On the night of Bellator 145, former PRIDE co-founder and executive Nobuyuki Sakakibara was present for a major announcement for the upcoming Rizin Fighting Federation debut event slated for New Year's Eve in Japan. The announcement included the reveal of a match-up between Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu superstar Gabi Garcia versus professional wrestler Lei'D Tapa [real name Seini Draughn] and another involving Muhammad "King Mo" Lawal.
Lawal was handed a giant cardboard ticket resembling a giant paycheck you would expect a tennis champion to receive, or something out of Publisher's Clearing House (which I am told is still a thing). It read "Rizin Fighting World GP Tournament Qualifier".
It wasn't clear due to the Engrish and lack of context provided what it was that he had qualified for. So, Mo will be taking place in an 8-man tournament and the organization released the brackets this past Monday.
So, let's take a look at who will be participating:
1. Muhammad "King Mo" Lawal (16-4)
2KO, 9TKO, 5 Decisions
Former Strikeforce light-heavyweight champion that defeated Gegard Mousasi in a somewhat controversial bout back in 2010, later losing the belt to Rafael "Feijao" Cavalcante. A series of misfortunes plagued his fight trajectory when he was stricken with a career-threatening staph infection that spread throughout his body as well as a release from Strikeforce after trashing Nevada State Athletic Commissioner Pat Lundvall online as a result of his hearing due to a PED test failure.
Lawal found a new home in Bellator and later relocated from American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose, CA to Las Vegas and ultimately to South Florida where he now represents the famed American Top Team collective.
Yet his arrival in Bellator was met with high expectations, and has ultimately been seen as the man who would be king, close to the top but not having won the title yet. Losses to Emmanuel Newton and Rampage Jackson have taken some shine on a still very dangerous and talented fighter. Currently on a four-fight win streak, his wrestling is still outstanding and his boxing has become more refined after his time training at the Mayweather gym, and his full MMA game has become more complete with his time at ATT. His first opponent was to be BAMMA champion Mark Godbeer, who has since withdrawn due to a neck injury.
2. Satoshi Ishii (14-4, 1 draw)
1TKO, 6 Submissions, 7 Decisions
Former 2008 Judo gold medalist in the Beijing Olympics Satoshi Ishii was another fighter that had tremendous expectations and much praise for being an elite athlete that could make a serious impact in the MMA sphere. After dipping his toes in the amateur scene he made his professional MMA debut in the 2009 K-1 Dynamite!! show against fellow Judo Olympic gold medalist (1992) Hidehiko Yoshida, a bout that he lost via unanimous decision followed by four wins that include victories over Ikuhisa Minowa (yes, Minowaman) and former K-1 champion Jerome Le Banner, followed by an odd draw against former WEC champion Paulo Filho and a subsequent loss vs Fedor Emilianenko.
From there, another 8-fight win streak over names such as 2012 Tim Sylvia, Sean McCorkle, Pedro Rizzo, Jeff Monson (still P4P promo ever), Kazuyuki Fujita and Phil DeFries. Sadly, that streak was snapped by two consecutive losses to Mirko CroCop in the span of four months last year. While there are various notable names on that list, none were truly near prime form when they fought Ishii, and two of them (Minowa and Filho) probably had no business fighting a heavyweight at the time.
An odd case, for sure. Ishii's career is difficult to get a read of as a result of the expectations placed upon him so early, the opposition he's faced and the manner in which he's lost with three losses due to strikes including that brutal knockout at the hands of Emelianenko. He notched two consecutive wins after his second loss to Filipović, but it remains to be seen if he can finally get over the hump and blossom into the fighter with potential he was thought to be or will remain stagnant. Having previously trained at Black House, Reign Training Center and Kings MMA, we will have to see what his complete MMA game looks like after engaging with the amount of talent he's come in contact with. He is set to fight Jiri Prochazka in the opening round.
3. Goran Reljić (15-5)
5TKO, 5 Submissions, 5 Decisions
Nicknamed "Ghost", Reljić reached the UFC after a 7-fight win streak and won his UFC debut against Wilson Gouveia. He then suffered three consecutive losses to CB Dolloway, Kendall Grove and Krzysztof Soszynski, all by decision. After three more wins on the European circuit he lost a bout in KSW to Jan Blachowicz in 2013.
