Bellator MMA steps into the glitz and glamour of New York City, and back onto Pay-per-View, with Bellator NYC Saturday night at Madison Square Garden. The PPV card (Bellator 180 serves as the televised prelims, but is a strong enough event on its own) boasts two title fights, the return of a heavyweight legend, a top prospect, and the biggest grudge match any promotion could book right now. Really, Silva vs. Sonnen is the result of a lot of moving pieces falling into place at the right time, and ultimately, it should be quite a fun card.
Whether that’s enough to convince you to part with your hard earned dollars is another matter. Despite the “fun” nature of the event and Bellator’s underdog status (an underdog backed by the behemoth that is Viacom), it’s fair criticism to point out that neither the main nor co-main event are really relevant to their respective divisions today. At most, they’ll be footnotes in MMA history.
Yet sometimes the footnotes are the most fun. Pride fans should feel the pull of nostalgia with this card, and not just because The Last Emperor is coming to dinner. It’s a card booked like a Pride show, records and relevance be damned. Within reason. And maybe that’s the selling point: there’s just enough here, with names like Chandler, Lima, Larkin, Pico and so on to make this card worthy of attention, and lightening our wallets just a little.
Suddenly, Bellator MMA feels like the hottest date to the prom, at least for this weekend. That’s not a bad thing, in the long run.
So what’s in store for fight fans Saturday? We don’t have all the answers, but here’s what we know.
5. Aaron Pico vs. Zach Freeman
The opening bout of the Bellator NYC PPV card feels very much like a showcase to display the talents of lightweight Aaron Pico. In Pico, Bellator managed to sign one of the hottest prospects in MMA. Everyone around the kid says he’s the real deal, and he’s training with a fantastic team at AKA. Pico (0-0) is making both his promotional and professional debut at Bellator NYC, and it’s coming on the biggest stage possible. That should tell you something about the confidence Bellator has in the rookie.
For good reason, too. Pico has won the U.S. National Championship in Greco-Roman, folkstyle, and freestyle wrestling. He took silver at the 2014 and bronze at the 2015 Junior World Championships. At just nineteen, he qualified for the U.S. freestyle wrestling Olympic team, a feat that no teenager had managed for forty years. In short, there’s a lot of hype behind Aaron Pico, and Saturday, he gets to prove that it’s justified.
Bellator has not given him an easy out for his first fight, either. Zach Freeman isn’t exactly a household name, but he’s done his time in regional promotions, fighting for RFA and Titan FC among others. Freeman (8-2), thirty-three, went pro in 2011, and ran up seven straight wins to open his career. He has slipped a little of late, going 1-2 in his last three, but he should give us a solid test of where Pico stands this early in his career.
A big win, and it’s likely the fast-track to stardom for Aaron Pico. Should he lose to “The Altar Boy” then a slower build may be required.
4. Douglas Lima (c) vs. Lorenz Larkin
Exactly when was the last time you recall a title fight being the second fight in on the main card of a major promotion? Never? Did you say never? Someone will probably find the rare time it has happened, but never was probably a safe bet. Point being, sure, it’s to make room for a couple of names up top, but with three title fights in total counting Bellator 180, this event is just dripping in gold.
Lima vs. Larkin represents the most overlooked of the night’s title fights, mind you. There’s a number of factors contributing to that. Michael Chandler and Phil Davis are frankly bigger names, more recognizable to the public. On top of that, the welterweight title has been a hot potato ever since Ben Askren left the promotion in 2013. Lima (28–6) won the vacant belt in 2014 against Rick Hawn, then dropped it to Andrey Koreshkov at Bellator 140. He then regrouped, and won it back from Koreshkov in a rematch at Bellator 164. This means Bellator NYC is Lima’s second chance to defend his welterweight title for the first time, so expect him to be a focused, methodical fighter come Saturday.
Lorenz Larkin (18–5 (1)) is the wild card of the night. One of several, arguably. No one, including Larkin himself, expected him to get a title shot in his first Bellator MMA fight. Yet here he is, challenging for Bellator gold right out of the gate. Some of that has to do with Rory MacDonald having fought at Bellator 179. Some of it has to do with the fact that Larkin was a big free agent signing for the company. The final factor is simply Larkin’s resume — his last two wins came against Neil Magny and Jorge Masvidal. If beating Masvidal secures a title shot for Demian Maia in the UFC, surely it can secure a title shot in Bellator for Larkin.
Lima and Larkin have a full two dozen KO/TKO wins between them. How this fight has flown under the radar the way it has is mind-boggling when you consider that. At least Larkin doesn’t seem to mind.
