From the Visalia Convention Center in Visalia, California, Bellator 102 goes live on Spike TV tonight at 9:00 p.m. ET. Former UFC heavyweights Check Kongo and Lavar Johnson make their promotional debuts on opposite sides of the Heavyweight Tournament brackets and the semifinal sequence of the Middleweight Tournament unfolds. To define champion Eduardo Dantas' next challenge, hard-nosed vet Anthony Leone meets Capoeira master and Luta Livre practitioner Rafael Silva in the Bantamweight Tournament finals.
Bloody Elbow will stream tonight's preliminary card live and free starting at 7:00 p.m. ET -- make sure you join us for play-by-play, results and discussion.
Spike TV Main Card (9:00 p.m. ET)
Cheick Kongo (18-8-2) enjoyed a long, 18-fight stint with the UFC and departed with a respectable 11-6 record along with one draw against top contender Travis Browne. The towering French kickboxer gradually evolved his striking-centric game (10 of 18 wins via KO/TKO) with the inclusion of improved offensive and defensive wrestling. Though he's been criticized for having a fragile chin, his three career TKO losses were dealt by some of the most feared strikers in the game in K-1 crossover Mark Hunt, the heavy-handed Roy Nelson and kickboxing phenom Gilbert Yvel back in 2004.
Mark "The Hand Of" Godbeer (8-1) is a skilled boxer out of the respected Trojan Freefighters team in Somerset, England. Godbeer, who's also making his Bellator debut, has finished all of his wins (6 TKO's, 2 subs) and has yet to see the third frame in a fight. He'll be tasked with getting inside on Kongo's gangly reach and working his hands in the phone booth.
Soda Popinski clone "Big" Lavar Johnson (17-7) joins Kongo as another former UFC heavyweight making the switch. Johnson, somewhat of "just another face" in Strikeforce, stormed into the Octagon with back-to-back thrashings of Joey Beltran and Pat Barry (1st-round TKO's) but left on the heels off two defeats (Stefan Struve and Brendan Schaub) and an issue with the athletic commission regarding TRT disclosure. Johnson has finished all 17 of his wins (15 TKO's, 2 subs) with an impressive 14 stoppages in the opening frame.
Vinicius "Spartan" Queiroz (6-3) is a Team Nogueira rep who made one appearance in the UFC, which was a 3rd-round submission loss to Rob Broughton at UFC 120. His nickname suits him well: he's a tough guy and a game striker with decent boxing and wrestling. He typically relies on his hands until it's not going his way, then pursues takedowns, which are quite effective by way of his timing rather than technique. He'll undoubtedly endeavor to take Johnson off his feet to exploit his suspect grappling whilst avoiding the fight-ending thunder in his hands. "Spartan" stands 6'7" tall, which may lucratively result in extra distance and depth on his takedowns.
Anthony Leone (13-5) has undergone a career revival since leaving the WEC as a featherweight. Formerly a wrestle-boxer, Leone has dove into Jiu-Jitsu and taken to the art with flying colors. The Team Bombsquad product is on a four-fight roll that includes a split decision over former Bellator bantamweight champ Zach Makovsky.
Rafael Silva (20-3) might be Bellator's best kept secret. Hailing from the epicenter of MMA's Luta Livre revival, the Renovacao Fight Team in Brazil, Silva is a Luta Livre practitioner and a Master of Capoeira. His nickname "Morcego" translates to "bat." At age 28, Silva boasts 23 fights with a nearly perfectly balanced finishing ratio (9 subs, 8 TKO's) and enters the cage tonight on a 12-fight win streak.
Jason Butcher (7-0) is an undefeated middleweight who claims to have "the best guard in MMA." He narrowly avoided a forced amputation by way of "The Arm Collector," Giva Santana, in the quarterfinals, but persevered through some rough territory in order to pull off the 2nd-round TKO, which was the first fight he didn't finish in the first round. Butcher is also a lanky middleweight at 6'3", which translates to reach on the feet, leverage in the clinch and prehensile limb extension on the mat.
Mikkel Parlo (10-1) joins Martin Kampmann as a Danish MMA icon and, at age 23, is quite a promising prospect. Parlo is a striking oriented fighter (7 TKO's, 2 subs) but also well versed in wrestling and submissions. His boxing was crisp, technical and precise in his gutsy upset of tournament favorite Brian Rogers in the quarterfinals, and Parlo mixed in unexpected takedowns to frustrate Rogers even more. While not a huge power puncher, Parlo is a gifted artist and should have the advantage over Butcher on the feet in everything but height and reach.
Joe Pacheco vs. Brennan Ward - Middleweight Tournament semifinals
When he was about to step on the scale to weigh in for an undercard bout, Brennan Ward (7-1) agreed to replace late-dropout Andreas Spang and fight Justin Torrey in the Middleweight Tournament instead. And the decision proved wise -- Ward popped open a mouse that had formed under Torrey's eye to advance past the quarterfinals. The Connecticut native made it to the national championships as a wrestler for the Division 3 college Johnson & Wales, but lost in the finals. His father ran a boxing gym so Ward is quite adept with his hands and also an extremely athletic specimen.
28-year-old Joe Pacheco (6-0) is hoping to follow in Ward's footsteps as a late replacement for tournament competitor Perry Filkins. Pacheco is a hulking middleweight with an undefeated record who flaunts the unique combination of solid wrestling and submission skills. One of Pacheco's trainers, Michael Allen, trained under catch-wrestling legend Billy Wicks, giving Pacheco a diverse bag of tricks on the mat.
Preliminary Card (streaming live on Bloody Elbow at 7:00 p.m. ET)