In their penultimate show before a brief hibernation til February, Bellator returns to Atlantic City, New Jersey for Bellator 108. The main card will spotlight the promotional debut of prized UFC acquisition Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, who draws former UFC heavy/light heavyweight Joey "The Mexicutioner" Beltran.
Bouts anchoring the main card include: Russian heavyweight champion Alexander Volkov defends his title against countryman Vitaly Minakov while Justin Wilcox seeks a fairy tale ending to his dramatic tournament run against Patricio "Pitbull" Freire in the Featherweight finals. The evening's appetizer is a bantamweight scrap between Brazilian veteran Marcos "Loro" Galvao and spindly promotional newcomer Tom McKenna.
Bellator 108 Main Card (Spike TV at 9:00 p.m. ET)
The good news -- there is a sensible reason why "Rampage" Jackson (32-11) didn't look the same as the sun set on his UFC stint, which concluded with three-straight losses. The former UFC light heavyweight champion had been battling with knee problems: one old, chronic injury and then another to his last good wheel, which was invoked by Jon Jones' straight-kick to the knee during Jackson's UFC 135 title bid. Perhaps not coincidentally, the loss to Jones triggered Jackson's three-fight slide as defeats to top-10'ers Ryan Bader and Glover Teixeira followed.
With ample recovery time and some Bellator funded rehab, Jackson claims his knees now feel "like they did in the Pride days," and a hefty dose of the charismatic and slam-happy bully who magnetized fans with commanding performances in the Pride era is exactly what fight fans are craving to see.
Since his original opponent, Tito Ortiz, was forced to withdraw (neck injury) from what was intended to be the headliner of Bellator's inaugural (but subsequently scratched) pay-per-view, heavyweight turned light heavyweight Joey Beltran (14-9) has taken his place. The 31-year-old not only suspects he's being brought in for entertainment but publicly acknowledges those circumstances, and revels in the role.
Debuting as an underdog against a bigger name is not an unfamiliar situation for Beltran, who made his UFC premiere opposite the heavily hyped Rolles Gracie and peed in everyone's cereal by upsetting the Jiu-Jitsu standout with a 2nd-round TKO at UFC 109. Beltran posted a mediocre 3-4 pace as a UFC heavyweight, performed a successful test run at 205-pounds in a smaller show and returned to the Octagon at light heavyweight. Though he sandwiched a win over Igor Pokrajac betwixt defeats to sluggers James Te Huna (unanimous decision) and Fabio Maldonado (split decision), Beltran's lone victory was changed to a No Contest when his post-fight drug test was flagged for nandrolone, and he was handed his walking papers.
Beltran's drop to 205 was a sensible one, as he managed to maintain his hand speed whilst maximizing the stifling properties of his high-paced in-fighting against the smaller opposition at 205. There is no clear and unanimous blueprint for unhinging Jackson, so Beltran will surely rely on his pressure-cooker style of relentless offense at toe-to-toe range, which consists of exhaustive clinch tactics, rapid-fire salvos with both hands and the occasional "surprise" takedown attempt.
Now ... if "the Old Rampage" is truly back, stationing yourself dead-center in his wheelhouse is not the most lucrative approach. However, Beltran's simply not the type to undress Jackson with lengthy strikes from a distance or change levels and explode for double-leg takedowns -- his signature style is getting in his opponent's grill immediately and staying there throughout. The benefits of Beltran's signature style are twofold: his close-range pressure will challenge Jackson's footwork, takedown defense and punching power, all of which should reflect any marked change with Rampage's knees. Secondly, two aggressive fighters with a shared penchant for gritty brawls at phone-booth range is a proven formula for a watch-worthy scrap.
I expect Rampage to greet Beltran's advances with sharp and well-timed boxing. While none of his short-range punches are enjoyable to experience, Jackson's nasty left hook is his best weapon in close quarters. Though lacking any juicy wrestling accolades, Beltran is both capable and clever with trips and takedowns from the clinch, and successful attempts would force Jackson to fight off his back where his offensive voracity is drastically diluted.
