Bellator Heavyweight Grand Prix Preview and Predictions

Nathan McCarter@McCarterNFeatured ColumnistJanuary 16, 2018

Bellator Heavyweight Grand Prix Preview and Predictions

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    The greatest heavyweight in MMA history is one of eight participants in Bellator's Heavyweight Grand Prix.
    The greatest heavyweight in MMA history is one of eight participants in Bellator's Heavyweight Grand Prix.Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    The Bellator Heavyweight Grand Prix is upon us and gets underway at Bellator 192 on Saturday at the Forum in Inglewood, California, with Quinton "Rampage" Jackson vs. Chael Sonnen in the main event.

    The tournament will continue throughout 2018, with the plan to hold the final in December, per MMAjunkie's Simon Sermano.

    It's a star-studded field of the past and present. Who are the other six men joining Rampage and Sonnen? Ryan Bader, Fedor EmelianenkoMo Lawal, Frank Mir, Matt Mitrione and Roy Nelson. The recognizable names and fresh matchups are tantalizing for MMA fans.

    Steven Rondina and Nathan McCarter will walk you through the tournament details, breakdown the first-round matchups and prognosticate a winner.

    Here is a complete look into Bellator's 2018 Heavyweight Grand Prix.

Bellator Heavyweight Grand Prix Details, Bracket, Schedule

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    Former UFC heavyweight champion Frank Mir will make his Bellator debut opposite Fedor Emelianenko.
    Former UFC heavyweight champion Frank Mir will make his Bellator debut opposite Fedor Emelianenko.Eric Jamison/Associated Press

    What is the Bellator Heavyweight Grand Prix?

    Bellator's heavyweight division was a wasteland in 2016. Talent was scarce. Name value was nonexistent. Worst, its champion, Vitaly Minakov, was AWOL.

    In May of that year, the division was given a hard reboot. Minakov was stripped of the title, prospects were signed, free agents were brought into the fold, and the promotion threw open the doors for fighters to freely move back and forth between divisions. The result? An oddly compelling division that has a lot of potential for interesting, fresh matchups.

    With the infrastructure now in place, Bellator is reviving its heavyweight title with a traditional eight-man tournament involving some of the biggest names on its roster.

           

    The Brackets

    The Bellator Heavyweight Grand Prix is a standard, single-elimination tournament. The quarterfinal matchups as of this writing are:

    • Side A: Quinton "Rampage" Jackson vs. Chael Sonnen
    • Side A: Fedor Emelianenko vs. Frank Mir
    • Side B: Matt Mitrione vs. Roy Nelson
    • Side B: Ryan Bader vs. "King" Mo Lawal

    The victors from each side will then face off for a spot in the grand final. The winner there will be crowned the new Bellator heavyweight champion.

    Alternates are likely to be announced in the coming weeks. No fighters have been officially confirmed for these spots, but likely candidates include Justin Wren, Cheick Kongo and Sergei Kharitonov.

           

    The Schedule

    While the most hassle-free tournaments in recent MMA history have been one-night competitions when fighters will compete multiple times at the same event (a la Rizin FF's New Year's event), Bellator is taking a different approach, staggering the grand prix across 2018.

    On one hand, it's a brilliant move. On their own merits, each of these fights is interesting and owns main event credibility. Arranging them into a tournament only adds an extra little bit of intrigue, and peppering them across the calendar gives Bellator a strong crop of big fights for the first half of 2018.

    On the other hand, there are plenty of pitfalls ahead. Injuries and illnesses are always looming, possibly delaying proceedings for months at a time. On top of that, two of the top draws in the tournament are historically difficult for promoters to deal with, something Bellator president Scott Coker himself knows well.

    As it stands, only two fights have been attached to specific dates. This Saturday, Sonnen and Jackson will kick off the tournament at Bellator 192. On February 16, Mitrione and Nelson will get the other half of the bracket rolling at Bellator 194.

    Currently Emelianenko vs. Mir and Bader vs. Lawal have not yet been attached to a specific event. If that doesn't change soon, it might be worth worrying about whether things will go according to plan.

