With two title fights on the card and a showcase bout for one of the promotion's most promising stars, Bellator pulled out all the stops when it rolled through Albuquerque, N.M. for Bellator 97.
Lightweight champion Michael Chandler put his 155-pound title on the line against David Rickels in the card's main event. The Team Alliance member was originally slated to face Dave Jansen on the card, but when the Season 7 tournament winner was forced to withdraw due to injury, the promotion tapped "The Caveman," who won the Season 8 pairings.
Ultimately the change of opponent didn't matter much as Chandler kept his undefeated record intact by starching Rickels in the opening minute of the first round. The victory at Bellator 97 was another glaring example of Chandler's status as one of the top lightweight fighters on the planet.
The other championship tilt on the card featured longtime welterweight title holder Ben Askren as he attempted to make his fourth successful title defense against Andrey Koreshkov. The former Olympian and two-time Division I national champion wrestler from Missouri has been heavily criticized for his fighting style throughout his young career, and his performance on Wednesday night will do little to turn that particular tide.
The 29-year-old wrestled his way to a lopsided victory over Koreshkov as the exhausted Russian was stopped via TKO in the fourth round.
With the victory, Askren not only remains undefeated but further cements his "top dog" status in what is easily Bellator's deepest division.
While the bout between Muhammed "King Mo" Lawal and Jacob Noe did not have a title on the line, the heated grudge match was easily one of the most anticipated scraps on the card. In the lead up to the fight, both men used social media and interviews to launch bombs at one another, but when the cage door closed at the Santa Ana Star Center, it was all Lawal.
Where Lawal has primarily showcased his power striking in past Bellator showings, against Noe he used his strong wrestling skills to neutralize everything Noe did for the first two rounds, until he pounded out the stoppage finish in the third round.
With the victory, the former standout wrestler from Oklahoma State University not only picks up his second consecutive win but officially earns the opportunity to fight for the light heavyweight title in his next showing.
But no matter how impressive the action was for the three biggest fights on the card, there were still a handful of rough showings and a few downright bizarre occurrences.
Let's take a look at the good, bad and strange from Bellator 97.
Michael Chandler is for real, ladies and gentleman. Lighting fast hands, knockout power and a solid wrestling game will make Chandler a difficult champion to unseat.
Ben Askren's style of fighting may be miles away from appealing to the MMA masses, but one can hardly argue its effectiveness. The former Missouri wrestling standout presents constant pressure and has proven the ability time and time again to put his opposition where he wants them.
Against Koreshkov it was no different. From the opening bell the Milwaukee-based fighter put the Russian striker on his back and made him look helpless in the process.
While Askren's style may be panned as boring, I largely subscribe to the philosophy it is the opposition's responsibility to stop what is being done to them. There are zero secrets about what the welterweight champion is coming out to do, and if the fighters who step into the Bellator cage with him can't stop from getting dumped on their backs, it's on them, not Askren.
One of the best looks on Wednesday night came from Muhammed Lawal. "King Mo" made a tactical switch from his recent stand-up heavy performances and simply made Jacob Noe fight him where he is the strongest.
Granted, the performance may have earned some boos from the crowd, but Lawal is there to win and that is exactly what he did. Furthermore, the Las Vegas transplant's victory also served a greater purpose by earning him a shot at the light heavyweight title.
Lawal came to Bellator to become a champion and now he will have that opportunity.
The final entry into this category comes courtesy of Brazilian powerhouse Patricio "Pitbull" Freire. The former featherweight title challenger put a smooth beating on Jared Downing to open the televised portion of the card and racked up another impressive knockout for an already violent highlight reel.
The victory over Downing was Freire's fourth successful showing in his last five bouts, with his only setback during this run coming in a split-decision loss to current champion Pat Curran back at Bellator 85.
Any time a fighter is going to take the hard angle of trash-talking before a fight, it is crucial they show up ready to tangle.
In Noe's case, not only did he have nearly zero offense to throw in Lawal's direction, but he offered little resistance to the former Strikeforce champion's takedowns. That being said, with Lawal's outstanding wrestling pedigree, Noe being unable to stop every attempt Lawal made to put him on the canvas is one thing, but not being able to get back to his feet is an entirely different subject.
Any way the subject is cut, Noe talked a mess in the buildup and failed to show up on fight night.
Another entry into this category came following Lawal's victory when Bellator made a special announcement regarding recent signee Quinton "Rampage" Jackson. There has been plenty of speculation regarding who Jackson will face in his promotional debut later this year.
A potential boxing match against legend Roy Jones Jr. appeared to be in the forefront of the rumored options, but on Wednesday night, the former Pride veteran put all the rumors to rest by officially announcing his next fight will come against none other than Tito Ortiz on pay-per-view on November 2.
In order to make my inclusion of the announcement into this category completely clear, the reason this falls under the "bad" heading has very little to do with Jackson. While he may have ended his UFC run on a downturn, the 35-year-old Tennessee-born fighter was disgruntled with the sport's biggest promotion and it certainly showed in his performances.
A fresh start with Bellator could serve to reignite his passion for the sport and with the promotion being thin where star power is concerned, the road is wide open for Jackson to do big things under the Bellator banner.
That being said, the story is much different where Ortiz is concerned. The recently inducted UFC "Hall of Fame" fighter has dropped six of his last seven showings going all the way back to 2007 and has been plagued by a series of injuries along the way.
Where a bout between Jackson and Ortiz could have been a big deal anywhere from 2003-2007, the bout will hold little relevance on the current landscape of mixed martial arts.
Tito Ortiz is going to fight Rampage Jackson later this year, and the bout will most likely be the biggest single fight in the promotion's history. That, my friends, is all the strange you need.
The only other tidbit to add to this category from the action on Wednesday night came from the way Jared Downing physically reacted to being knocked out by Patricio Freire. The sport of mixed martial arts has produced some brutal knockouts over the past 20 years, and those moments have provided a wide variety of reactions from those fighters unfortunate enough to be on the receiving end.
Some knockout victims get laid out cold on the canvas, eyes wide open and appear as if their souls have been stolen. Others produce a more mechanical reaction as they get a case of the "robot arms" once their lights have been turned out.
In Downing's case, a pinpoint right hand from Freire separated him from his consciousness, but as soon as his stiff frame hit the canvas, his power generator immediately flipped back on. While the stoppage from the referee was absolutely just, it was interesting to see how quickly Downing recovered from eating such a monster shot from Freire.
After eating a crusher like the one Downing absorbed, most fighters would be getting their feet lifted by the cage-side doctor. But not Downing. Moments after the fight was waved off and Freire began to celebrate, the momentarily knocked out Downing was standing there to congratulate him.
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