Bellator's Summer Series returns this Wednesday, featuring four-man tournaments in the Heavyweight, Light Heavyweight, and Bantamweight classes. Later this Summer we'll see previous tournament winners attempt to unseat the two most dominant title-holders of their era, Lightweight champion Michael Chandler and Welterweight champion Ben Askren.
But first, we have this Wednesday live event featuring the opening round of the Light Heavyweight tournament. It's an important card, and not just for establishing potential contenders. Three fighters in particular find themselves in make or break situations, making this one of the most (if not the most) important nights of their careers.
MUHAMMAD "KING MO" LAWAL
Last season Mo made the fatal mistake of underestimating the eventual Light Heavyweight Tournament champion, Emanuel Newton. He was far from the only one, given the long odds on the fight and consensus from analysts, experts, and even Spike.com's own editorial staff.
What's past is past, but the loss has taken Mo from a man destined to be champion to a fighter with an uncertain path. On Wednesday he faces Seth Petruzelli, a man known best for dethroning and exposing Kimbo Slice on network television. Although Mo has more experience on the big stage and is a more skilled fighter, he still has to be careful here.
Hopefully his loss to Newton didn't derail the train so much as adjust its course. Mo has the skill, power, conditioning, and intelligence to be considered among the best fighters in the world at 205. This Wednesday he has the chance to prove he's the fighter we all think he is.
RENATO "BABALU" SOBRAL
Babalu rose to fame just when MMA was breaking into the mainstream. A jiu-jitsu ace with a boatload of charisma, he built his reputation on fighting the best the sport had to offer in his weight class.
Last season's Light Heavyweight tournament saw taking an early exit at the hands of eventual finalist Mikhail Zayats. Zayats is legit and there's absolutely no shame in having him in your loss column, but that column's getting pretty stacked these days. He's now lost three of his last five and finds himself at a crossroads.
Wednesday's fight against Jacob Noe could go a long way towards establishing that Babalu is still relevant in the modern scene and silence critics who view him as a relic from a previous era.
The man formerly known as Jon Koppenhaver is getting a new lease on life, but it could prove to be a baptism of fire. He's making his Bellator debut against a WEC veteran after a nineteen month layoff that included a year in jail.
War Machine is a passionate and talented fighter, but turmoil in his personal life has gotten in the way of glory in the cage. Even though this fight is a non-tournament bout, the stakes couldn't be higher. He has to overcome not only his opponent, but a long layoff and critics who expect him to fold under pressure.
For a guy who's been through so much in his life, this is a golden opportunity and a chance to turn everything around. Here's hoping he's able to take full advantage of it.
All three fighters are fighting for redemption, but this card wasnt put together with that theme in mind. It could be called coincidence, but it's also the nature of the sport.
In fighting, every fight isn't just a battle, it's a war. The opponent isn't necessarily the man on the other side of the cage. The war, instead, is waged against things like anxiety, fear, uncertainty, and inner strength. The test isn't just overcoming another fighter, but rising to the occasion in a high-pressure situation.
MMA isn't like other sports where if you lose, you can make up for it tomorrow, or in two days, or next week. And in Bellator MMA, you don't get an opportunity to win the championship with anything resembling a losing record.
Losing a fight doesn't mean the end of a career, but it does make every fight after that much harder. That's what makes Bellator MMA the toughest tournament in a sport with high stakes that already demands everything from its athletes.
To see who makes the cut, tune in to the first installment of the Bellator Summer Series, starting at 8/7c, followed by the premiere of the highly anticipated Fight Master Bellator MMA at 10/9c.