The Best and Worst of the Bellator Heavyweight Grand Prix

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    Ryan Bader (above) vs. Mo Lawal is probably the best overall fight of the Grand Prix.
    Ryan Bader (above) vs. Mo Lawal is probably the best overall fight of the Grand Prix.Buda Mendes/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

    Steven: Welp, the Bellator Heavyweight Grand Prix is almost here and you know what? I'’m actually feeling pretty excited for it. It's really easy to feel bearish about tournaments in MMA—few of the ones that have happened in recent MMA history have gone smoothly—but you know what? I'm expecting this to be plain-and-simple fun. There's a fun cross-section of goofy "legends" fights and (relatively) high-level action lined here, and I'm expecting each fight to deliver in its own way.

    The one I'm most excited for is probably the on-paper "best" fight: Ryan Bader vs. "King" Mo Lawal. Both men are legitimate top-10 light heavyweights, and while this one is scheduled to be contested at heavyweight, I'm not expecting either man to take this one lightly. This is almost guaranteed to be an exciting, competitive affair, and having it take place in this tournament gives it defined stakes in a way it wouldn't have otherwise.

    Do you feel the same way, Nathan? Which fight are you most looking forward to?

    Nathan: I am most looking forward to Frank Mir vs. Fedor. Perhaps I'm merely showing my age, but finally getting to see this showdown has me excited.

    What is even better is that there is still a sense of unpredictability with the fight. Fedor isn't the invincible star he once was, and Mir has various positives and negatives that brings along intrigue. This is the UFC vs. Pride fight we never got, and now we are getting it. And thanks to the format, there are still stakes involved. That's something to applaud.

    Steven: The only gripe I have with this whole thing is the actual matchmaking. Take Matt Mitrione vs. Roy Nelson, for instance.

    Mitrione vs. Nelson is a fine heavyweight fight, sure, but it's one we've already seen. On top of that, the fight they had in 2012 was a banger, with Nelson scoring one of the best knockouts of his career over an at-the-time hot prospect in Mitrione. Their 2018 rematch is doomed to be considerably less enjoyable and will likely leave me wondering why we didn't get fresh matchups for them.

    Nathan: On the subject of less enjoyable, the tournament kicks off with Rampage vs. Sonnen, which is the least enjoyable of the lot. Sure, they are fun characters but that's about where it ends for this matchup.

    Rampage gets frustrated with wrestlers, which is Sonnen's primary game, and Sonnen has showed a lack of heart since exiting the UFC, with his performance against Tito Ortiz being borderline shameful. Thankfully it will be done with first, so fans don't have to agonize over it any longer while moving on to better fights.

Chael Sonnen vs. Quinton "Rampage" Jackson

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    Longtime middleweight contender Chael Sonnen is moving all the way up to heavyweight for this tournament.
    Longtime middleweight contender Chael Sonnen is moving all the way up to heavyweight for this tournament.Associated Press

    What Happened?

    Chael Sonnen and Quinton "Rampage" Jackson kicked off the Bellator Heavyweight Grand Prix in January at Bellator 192. While many were questioning the legitimacy of a contest between two under-sized and past-their-prime veterans, what fans got instead was a generally respectable (albeit less-than-exciting) contest.

    That, in large part, was thanks to Sonnen. While the American Gangster's toughness has long been suspect and his commitment to a fresh start in Bellator was scrutinized after being finished in his promotional debut by TIto Ortiz, he posted what was his best performance in years against Jackson. Showing improved striking skills and a more diverse repertoire of takedowns, he managed to out-land and out-wrestle the favored Jackson.

    Sonnen doesn't suddenly become a favorite to win the tournament--his lack of size and punching power will hold him back in a tournament that will likely boil down to heavy-handed big men--but he could end up making the finals, depending on how things shake out.

    What Comes Next?

    Sonnen will face the winner of Fedor Emelianenko vs. Frank Mir in the Grand Prix semi-finals. Emelianenko vs. Mir is slated for April 28, so don't expect Sonnen back in the cage any time soon.

Matt Mitrione vs. Roy Nelson

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    Nelson and Mitrione are set for a rematch of their 2012 showdown.
    Nelson and Mitrione are set for a rematch of their 2012 showdown.Jim Kemper/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

    Fight Scheduled for Bellator 194 (February 16)

    The Argument for Matt Mitrione

    There are only three true heavyweight fighters competing in this tournament, and a strong argument can be made that, in 2017, Matt Mitrione is the best of that bunch. Yes, he's older and the wear and tear from his time in football and MMA is catching up with him in a fairly obvious way. No, he doesn't have a major championship to his name or a sexy list of opponents that he's defeated.

    But you know what? He's the biggest man, the hardest hitter and the best athlete here. That counts for a lot.

