Seven new featherweights and one returning favorite will aim to gain the same recognition under the national spotlight as they enter this year's tournament for a chance at a six-figure prize and instant No. 1 contender status.
Check out my preview below along with MMAFighting.com staff predictions of this year's Bellator featherweight tournament.
Joe Warren (2-1) vs. Eric Marriott (17-2) - April 8
Joe Warren is a legitimate world-class wrestler and may have one of the best starts in MMA history. In his MMA debut March of last year, he defeated former WEC champ Chase Beebe and followed that performance with a win over Japanese star Norifumi "KID" Yamamoto. In his last fight, he lost in the Dream featherweight semfinals to Bibiano Fernandes. The only thing Warren knows in his short MMA career is the tournament format and that will serve him well in this tournament.
Eric Marriott is one of the four in the tournament (the others Georgi Karakhanyan, Patricio "Pitbull" and William Romero) that are unknowns with the opportunity to make on mark on the national stage.
Ray's Pick: Warren
MDS' Pick: Warren
Ariel Helwani's Pick: Warren
Chiappetta's Pick: Warren
Bao Quach (17-9) vs. Georgi Karakhanyan (12-1) - April 8
Bao Quach is a staple in the California MMA scene. While he's proven to be a solid fighter, he's always fallen short against mid to high-level competition. He's well-deserved to be in this tournament, winning 11 of his last 12 fights. He doesn't have any key wins, but has fought twice for ShoXC, once for Strikeforce and once for Affliction. He holds losses to LC Davis, Wagnney Fabiano, Hideki Kadowaki and Rumina Sato.
Russian-born Georgi Karakhanyan has a Brazilian jiu-jitsu background and eight of his 12 wins have come by submissions. He's taking on standup fighter Quach.
Ray's Pick: Karakhanyan
MDS' Pick: Quach
Ariel's Pick: Karakhanyan
Chiappetta's Pick: Karakhanyan
Wilson Reis (9-1) vs. Shad Lierley (5-2) - April 15
The only returning fighter from season one, Wilson Reis entered last year as the favorite and while he's lost some momentum from the loss to Soto, he's still one of the top favorites for this year.
Shad Lierley comes from a wrestling background but has no fear of striking as seen in his MMA debut for the IFL in 2007 when he stopped Adam Lynn in 44 seconds despite almost no striking training. He gained brief notoriety in 2007 for an exciting effort in a decision loss to Chris Horodecki. Lierley was undefeated in three fights last year, including a one-shot with Bellator. As a featherweight, Lierley is 5-0.
Ray's Pick: Reis
MDS' Pick: Reis
Ariel's Pick: Reis
Chiappetta's Pick: Reis
Patricio "Pitbull" Freire (12-0) vs. WIlliam Romero (5-0) - April 15
At only 23 years of age, Patricio Pitbull has been tearing it up in the Brazilian MMA scene with 12 wins, six coming in the first round. Here, by signing a long-term contract with Bellator, he receives a ticket to the US to make his international debut. He's built a reputation by winning folks over through his fights on YouTube and could be the breakout star this season.
The Canadian representative for the tournament is William Romero, a former Canadian Armed Forces paratrooper. He has less than two years of pro experience, but has won all five of his fights.
Ray's Pick: Pitbull
MDS' Pick: Pitbull
Ariel's Pick: Pitbull
Chiappetta's Pick: Pitbull
Overall MMAFighting.com Picks
Ray's Tournament Favorite: Joe Warren
MDS' Tournament Favorite: Wilson Reis
Ariel's Tournament Favorite: Patricio Pitbull
Chiappetta's Tournament Favorite: Georgi Karakhanyan