When the bracket for the Bellator World Grand Prix to crown a new heavyweight champion was unveiled in 2017, it was understandable if you thought a more fitting title was Bellator’s Greatest Hits. However, the final matchup fans will see at Bellator 214 on Saturday, Jan. 26, will end up being the greatest hit of all.
The bracket was stacked throughout with the most recognizable names in mixed martial arts, including – but not limited to – Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Frank Mir, Chael Sonnen, Roy Nelson and the widely-considered greatest heavyweight fighter ever, Fedor Emelianenko. That’s not even counting other competitors like Muhammad “King Mo” Lawal, Matt Mitrione and current Bellator light heavyweight champion Ryan Bader.
With the way the bracket was configured and how the matchups came together, fans were promised an entertaining Grand Prix to crown a new champion. The possibilities were endless: Perhaps a never-before-seen matchup of Mir against Lawal. Or maybe a good old-fashioned slugfest between Jackson and Nelson. It was possible fans might witness a wrestling clinic between Sonnen and Bader for the vacant Bellator heavyweight title, or even a rematch between Fedor and Mitrione of their epic one-round firefight at Bellator’s first card in New York City in 2017.
But two men clearly stood out among the rest, and they are meeting in this Saturday’s final in the most interesting fight fans could have hoped for. Bader will have the opportunity to join some of his former contemporaries in the UFC and add the “champ champ” label to his career when he faces Fedor for the heavyweight title.
Bader’s career was reborn after he joined Bellator in 2017. He won the light heavyweight title in his very first fight for the organization at Madison Square Garden. He defended it in dominant fashion against Linton Vassell, then only needed 15 seconds to knock out Lawal in his first Grand Prix bout before thoroughly outworking Mitrione to get his shot at a second title.
Bader followed the lead of other fighters like Benson Henderson and Phil Davis in jumping ship to Bellator, and it was the best move he could have made. His UFC career stagnated and he was never able to sniff a title shot, despite defeating some well-known names like Keith Jardine, Rashad Evans, Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, “Rampage” Jackson and his first opponent in Bellator, Davis.
Fedor’s career really needs no explanation. If he isn’t the greatest MMA fighter ever, he is certainly the most decorated. He has faced and beaten some of the most legendary names in the industry – names like Mirko Cro Cop, Wanderlei Silva, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Gary Goodridge, Mark Coleman, Kevin Randleman, Mark Hunt and Andrei Arlovski.
Since returning from a brief retirement in 2015, outside of a first-round knockout loss to Mitrione in his Bellator debut (when it should be noted that Fedor almost knocked out Mitrione first), Fedor is undefeated and has looked like the dominant Fedor of old in his two Grand Prix bouts. He needed barely more than five minutes total to finish Mir and Sonnen and looks primed to resume his mantle that coincides with his nickname – “The Last Emperor” – even if it remains to be seen how long his reign would be:
Although Bader’s background is in wrestling and his ground-and-pound is among the best, he has clearly become more reliant on his power and increasingly looks to win via knockout. If Bader wants to become a double champion in Bellator, it might behoove him to go back to his roots and try to take Fedor down. Even though Fedor has 17 submission wins on his resume and comes from a Sambo background, his two Grand Prix wins and even his defeat by Mitrione showed that he is more than willing to stand and trade and still has possibly the hardest-hitting hands in MMA.
Ultimately, the final matchup of Fedor and Bader is the best choice to top off the Bellator World Grand Prix. If Bader defeats Fedor, I think he immediately enters the discussion for pound-for-pound best in the world as a double champion. If Fedor adds yet another world title to his legacy, it cements his status as the greatest fighter of all time. Even though Bader isn’t exactly a young man in the fight game (he’s 35), it still feels, in a way, like his fight against Fedor is a contest of Young vs. Old.
Fedor is 42 years old and has been fighting professionally for the last 19 years. While it isn’t as distinct a generational matchup as we’ve seen in other sports lately – most notably the battle between Patrick Mahomes and Tom Brady in the AFC championship game last weekend – I think a Bader victory represents a feather in the cap for the current MMA crop against the old guard.
If you want to see MMA at its best, this Grand Prix finale with two of the best heavyweights around is one not to be missed.
Photo Credit: Sporting News