Despite another last-minute fallout with a main-event fighter, Bellator Fighting Championships will launch their inaugural pay-per-view (PPV) event this Saturday with Bellator 120: Rampage vs. King Mo. Atop the five-piece lineup is former UFC champion Quinton Jackson versus former Strikeforce champion Muhammed Lawal in what should be a heated conclusion to the Season 10 Light-Heavyweight Tournament. "Ill" Will Brooks will replace the injured Eddie Alvarez against Michael Chandler in the co-main event with the Interim Lightweight Championship up for grabs.
Setting the stage for the featured attractions are three bouts that will be previewed herein: a Pride-esque "super fight" of sorts between reigning Bellator middleweight champion Alexander Shlemenko and iconic light-heavyweight pioneer Tito Ortiz, Blagoi Ivanov vs. Alexander Volkov in the finals of the Season 10 Heavyweight Tournament, and a welterweight shootout between strikers Ricky Rainey and the undefeated Michael Page.
Tito Ortiz vs. Alexander Shlemenko -- Light-Heavyweight Feature Fight
Tito Ortiz (16-11) was the face of the UFC during its so called "dark years" when scathing accusations of "human cock-fighting" shooed away the organization's PPV opportunities. Be it his rivalry with the Lions Den, being dubbed a cheater for cutting a hefty amount of weight before it was a thing, his substantial influence on ground and pound -- especially from inside the guard or using elbows to counter wrist control -- or the fit everyone threw for ducking Chuck Liddell when, in reality, he was actually taking a stand for the more handsome fighter pay that exists today ... there has always been some kind of fuss over Tito Ortiz.
In the present, said fussing pertains to the longtime 205'er squaring off with Bellator's dominant 185-pound champion, Russian assassin Alexander Shlemenko (50-7), who called out Ortiz via Twitter. Oddly enough, Shlemenko is sponsored by Punishment Athletics, of which Ortiz is the CEO.
As there are too many contrasts between the pair to list, the vast size disparity and the striker vs. wrestler angle are the most relevant to the match up. And the keys to victory for either are quite obvious: Shlemenko will undoubtedly rely on his tremendous speed advantage to stay out of contact range and needle away with his electric kickboxing repertoire while Ortiz will endeavor to shrink the distance and get his hands on Shlemenko by any means possible.
That means that the fight's location is probably the most influential factor. Ortiz's boxing improved dramatically over the course of his 17-year career, yet he'll be hard-pressed to out-duel Shlemenko in a straight striking match, especially from distance. If Ortiz finds himself in the center of the cage or surrounded by empty space, his next course of action will either be moving forward to engage or planning his entry. The best entries are accompanied by set ups in the form of footwork angles or disguising strikes after cutting off the cage, and Ortiz doesn't really excel in any of those categories.
When trying to close distance, Ortiz's footwork mostly consists of simple jab steps and a few distraction strikes, and he typically moves in straight lines. The only element that compensates for his lack of lateral movement is the way he changes levels with his hips, shoulders and head, which can be a telltale sign that a takedown is imminent or the type of ploy that left Ryan Bader open to his surprise volley of punches. Everyone knows that Tito's best shot to win is to get inside on Shlemenko and, because his entries aren't the most diverse, how effectively he employs his medley of level changes and striking salvos will strongly dictate his success.
Shlemenko just needs to go all Lyoto Machida or Chuck Liddell with a sprawl and brawl strategy. He can form up combinations and tee off on Ortiz in open space, or the cushion of distance will give him time to react on Tito's entries and either defensively clinch, sprawl or cut an escape angle. If Ortiz is able to lock up a clinch, corner Shlemenko or get into any sort of contact range, everything changes: while Tito can and will shoot takedowns from outside, he's a mauler in the clinch with the ability to snap down the head and threaten with guillotines, dirty box or land knees and elbows from the single or double collar tie, and his bread and butter is takedowns from the body lock and alternating between clinch strikes and attempts to toss, trip or throw.
Shlemenko has proven that his takedown defense, defensive grappling and "get ups" are quite sound, but who knows how he'll handle the size and overall voracity of Ortiz. Shlemenko's rap sheet is noticeably devoid of credentialed wrestlers -- the top candidates are Brett Cooper, who was a round away from taking Shlemenko's belt in their second go, Hector Lombard, who was content to stand up with "Storm", Bulgarian Olympic wrestler Jordan Radev and an honorable mention to newcomer Brennan Ward.
