Bellator’s light heavyweight grand prix is still better than the rest

In a press conference filled with a cornucopia of important revelations, the news that made fight fans’ violence glands salivate wasn’t yesterday’s “special announcement” of Bellator taking their US television talents to Showtime. It was the confirmation that the promotion will indeed be putting on a light heavyweight grand prix in the coming months.

Without a doubt, Bellator moving their content to Showtime is a big deal. Seeing President Scott Coker, and Showtime Sports headman Stephen Espinoza, unite again to produce mixed martial arts television, just like the Strikeforce days, is an important shift in the industry. The fact that the last featherweight grand prix semi-final bout, between champion Patricio Freire and Emmanuel Sanchez, will headline their first of three events in April is notable. as is the news that on May 7, Juan Archuleta will make his first defense of the bantamweight title, when he clashes with Ultimate Fighting Championship veteran Sergio Pettis. All of those revelations are worthwhile, but they pale in comparison to the star-studded collage of characters in the promotion’s first-ever 205-pound grand prix.

Is Bellator 205 > UFC 205?

Since the beginning, Bellator has done a fantastic job with their grand prix offerings. The heavyweight, welterweight, and featherweight tournaments have been the best content the organization has put out over the last few years. The decision to adjust the format, and include division champions, and offer a US $1 million cash prize for the winners of the last two tourneys was brilliant. However, with all the great talent involved in these tournaments (especially the featherweight grand prix), fans would always knock it by claiming the UFC could do it better if they did their own version, with their own divisions. That is until now.

Trust me, I know this crop of light heavyweights is flawed to an extent. The group of Ryan Bader, Lyoto Machida, Phil Davis, Corey Anderson, Yoel Romero, Dovletdzhan Yagshimuradov, Anthony Johnson, and champion Vadim Nemkov has a heavy mix of MMA greybeards. But this is not like when Fedor Emelianenko, Frank Mir, and Quinton Jackson were in the heavyweight grand prix. These light heavyweight old dogs can still deliver the goods at a high level. And they have colleagues in their prime like Nemkov, Anderson, and Yagshimuradov to test that theory against in some fights.

At the time, If you took the top eight in the UFC’s heavyweight, welterweight, and featherweight divisions, and matched them against their Bellator grand prix counterparts, the UFC is likely to win that battle going away. However, if you did the same between this crop of 205-pound fighters and the current top eight in the UFC, it is pretty close in terms of balance. That is, of course, as long as you don’t include light heavyweight demigod Jon Jones. Plus, Bellator was smart to give fans exciting first-round bouts right away. Current heavyweight champion Bader will face Machida on April 9, and wrecking machine extraordinaires in Romero and Johnson will get to thrash each other on April 16. Those are some fan-friendly fights to start a fan-friendly tournament.

Where is Gegard Mousasi

As good as all this news was, Bellator did pass on a great opportunity. No disrespect to Absolute Championship Berkut, and Absolute Championship Akhmat veteran Dovletdzhan Yagshimurado, but I doubt I was the only one who thought “who,” when he was announced as Corey Anderson’s first-round opponent? Yagshimuradov’s current eight-fight winning streak, with six finishes, is legit and should be held in high esteem. I respect the talent evaluators at Bellator, their decision to sign the Turkmenistan talent, and add him to this tournament. But how much better could this new grand prix have been if Gegard Mousasi was included? Especially, on the heels of soundly beating the best fighter in the promotion in welterweight champion Douglas Lima.

Considering the lack of depth at middleweight, and no obvious contender on the horizon, the current 185-pound champion should have been in this tournament. Coker did not mind freezing the light heavyweight, or lightweight titles while their champions competed in another division’s grand prix. Including the former Strikeforce 205-pound champion would have elevated the talent level and star power that much more. Matchups between “The Dreamcatcher” and Romero, Johnson, Anderson, or Bader would have been main event worthy scraps and bouts with immense storytelling potential. That was a miss.

Ryan Bader should have given up the belt

One of the more surprising developments from yesterday wasn’t that Bader was in the tournament, but he would compete while retaining his heavyweight championship. The former champ-champ holding on to his 205-pound title during the heavyweight grand prix drew the ire of some observers. At the time, the light heavyweight division lacked depth and clear contenders, so the decision seemed reasonable in an attempt to upgrade the talent pool in what was Bellator’s first grand prix. That’s not the case right now at heavyweight.

Cheick Kongo, Vitaly Minakov, Timothy Johnson, and Valentin Moldavsky all could make a case for a championship opportunity. Obviously, having another division’s champion in this tournament adds sizzle to the bracket. However, Mousasi could have been that added sizzle. Bellator could have still included Bader and then given “Darth” an immediate heavyweight title fight once his grand prix duties had been completed.

In an already star-studded tournament, Coker should have made the tough call, stripped Bader of the title, and showed love to the competitors that have put in the work to earn their title shot. If Bader wasn’t happy about that, then honoring his responsibilities as the defending champion should have been his next step. Bellator had the chance to end the trend of hurting one division’s title picture to elevate another’s grand prix. Unfortunately, the trend continues, and four talented big men have to hope Coker will seriously “consider” an interim title belt now, even though he’s not been a fan of the idea in the past.

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