Michael Chandler has emerged as one of Bellator’s top stars. | Photo: Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com
Bellator MMA returns to Spike TV on Wednesday with a stacked card from the Santa Ana Star Center in Rio Rancho, N.M. The event will feature two world title defenses, as well as two Summer Series tournament finals.
Here is what to watch for at Bellator 97:
The Champion and ‘The Caveman’
Do you really need some dude with a bachelor’s degree sitting behind a keyboard to tell you to watch Michael Chandler? You should be doing that already, fool.
Pound-for-pound, Chandler might be the best fighter on Bellator’s roster. The former University of Missouri wrestling standout has seen his standup attack and submission defense improve with every fight, to say nothing of his top-shelf athleticism and explosion. Chandler has clearly established himself as the division’s alpha dog, choking out Eddie Alvarez to win the Bellator title before doing the same thing to Rick Hawn to retain the belt.
David Rickels presents an interesting challenge for Chandler, because I do not consider “The Caveman” to be a frontrunner like the champion’s aforementioned competition. Rickels is a scrapper who has no problem mixing it up in the pocket. Slowing down Chandler will be a monumental undertaking, but I am fired up to see if Rickels can drag him into a brawl.
I think Ben Askren is about to put on another stellar performance.
No disrespect intended toward Andrey Koreshkov, but “Funky” seems to be developing a mean streak. As I see it, this constitutes bad news for the rest of the division.
Askren’s last two fights have been assaults, with the two-time NCAA wrestling champion dragging Douglas Lima and Karl Amoussou to the mat before punishing each of them with ground-and-pound. Though Askren had previously been criticized for his grinding top game, “Funky” left little doubt that he has been working diligently on dealing out damage. The Amoussou result was particularly impressive, as he gradually altered his opponent’s cocky attitude with a steady stream of blunt force trauma en route to a third-round doctor’s stoppage.
On paper, I cannot see Koreshkov offering much that Lima and Amoussou did not, but I have certainly been wrong before. Can the unbeaten Russian score an upset?
It should be Muhammed Lawal’s time to shine.
This is by no means a guarantee, as Jacob Noe is certainly capable of winning this light heavyweight tournament final if Lawal takes him lightly or slips up. With that said, I do not foresee either one of those possibilities actually playing out, since Lawal appears to be mentally geared up for this fight -- both because of his unceremonious exit from the Season 8 tournament and his genuine bad blood with Noe.
With a victory over his fellow Tennessean, Lawal will maneuver his way into a shot at the winner of Emanuel Newton’s to-be-announced clash with reigning champion Attila Vegh. Can “King Mo” take care of his business and secure a crack at the Bellator belt?
Heavy Man, Heavy Hands
Bellator’s heavyweight division may not be the best, but Ryan Martinez sure can hurt people when he wants to.
The 5-foot-11, 264-pound heavyweight showed flashes of his ability as a member of the short-lived ProElite roster, as he shucked off takedowns from former NCAA wrestling champion Mark Ellis while making him pay standing. Martinez debuted in Bellator with a split decision loss to Mike Wessel but has since gone 3-0, posting an 18-second knockout over veteran Travis Wiuff in March before punching out Rich Hale as a last-minute injury replacement for Vinicius Kappke de Queiroz in the Summer Series tournament semis.
Now paired with unbeaten Sambo practitioner Vitaly Minakov, Martinez hopes to extend his promotional winning streak to four fights and earn a crack at heavyweight champion Alexander Volkov. Can the southpaw use those fast hands to put Minakov on his heels or will the Russian close the distance and maul him on the inside?