Neil Grove wants a second crack at Bellator champion Cole Konrad. | Photo: Dave Mandel
He may lack the Adonis physique some have come to expect from their elite athletes, but Bellator Fighting Championships heavyweight titleholder Cole Konrad gets the job done.
The 27-year-old Appleton, Wis., native was a two-time NCAA wrestling champion at the University of Minnesota, where he compiled a 155-13 record and closed out his collegiate career with 76 consecutive victories. Nicknamed “The Polar Bear,” Konrad has made a seamless transition to mixed martial arts, having compiled a perfect 8-0 mark since his January 2010 professional debut. The 6-foot-5, 265-pound behemoth roared through Bellator’s Season 3 heavyweight tournament, with successive victories over Rogent Lloret, Damian Grabowski and UFC veteran Neil Grove.
Though Konrad has yet to defend the championship he won in the tournament, he appeared in a non-title matchup with the seasoned Paul Buentello at Belltor 48 in August. He excelled in that role, as well, and surprised virtually everyone by outstriking the former UFC heavyweight contender en route to a unanimous decision.
Konrad now waits for the first threat to his throne to emerge from Bellator’s Season 5 heavyweight tournament. It kicks off at Bellator 52 on Saturday at the L’Auberge du Lac Casino and Resort in Lake Charles, La, where all four tournament quarterfinals will unfold: Grove vs. Mike Hayes, Ron Sparks vs. Mark Holata, Thiago Santos vs. Blagoi Ivanov and Abe Wagner vs. Eric Prindle. The winner of the eight-man draw receives a $100,000 payday and a crack at Konrad.
Well supplied with interesting storylines, tournament drama and compelling talent, here is what to watch for at Bellator 51:
Goliath’s Last Stand
Grove turns 40 in January. Still an imposing physical specimen at 6-foot-6, 265 pounds, the man they call “Goliath” has compiled a 4-1-1 mark since being released by the Ultimate Fighting Championship following his submission loss to Mike Ciesnolevicz at UFC 95 in February 2009. Grove reached the final of Bellator’s Season 3 tournament, only to be turned away by a Konrad keylock, his one-punch knockout power short-circuited by the decorated wrestler. The South African now returns to finish what he started in what has to be viewed as a last hurrah in major mixed martial arts. Grove faces Hayes, a Strikeforce veteran who has never been finished, in the tournament quarterfinals.
Ivanov made international waves in 2008, when he took gold at the Sambo World Championships and defeated MMA legend Fedor Emelianenko in the process. He was immediately cast, fairly or unfairly, as a can’t-miss prospect.
Three years later, the 24-year-old Bulgarian has yet to fulfill the promise so many predicted for him in their rush to anoint. Ivanov remains undefeated in four professional outings, but his MMA action has been sporadic at best. He has yet to fight more than twice in a calendar year. Ivanov made his promotional debut at Bellator 38 in March, stopping William Penn on punches inside three minutes. His path figures to steepen in the tournament quarterfinals, as he locks horns with once-beaten Brazilian Thiago Santos.
At 31, Wagner has endured a life and career marked by highs and unimaginable lows. As a child, he was subjected to physical abuse from his father and placed in foster care. Wagner escaped that hell to make something of himself, earning a Mechanical Engineering degree from Michigan Tech, where he also starred as a linebacker on the football team. He entered the mixed martial arts talent pipeline in 2006 and was cast on Season 10 of “The Ultimate Fighter” three years later, alongside, among others, Kimbo Slice. However, Wagner was quickly eliminated by Jon Madsen in one of the bloodiest fights in the reality show’s history. He resurfaced in January, when he knocked out two-time UFC heavyweight champion Tim Sylvia in a little more than half a minute. Can the “Hurricane” match his considerable physical tools with the consistency required to win a tournament?
Aged to Perfection
Late bloomers have always had a place at the MMA table. Sparks, 36, hopes there is still room for him. Unbeaten in seven professional appearances, the muscular 6-foot-5, 255-pound Louisville, Ky., native has carved through two Bellator opponents -- Gregory Maynard and Vince Lucero -- in a little more than three combined minutes. Sparks will be confronted by a far more accomplished foe in his tournament quarterfinal, as he squares off with Mark Holata, a hefty Oklahoman who already holds wins over American Top Team’s Carmelo Marrero and Strikeforce veteran Shawn Jordan. Moreover, Holata will enter the cage with plenty of momentum, having rattled off eight consecutive victories.
As has been the case with a number of Bellator events, the undercard features the debut of an intriguing prospect. Accomplished muay Thai practitioner Cosmo Alexandre will try his hand -- and his feet, knees and elbows -- at mixed martial arts for the first time at Bellator 52, as he meets Josh Quayhagen in a lightweight matchup. The 29-year-old Alexandre, a product of Mike’s Gym in Holland, competed for roughly a decade in the standup arts.