The cream has risen to the top in the Bellator MMA heavyweight grand prix.
Former Pride Fighting Championships titleholder Fedor Emelianenko and reigning Bellator light heavyweight champion Ryan Bader punched -- quite literally -- their tickets to the tournament final in January and did so in resounding fashion roughly 24 hours apart.
Bader tortured Matt Mitrione across three rounds in the Bellator 207 main event on Friday at the Mohegan Sun Arena, posting a lopsided unanimous decision on the strength of repeated takedowns and punishing ground-and-pound. Mitrione was never a factor. Bader, 34, in his quest to become Bellator’s first simultaneous two-division champion, carried the cards with 30-25, 30-24 and 30-25 scores. He has won all four of his fights since he inked a free-agent deal with Bellator in 2017.
Meanwhile, Emelianenko withstood some early adversity to dispose of Chael Sonnen with punches in the first round of their Bellator 208 headliner on Saturday at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, New York. The 42-year-old Russian icon escaped full mount, assumed top position on Sonnen and cut loose with a volley of unanswered lefts. Despite repeated warnings from referee Dan Miragliotta, the onetime NCAA All-American wrestler failed to intelligently defend himself, necessitating the stoppage 4:46 into Round 1.
In the aftermath of Bellator 207 and Bellator 208, here are five matches that ought to be made:
Sergei Kharitonov vs. Cheick Kongo: Kharitonov blew off Roy Nelson’s doors in the Bellator 207 co-main event, as he cut down the notoriously durable former International Fight League champion with a volley of knees and uppercuts in the first round. In doing so, the 38-year-old Russian became just the third man -- Mark Hunt and Andrei Arlovski are the others -- to stop Nelson with strikes. In six appearances since his stunning knockout loss to Javy Ayala in November 2016, Kharitonov has gone 5-0 with one no-contest. Kongo knocked out Timothy Johnson with punches 68 seconds into the first round of their Bellator 208 encounter.
Lorenz Larkin vs. Andrey Koreshkov: Larkin at Bellator 207 distanced himself further from consecutive defeats to Douglas Lima and Paul Daley, as he carved up Ion Pascu with crisp punching combinations and leg kicks, withstood a late takedown from the Romanian and laid claim to a unanimous decision in a three-round alternate bout for the Bellator welterweight grand prix. All three cageside judges struck 29-28 scorecards in Larkin’s favor. Koreshkov last appeared at Bellator 206 on Sept. 29, when he was choked unconscious by the aforementioned Lima in the fifth round of their tournament quarterfinal. The setback snapped a modest two-fight winning streak for the Russian.
Benson Henderson vs. Patricky Freire: Employing his tactical advantages to predictable effect, Henderson cruised to a unanimous decision over Saad Awad in the Bellator 207 co-main event. Scores were 30-27, 30-26 and 30-26. Henderson executed takedowns in all three rounds, kept Awad guessing with a steady diet of kicks and threatened to finish it with an arm-triangle choke, not once but twice. Having recorded back-to-back wins for the first time since 2015, the former UFC and World Extreme Cagefighting champion has finally established some momentum in Bellator’s lightweight division. Freire last fought at Bellator 205, where he delivered a second-round knockout against Roger Huerta. “Pitbull” has rattled off four consecutive victories since his June 2016 defeat to Michael Chandler. Included in that run was a contentious split decision over Henderson a little more than a year ago.
Anatoly Tokov vs. Chris Honeycutt: A former Absolute Championship Berkut titleholder, Tokov took a major step forward in his progression with a unanimous decision over Alexander Shlemenko at Bellator 208. All three cageside judges scored it the same: 30-27 for Tokov, whose eye-popping 27-2 record now includes three straight wins under the Bellator banner. Honeycutt has not competed since he picked up a unanimous decision over Leo Leite at Bellator 202 on July 13. A two-time NCAA All-American wrestler at Edinboro University, the 30-year-old Brook Park, Ohio, native has compiled a 7-2 record since joining the Bellator roster in 2014.
Mandel Nallo vs. Adam Piccolotti: Nallo was the talk of the weekend, as the Tristar Gym prospect kept his perfect professional record intact and authored one of the year’s best knockouts at the expense of Carrington Banks at Bellator 207. A perfectly timed knee strike to the head short circuited Banks 57 seconds into Round 2 and moved the undefeated Nallo to 7-0 as a pro. All seven of his wins have come by knockout, technical knockout or submission. Operating out of the American Kickboxing Academy, Piccolotti last appeared at Bellator 206 in September, when he outpointed Strikeforce veteran James Terry across three rounds.