Michael Chandler will defend his lightweight crown for the first time at Bellator 85. | Photo: Keith Mills
Oh, how the time flies. It seems like just yesterday that we were snickering like schoolgirls behind Viacom’s back, making “Nitro Circus” jokes under our breath and pointing out how, despite it no longer being 1999, MTV2 still saw fit to present its content in standard definition.
Well, kids, Viacom’s back is no longer turned. That big, smooth, media man-glomerate is looking right at us, and his eyes are asking, “How ’bout you bring your pretty little self over to my apartment tonight and we watch some highly trained professional athletes attempt to harm each other in crystal clear HD?”
Enticing, right? Almost makes you want to take back all those MTV2 jokes -- until you realize Bellator Fighting Championships’ move to Spike TV will provide us with arguably even more opportunities to poke fun at the cutest -- and richest -- boy in school. Sorry, Viacom, we just cannot go steady until I get all of the “1,000 Ways to Die” jokes out of my system. I will, however, accept your incorrigible advances while enjoying Bellator 85 on Thursday at the UCI Bren Events Center in Irvine, Calif.
While there are many reasons to tune in for the first installment of what should be an exciting shift in quality for Bjorn Rebney’s Baby Bella, the top two fights on the card are obviously the filet mignon and lobster on that plate. Out of respect for their top billing, let us first examine Michael Chandler and Rick Hawn, who will do battle over the promotion’s lightweight title.
Pound-for-pound, Chandler might just be Bellator’s finest fighter. Unfortunately for MMA fans, Bellator’s continually restrictive tournament format has prevented the hard-punching wrestler from defending his title since wresting the belt from around the waist of Eddie Alvarez nearly 14 months ago. Still, Chandler managed to keep his fists warm last year thanks to a May 4 squash match against gravely overmatched veteran Akihiro Gono. As expected, Chandler steamrolled the Japanese talent, notching a 56-second knockout and sending Gono into retirement.
Few believe he will have such an easy time against Hawn, an Olympic judoka who wields his right hand like a smaller, balder Dan Henderson. Much like his foe, Hawn has shown elite strength and punching power since dropping to lightweight, winning Bellator’s Season 6 tournament by nuking Ricardo Tirloni and Lloyd Woodard before outpointing Brent Weedman in the final. Will Hawn find a home for that explosive overhand or will he instead find himself continually on the defensive thanks to Chandler’s linear punching and excellent takedowns?
The title clash between Chandler and Hawn might be the best reason to flip to Spike TV, but it is by no means the only one. Here is what else to watch for at Bellator 85:
Curran’s ‘Pitbull’ Problem
If Chandler is not Bellator’s best, Curran probably is. The featherweight has made mincemeat of his new division since his failed run at a 155-pound title then held by Alvarez. For proof of Curran’s merit, look no further than his performance in the 2012 Summer Series, where he showed off superior submission skills by tapping Luis Palomino with a Peruvian necktie before putting his excellent timing on full display in a 15-minute decision over Ronnie Mann. Violent knockouts of Marlon Sandro and Joe Warren sealed the deal: Curran has thus far proved to be head and shoulders above the rest of the featherweight field.
Will Curran be able to prove it to Patricio “Pitbull” Freire? He is rightfully considered by many to be the greatest threat to dethrone the American and has yet to be dealt a clean loss in the Bellator cage. No disrespect intended toward Warren’s come-from-behind split decision victory over Freire in the Season 2 tournament final, but most folks I know scored that fight a draw.
In spite of that questionable decision defeat, Freire reemerged in Season 4 with a vengeance, putting nasty finishes on Georgi Karakhanyan and Wilson Reis before outpointing the sturdy Daniel Straus to earn another shot at “The Baddest Man on the Planet” and the Bellator belt. However, a broken hand sustained in training ultimately prevented the rematch, and Curran instead seized the opportunity and snatched away Warren’s title.
With Freire now returning to competition for the first time in roughly 20 months, can “Pitbull” shake off the ring rust and use his trademark aggression to cause Curran problems?
Light Heavyweight Tossup
God bless Bellator staff members, but they have had their work cut out for them in booking that light heavyweight division, have they not?
The situation appears to be on the mend, however, as the promotion has smartly acquired a few recognizable names to bring a little star power to its weakest weight class. Cue Muhammed Lawal’s walkout music, please.
Most regard “King Mo” as the odds-on favorite to cruise through the Season 8 tournament, and for good reason. The former Strikeforce champion hits like a truck and should hold distinct advantages in the wrestling and athleticism departments over everyone else in the field, even after recovering from a serious staph infection that threatened his life last year.
However, just because Lawal should win the tournament does not mean he will. UFC veterans Renato Sobral and Seth Petruzelli will both throw their hats into the ring at Bellator 85, as will ex-Maximum Fighting Championship kingpin Emanuel Newton and former M-1 Global title challenger Mikhail Zayats. All four men -- each of them accomplished in their own right -- should enter the tournament quarterfinals with something to prove after being cast by many as eventual fodder for Lawal’s seemingly preordained title run. The same should hold true for Jacob Noe and Atanas Djambazov, who both have a chance to emerge from obscurity and make names for themselves on a world stage. Who will present the strongest case to be the tournament dark horse?