Bellator MMA Bracket
Credit: Bellator MMA

After a year of exciting bouts, Ryan Bader and Fedor Emelianenko will compete for the world championship in the finals of the Bellator Heavyweight Grand Prix.

The Bellator Heavyweight Grand Prix had plenty of surprises, to say the least. Almost a year ago to the date, in the exact same venue, the tournament kicked off with several heavyweights vying to become Bellator’s new heavyweight champion. On Saturday, light heavyweight champion Ryan Bader will look to add a second belt to his trophy case as he squares off with the legendary Fedor Emelianenko.

Ryan Bader may not have been the odds on favorite to win the tournament, but few can argue that he was the one with the most upside last January. He had already won the light heavyweight title and defended it 2017, and is in the prime of his career compared to the cast of veterans that made up the rest of the field. Even so, the way he has handled the competition has been nothing short of impressive. He needed only seconds to dispatch King Mo, and nullified tournament favorite Matt Mitrione to reach the finals.

Many often point to Bader’s UFC run, where he went 15-5 overall after joining the promotion in 2008. For all his success, the narrative over the years has been that he consistently came up short in bouts where he was finally poised to ascend into title contention. His success in Bellator, especially in the Grand Prix, has helped to reframe his the view of his career. His losses are still there, but many are acknowledging that Bader was competing against the greatest light heavyweights of all-time when they were at the peak of their powers during his UFC run.

More than 12 years since he last defended the Pride heavyweight championship, Fedor Emelianenko is entering what many feel will be his last chance at a title in a major promotion. At 42 years old, the Russian legend has turned back the clock to put together a Cinderella-like run to the finals of the Grand Prix. In what many expected to be an epic battle with Frank Mir, Emelianenko instead shocked the former UFC champion with a first-round knockout. He followed that up with a punishing beating of Chael Sonnen in October to set-up the collision with Bader.

As stoic as ever, the mystique around Emelianenko is of a different kind in 2019. Following losses and one retirement already, it seemed as if age and the fight game had already caught up to him. His technical brilliance was coming up short against the larger behemoths he once overcame in epic contests. The shots he used to land that would close the show no longer found their mark as they always had before. The fear on Saturday, after watching him have his resurgence, is that he will look all 42 of his years when the cage door closes on Saturday. The mystique, despite the odds against him, is that he will pull out another sequence that adds to his legend and wins him his first championship since 2008.

Despite Bader moving up from light-heavyweight for the tournament, the size differential between the two does not figure to be drastic come fight night. Bader weighed in most recently at 230 for the fight with Mitrione while Emelianenko was 236 for the match-up with Sonnen.

For Fedor Emelianenko, speed will be the key to victory. Timing Bader’s aggression and being the more active fighter will be the best strategy as the light-heavyweight champion, while powerful, is not a fluid striker and has been susceptible to counters in the past. Bader figures to be the better wrestler and Emelianenko should avoid spending energy trying to force him to the mat. Rather, he should look to sprawl and throw heavy shots if he defends the takedown as it provides a great opportunity to deliver damage with Bader right in front of him.

Ryan Bader should work behind straight punches and throw with high volume. Emelianenko is at his most dangerous when he is able to use his physicality and counter with powerful punches so the best route to shutting him down is to stay in his face with forward pressure. However, the safest route to victory will be to use his wrestling to get Emelianenko on his back and land ground-and-pound. Doing so will neutralize the threat of Emelianenko’s power and where his prowess can defend the many submission attempts “The Last Emperor” may go for.

If Fedor Emelianenko emerges victorious on Saturday, he may never have a better moment to ride off into the sunset and call it a career. Should he continue competing, the winner of Cheick Kongo vs. Vitaly Minakov is waiting in the wings for their shot at the heavyweight title. For Ryan Bader, the future is much more intriguing. While he has the challenge of the aforementioned top contender bout in the heavyweight division, he also as options to consider back at light heavyweight. Vadim Nemkov is the front-runner following his victory over Phil Davis last year, and Bader has also mentioned the possibility of a rematch with Lyoto Machida who recently entered the Bellator ranks.

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