3. Michael Chandler (c) vs. Brent Primus
Earlier this week we called Chandler vs. Primus the real headliner of Bellator NYC. You’re likely to find out why Saturday night. Chandler hasn’t just been a loyal Bellator soldier throughout his career with the promotion, but has put on entertaining fights consistently as well. Look no further than his classic duels with Eddie Alvarez for evidence of just how exciting Chandler can be in the cage.
Brent Primus is really the question mark in all this. He told Cageside’s Heath Harshman that he’s ready to “shock the world” on Saturday, and he certainly has the opportunity. Primus (7-0) has won all five of his Bellator bouts, but there’s a question of the level of competition he has faced. There’s also the question of ring rust, as Primus hasn’t fought in just over a year.
All that combines for a steep uphill climb against Chandler (16–3), who enters the bout coming off another hard fought performance against Benson Henderson in the first title defense of his current reign. Winner of four straight over Henderson, Patricky Freire, David Rickels, and Derek Campos, Chandler is the clear favorite here, but many overlooked Will Brooks in 2014 as well.
The best news here is, historically, Bellator MMA lightweight title fights have almost always entertained. This should be no exception.
2. Fedor Emelianenko vs. Matt Mitrione
Thus begins what may be the Last Emperor’s last run in MMA. On top of that, it’s his second chance at a successful showing in the U.S., after a disastrous 1-3 run in Strikeforce that helped usher him into his first retirement. Overall, he’s 4-3 stateside, and while that shouldn’t matter, for some reason it feels like a blemish on his otherwise distinguished career. Of course, only with Fedor could you consider a winning record in a country a “blemish” — but then, we’re talking about the greatest heavyweight of all time here. Not that he considers himself as such.
Here’s what this boils down to: Emelianenko (36–4 (1)) is forty, a legend, but had some serious struggles against undersized Fabio Maldonado in his last fight. Emelianenko arguably lost the bout, which could easily have been waved off with the Brazilian putting the leather to the Russian legend early in the fight. Instead, the bout was allowed to continue, and the eventual outcome — a majority decision for Fedor — was contested, but allowed to stand.
Matt Mitrione (11–5) is once again set to welcome the Last Emperor to the Bellator cage, after kidney stones nixxed an earlier bout. Mitrione is 2-0 in Bellator but was almost floored by Carl Seumanutafa in Meathead’s promotional debut. He survived the early scare to finish the fight within the first round, but one thing is clear: if either fighter catches the other, they are likely to drop.
The age factor isn’t a huge one either: despite Fedor being forty, Mitrione is himself thirty-eight, albeit with less mileage. In fact, this is likely a more evenly matched fight than it looks, and could turn out to be a very entertaining bout, regardless of the outcome.
1. Chael Sonnen vs. Wanderlei Silva
As an athletic contest relevant to the sport of MMA, Sonnen vs. Silva is about as far down the list as you can get. As an entertaining freakshow grudge match, however, this could be a very fun fight. That’s really the best we can hope for. While praying it’s not Kimbo vs. Dada (it shouldn’t be; if nothing else, Sonnen and Silva have shown they can preform historically). Still, while Fedor vs. Meathead could actually thrust the Last Emperor back into the spotlight with a big win, the winner of Sonnen vs. Silva isn’t about to shoot upwards in the light heavyweight division.
Nor should they. These are two fighters who, while possessing plenty of name value, come with huge asterisks (read: drug scandals) and are in the twilight of their careers. If Sonnen is to continue on his “Legends Ass-Kicking Tour” he’s going to need to actually start beating some of those legends, as the last one he can actually claim was Shogun Rua back in 2013. As for Wanderlei Silva, well he hasn’t had a fight since that very year, and his most recent action was an on-set brawl with Sonnen while filming The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil.
It seems almost silly to break down this fight. Sonnen (29–15–1) has looked a very different fighter since his PED scandal in 2014, which saw his position with FOX terminated. Of course, there’s really only the Tito Ortiz fight to base that off of, and how much ring rust (and age) have played a factor remains to be seen.
The Axe Murderer? Wanderlei Silva’s last fight was a stand-and-bang brawl with Brian Stann at UFC on Fuel TV 8 in March 2013. Silva (35–12–1 (1)) then dealt with his own PED scandal and was nearly banned from the sport, at least in North America. With his eventually reduced suspension served, he’s back in business, but there’s no telling how he will look.
It comes down to Silva avoiding the takedown, and Sonnen avoiding the big shots of Wanderlei Silva. If the Brazilian simply sees red and charges in like a bull (a very real possibility given his disdain for Sonnen) he could play into the American’s hands. Really, this is a toss up, and with any luck the rest of the card is so entertaining that Sonnen vs. Silva is simply icing on the cake.
Bellator NYC takes place Saturday at New York City’s famed Madison Square Garden. The PPV event is preceded by Bellator 180, which airs live on Spike TV.