Tito Ortiz made a splash in his Bellator debut. | Photo: Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com
Although Bellator MMA President Scott Coker and company have been running the organization for the last several months, this is the first card on which we can really see the former Strikeforce promoter’s fingerprints. In concert with matchmaker Rich Chou, Coker has re-drawn the promotion’s battle lines, with an attention-grabbing headliner, a fantastic lightweight title fight and a number of action fights further down the card. If this sounds familiar, it is because this is essentially the same formula that built Strikeforce into a consistently fun and exciting organization that was almost always worth the price of admission.
In the feature attraction, former Ultimate Fighting Championship light heavyweight titleholder Tito Ortiz takes on “The Ultimate Fighter 1” finalist Stephan Bonnar in a kinda-sorta-but-not-really grudge match. The real main event, at least in terms of the skill and ranking of the competitors, is surely the lightweight title rematch between Michael Chandler and Will Brooks, as they attempt to build on their fantastic and controversial first meeting in May. The card also features a matchup between Melvin Manhoef and Glory middleweight kickboxer Joe Schilling, along with organizational staples Muhammed Lawal and Mike Richman.
This should be a wild, entertaining card that is well worth the viewer’s time. Let us take a closer look at Bellator 131:
LIGHT HEAVYWEIGHTSTito Ortiz (17-11-1, 1-0 Bellator) vs. Stephan Bonnar (15-8, 0-0 Bellator)
THE MATCHUP: While this fight lacks the shine it might have had in 2006, or even 2010, it is still a fun and somewhat interesting pairing between two veterans and borderline legends of the sport. Ortiz bought himself a bit more relevance with his submission win over former Bellator middleweight champion Alexander Shlemenko in May. Bonnar has not competed since his defeat at the hands of Anderson Silva in October 2012, but prior to that drubbing, “The American Psycho” had compiled three consecutive wins against decent competition.
Is Ortiz the fighter he once was? No, his once-substantial physical gifts have declined, leaving him slower, less flexible and with substantially less explosion and drive on his powerful takedown. To his credit, however, Ortiz has more or less adapted to these physical deficits. He is more inclined to work control in the clinch after failed takedown attempts, for example, and he can grind away with knees and pressure against the fence. Nobody will confuse him with a Glory competitor, but he is a decent kickboxer with a solid technical arsenal of punching combinations and kicks, and he even possesses a little countering ability.
His defense is not good and his lessened speed renders him even more hittable than he used to be, but that is not exactly a surprising development. As always, though, the core of Ortiz’s game remains wrestling and work from top position. His takedowns are not as authoritative as they were, but he remains beastly strong when he gets his hands on his opponent. If he manages to get on top, watch out, because he can still unload vicious ground strikes, pass quickly and work the occasional topside submission, all the while maintaining strong, dynamic control.
While Bonnar is best known for his aggressive, devil-may-care striking style, he is actually a well-rounded fighter with a full arsenal of takedowns, grappling skills and work in the clinch. He is at his best when he pressures, stalking and pushing his opponent toward the fence, where he can unload with flurries of punches and dive into tie-ups when the inevitable counter shots start to fly in his direction. His control in the clinch is suffocating and powerful, and he can grind away with knees and elbows while working the occasional sneaky trip or throw against all but the very best infighters. His top control, the product of a grappling game honed under the late, great Carlson Gracie, is stifling if not exceptionally dangerous and offers another path to victory. Defense always has been Bonnar’s biggest problem, as he has a tendency to leave his head motionless as he stalks and when he throws, leaving him incredibly vulnerable to counter shots; this is an endemic weakness in his game and something he has never really tried to fix.
THE PICK: Given Bonnar’s long layoff and both fighters’ advanced ages, it is hard to tell what they will look like when they step into the cage. If their recent performances are anything to go by, however, the fight favors Ortiz; while he is slower and more hittable, Bonnar lacks the one-shot, go-to-sleep power to really test Ortiz’s chin. Moreover, Bonnar’s takedown defense has never been impenetrable, and if Ortiz gets ahold of him -- and there is every reason to think he will -- “The American Psycho” will end up on the mat sooner rather than later. Ortiz’s work from top position is still punishing, and I think that will carry him to a unanimous decision.
Next Fight » Will Brooks vs. Michael Chandler