Beltran is notoriously difficult to put away (7 of his 9 losses are via decision) and augments that durability with a steep finishing ratio (11 TKO wins, 1 submission and 2 decisions) -- yet his striking is based more on volume than power, and taking Rampage down often and effectively enough to sway the outcome seems unlikely. I envision Rampage anticipating Beltran's bull-rushes, pivoting at angles with short hooks and uppercuts and landing the more momentous blows.
My Prediction: Quinton "Rampage" Jackson by decision.
Towering (6'7" tall) heavyweight champ Alexander "Drago" Volkov (19-3) sprang from the M-1 fight league and is flawless in Bellator after three turns (Brett Rogers, Vinicius Queiroz, Richard Hale). His style is accented by crisp and technical range striking, and his accuracy is pinpoint. The Russian prospect has matured as of late and, at just 25-years-old, has plenty of room to keep growing.
His opponent, Vitaly Minakov (12-0) is a robust and unbeaten four-time Combat Sambo champion. After dispatching former UFC'ers Eddie Sanchez and Fabiano Scherner with vicious 1st-round TKO's, Minakov jumped aboard the Bellator ship and continued the slaughter with three consecutive stoppages via strikes.
While Volkov should have the edge at range with his precision and finesse, Minakov is a heavy hitter and probably has the more diverse skill set and strength advantage. He should be able to close the gap and impose his will with the medley of striking, clinching, wrestling and submission grappling that we've come to expect from MMA's recent influx of Masters of Sambo.
My Prediction: Vitaly Minakov by submission.
AKA product and former Strikeforce lightweight Justin Wilcox (13-5) was a late entry to the Featherweight Tournament, but somehow managed to pull off an inspirational comeback by 2nd-round rear-naked choke after Akop Stepanyan battered him to the point of near immobility in the quarterfinals. Wilcox reverted back to his wrestling to exploit his size advantage over Joe Taimanglo in the semis, but has his work cut out for him against fan favorite Patricio "Pitbull."
Team Nogueira's Freire has a well deserved reputation as one of the toughest and meanest featherweights in the game. His Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt is typically kept on the sidelines as Freire's malicious boxing does most of the talking, and his wrestling and takedown defense are on-point as well. Freire enjoys the largest spread on the betting lines -- while he clearly deserves to be favored, the conspicuously sloped odds (+650 at the time of writing) are absolutely worth a close look at "The Silverback" to those willing to shell out small for a potentially large payoff.
My Prediction: Patricio Freire by decision.
Newcomer Tom McKenna (7-3) is a youngster (age 25) with gangly bantamweight proportions (6'1" tall). Two losses in his embryonic career are highly reputable (Sergio Pettis, former Sengoku champ Masanori Kanehara) and all but one of his seven wins are via submission. McKenna is slightly unusual in that he has the wrestling acumen to unlock the capabilities of his smooth Jiu-Jitsu game. Marcos Galvao (14-6) is a longtime Nova Uniao fighter who, like "Pitbull," rarely employs his grappling in favor of throwing his hands. Despite swinging for the fences from bell to bell, "Loro" has finished just three of his wins (11 decisions).
His experience alone is reason enough to pick Galvao, but keep an eye on McKenna here, as his length and wrestling are well-suited to serve up an upset.
My Prediction: Marcos Galvao by TKO.
Preliminary Card (streaming on Bloody Elbow at 7:00 p.m. ET)
Jesus Martinez vs. Nah-Shon Burrell
Jason Lambert vs. Tom DeBlass
Liam McGeary vs. Najim Wali
Anthony Morrison vs. Kenny Foster
Sergio Da Silva vs. Rob Sullivan
Kevin Roddy vs. Will Martinez
Sam Oropeza vs. Chip Moraza-Pollard
Dan Matala vs. Ryan Cafaro