The Bellator heavyweight title was last defended over three years ago, and in its absence, Bellator has wound up with a heavy (weight) problem: how to relaunch the division.
Every now and then it’s fun to play matchmaker (hey, it’s a dream job for some of us!). Never has that been the case more than with Bellator’s current heavyweight problem. With their 265lb title sitting undefended for years, no heavyweight champ, and a hodge-podge of players in the division, it’s time to get the ball rolling.
At Bellator 185 this past weekend, Bellator MMA CEO Scott Coker addressed the situation, saying that he expected the belt to be contested sometime in the first quarter of 2018. Or maybe the second quarter. Of course, we’ve heard similar statements before, but the reality is that Bellator is losing money by letting their heavyweight crown collect dust.
The title was last defended by then champ Vitaly Minakov in April of 2014, at Bellator 115. That’s a full seventy events ago. Bjorn Rebney was in charge for a few more months, and the UFC still years from being sold. That night, Minakov defeated Cheick Kongo in the Russian’s first title defense, but the fighter then went AWOL, taking fights in Russia while sitting out in a contract dispute with Bellator. Minakov seemed to have his sights set on heading to the UFC, while Bellator MMA did what they could to keep a fighter they felt was legally under contract with them from walking away.
Ultimately, in 2016, they stripped Minakov of the championship — but did not release him.
So here they sit, needing to rev up the heavyweight division again, but with a limited number of names to play with. What’s the solution?
For many, a tournament seemed to be the answer. Yet that was the one thing Coker nixed during the media scrum following Friday’s event in Uncasville, CT. “I’d like to crown a champion first, then we can talk about that” he told Cageside Press when asked about the possibility of using a tournament format with the belt on the line.
That doesn’t entirely nix an eventual tournament to crown the next contender, but who vies for the belt first? Lets take a look at who’s on the roster who could step in to fight for Bellator heavyweight gold in a meaningful contest, and what to do with the rest of the pack.
Here’s the easy part: who won’t be fighting for the Bellator heavyweight title next year?
First up, former champion Minakov, now 20-0 as a professional. Minakov has stayed active under the Fight Nights banner in Russia, most recently finishing Bigfoot Silva in June. He’s on a six fight finishing streak outside Bellator since the Kongo fight in 2014. Yet don’t expect to see him back in the fold. When asked at Bellator 185’s post-fight press scrum about the Russian ex-champ, Scott Coker replied that “Minakov is not our champion anymore. Minakov, as far as I’m concerned, is a fighter under contract to Bellator.”
That said, he added that “to me, it’s almost irrelevant at this point, because we have so many great heavyweights now, that when we put this title fight together, it’s going to be something really special.”
Doesn’t sound all warm and fuzzy, does it? So Minakov is out.
What about Bobby Lashley? The pro wrestler who pulls double duty in MMA has won five straight in Bellator, and has proved to be one of the promotion’s biggest draws, even while fighting lesser competition. He’s long been ready for another step up, as his biggest win to date in the promotion came against James Thompson. At forty-one years of age, the window is rapidly closing in MMA for Lashley, who is a respectable 15–2 in the sport. Yet it doesn’t appear that he’s in the cards either, necessarily.
Per Coker, “Bobby, we’ve been talking to him, I know he’s been very busy with his kids and pro wrestling. So I’m not sure what his status is, but I think he’s not going to be fighting any time before the end of the year.” While that doesn’t rule him out, it also wasn’t a ringing endorsement for him challenging for the vacant heavyweight belt. More likely than not, Bellator has something else in mind for the former WWE star.
Frank Mir, who Bellator signed after the former UFC champ was released in the wake of a suspension stemming for a positive test for steroids, is probably out as well. He’s not eligible to compete until April, and coming off of two losses, putting him in a title fight right off the bat would be laughable. He’ll need to get his feet wet in Bellator first.
What About The Last Emperor?
Here’s where things get interesting. Bellator has on their roster the man many consider the best heavyweight fighter of all time: Fedor Emelianenko. The Last Emperor, however, lost his debut fight in the promotion, finding himself knocked out (following a double knockdown) at the hands of Matt Mitrione.
It felt like Strikeforce all over again. Yet Fedor’s name still carries some value… just not as a viable contender for the belt. Does anyone believe that Fedor would have struggled with “Meathead” in his prime? No, but the problem is, Fedor is no longer in his prime.
