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The Bellator MMA welterweight grand prix on Saturday will hit the island of Hawaii, as Neiman Gracie meets three-time NCAA wrestling champion Ed Ruth in the tournament quarterfinals at Bellator 213 in Honolulu. The winner advances to face either Jon Fitch or reigning Bellator welterweight champion Rory MacDonald in the semifinals.
While Gracie has never been viewed as one of the favorites, he believes he belongs.
“I feel I am one of the top welterweight fighters in Bellator, and I should be in [the grand prix],” he told Sherdog.com. “I was very excited [when Ruth was announced as my opponent]. I think he is a big name, and I think everybody in this tournament is a big name. It’s going to be a tough fight. I really like the matchup, and I can’t wait.”
The 29-year-old nephew of two-time Abu Dhabi Combat Club Submission Wrestling World Championships gold medalist Renzo Gracie has enjoyed a successful run in Bellator thus far. Gracie has gone 6-0 with five submissions since joining the roster a little less than four years ago. He views his March 2016 decision win over journeyman Roger Carroll as a learning experience.
“I couldn’t finish him because he wasn’t really trying to win the fight [or trying to] escape from my moves,” Gracie said. “When you fight a guy that really doesn’t want to get out from your moves, it’s kind of hard to finish them.”
It remains a noteworthy experience ahead of his clash with Ruth, a high-level grappler who figures to lean heavily in his wrestling skills. He could conceivably play it safe against Gracie while attempting to ride out rounds.
“I’ve prepared for that, so I have a couple of tricks up my sleeve to avoid that,” Gracie said. “Of course, I will be trying to finish all the time. I like to finish fights.”
The undefeated welterweight has the good fortune of training with a variety of world-class competitors at the Renzo Gracie Academy in New York, where he serves as a Brazilian jiu-jitsu instructor. The list includes for Strikeforce and EliteXC champion Jake Shields, one of the best ever at blending together wrestling and jiu-jitsu. In Shields, Gracie has access to an invaluable resource.
“I train with Jake a lot,” he said. “I train with him almost every day.”
If Gracie cannot find a path to victory on the mat, he has no qualms about returning to his feet and engaging Ruth with strikes.
“Of course, I want to go to the floor. That’s not a surprise -- everybody knows it -- but if it has to be standing, I have no problem with that,” he said. “I am ready to do a standup fight for five rounds.”
Confidence has grown out of the strides Gracie has made while working with muay Thai instructor Jamie Crowder. He claims to have put in many rounds learning the art while integrating boxing to add even more dept to his attack.
“I’ve been doing standup for a long time, and I feel great and I’ve improved a lot over the years,” said Gracie before conceding that he understands where the fight favors him most. “I hope he tries to take me down [and] go to the floor with me.”
If Gracie emerges victorious at Bellator 213, he will fight for the promotion’s welterweight crown. Landing in this side of the bracket ensures that the Grace-Ruth winner will face either MacDonald or Fitch for the 170-pound title in the tournament semifinals. That reality raises the stakes for all involved.
“That gives me extra [motivation] to win this fight, because I know the belt is very close,” Gracie said. “I can’t wait.”
Some have questioned whether or not Gracie is fully prepared to compete at this level. While he has rattled off eight straight victories to start his career, his eight opponents have 59 losses between them. Gracie has no doubts regarding his place as one of Bellator’s best and brightest at 170 pounds.
“I know people might think it’s kind of early, but I’m ready for it,” he said. “I’ve been dreaming of that moment since I started fighting, and I’m more than ready to do it.”