Bellator 97 preview: King Mo, two finals, & two title fights on a stacked card

Bellator.com

Bloody Elbow has your preview of the stacked Bellator 97 card, featuring a pair of world title fights from Michael Chandler and Ben Askren, plus King Mo vs. Jacob Noe in the Light Heavyweight Summer Series tournament finals, and the Heavyweight finals. Don't miss this huge card, July 31, here at Bloody Elbow and live on Spike TV.

Say what you will about Bellator, but this week's show is one heck of a card. Bellator 97 is live from Albuquerque, NM tonight, Wednesday, July 31, and features a stacked line-up. Bellator 97 is a 3-hour broadcast airing live tonight on Spike TV starting at 7:00 p.m. ET with the prelims airing on Bloody Elbow and Spike.com starting at 5:30 p.m. ET. Join us here at Bloody Elbow tonight for live Bellator coverage.

Seriously, this is a crazy show. You have two of the top three fighters in Bellator defending their titles as Ben Askren and Michael Chandler both step into the cage against game opponents. You also have a pair of tournament finals, most notably featuring King Mo as he attempts to erase the sting of his Bellator loss earlier this year. Add in some great, worthwhile prospects on the prelim card, and you have a must watch show.

Here's the full Bellator 97 fight card, followed by preview and predictions:

MAIN CARD
Bellator Lightweight World Title Fight: Michael Chandler (11-0) vs. David Rickels (14-1)
Bellator Welterweight World Title Fight: Ben Askren (11-0) vs. Andrey Koreshkov (13-0)
Bellator Light Heavyweight Tournament Final: King Mo (10-2) vs. Jacob Noe (12-2)
Bellator Heavyweight Tournament Final: Ryan Martinez (10-2) vs. Vitaly Minakov (11-0)
Featherweight Feature Fight: Jared Downing (9-2) vs. Patricio Pitbull (17-2)

PRELIMINARY CARD:
Lightweight Feature Fight: Cris Leyva (9-5) vs. Will Brooks (9-1)
Bantamweight Tournament Semifinals: Rafael Silva (19-3) vs. Rodrigo Lima (11-1)
Bantamweight Tournament Semifinals: Anthony Leone (12-5) vs. Frank Baca (16-2)
Lightweight Feature Fight: Mike Barreras (5-6) vs. Bubba Jenkins (3-0)
Bantamweight Feature Fight: Javier Palacios (1-0) vs. Richard Jacques (1-0)
Middleweight Feature Fight: Jeremy Kimball (9-3) vs. Keith Berry (15-10)
Bantamweight Feature Fight: Adrian Cruz (4-0) vs. Felipe Chavez (5-3)
Bantamweight Feature Fight: Steve Garcia (1-0) vs. Shawn Bunch (1-0)
Featherweight Feature Fight: Cliff Wright Jr. (7-4) vs. Donald Sanchez (28-13)

Bellator Lightweight World Title Fight: Michael Chandler (11-0) vs. David Rickels (14-1)

Bellator LW champion Michael Chandler is one of the fighters the company is looking to really get behind. He's pretty much exactly what Bellator wants - an almost totally homegrown talent who is rising up the ranks in not just Bellator, but in all of MMA. The undefeated Chandler took the belt from Eddie Alvarez in what is most definitely the best fight in Bellator history and one of the best fights of 2011. He's since had two wins, one of them a successful title defense where he made Rick Hawn look like an amateur. A strong wrestler, Chandler has shown that he is a complete fighter, adding in a progressively improving striking game, plus ending Hawn's night with a choke. He also has incredible heart and will to win. Every time we see Chandler, he's a little bit better, and I look forward to seeing what he brings to the table here.