           

    The Argument Against Mitrione

    Mitrione somehow could be the favorite to win the whole tournament. But no one should be putting too much faith into his prospects. Why? He's too inconsistent.

    Mitrione is perhaps the most athletic competitor, but over his career, he has failed to be consistent. Each time he was set to take the next step up in his career, he'd flub it. His Bellator career has seen inconsistency too even though he's 3-0 under their banner. The past will predict the future; Mitrione will fall when everyone thinks he'll shine. And he starts against Nelson, who knocked him out in 2:58 at The Ultimate Fighter 16 finale in 2012.

          

    The Argument for Roy Nelson

    The blueprint for beating Nelson has been out there for a while. The thing is, none of the fighters here have the right tools to follow it.

    Nelson's strong takedown defense and grappling in the clinch force most opponents into standing and banging with him. And once there? Well, fans are more than familiar with what his right hand is capable of.
    Sure, an athletic big man with knockout power, long reach and serviceable defensive grappling can get the better of him at range. The only person who fits that bill (more or less) is his first-round opponent, Mitrione—and Nelson actually knocked him out back in 2012.

           

    The Argument Against Roy Nelson

    Nelson's inability to stick with a winning game plan will cost him this tournament victory. Nelson's overall game is one of the best in the field. His jiu-jitsu and thunderous right hand make him a fun addition and good pick, but he rarely fights to his strengths. And once he starts to slow down, it's a wrap.

    Fight IQ plays a big role in this sport. Making in-fight adjustments can be the difference between a midtier fighter and a title contender. It's been what has kept Nelson away from gold and it'll keep him away from hoisting the Bellator GP trophy, too.

            

    Predictions for This Fight

    Even though their first fight ended with a dramatic knockout victory for Nelson, the odds are stacked against him here.

    In the five years since their showdown at the finale of The Ultimate Fighter 16, Nelson has had 12 fights, eight of which went the distance. Meanwhile, Mitrione has fought 10 times, with the majority of those bouts ending inside the first round. The wear and tear from that run has added up for Nelson and will be the difference-maker in this rematch.

Fedor Emelianenko vs. Frank Mir

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    Fedor Emelianenko's bout with Frank Mir would have been a dream match back in 2008.
    Fedor Emelianenko's bout with Frank Mir would have been a dream match back in 2008.Etsuo Hara/Getty Images

    Fight Scheduled for Bellator 197 (April 28)

    The Case for Fedor Emelianenko

    Fedor Emelianenko hasn't looked great of late...but this is still Fedor Emelianenko. The Last Emperor. The greatest heavyweight fighter of all time by a country mile.

    The brackets are lightly cooked to give him a clean shot at the final, as he is set to face a rusty Frank Mir and the winner of Jackson vs. Sonnen. And if he can get some help on the other side? Well, why can't the Last Emperor have one last reign?

          

    The Case Against Emelianenko

    Fedor is a shell of his former self, which is exactly why he will lose. If I were given the power to seed this tournament, Fedor would likely be the No. 5 seed behind the other heavyweights and Ryan Bader.
    When you get knocked out by Dan Henderson and can't beat Mitrione, you are no longer an elite heavyweight. And that's not a shot at Henderson or Mitrione, but the allure around Fedor is gone. Fedor is capable of winning the whole tournament, but he won't. He is just not that good anymore.

           

    The Case for Frank Mir

    People have been roundly dismissing Frank Mir of late, but he wasn’t actually looking bad toward the end of his 16-year run in the UFC. In his final 13 months with the company, he fought four times, won twice and looked generally solid despite the fact he was fighting way more frequently than a veteran of his age should have. 

    Almost two years removed from his last fight, Mir might end up coming back more refreshed than rusty. If he does, he should be able to make fairly quick work of Emelianenko, and from there? His size and savvy might just be able to carry him to victory.

          

    The Case Against Mir

    The biggest reason why Mir will lose this tournament will be his inability to get the fight to the ground. That is his biggest advantage over the field, but he won't be able to exploit it.

    While he'll have a size and strength advantage over the smaller men in the field, those men are top-flight wrestlers with the pedigree to avoid being stuck under the former UFC champion. On the feet, Mir is a liability. It doesn't make for great odds.

           

    Predictions for This Fight

    We basically know what Emelianenko looks like at this point and it's less than terrifying. Mir, on the other hand, is a complete unknown. 

