After a brief hiatus, Bellator Fighting Championships has a summer's worth of tournaments and title bouts locked and loaded in the chamber, and will pull the trigger on the 4-man Heavyweight and Light-Heavyweight Tournaments tonight with Bellator 96.
From the Winstar World Casino in Thackerville, Oklahoma, Bellator's 2013 Summer Series will begin with last year's marquee acquisition Muhammed "King Mo" Lawal at the helm, who'll be stationed across from crafty veteran and consummate spoiler Seth Petruzelli in the headliner. That bout, along with Renato "Babalu" Sobral vs. Jacob Noe, serve as the opening round matches for the Summer Series tournament (all of which have been abridged to 4-man fields for this season) in the Light-Heavyweight division.
The Bellator 96 main card, which airs on Spike TV at 8:00 p.m. ET, will also roll out the first round of the Summer Series Heavyweight Tournament with a pair of semifinal matches pitting Ron Sparks vs. Vitaly Minakov and Ryan Martinez vs. Richard Hale. Martinez, who dispatched veteran Travis Wiuff with a nasty 18-second TKO in his last turn, is replacing Vinicius Queiroz after "Spartan" was forced off the card earlier this week.
As usual, Bellator's tournament competitors are vying for a title shot against the champion of their respective weight class -- Attila Vegh at light-heavyweight and Alexander Volkov at heavyweight -- and winning the whole shebang is the only way to cement themselves as the deserving contender. Rounding out the 5-fight ensemble on tonight's Spike TV card is a welterweight feature fight that aligns the infamous War Machine vs. former WEC fighter and Team Machado rep Blas Avena.
The featured lineup is listed below and followed by a brief analytical overview of the tournament match ups.
Bellator 96 Main Card (Spike TV at 8:00 p.m. ET)
Muhammed "King Mo" Lawal vs. Seth Petruzelli -- LHW Tournament semifinals
Renato "Babalu" Sobral vs. Jacob Noe -- LHW Tournament semifinals
Ron Sparks vs. Vitaly Minakov -- HW Tournament semifinals
Ryan Martinez vs. Richard Hale -- HW Tournament semifinals
War Machine vs. Blas Avena
Lawal is, of course, coming off a high-profile upset by spinning back-fist KO courtesy of Emanuel Newton, who went on to win the preceding 205-pound tournament, which was laden with upsets. And TUF/UFC vet Petruzelli has built a reputation for specializing in upsets throughout his up-and-down career.
King Mo was harshly criticized for shelving his wrestling prowess in favor of a stand-up approach against Newton, and many are intrigued to see whether Lawal goes back to his roots or continues to rely on the boxing prowess he's honed under the tutelage of Jeff Mayweather and company. Petruzelli is a crafty striker (12 TKO's in 14 wins) with a functional karate-based background and no stranger to the ground game either. The bettors have apparently not lost faith in Lawal, who enjoys a massive push on the betting lines, and should have the bag of tricks to avoid Petruzelli's short-range shots on the feet and clever submission acumen on the mat.
Babalu, a former long-standing UFC light-heavyweight contender, will look to cull from a huge experience advantage against the hulking and dangerous Matt-Hughes-lookalike Noe. 32-year-old Noe defied the odds by picking off Petruzelli in last season's tournament by 1st-round TKO but fell by submission to Russian Mikhail Zayats in the follow up.
Noe wields a dual-pronged arsenal of striking and submissions and has finished 8 of his 11 wins in the opening frame. He has a head-hunting mentality and packs huge power in his punches, making him a prime candidate for another surprising upset, as the battle-tested Sobral has lost 3 of his last 5 by strike stoppage.
Ron Sparks (8-1) vs. Vitaly Minakov (10-0) -- HW Tournament semifinals
"The Monster" Sparks is a once-beaten slugger with a penchant for 1st-round finishes (7 of 8 wins) and heaving big leather (6 TKO's, 1 sub). Though coming off his first career loss (Eric Prindle by KO), Sparks is hell on wheels in the 1st round and his power must be respected. He'll face undefeated Russian prospect Minakov, who's maintained a flawless record with a balanced finishing ratio (5 TKO's, 4 subs).
The 6'3" Minakov is a lanky and polished striker, but will face an unusual height deficit against the 6'5" Sparks. Minakov is rightfully favored, though this will be a dangerous opponent with the potential to end the fight quickly.
Ryan Martinez (9-2) vs. Richard Hale (21-5) -- HW Tournament semifinals
Martinez was a trumpeted high school wrestler who got caught up in the street life and spent some time in the slammer, but used the experience to turn his life around and fuel his martial arts endeavors. Martinez trains with Roy Nelson in Vegas and also spends some time under Jeff Mayweather with King Mo, the latter of which was on display in his quick destruction of Wiuff.
Hale, a former light-heavyweight tournament finalist in Bellator, must rely on his quickness and intelligence against the robust Martinez, who will put heavy hands in Hale's face at every opportunity and fall back on his size and wrestling advantage. Though a late entry, Martinez is legit and probably the dark horse in this field.