When the UFC mothership brought Strikeforce on board, it knocked off the #2 North American MMA product in the process, vaulting Bellator upward in the ranks. April and May aren't necessarily showering with big league events either, so fans seem to be appreciating Bellator's spirited roster, busy schedule and tournament format.
Tonight, in addition to the centerpiece of Rick Hawn vs. Jay Hieron in the welterweight tournament finale, the supporting cast of Joe Riggs vs. Bryan Baker, Jose Vega vs. Chase Beebe, and Vince Lucero vs. Ron Sparks should be worth a watch.
On April 19th of 2010, Bryan Baker was diagnosed with chronic leukemia. His reaction was typical; he did exactly what most people in the world would do when they learn they have a deadly disease.
He entered a professional mixed martial arts tournament, and, facing an opponent on a six-fight win streak, finished him with strikes in the first round. It's apparently this new twist on chemotherapy or something.
Next up was a rematch with Eric Schambari, who Baker had previously beat at WEC 31 by a close split-decision, which also happened to be the first loss of Schambari's career. Submitting four opponents in the first round and riding a five-fight streak, Schambari re-engaged Baker in the Bellator middleweight semifinals to exact sweet revenge.
Unfortunately for Schambari, those plans were not included in Stage Two of Bryan Baker's leukemia rehabilitation process. Baker secured a triangle in the first round and quickly tapped Schambari to advance to the finals.
Even though he ended up losing to devastating striker Alexander Shlemenko in the tournament's conclusion, Baker beat leukemia and is now in complete remission. He was able to out-grapple Jeremy Horn in his last outing, handing a decision loss to the the craftiest of the crafty, which Horn's teammate Joe Riggs is now looking to avenge.
More on this match-up and the remaining card after the jump.
Joe Riggs has fought from heavyweight to welterweight; against the likes of Matt Hughes, Diego Sanchez, and Chris Lytle; in promotions such as the UFC, WEC, Strikeforce, KOTC, RITC, and the IFC. Hell, he even fought Nick Diaz in the ICU with an I.V. in his arm. Experience comes in rare shapes and sizes, but Joe Riggs has definitely been around the block in many ways.
Normally, odometer mileage this high is only seen on antiquated models half-parked in the junkyard, but Joe Riggs is only 28-years-old. Since losing to respected Japanese scrapper Kazuo Misaki, Riggs is 6-2 with Jay Hieron and Canadian prospect Jordan Meine accounting for his losses.
Riggs is well-versed everywhere: heavy hands, decent boxing, strong wrestling and Judo, and good submission offense and defense. Baker is a tall (6'3") middleweight, strong as an ox, fearless and aggressive. He showed tremendous composure in his ground battle with Horn, who has spent eons both coaching and training on the mat.
While watching these two tangle up and try to impose their will should be an enjoyable demolition derby, of great concern is Baker's striking routine. In the heat of battle, he tends to march straight forward and lob a series of low-swinging and awkward looking hooks, delivered with his chin unprotected, head rigid, and hands down in an upright stance.
This seems to be a case of rhythm, as Baker usually opens with and maintains a nice, long jab from a decent guard. Baker is a sheer beast in the clinch, with the powerful base and balance of a Judo black belt, and he's also formidable on the ground. But he consistently breaks out with the volley of alternating right and left hooks that leave him vulnerable standing, and Riggs has the accuracy and striking to pinpoint the weakness along with the camp and team to strategize for it.
With absolutely nothing personal against Joe Riggs, I'm sure I and the rest of the world will be rooting for another chapter in the inspirational Bryan Baker story to be written tonight. Even the betting lines hold him as a strong favorite across the board.
Completely removing emotion and looking at the facts, I would consider Riggs a very live dog at +215. He's been a very difficult fighter to assess, but he definitely has the tools to catch Baker with punches coming in. Baker thrives in a brawl, and I'd call the fight even in the clinch and on the ground, but I'm not sure it will unfold that way.
In a straight striking match, no matter how blasphemous it may seem, the edge Riggs has leads me to believe he might rain on Baker's parade.
My Prediction: Riggs by TKO
The first time I saw bantamweight Jose Vega, he was battering Jerrod Card at Bellator in a forty-second trouncing. Vega is a solid wrestler with a good low kick and harsh one-two, and just a feisty fighter in every way.
Chase Beebe is the former WEC bantamweight champ that Miguel Torres and Joe Warren defeated to demonstrate their elite status. After being on the wrong end of a decision loss to Mike Easton that was so morbidly appalling that it won Sherdog's 2009 "Robbery of the Year", Beebe has notched a 5-2 clip leading up to his Bellator debut tonight.
For a bantamweight, Beebe's recent losses to DREAM Featherweight champion Hiroyuki Takaya and #20 ranked 145-pounder Yoshiro Maeda are far from troubling. There is no shame in losing to anyone you can find in the top 20 rankings of a higher weight class.
Beebe's been kicking it in Clay Guida's RV and training at Greg Jackson's compound for this fight, and barring the stiff left hook of Vega sneaking through, I see Beebe being a little bigger and better than Vega in every area. It sounds rude to write Vega off with only a puncher's chance, but other than his nicely blended outside low kick and left-hook combo landing, it should be a commanding performance for Beebe.
My Prediction: Beebe by TKO
A late entry to the card after Neil Grove pulled out of his fight with Zak Jensen, Ron "The Monster" Sparks brings a brief but unblemished record against journeyman Vince Lucero.
Sparks has devoured every foe in the opening round except for Johnathan Ivey, who has a thorough collection of detached legs mounted on the his mantel at home.
Please review Lucero's record before you chuckle at the numbers and write him off. If you're going to lose in the heavyweight division, doing so against names like Tim Sylvia, Lavar Johnson, Brad Imes, Roy Nelson, and Eric Pele isn't a bad route to take.
Both of these heavyweights are huge, and even though I'm tempted to give Lucero a legit chance of pulling off the upset if he can get Sparks to the ground, I think age and agility will make the difference here.
Sparks will come out cleaving a set of commission-approved anchors for hands, and will likely catch Lucero at some point in time. Keep your eye on Lucero if he's able to ground the fight, but I think the spring in Sparks' step and his scary punching power should prevail.
My Prediction: Sparks by TKO