Bellator Season 8's featherweight tournament will begin this Thursday in Duluth, Ga., and will include a familiar face for those who watched Season 7 as Mike "The Marine" Richman makes his return to the cage.
Richman, one of the biggest stars to come out of the blooming Minnesota mixed martial arts scene over the past few years, has already competed three times in the Bellator ring. He boasts 12 finishes with a 13-2 career record, including two vicious first-round knockout victories in Bellator.
At Bellator 88, he will again set his sights on becoming the Bellator featherweight tournament champion and the $100,000 prize that comes along with it.
For Richman, though, this tournament goes even deeper than a title or a paycheck. He has some personal business to handle in his first-round bout against Mitch Jackson this Thursday on Spike TV.
Those who follow the local Minnesota MMA scene would tell you that this fight has been brewing for years. The back-and-forth smack talk between members of Richman's team at The Academy and Jackson's team at American Top Team in Savage, Minn., has made this one of the most highly anticipated bouts in quite some time.
Better yet, it's happening on the national stage where everyone can see it.
“A lot of the [smack] talking started two or three years ago," Richman told Bleacher Report MMA. "Guys at their gym ran their mouth about how I don’t fight anybody good, how all I do is beat up turds, how I’m getting coddled, that my opponents are being picked to pad my record."
“If you want to look at someone who pads their record, look at Mitch Jackson.”
At 19-2 in his pro career, Jackson is currently on a seven-fight winning streak. Of those seven, only three have winning records as professionals. The other four have a combined record of just 20-75.
“There’s always an excuse with him like, ‘Oh, my opponent dropped out last-minute,'" Richman said. "Mitch, if you want a legit fight, there are five fighters at The Academy who would sign on the dotted line far in advance and wouldn’t drop out of a fight."
As great as it is to finally answer the question of who the better fighter is, Richman wasn't particularly excited to hear that he would be up against Jackson in his fourth Bellator fight.
“This is definitely the fight that could have been settled on the local scene because the bottom line is that I’m not building my name off of Mitch Jackson," Richman said. "If I go out there on Thursday and beat him, whether it’s a knockout, submission or a dominant decision, it’s not going to mean anything to anybody. People are just going to be like, ‘Who the hell was Mitch Jackson? He hasn’t fought in Bellator before. He hasn’t fought anybody at all.’ “
“[Mitch's] notable wins are…dot dot dot…he doesn’t have any notable wins.”
Richman himself took the hard way into Bellator, competing against a seasoned veteran in Chris Horodecki before being placed into the tournament.
“I needed to prove that I could go in there and beat someone with a name," Richman said. "Everything was set up for me to lose that fight. It was in his hometown, it was my first fight in Bellator, but I went in there and dominated him. I proved that I deserve to showcase my skills on the national level. [Mitch] hasn’t done that.”
Despite Jackson being ranked as high as the No. 1 featherweight in Minnesota by MNMMANews.com this past summer, Richman doesn't believe Jackson even deserves to be here.
“He doesn’t even deserve to be in Bellator. Just because you’re 19-2 doesn’t mean s***," Richman said. "I think the real MMA fans know that and I think the Bellator people knew that. That’s why he’s a replacement. A third choice. He wasn’t a first pick.”
Still, Richman understands the importance of the fight both for him both on the local and national scene, but also as a payday.
“I look at it like I have to go in there and beat him decisively—whether it’s a knockout, submission or I just outclass him for three rounds," he said. "It’ll be good for the Minnesota fans to see that. I’ll move onto the next round, I’ll get my money and I get to beat him. There’s still a lot of positives to fighting Mitch Jackson.”
All of the talk will come to a head on Thursday when these two Minnesotans finally step into the cage at Bellator 88. For those who have seen Richman fight in the past, the game plan is pretty obvious.
“I’m a natural power puncher. I can knock you out with either of my hands or my feet," Richman said. "I’ve seen some of Mitch Jackson’s fights where he’s been clipped by lower-level people. He doesn’t really have too much head movement. If he gives me the opportunity to put my hands or my legs on his face, I’m going to put him to sleep. He's not just going to get clipped—he's going out.”
A confident striker on his feet, Richman has also come a long way in the grappling department after admittedly being pretty weak in that area early in his career.
“What’s going to make [my striking] an even a bigger advantage is when he realizes that I’m pretty good at takedown defense and I’m pretty good with my counter-wrestling," Richman said. "That’s the thing that I don’t think Mitch Jackson and his camp realizes. In their minds, to make themselves feel better, they believe that they’re fighting the Mike Richman from three years ago. They think they’re fighting the guy that didn’t have very good takedown defense.”
Training with fighters like the UFC's Jacob Volkmann and Nik Lentz has given Richman the well-rounded game to feel confident going into this fight against one of Minnesota's best 145-pound grapplers.
"[Volkmann] is the king of just staying on you and not letting you breathe. He’s a wrestling machine. Nik Lentz is the same way. When he’s not in his own training camp, still comes and trains with us almost every day," Richman said.
"Then you’ve got guys like Zach Juusola, Brandon Girtz, Nick Kirk, Carl Deaton, Rich Taylor, Donald Williams...it’s just a room full of wrestling-based grapplers that are constantly looking for takedowns and to keep you down. And then you’ve got jiu-jitsu wizards like Nate Homme. I have the highest-level training partners in Minnesota.”
“I don’t even know who the hell Mitch trains with anymore.”
This featherweight quarterfinal bout will be Richman's fourth appearance in the Bellator cage, which he believes gives him yet another advantage going into the fight.
“I think this whole environment, the whole routine gives me an advantage," he said. “When you walk out and you’ve got all the lights on you, with the fans screaming and the cameras pointed on you; you either show up or you don’t. We’ll see how Mitch handles that. I see this ending in a TKO in the first or second round. With me winning, of course.”
Richman and Jackson will meet on Feb. 7 as part of Bellator 88 on Spike TV.
Nick Caron (@nicholascaron) is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report MMA. All quotes were obtained first hand.