The Bellator MMA Heavyweight Tournament is well underway and we now know who our first two semi-finalists are. On one side of the bracket, we have the newly victorious Matt Mitrione. On the other side, we have the “American Gangster” Chael Sonnen. While each man waits to find out whom they will face next, the rest of us get to run wild speculating about how things will pan out.
On Sonnen’s side of the bracket, he awaits the winner of a matchup between former UFC heavyweight champ Frank Mir and the legendary PRIDE star, Fedor Emelianenko. These two are by far the most decorated competitors in the tournament and, at one time, a matchup between the two was something of a pipe dream for fight fans. Emelianenko is generally regarded the greatest heavyweight of all time, even though his better years are clearly behind him. While he is 6-4 in his last ten fights, he is coming into this tournament off a loss to the aforementioned Mitrione. That said, Emelianenko still might have the toughest opening round draw in the tournament. When we talk about him, we know what we are going to get – strong hips, good power, and an excellent top game. However, when we talk about Frank Mir, we have plenty of questions.
Frank Mir has reinvented himself a time or two during his career. He has gone from a submission specialist, to an excellent striker to, at one point, an above average wrestler. Mir has the ability to be any one of those or a good mix of all three. Unfortunately, he has two major problems. First, he has a weak chin. Of his eleven losses, eight of them have been by knockout. Secondly, he has proven to have motivational issues that can cause him to come into fights heavy and with bad cardio. We can only speculate to this point, but recent photos of Mir do not suggest he is currently “fight ready.” Because of all these variables, Emelianenko will have a difficult time planning for what version of Mir will show up come fight night. No matter which version of Mir shows up, one thing is guaranteed: he will have a significant size advantage over Emelianenko, who could easily fight at light heavyweight or even middleweight. Always considered vastly undersized in the division, Emelianenko was able to use his speed advantage to make up for this deficiency. He had an ability to spring forward with combinations and move out of range far too quickly for his opponents to capitalize on his range. Add to that excellent power and many of his opponents ended up on the ground before they could answer his attacks. But that is all in past. Emelianenko is now 41 years old and his speed has faded. When your game is built around speed, age will always win out.
What Sonnen wants: In all likelihood, Sonnen is pulling for a Fedor victory here. Fedor has proven beatable over the last few years and Sonnen has the skills to out-wrestle Emelianenko, who has looked average on his back at times. Mir could prove more dangerous thanks to his excellent submission skills and legitimate heavyweight power.
Shifting to Mitrione’s side of the bracket, we have the tournament favorite, Ryan Bader, taking on the tournament wildcard, Muhammed “King Mo” Lawal. Mitrione’s recent victory over Roy Nelson at Bellator 194 left every wrestler in this tournament salivating at the prospect of being matched up against him. While Mitrione looked good on the feet, his takedown defense was not spectacular as Nelson was able to get Mitrione to the canvas in all three rounds. Nelson actually controlled the action while in top position rather easily and by the time the third round ended, Mitrione was visibly exhausted as he laid on his back long after the bell had rung. Both future opponents for Mitrione are excellent wrestlers but only one of them has the size to matchup with him and that is Ryan Bader. Both Mitrione and Bader are 6’ 2” and each weigh in between 230-255 lbs. More importantly though, is Bader’s wrestling background. A Division-I wrestler at Arizona State University, Bader won three Pac-10 wrestling titles and was also a two time All-American. Add to that clean boxing and real knockout power (9 of Bader’s wins have come by KO) and you have a fighter who will be a handful not only for “King Mo” but also for Mitrione.
Muhammed Lawal is a true underdog in this tournament. Relatively undersized at 5’ 11”, Lawal will be forced to face much larger opposition. He does have heavy hands. Thirteen of his twenty-one wins are knockouts and he will gladly remind you of that. Beyond his striking power, he is also a former Division-II national champion wrestler and onetime Olympic hopeful. Even considering those things, it is hard to look past his size and his striking style. Lawal often carries his hands cartoonishly low and invites his competitors to come forward so he can counter punch them. While this strategy has worked for Lawal in the past, it will be a dangerous proposition against fighters in the heavyweight division. In this matchup with Bader, who has fast hands and power, Lawal will need to been sharp with his hands and successful with his takedown defense if he wants to come out victorious. Odds makers have “King Mo” as anywhere from a +250 to +275 underdog in this one; don’t be surprised if this line shifts even further.
What Mitrione wants: Mitrione is more than likely pulling for Lawal. He would be far more likely to get a standup fight out of Lawal than he would Bader. After his fight with Roy Nelson, there is no chance he wants to go up against a big, strong wrestler like Bader.
The obligatory Chael Sonnen can still win it section: After seeing Mitrione struggle with his wrestling defense and ability to get back to his feet, Sonnen must be giddy at the potential of facing Mitrione in the final. As I have said before, Sonnen making it to the final is VERY possible. Should he face Fedor Emelianenko in the next round, he will have his hands full, but it is a winnable matchup. The rest, however, is up to Mitrione and his impending foe.