Mar. 28 Preview and Predictions
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This week: We're nearing the end of Bellator's spectacular debut season on Spike with the Lightweight and Light Heavyweight tournament finals. David Rickels has grinded his way through a tough tournament, but he'll have his hands full with upstart knockout artist Saad Awad. "The Hardcore Kid" Emanuel Newton stomped and moshed his way to the finals after upsetting early tournament favorite King Mo in the opening round, but will his Cinderella story come to an end at the hands of the very dangerous and multi-faceted Sambo and BJJ expert Mikhail Zayats?
Spike.com's Editorial Staff has their thoughts on both fights plus the special non-tournament bouts.
SEASON EIGHT LIGHTWEIGHT TOURNAMENT FINALS
Saad Awad vs. David Rickels
Kevin Marshall (Writer): I have to give credit to David Rickels, who I have literally picked against every single time he's fought in this tournament. He's on a roll, but Awad has been a beast and a real eye-opener. Rickels has never been finished in his career, but neither had Will Brooks until he ran into him in the semis. Each of Rickels last four fights have gone to a decision, which isn't for want of trying, but is a dangerous thing to do against a guy that's good on his feet. I'm going with Awad with a third round knockout.
Brian Dermody (Senior Sports Writer): When we previewed the tournament finals a couple weeks ago, I basically said everything I needed to say about this fight. I'm not moving off my pick of Rickels by decision.
Fred Richani (Coordinating Producer): While it's incredibly hard to pick against Rickels, I have to go with the hot hand (or fists) of Awad, who has been on a major roll. Awad was a relative unknown before replacing injured pre-season favorite Patricky Pitbull in the Lightweight Tournament and now finds himself in the finals following two straight knockout wins. The risk of Rickels taking Awad to rounds two and three is present, but there's something to be said for Awad, who has suffered little to no damage in the tournament--so far. Awad will go past round one the first time this season, but comes out on top Thursday night.
Michael Roberts (Social Media Editor): Talk about two different paths to the finals. While Rickels has embraced the grind and gone 15 minutes in each outing, Awad's total cage time is best measured in seconds thanks to a pair of impressive knockouts. It's quite an accomplishment, especially since he was a last-minute tournament entry after Patricky Pitbull was injured. I picked Rickels to get this far and I'm not going to stop now. His bout against Karl Amoussou showed that "The Caveman" can take a shot – from a 170-pounder no less – survive, and keep coming forward. Rickels survives the initial blitz of Awad, makes things ugly in the latter rounds and his superior cardio helps score him the big check and earn a title shot.
SEASON EIGHT LIGHT HEAVYWEIGHT TOURNAMENT FINALS
Emanuel Newton vs. Mikhail Zayats
Richani: It's so hard to pick against anyone representing RusFighters these days. RusFighters' trainer Alexander Shlemenko is the current Bellator MMA Middleweight Champion and his protege Andrey Koreshkov just won last season's welterweight tournament. Now Zayats has the opportunity to cap off the team's trifecta, but that's not happening against the more durable Newton. I tweeted Bellator MMA CEO Bjorn Rebney about the "Battle of Giant Killers" and while he didn't make a pick, his analysis was spot on: "honestly think this is pick-em Ft. Pure striking = Zayats, Unorthodox striking = Newton. Both have huge gas tanks/great ground." Newton is more than just unorthodox. He's "The Hardcore Kid," who throws punches like he's in a mosh pit and puts fighters like King Mo to sleep. Newton withstands Zayats' precise striking attack to unleash some bombs of his own and earns a rematch against current light heavyweight champion Attila Vegh.
Dermody: I cannot pick against Mikhail Zayats. That's not entirely true, I can, but I've got the highest number of correct picks this season and I want to keep it that way. What I can do is scold Richani for not holding Bjorn Rebney's feet to the fire and getting his prediction, but that's another story. I think Zayats fights a smarter fight, adjusts his defense to allow for Newton's hard-to-predict attacks and drops Newton after he's overcommitted on a Hail Mary strike.
Roberts: Let's hear it for the underdogs! Newton and Zayats both shocked the world, taking out consensus tournament favorites in dominant form – and with spinning back fists no less. From the sounds of things, Zayats has really done his homework on Newton and studied his unpredictable game. Newton is a wild man in the cage and a darn effective one, with his lone Bellator defeat coming at the hands of current 205-kingpin Atilla Vegh. This is an incredibly close fight, and when in doubt, I lean towards the Russian. I don't think Newton goes away easy, but I'll go with Zayats via decision.