David Rickels won the Lightweight tournament this Spring. He was originally second in line, but when Dave Jansen went down to injury, Rickels was able to cut ahead. A former Welterweight, Rickels made the drop to 155 last year and has gone a perfect 4-0 since, culminating in his tournament final win over Saad Awad. That fight, Rickels's first stoppage win at LW, was a controversial one, as Awad took too long getting to his feet after a punch and was ruled KO'd, though he was clearly still able to fight. Known as "The Caveman," Rickels is a tough grinder who loves pushing his fights into the late rounds and outworking his opponents. That's been his main strategy, particularly at LW where he has had less success closing the show.

Since Rickels is undefeated at 155 it feels weird saying this, but I will - I still am not sold on him in this division. He has less power and less energy than the wild "Caveman" style he showed off at 170. So far, he's been able to get by, but I think against a cardio machine and fellow grinder in Chandler, those issues are going to catch up with him. Chandler is better in every aspect of the game, and unless Rickels can bring in something wildly unpredictable, he's going to have a very tough time here.

Prediction: Michael Chandler by TKO

Bellator Welterweight World Title Fight: Ben Askren (11-0) vs. Andrey Koreshkov (13-0)

The controversial Ben Askren makes his return here. Askren has held the Bellator Welterweight title for close to three years, making three successful title defense in that time. He's also earned a pile of hatred for both his outspoken nature and his decision-heavy style. A decorated amateur wrestler, Askren's style is simple - shut his opponents down. He brings a slightly unorthodox style of wrestling to the table, using different techniques to keep his opponents on the mat and completely out of their games. It's not for everyone, but I find it fascinating to watch. He's coming off a win over Karl Amoussou which was one of Askren's best performances ever, as he nullified everything Amoussou attempted while also imposing his own battering game. That fight ended in a stoppage - Askren's first in seven fights.

Koreshkov is in the impressive line of Russian fighters Bellator has imported in the past few years. The 22 year old came to Bellator in 2012 out of the RusFighters camp. He rolled through the tournament last fall, and while former champion Lyman Good gave him a little trouble in the finals, Koreshkov was able to persevere and pull off the win. A talented striker, Koreshkov has shown a great ability to out-strike his opponents and to end their nights whenever he has the opportunity. He's a young fighter with a bright future ahead of him, no doubt.

Unfortunately for Koreshkov, he's also the exact kind of fighter Ben Askren chews up and spits out. To beat Askren, you will need to be able to somehow combat that grappling game, and while Koreshkov has many talents, he doesn't have the wrestling to hang with the champ. Expect another vintage Askren performance here.

Prediction: Ben Askren by decision

More Bloody Elbow coverage of Bellator 97

Bellator Light Heavyweight Tournament Final: King Mo (10-2) vs. Jacob Noe (12-2)

Ah, the Light Heavyweight Summer Series, aka "King Mo, Take 2." There's little doubt about how this tournament was set up. A 4-man tournament instead of the traditional Bellator 8-man format, this one seemed destined for a King Mo coronation. The only thing standing in his way is Jacob Noe. Of course, the same was true of the last Bellator Light Heavyweight tournament, and we all know how that turned out, as Emanuel Newton ended Mo's rise with a crushing spinning backfist. Now, Mo is trying to bounce back. He's already had one fight back - a win over Seth Petruzelli in the tournament semifinals. That fight saw Mo back in his best form, using his wrestling to ground Seth, then his fists to KO him on the mat. It was a very impressive showing - much more to his strengths than his striking-centric approach against Newton.

Looking to play spoiler here is Jacob Noe, who ended Babalu Sobral's career in the semifinals. Prior to that, he was in the spring tournament, earning his own win over Petruzelli before being stopped by Mikhail Zayats. Noe is a big Light Heavyweight with 15 pro fights to his name. But despite the record, he still has looked pretty green in his Bellator fights. He definitely has his work cut out for him here.

Honestly, this is Mo's fight to lose. If he gets too cute and tries to strike with the larger Noe, it could bite him in the ass again. But if he plays it smart (and I suspect he will), he'll use his wrestling, get the win, and move on to the title shot. At that point, you know Bellator will be crossing their fingers for Newton to unseat Attila Vegh, leading to Mo vs. Netwon 2 for the belt. We'll see if we get there.

