Muhammed “King Mo” Lawal is viewed as the odds-on favorite. | Photo: Keith Mills/Sherdog.com
Bellator MMA’s eighth seasons rolls on this Thursday from the Maverik Center in Salt Lake City. Featuring the delayed Season 7 featherweight final, in addition to a handful of Season 8 tournament matchups, the Bellator 90 main draw airs live on Spike TV following the Spike.com-streamed prelims.
Here is what to watch for:
I recently had a conversation with Muhammed Lawal, wherein I asked him about everything from last year’s horrible staph infection that threatened his life to his most recent performance -- a dominant first-round knockout over Przemyslaw Mysiala in the light heavyweight tournament quarterfinals.
While keeping tabs on the Twitter-verse is arguably the lamest part of being a sportswriter, I nevertheless felt I had an obligation to inform “King Mo” that some folks on the Internet seemed to think he looked a little too cocksure in holding his hands so low against the overmatched Pole. I could tell Lawal was tired of answering questions about the ambiguous pressure to which every reporter under the sun continues to refer, so I decided to probe a little deeper, giving Lawal my approximation as to why that question kept flying at him from all angles.
Lawal is Bellator’s crown jewel -- a lone star thrown into a light heavyweight division totally devoid of them. Ask a selection of fans to name their favorite Bellator fighter, and I will guarantee you that not one of them names a light heavyweight other than Lawal. Put simply, we know he is supposed to win this thing. The Bellator and Viacom suits know it, and so do the fans and media.
Disdain, I think, would be a good word to describe what came next. Lawal launched into a well-articulated defense with a little attitude dropped on top like sprinkles on a sundae. He went on to describe the fight in detail, nearly breaking it down minute-by-minute while explaining exactly how, when and why he was attacking his opponent. He even addressed the issue of his low defense -- he was using the shoulder roll, which, of course, is a trademark of Floyd Mayweather Jr. Perhaps most impressively, Lawal told me how he had made the effort to scout Mysiala, claiming he was familiar with his whole career. This, about a man few Bellator fans had even seen before.
The point is, Lawal is confident dude, but he is also a student of the game, perhaps more so than anybody else in his profession. I do not believe the names in the tournament matter to him, and that probably makes him doubly dangerous. I, for one, am excited to see how he performs in the semifinals against former Maximum Fighting Championship titleholder Emanuel Newton.
Shamhalaev the Spoiler
I know a lot of people are probably looking past Shahbulat Shamhalaev, and I cannot begin to tell you how stupid that is.
Why is it that Dagestani fighters are the only ones that compel me to talk about them like an out-of-breath Michael Biehn talks about the Terminator? It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity or remorse or fear, and it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.
While some closest to me have hinted that I might be prone to a bit of exaggeration from time to time, I nonetheless have a wealth of evidence to back up my stance that Shamhalaev is a legit threat to upset Rad Martinez in the Season 7 featherweight tournament final.
Exhibit A: the 29-year-old’s cruel, systematic breaking of Cody Bollinger. Much like fellow Dagestani talent Magomedrasul Khasbulaev, Shamhalaev’s ground-and-pound is a thing of pure beauty. Alternating between jackhammer blows to the guts and clubbing shots to the skull while displaying zero respect for the American’s active guard game, the “Assassin” gradually dismantled Bollinger’s will before earning a technical knockout in the quarterfinals.
If that is not enough for you to reconsider Martinez as a shoo-in, look no further than Shamhalaev’s semifinal performance against Mike Richman for proof of the featherweight’s dangerous tendencies. That is what you call one-punch knockout power, folks. In my estimation, Richman is one of Bellator’s most efficient, entertaining strikers, and I did not expect to see him hit the canvas like that. Shamhalaev’s crushing right hand should be held in high regard. Disrespect his power, and you are going to sleep.
Happily Ever After
Were Martinez to best Shamhalaev and win that $100,000 payday to go along with a guaranteed title shot, it would undoubtedly serve as a compelling conclusion to the Season 7 featherweight draw.
For those who are unaware, Martinez’s father is a paraplegic, and Martinez has served as his primary caretaker since the passing of the fighter’s grandmother. As exhibited in the featherweight’s “Outside the Lines” vignette on ESPN, Martinez has battled to maximize his potential as a mixed martial artist while simultaneously providing his father with full-time care.
Now facing the most important fight of his career, the West Jordan, Utah, native stands one victory away from a life-changing paycheck and a shot at Pat Curran’s featherweight belt. For all the reasons previously listed, beating Shamhalaev will not be easy. Martinez needs to be active with his jab and ever-ready to defend the takedowns of a man willing to eat as many shots as he needs to in order to break you down mentally. The American will undoubtedly be the larger competitor on fight night, and he should use his size to avoid brawling with the “Assassin.”
If Martinez can put Shamhalaev on the end of his solid one-two and keep the Russian off of any takedowns, he could be riding home with the biggest win of his career.