Marshall: It breaks my heart to pick against Newton, who has quickly become one of my favorite fighters. I think people have seen him have some rough patches in his career and discounted him, but I think now we can comfortably say he's clearly a top tier fighter in this division. But as dangerous as he is, Zayats is perhaps even more so, plus he has a more varied skillset. Personally, I'll be rooting for the Hardcore Kid, but my money's on Zayats to know what he's up against and get a submission win.
NON-TOURNAMENT MIDDLEWEIGHT BOUT
Trey Houston vs. Luis Melo
Richani: Trey Houston had momentum last year before getting choked out in what was his first loss. He's still only 24 with an impressive 10-1 record, so one would think his best days are still ahead of him. However, his opponent Luis Melo has competed in a total of 42 professional MMA bouts, with 27 of his 28 wins coming via knockout or submission. Melo's 11 losses show us he's clearly beatable, but Houston needs to prove that he can pull out a win when the going gets tough in fight. Something tells me Houston is smart enough to be aware of Melo's 13 submission victories and the risks he's taking in this fight. Houston learns his lesson from last time out and gets back on the winning track in a potential show stealer.
Roberts: This is, for separate reasons, definitely a turning point kind of fight for both fighters' careers. Houston enters coming off of the sole defeat of his career, a submission loss in his last trip to the Bellator cage. Melo makes his U.S. and Bellator debut in a high pressure situation: a main card, televised fight. That shocking defeat likely lit a fire under Houston, and I'm guessing he throws with bad intensions en route to a brutal stoppage in this one.
Marshall: It's hard to know what to make of Melo since he's making his stateside debut. On the other hand, we do know that Trey Houston is susceptible to chokes, and going up against a Brazilian with 13 wins by submission could be a recipe for disaster. But I think Houston is skilled and experienced enough to avoid making the same mistake twice. Houston wins by KO in a fight that could actually steal the show.
Dermody: Houston had better keep this standing or he's in some trouble. Melo is the kind of choke artist you actually want to be, finishing 11 unfortunate fellows that way. Protect ya neck, Trey. I got Melo here, by way of Trey Houston's eyes bugging out and face turning blue.
NON-TOURNAMENT BANTAMWEIGHT BOUT
Rodrigo Lima vs. Ronnie Mann
Roberts: Mann is making a good move dropping down to bantamweight here, as he was certainly the undersized guy at 145 pounds. He's quite comfortable on the feet and while he's been taken down by previous opponents, he hasn't had to deal with the level of submissions Rodrigo Lima possesses. Assuming "Kid Ninja" has a good cut, brings a full gas tank into the fight and keeps things on the feet, he'd be a no-brainer here; but that's one too many assumptions for me. Lima's submissions are relentless regardless of whether he's on top or bottom, and I expect him to seal the deal in the third round.
Marshall: Two losses in your last three fights sounds bad until you see what Pat Curran does to everyone he faces after you. Still, Ronnie Mann has decided to retool his game and drop down to 135 after spending much of his career at Featherweight. He's strong on his feet and has some tight Jiu-Jitsu, and with his size I don't expect the cut to be much of a problem. Plus he's got a ton of more fight experience. I'm going with Mann by decision.
Dermody: Don't make the assumption that just because we're dealing with a British fighter, that he's going to be all boxing and worthless off his feet. Ronnie Mann has been training jiu jitsu for over ten years, and carries 12 submission wins and a brown belt under Italo Ferreira into the cage with him. Lima's certainly no slouch on the ground, and I'd love to see these two trading submission attempts for 15 minutes, but I'm picking Mann by second round TKO, after completely controlling where this thing is fought.
Richani: It's been a year since we've seen either of these guys in the Bellator MMA cage, so ring rust should cancel itself out. If I recall correctly, many felt that Lima was on the wrong side of a decision in his last fight against Nakamura, but he didn't exactly wow everyone either. Mann is the more experienced fighter and he knows this is a must win for him in his bantamweight debut if he hopes to earn a spot in the next tournament. Lima has never been finished with only one loss to his record, but the seasoned veteran Mann wins this one via decision.