There are other, better options for him anyway. In a fight against some of the bigger names in Bellator’s heavyweight division, Emelianenko would seem like a sitting duck at this point (remember, he struggled against Fabio Maldonado), but Chael Sonnen went and did the promotion a favor by setting up a fight with the Russian legend.
Hardcore MMA fans will hate the idea, but in reality, it’s almost a perfect pairing from a promoter’s standpoint. Sonnen only needs to win every now and then to stay relevant, after all. It’s his mouth that sells fights. He’d be a huge underdog against Emelianenko, but that’s just fine, coming in off a win over Wanderlei Silva. He could eat the loss, and go on to the next stop on his “Legend’s Ass-Kicking Tour.”
Meanwhile, with the stoic, nearly mute Emelianenko, it would be Sonnen selling the fight. Playing the heel, he’d set Fedor up for a hero’s welcome where ever they fought (save perhaps West Linn), and were Fedor to lose? Well, at least Bellator would get more mileage out of the Bad Guy.
So forget Fedor. He’s out of the heavyweight title picture, at least for the time being.
Here is where things get tricky. There are a number of names kicking around the Bellator heavyweight ranks deserving of a title shot. The question is, what do you base the selection on? Name value? Performance in the promotion?
Looking at the top names, you have Roy Nelson, Matt Mitrione, and Cheick Kongo. Nelson already holds wins over both Mitrione and Kongo, having finished both in the UFC. From a stylistic perspective, a rematch between Nelson and Mitrione is probably the most appealing.
Yet Nelson has just one fight in Bellator so far. Kongo, meanwhile, has won five straight since losing to King Mo in 2015, with all of those wins in Bellator. Kongo and Mitrione have also fought previously, with the French heavyweight getting the best of “Meathead” back at UFC 137.
Speaking of King Mo, the “moneyweight” is a bit of a dark horse in this race. He had been scheduled to fight Liam McGeary at Bellator 185 before falling to injury, however, so he’s likely out of the running.
Given Mitrione’s high profile win over (an admittedly aging) Fedor, he should be a lock for Bellator’s next heavyweight title fight. He has won all three fights in the promotion, and should be rewarded accordingly. While Kongo is on a winning streak as well, he’s had a title shot before, and the more entertaining fight will probably come from Nelson.
With that in mind, Nelson vs. Mitrione 2 is the fight to make for the title.
Who’s Next? (The Tournament)
So what comes after that? Really, it’s a shame Bellator won’t budge on the tournament idea, but Scott Coker and co. have been there before. Remember how tantalizing the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix was? Then Fedor and Andrei Arlovski were eliminated in the first round, while Alistair Overeem and Fabricio Werdum fought in one of the dullest heavyweight bouts ever — following which, Overeem dropped out of the tournament.
In the end, former UFC heavyweight champ Josh Barnett worked his way to the final, against little known tournament alternate Daniel Cormier.
In hindsight, that’s a pretty solid final, but at the time, no one expected Cormier to become the best non-laboratory enhanced light heavyweight of his era. DC won, and started his march to the UFC. Barnett would wind up back there eventually as well, only to run into PED trouble again.
Point being, while the tournament didn’t go as expected, it still produced a dominant champion — the final Strikeforce heavyweight champ and eventual UFC light heavyweight champion. It did what tournaments should do, uncover the best, and push them to the top into the spotlight.
If Bellator’s not up for leaving their heavyweight champion to chance, they can at least book a tournament to determine the next contender. Eight fighters, three rounds, and an alternate bout. The first two rounds could be a single-night deal, though that is a risky prospect with the damage heavyweights can do. The final round would presumably top a card.
Names like Lashley, Kongo, Mir, and Kharitonov would carry the tournament. Justin Wren, coming off a strong finish earlier this year and 3-0 in Bellator to date, would be a good fit. Adding in names like Javy Ayala and Augusto Sakai would round out the brackets. It might be a stretch putting the loser of our proposed title fight in the tournament, so if you prefer, throw in another name (Oli Thompson for example). Chase Gormley and Jack May would work as tournament alternates.
Point being, this sort of tournament gets the division moving again, and legitimizes the first contender for whoever wins the belt once Bellator books a title fight.
And lets be honest… tournaments are just plain fun.