He bounced back with four consecutive wins including three under the KSW banner against notably tough opposition in Tomasz Narkun, Karol Celinski and former Bellator light-heavyweight champion Attila Vegh. He suffered a major setback this past October where previous opponent Narkun avenged his loss by knocking Goran out in the first round of their rematch at the KSW Wembley event. He will be facing Vadim Nemkov.
4. Bruno Cappelozza (7-3)
Fighting out of Corinthians MMA, Cappelozza is mostly known for fighting in Jungle Fight where he recently won their heavyweight title in late October with a first round TKO. A teammate of Ewerton Teixeira, he's on a 4-fight win streak that began in June of 2013, coming back from a lengthy break after losing to current Bellator talent, Argentinian Emiliano Sordi.
Let's put this politely - despite the amount of solid talent and very raw but formidable athletes that the Brazilian regional scene has to offer, Cappelozza hasn't fought world-class opposition. He has two submission losses and curiously enough, a DQ due to illegal strikes in his second professional fight. His stats and numbers look impressive until you realize he has losses to opponents that are average or not much higher than average. He's set to fight Teodoras Aukstuolis in the opening bout.
5. Jiri Prochazka (13-2, 1 draw)
4KO, 7TKO 2 Submissions
Another European talent that's probably the dark horse of the tournament. his only losses are to RFA veteran Bojan Veliković and recent UFC signee (and yes, cousin of Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov) Abdul-Kerim Edilov. Prochazka is coming off a recent win over Polish talent Michał Fijałka this past May and fought current EFN talent Mikhail Mokhnatkin to a draw. Perhaps not as experienced as some of the other fighters above, but certainly seems like he's made great strides to have a more complete MMA arsenal, and was previously scouted on some karate magazine somewhere as a top light-heavyweight prospect last year along with Edilov, whom he lost to. He's only 22 and has a ways to go, but this very well could be the coming out party that a young talent like him could capitalize on greatly.
6. Vadim Nemkov (3-0)
1KO, 1TKO, 1 Submission
Currently undefeated in three bouts, Nemkov has a bit of a confusing record. His professional debut came against 8-8-1(draw) regional Polish veteran Michał Gutowski with a TKO. His second bout was against Isidor Bunea, whom he defeated in the very first round via rear naked choke this past April in what is Bunea's only MMA fight. If going from 8-8 to 0-0 seems strange to you, you'll need to learn to make peace with some of the oddities of European MMA. Oh, and it gets better - he then fought Brazilian veteran Joaquim Ferreira, who at the time was 19-10.
Nemkov won that last fight by knockout. He faces Reljić in the opening round and while Goran has the experience, an upset seems totally possible.
7. Teodoras Aukstuolis (7-2)
1TKO, 2 Submissions.
This is perhaps the strangest tournament contestant overall. Aukstulolis is a 24 year old Lithuanian talent that has lost to opposition with respectable yet small records, and has mostly only beaten opponents with no winning records or just flat-out absolutely dreadful and uneven records. Perhaps it's his dynamic style along with his youth and athleticism that brought him to the table, but it is disturbing to see someone with such a strange record taking part in a tournament with very legitimate contenders in it.
8. Valentin Moldavsky (2-0) (Reserve Fight)
Hailing from Mother Russia, Moldavsky's two professional outings have ended by armbar and choke. His second win was against middling Armenian fighter Karen Karapetyan in February of this year. He will be facing Yuta Uchida in the first round.
9. Yuta Uchida (0-0) (Reserve Fight)
Making his professional debut (oh, Japan...) is unknown fighter Yuta Uchida, who curiously enough trains under Tsuyoshi Kohsaka at ALLIANCE (the Japanese one - don't get too excited) and who is also fighting on this card. The biggest question mark of all, really. We truly have no idea how he'll do against someone with a more established record.
Unfortunately, many questions remain. What exactly does this mean? Does the winner become champion of this new organization? Will it be a nominal title like the Strikeforce GP? Does the champion face Fedor Emilianenko, and if so, is there a title involved then? Will this serve the purpose of fleshing out a new heavyweight division or is this a one-time thing?
None of this is clear as of yet, and we may not know the answer to most or any of these questions until the event has passed. In the meantime, this tournament is very interesting and has the potential to provide some defining moments in the careers of the fighters involved.
We'll be waiting, and we'll be watching.