshkov. His striking is sharp with a focus on power nearly every time he throws. Lima squares off against an exciting striker in his own right, Lorenz Larkin. Larkin comes from the UFC after beating highly ranked opponents Jorge Masvidal and Neil Magny in impressive fashion. His striking is versatile to the point of including spinning heel kicks to the legs of opponents. He practically chopped Magny down with precision leg kicks complimented by a push kick that sent his opponent flying whenever he tried to close distance. Lima boasts vicious leg kicks of his own however and a compact striking style that lends itself well to pocket exchanges. Lima will want to close distance and force trades where he can land his power shots but he has been hittable in the past. Larkin has looked like a fighter on the verge for a couple of years in spite of a close loss to Albert Tumenov in that span. He’d be wise to work from outside of Lima’s knockout range and use his size advantage whenever Lima gets inside. I expect a new champion but regardless of the winner, this will set up an excellent match with Rory MacDonald.
Michael Chandler faces his next test in Brent Primus:
As the Will Brooks and Eddie Alvarezes of the world have come and gone, Michael Chandler has been a workhorse for Bellator. Chandler has fought the best of the best at Bellator with victories over former UFC champions Eddie Alvarez and Benson Henderson as well wins over the likes of Patricky Pitbull Friere, Derek Campos and Marcin Held. Chandler has become a fierce striker over his career which only serves to compliment some of the best wrestling in a lightweight division that is stacked with great talent. His opponent is a relative newcomer in Brent Primus. Primus is a BJJ black belt who looks to take opponents down and control from there. His transitions in the ground game are beautiful, he seamlessly takes opponents’ backs and has four rear-naked chokes in his 7 wins (and nearly scored another against Derek Anderson as well). While Primus is undefeated however, he is relatively untested. As his competition has improved, he’s won split decisions in tough bouts. Chandler represents another step up in competition and perhaps one too soon for a fighter with just 7 career fights. Expect Chandler to focus on striking but having faced excellent grapplers before, he likely won’t be afraid to use his wrestling. Primus needs a takedown, but it will take smart striking and a rabid pace to wear the champion down.
Aaron Pico arrives against journeyman Zach Freeman:
Aaron Pico is on the Bellator debut in MSG’s main card with a 0-0 record that might have some fans scratching their heads, but this is the most hyped prospect perhaps in MMA history. I haven’t seen a young fighter hyped like Pico since Cain Velasquez debuted and before that, Rory MacDonald. Pico signed a developmental contract with Bellator as soon as he turned 18. He was one win away from qualifying for the Olympics as a wrestler, he’s a junior golden gloves winner and has won pankration championships in Europe. His wrestling coach is Valentin Kalika, he trains boxing in Freddy Roach’s gym and he works on his BJJ with Eddie Bravo. How he’ll perform is a mystery but between his success in multiple disciplines and the team around him; this is one of the most exciting debuts for a mixed martial artist ever. Rest assured, he’s no CM Punk. His opponent is Zach Freeman, a fighter with an 8-2 record that includes 5 submissions. He’ll bring real experience to the bout, but has flaws that can be exploited. He defends with his chin high at times and tends to fight tall. Freeman is essentially, a better test than most debuting pros would face off against, but for the hype of Pico it’s hard to picture this being anything more than a showcase for Coker’s biggest prospect.
The best fight on the undercard is fairly obvious and we’re not talking about the title fight. Davis and Bader are world class, potential top five fighters in any LHW division; but their first fight was a slog rather than a slugfest. The real intrigue comes when Chinzo Machida, brother of Lyoto, meets James Gallagher whom Bellator is pushing as their own version of Conor McGregor. Gallagher is 6-0 as a professional with 5 submission victories that are the result of a vicious ground game. His striking has shown development through his career but his grappling is the true gem. Chinzo meanwhile is one of the most exciting strikers to watch in the sport. He uses a similar in and out style to his brother, but at 145 lbs. the speed of his strikes make it a sight to see. Chinzo is far from perfect, his ground game is unproven and he’s been submitted once in his 7 fight career. This means the game plans are clear, Chinzo needs distance and a stand up bout while Gallagher will look to strike his way to a clinch or takedown. The winner of this fight should be well on their way to a big push and major step up in opposition, but both men have always been a joy to watch so don’t miss this one!