Bellator has made a habit of putting their divisional titles on the line through massive year-long tournaments in recent years. Featuring some of the best talent the promotion has to offer, fighters face off in a series of five round bouts, with everyone from champions to top contenders taking part.
Last year, Vadim Nemkov defended his title three times, defeating Phil Davis, Julius Anglickas, and Corey Anderson in the light heavyweight Grand Prix picking up the $1 million in prize money in the process. Likewise, Raufeon Stots captured & defended the interim bantamweight title with victories over Juan Archuleta, Danny Sabatello, and Patchy Mix.
It looks like 2023 is set to start out on the right foot, then, with the Wednesday, January 11th announcement that Bellator would be hosting a lightweight tournament featuring champion Usman Nurmagomedov, in an 8-man field, including former champ Patricky Pitbull, former UFC champ Benson Henderson, and former featherweight champ AJ McKee.
24-year-old Nurmagomedov (cousin of former UFC champion Khabib Nurmagomedov) captured Bellator gold just back in November, with a unanimous decision over Patricky Pitbull. Currently sitting at 16-0, the AKA talent is unbeaten since first stepping into the cage back in 2017. He took his first Bellator bout in April of 2021, racking up four straight victories on his way to his first title shot.
Much like Nurmagomedov, Pitbull enters this bout fresh off their contest in November where he lost his lightweight title. Elder brother to Bellator’s featherweight champion, the 36-year-old hasn’t been in the best form lately (even despite his title win), dropping three of his last four bouts—starting with a decision loss to Tofiq Musayev at RIZIN 20 in the final leg of that promotion’s 2019 lightweight GP.
A former RIZIN tournament champion, many felt Musayev was badly overlooked when Bellator granted the lightweight title shot to Nurmagomedov instead of the 33-year-old from Azerbaijan. Musayev just made his Bellator debut back in July of last year, beating Sidney Outlaw via first round knockout. That win provided a much needed bounceback after suffering a first round submission loss at RIZIN 28 to Roberto de Souza.
A former Titan FC champion, the 30-year-old Outlaw made his Bellator debut in 2019, with a victory over Roger Huerta. The American Top Team product had the inglorious honor of being one of the final fights in Michael Chandler’s tenure before he jumped ship for the UFC, losing that bout via first round KO. Outlaw rebounded with a pair of victories before losing to Musayev last July.
One of Bellator’s top rising prospects for the last half decade, AJ McKee made good on his potential back in 2021, when he defeated Patricio Pitbull to win the Bellator featherweight championship. Unfortunately for him, the 27-year-old didn’t fair nearly so well in the rematch, dropping a unanimous decision, after which he made the move to the lightweight division, winning two straight fights. Most recently he defeated the aforementioned de Souza at RIZIN’s 2022 NYE Bellator crossover event.
Russia’s Alexander Shabily enters the lightweight Grand Prix with a years long reputation as one of the most talented lightweights in the world not fighting for a major promotion. He finally made his debut stateside back in 2021, with a 19-3 record, and immediately rattled off three straight victories for Bellator. It could be that 2023 is the year that finally sees him in contention for a notable piece of MMA hardware.
Mansour Barnaoui already has a million-dollar tournament win to his name, marching his way through a field of 16 over two years with ROAD FC to take home the Korean promotion’s lightweight crown. Due to the COVID pandemic 30-year-old Tunisia-born Frenchman didn’t compete for more than three years between 2019 & 2022, but made a welcome return to action in October of last year, beating Adam Picoolotti via second round submission at Bellator 287.
A former UFC champion, Benson Henderson has already had two shots at capturing Bellator gold. ‘Smooth’ made his debut with his new promotional home back in 2016 for a welterweight title fight against then-champion Andrey Koreshkov. Despite losing that bout, he got a crack against Michael Chandler later that same year for the lightweight title, after an injury stoppage win over Patricio Pitbull. Since then he’s gone 6-4 fighting for Bellator, including a rough 3-fight losing streak in 2020-2021. But he bounced back last year with a pair of victories over Islam Mamedov and Peter Queally.
The lightweight Grand Prix tournament kicks off on March 10th in San Jose, CA at Bellator 292. On that card, Usman Nurmagomedov is expected to take on Benson Henderson in a five round lightweight title fight main event. Tofiq Musayev and Alexander Shabily will battle it out for five-rounds as well in a non-title fight co-main.