Overall, considering the emphasis on Ortiz's attack patterns, striking defense, agility and intelligent cage motion, the mechanics seem to favor the faster fighter in Shlemenko. Additionally, he'll have much more work to do in order to impose his strengths whereas Shlemenko will start every round in his area of dominance, and stay there until Ortiz forces him out of it.
My Prediction: Alexander Shlemenko by decision.
After being shanked under the armpit in a bar scuffle, a resulting ten-day coma and staving off myriad infections while recovering, undefeated Bulgarian Blagoi Ivanov (11-0) is lucky to be drawing breath. Considering he's on the verge of becoming tournament champion and getting a shot at Bellator's heavyweight title, his comeback is one of MMA's most compelling storylines. Ivanov first garnered global attention when he defeated inimitable Russian Fedor Emelianenko in Combat Sambo, and did so on short notice.
25-year-old Alexander Volkov clenched the Season 7 Heavyweight Tournament and, with it, the vacant Bellator heavyweight championship. Volkov's only loss in his last 13 outings is a first-round TKO at the hands of Vitaly Minakov, who overtook the throne with the victory. A stretchy 6'7" frame and a gift for range striking anchor Volkov's offensive game, which makes for an interesting contrast with Ivanov's clinch-centered Sambo background.
As with Ortiz and Shlemenko, distance and location are the key factors here: Ivanov, who doesn't even crack the six-foot mark, will be tasked with navigating through the crisp precision of Volkov's telephone-pole punches in order to work his clinch game. Ivanov, a southpaw, is substantially equipped to contest Volkov on the feet skill wise but, since he does most of his work with his hands, his lack of distance weapons will put him at a serious disadvantage from outside. So, again, proximity and movement are cardinal aspects for Ivanov.
Not only is Volkov a lanky and talented marksman from the fringe, he has excellent agility and dexterity for a fighter with his gangly proportions and he conducts himself with a level of composure and maturity that belies his youth. Additionally, while he's not necessarily a powerful lad, Volkov's length transforms into considerable leverage when he's connected with his opponent, and that, along with his sound fundamentals and the transparency of Ivanov's intentions, will give him the edge here.
As far as human characteristics go, Ivanov's admirable willpower and determination are just as formidable as his three-dimensional combat abilities. However, while fully capable in the striking, clinching and grappling departments, Ivanov's boxing can be a tad predictable -- most of the concern lies with his left hand in the form of overhands, hooks and uppercuts -- his hands tend to stray too far away from his chin and his endurance has been questioned in the past. Finally, the burly Bulgarian is a beast in the clinch because of his low center of gravity and strong balance, which he derives from a somewhat crouched stance and having his feet rooted to the floor -- the downside is that those tendencies are not conducive to the spry footwork he'll need to counter Volkov's obscene height and length advantage. Despite some of the foreboding match-up mechanics on paper, this fight should be highly competitive and either has the potential to break into the upper-echelon of the heavyweight rankings.
My Prediction: Alexander Volkov by decision.
Michael Page vs. Ricky Rainey -- Welterweight Feature fight
If you don't know who Michael "Venom" Page (5-0), aka "MVP," is ... you really, really should:
It's somewhat ironic that the MMA sewing circle constantly clamors for a wildly entertaining and altogether devastating finisher, yet many were put off by Page's showmanship and criticized him for being too cocky. It's true -- "Venom" oozes with more swagger than the annual gathering of street pimps at the Player's Ball but, thus far, he's backed it up in exhilarating fashion.
Now representing the UK's reputable London Shootfighters squad, Page first dabbled in martial arts at age 3 and crossed over to MMA after wrecking shop in England's freestyle kickboxing scene. He comes from impressive combat lineage, as his father was a three-time kickboxing champion and the Chief Instructor of the Great Britain Martial Arts Association (GBMAA) and his brother is also a six-time world freestyle kickboxing champion. This means he has a god-given gift to punch and kick people in the face, and he does so with almost unparalleled panache.
Page draws Bellator second-timer Ricky Rainey (9-2), an all-rounder who trains under catch-wrestling rep Michael Allen at The Dark Side of MMA alongside Bellator middleweight Joe Pacheco. The North Carolina native played college football as an outside linebacker and made the switch to MMA in 2011 without having any extensive martial arts experience under his belt. While he's obviously facing an uphill battle here, Rainey will be Page's most formidable test yet -- the kid's a gamer and has shown the diverse proficiency he'll need to solve the riddle. However, since his first-round KO of Andy Murad in his Bellator debut was Rainey's first experience on a bigger stage, he's yet to demonstrate that proficiency against a fighter of this caliber, and Page is extremely unorthodox, fast and lengthy for the weight class to boot.
My Prediction: Michael Page by KO.