Though once again plagued by the misfortune of a main-event fighter withdrawing due to injury, Bellator Fighting Championships will trudge ahead with their first foray into the pay-per-view (PPV) business this Saturday with Bellator 120: Rampage vs. King Mo.
The five-fight PPV consists of this season's Heavyweight Tournament finals (Blagoi Ivanov vs. former champ Alexander Volkov), a battle for the interim Lightweight Championship between originally intended main eventer Michael Chandler and American Top Team prospect Will Brooks and a pair of "Feature Fights" with no title or tournament implications: Tito Ortiz vs. Alexander Shlemenko and Michael Page vs. Ricky Rainey. The PPV is capped off by a simmering grudge match between Quinton "Rampage" Jackson and Muhammed "King Mo" Lawal in the Light-Heavyweight Tournament finals.
Prior to the PPV at 10:00 p.m. ET, Spike TV will host a four-fight preliminary card at 8:00 p.m. ET. The pertinent specs on those bouts follow along with predictions and betting odds.
Cheick Kongo vs. Eric Smith -- Heavyweight Feature Fight
Fresh off an unsuccessful title bid against heavyweight champ Vitaly Minakov (five-round decision loss), French Thai boxer Cheick Kongo (20-9) draws an unknown figure in Eric Smith (6-1). But before you write Smith off based on name recognition: he was a Division 1 All-American wrestler at Boise State, he wrestled UFC heavyweight champ Cain Velasquez in college (lost on points in a competitive match) and he trains at Syndicate MMA with the likes of Blagoi Ivanov and Roy Nelson.
While that's far from substantial enough to run out and empty your piggy bank on an upset, an athletic, once beaten and well trained D1 wrestler is always formidable in MMA, and that particular amalgam makes him adequately equipped to pinpoint Kongo's weaker areas on the mat and with takedown defense, and may also dissuade Kongo from hanging out in clinch encounters. Despite his favorable style, Smith has yet to ply his trade against someone of Kongo's caliber, rendering him "potentially potent" but "precarious to pick."
Prediction: Cheick Kongo by TKO.
Though a tough test in Patricky Freire still awaits in the Lightweight Tournament finals, Polish submission specialist Marcin Held (18-3) draws veteran Nate "Ladies Love" Jolly (13-5), who was initially slated to face Will Brooks on the pay-per-view card before the latter was selected as Eddie Alvarez's replacement against Chandler. At 22 years of age, Held took his first pro fight at age 16 and has accumulated 21 in all, notching wins in 18 outings, more than half of which were via submission.
While the first half of his submissions were of the standard variety (two armbars and rear-naked chokes apiece), Held has shown an acute affinity for leg attacks recently, scoring two wins by heel-hook and another pair by toe hold (one of which was over the crafty Rich Clementi). Perhaps the most encouraging finish on Held's record is the first-round KO of Ryan Healy, which signifies a notable improvement in his striking.
Jolly wrestled at the NAIA level in college and has spent time in the cage with the UFC's Jamie Varner and Dustin Poirier, both of whom defeated him. Obviously, Jolly's ability to keep the fight standing and defend submissions is the whole ball o' wax here: his wrestling background and the fact that Poirier stands as his only submission loss bode well for him, but the late change of opponent does not. Held, a specialist of the highest degree in modern day MMA, is best addressed with a full fight camp and a specific strategy, and it's hard to implement the latter when the former is lacking.
Prediction: Held by submission.
Both Fabricio Guerreiro (19-3) and Shahbulat Shamhalaev (12-2) are probably better known for their high-profile losses (Patricio Freire and Pat Curran, respectively). Guerreiro, a young Brazilian prospect (age 23) who opened his pro career with seven consecutive submissions, holds a win over this season's tournament finalist Des Green. Guerreiro's lankiness (5'10") and Judo background are handy tools in order to impose his grappling game, and he's been training in the states at Team Alpha Male for two years now. Considering his adroitness in those categories, his striking is a work in progress but he's made impressive strides with it, as most of the Green fight was contested on the feet.
Shamhalaev is a violence-prone Dagestani with wicked counter striking, as he proved in his surprising upset over Mike Richman by first-round KO. That win in the tournament finals elevated Shamhalaev to a crack at champion Pat Curran, and the resulting loss is his sole flaw under the Bellator banner. The 30-year-old does not fit the customary mold we've become accustomed to for Dagestani fighters, as Shamhalaev is quite content to await the right opportunity before uncorking his fast and precise counter-boxing.
The tidbits that tilt me toward Guerreiro here are his height/length advantage (5'10" vs. 5'6"), the way his looming takedown prowess could disrupt Shamhalaev's striking barrage and the fact that Shamhalaev has cried uncle in both of his career defeats, whereas 12 of Guerreiro's 19 wins are subs. Additionally, Shamhalaev thrives in the face of heated aggression with his reactive style and Guerreiro is typically quite patient.
Prediction: Guerreiro by submission.
The Spike TV prelims should kick off with a bang as crowd pleaser Mike Richman (16-4) draws Japanese-Brazilian prospect Goiti Yamauchi (16-2) in a veritable "striker vs. grappler" match up. Richman's Bellator debut was a memorable first-round shellacking of Chris Horodecki and his following pair of wins were both triggered by blistering head kicks. Richman's finishing ratio is perfectly balanced with seven KO/TKO's and submissions apiece but all of his sub wins were pre-Bellator and his hands have done all of the damage since.
Yamauchi is another youthful upstart (age 21) on the card with a fancy for submission grappling (13 of 16 wins by catch). Yamauchi made his Bellator and stateside debut with a good amount of hype, having won the 2013 Smash Fight featherweight tourney, snared the Iron Fight featherweight strap and purportedly defeated the UFC's John Lineker to become a state amateur boxing champ in Brazil. Along with Richman, Yamauchi was widely considered a favorite to win this season's tournament but both fell in the opening round.
This is about as close to an old-school style vs. style match up as it gets in today's world: Richman is an aggressive southpaw boxer with an effective blend of technique and brawling and Yamauchi is a longtime BJJ black belt with an 81% finishing rate by submission. Thus far, Richman has demonstrated the ability to impose his strengths and protect his weaknesses much more consistently than Yamauchi at the upper level, and his early submission streak consists of more than basic "gimme subs" (two armbars, an Anaconda and a triangle choke), leaving him as the sensible pick.
Prediction: Mike Richman by KO.
Bellator 120 Main Card (pay-per-view at 10:00 p.m. ET)
Blagoi Ivanov vs. Alexander Volkov - Heavyweight Tournament finals
Preliminary Card (Spike TV at 8:00 p.m. ET)