    At 38 years old and coming off a two-year layoff, it's not unreasonable to expect a shopworn, rusty Mir to wheeze his way to a decision loss. On the other hand, it wouldn't be a shock if he comes back with enough spring in his step and pop in his hands to make quick work of his fellow veteran.

    Ultimately, that upside makes Mir the safer pick here, with the most likely outcome being a decision win for the former UFC champ.

Ryan Bader vs. "King" Mo Lawal

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    Mo Lawal has a big chance to prove himself in his fight with Ryan Bader.
    Mo Lawal has a big chance to prove himself in his fight with Ryan Bader.Esther Lin/Forza LLC/Getty Images

    Fight Scheduled for Bellator 198 (May 12)

    The Argument for Ryan Bader

    From a pound-for-pound perspective, Bader is handily the best fighter involved in this tournament. He's a legitimate top-five light heavyweight based on his wrestling skills and punching power, and he doesn't seem poised to suffer a Ben Henderson-style collapse now that he's in Bellator. Just as importantly, he's probably the best overall physical specimen in this tournament, given his size and still-intact physicality and athleticism.

          

    The Argument Against Bader

    I'm sorry to say the reason Bader will be ousted from the tournament is his chin. It has been a career-long mark on his career.

    The reason he will lose can sharply echo that of his first-round competitor, Lawal. "King" Mo does bring in proficient boxing and good power, but awaiting Bader the rest of the way are true heavyweights who should ice him.

           

    The Argument for "King" Mo Lawal

    Lawal is underappreciated in a profound way. Despite being a high-level light heavyweight, a combination of weak competition and poorly timed losses have left him forgotten in his own division. In 2016, however, he showed that he is a legitimate elite when he came a hair shy of defeating eventual champion (and former UFC standout) Phil Davis.

    Stylistically, he should own the advantage over most of the grand prix field. Wrestling is his bread and butter, and there are few who have been able to avoid prolonged battles on the mat or against the cage with him. That's unlikely to change here, and while he might not be involved in the tournament's most exciting fights, he'll be one of the toughest outs among the lot and is a particularly tough matchup for his first-round foe, Bader.

           

    The Argument Against King Mo

    King Mo's reason for defeat will be an inability to handle power.

    We have already seen this a bit when he traveled to Japan to compete in the Rizin heavyweight GP. He was defeated by Mirko Cro Cop via strikes. The field doesn't have a comparable striker, but there are still plenty of heavy hitters who can pose problems for King Mo. He begins with Bader and then would move on to the winner of Mitrione vs. Big Country. Too much power to have faith in Lawal.

          

    Predictions for This Fight

    Lawal is going to be a huge underdog here, but don't be fooled. He has the tools to hang with Bader and take a win in a three-round fight.

    That said, his underdog status isn't undeserved. Bader will own a distinct advantage in strength and punching power, and that will likely prove to be the difference.

Picks to Win

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    After a KO over Emelianenko, Matt Mitrione should be the favorite to win the Bellator Heavyweight Grand Prix.
    After a KO over Emelianenko, Matt Mitrione should be the favorite to win the Bellator Heavyweight Grand Prix.Associated Press

    Steven: Normally, I'm wary of picking smaller guys in these kinds of situations, but in my mind, this is about as close to being a slam dunk for Ryan Bader as it could be.

    His side of the bracket is incredibly tough, and he'll have to face some tough opposition in order to get to the final, but there isn't a single guy in this tournament that I wouldn't pick him to beat.

    Look for him to outmuscle and out-land Lawal in the first round, then outwrestle the winner of Mitrione vs. Nelson. From there, he'll do his thing and grind his way to victory in the final and become the second man in Bellator history to win titles in two divisions (Joe Warren, bantamweight and featherweight).

    Nathan: In doing some bracketology, it's clear that Bellator set up the field in a way to give Fedor the best chance possible at making it to the final. I do think he will defeat Mir and then Jackson to stamp his passport to the Grand Prix final. Meeting him? Mitrione.

    I was tempted to pick Bader to upset Mitrione in the semifinals, but I have so little faith in his chin against a true heavyweight, I could not pull the trigger. Mitrione should be the favorite to take the tournament, and I'll pick chalk.

    Mitrione is the most athletic heavyweight in the tournament, and that will assist him against both heavyweights and light heavyweights alike. The rematch against Fedor won't go too differently. The former Pride king simply cannot take heavy shots anymore, and Mitrione will connect one more time for his second knockout of the greatest heavyweight we have known in MMA.