Prediction: King Mo by TKO

Bellator Heavyweight Tournament Final: Ryan Martinez (10-2) vs. Vitaly Minakov (11-0)

The Bellator Heavyweight division is always a bit of a rocky area, with not a tremendous amount of depth in the field. It's also been somewhat rudderless since former champion Cole Konrad retired undefeated. Now, champion Alexander Volkov awaits a challenger, and this fight will determine who gets the shot.

Martinez is a bit of a surprise to see here. After starting his Bellator career going 1-1 in two not particularly impressive fights, Martinez scored a big win over Travis Wiuff in March. He then earned a shot in this tournament due to an injury to Vinicius Quieroz, and made the most of it, scoring an upset KO win over Richard Hale. A tough, powerful puncher with decent wrestling, Martinez is pretty much what you expect from moderately successful Heavyweights outside of the UFC - power, some sloppiness, and heart for days.

Vitaly Minakov is a Sambo and Judo champion with a nasty finishing streak. He's won all but one of his fights by stoppage, with seven wins taking one minute each. The man has real power, crisp striking, and a serious ability to end the fight of a stunned opponent. He showed off those skills against Ron Sparks in the semis, crushing the tough Sparks in just 30 seconds. Minakov is no joke, and a showdown between him and Volkov would be a fantastic fight.

Martinez will try to spoil that all-Russian title fight, but I don't see it happening. Minakov is just too fast, too technical, and will be able to light Martinez up. I expect to see the durable Martinez show a ton of heart here, but take a beating in the process.

Prediction: Vitaly Minakov by TKO

Featherweight Feature Fight: Jared Downing (9-2) vs. Patricio Pitbull (17-2)

Lost in the shuffle of some great featured fights is this show opener, as Patricio Pitbull takes on Jared Downing. Originally, Pitbull was to face UFC veteran Rob Emerson, but an injury led to this card change. Downing steps in on less than a month's notice. He went 2-0 in Bellator in 2010 and since then has largely been fighting in RFA, where he is coming off a June loss to Lance Palmer. Pitbull's last fight was the decision loss to Pat Curran to open up the Bellator run on Spike. That fight was a highly technical striking affair that saw Pitbull just barely edged out by one of the best Featherweights in the world. In short, Pitbull is really good, and Downing is taking a huge step up here. I admire his willingness to take the short notice fight and go for it, but this is a real tough one for him.

Prediction: Patricio Pitbull by KO

Prelims:

There are some superb fights on the prelims, so be sure to tune in early at Spike.com:

  • The most notable prelim action is a pair of Bantamweight tournament semifinals, as Rafael Silva (17-3) faces Rodrigo Lima (11-1) while Anthony Leone (12-5) meets Frank Baca (16-2). I don't love that these are on the prelims - the Bantamweight division needs a boost, and this isn't the way to do it. But they should still be great fights, with Silva vs. Lima in particular being one to watch. I'm looking ahead to a Lima vs. Leone final.
  • Will Brooks looks to make his comeback here after suffering the first loss of his career at the hands of Saad Awad. Brooks is a great talent who I still think is a future world champion. He should have little trouble with Cris Leyva, who comes in to this fight on a 4 fight losing streak.
  • Shawn Bunch is also back in action. The 1-0 fighter made his Bellator and MMA debut in November. He's another great amateur wrestler with a potential bright future ahead of him. For much more on Bunch, check out Coach Mike's great analysis (seriously, read it, Coach Mike rules).
  • The other big name to watch here is Bubba Jenkins. Jenkins is a former NCAA wrestling champion who is 3-0 in MMA and has been training at ATT. If he is dedicated to success in MMA, he's a potential major player. He makes his Bellator debut here.

Join us tonight for live coverage of Bellator 97, live on Spike TV.


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