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Bellator 97 predictions

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

The second and final show of the Bellator Summer Series kicks off this evening with one of the most stacked cards (if you include the excellent line-up of prelims) the organization has ever produced.

Much is on the line for this event. The big investment in Mo Lawal really needs to pay off, their fastest-rising star in Michael Chandler needs to shine, another champion is at a potential crossroads in his career, several prospects take the next step in their career on the prelims and much, much more.

Can Lawal get his revenge on Jacob Noe? Will Michael Chandler continue his reign of dominance? Is Ben Askren's improvement a real thing? I answer these questions and more with predictions for tonight's fights.

What: Bellator 97

When: The Spike TV-televised card begins at 8 p.m. Eastern tonight. However, will carry the preliminary fight card beginning at 5:30 p.m. Eastern.

Where: Santa Ana Star Center, Rio Rancho, New Mexico

Michael Chandler vs. David Rickels

I'm not ready to count Chandler the best as the best lightweight in mixed martial arts. He's got quite a bit of work ahead of him to even open up that conversation. That said, he's a bad, bad man: ultra aggressive, tough, athletic, quick, capable of forcing transitions, a great scrambler, willing to exchange in the pocket, submission savvy and more. Stated simply, he's too much for Rickels. The Caveman is much tougher than he's given credit and will probably last even longer than Rick Hawn did, but skills win fights and the differential here is just too much for Rickels to overcome.

Pick: Chandler

Ben Askren vs. Andrey Koreshkov

You have to favor the champion here. He didn't get to this place by accident. Not only is his wrestling hard to deal with, so is his submission defense. And the reality is his submission defense is not normal. He doesn't aggressively shut it down and find a lockdown position. He surfs in light control. He gives guard players just enough hope and space to think they can make something happen only to gingerly move out of their attack while lightly but completely holding top position. It's deflating to compete that way, to say nothing of how exhausting it is.

So what about the striking? Koreshkov is more of a threat here than Askren has admitted. He has a long reach, mixes kicks and punches well, can close distance quickly and has very underrated hand speed. He's also got a nice uppercut, something I've long believed Askren's distance closing opens him up to.

In short, the champion deserves to be favored here, but I don't think it's crazy to suggest Koreshkov can make things interesting, especially early. The guy is legit dangerous even if Askren refuses to believe it.

Pick: Askren

Mo Lawal vs. Jacob Noe

As long as Lawal is who we think he is and as long as he fights as he's capable of doing - which means a healthy dose of wrestling - this is his fight to lose. I'd really like to see him more proactive, aggressive and sticking it to Noe. I say that not because I root against Noe, but because I actually think Lawal's game is more suited to that than patient plodding he's shown more recently.

Pick: Lawal

Ryan Martinez vs. Vitaly Minakov

I actually think highly of Martinez, especially as far as Bellator heavyweights go. He continuously flies under the radar, but he's a hard hitter with underrated takedown defense, a good sense of spacing and complete composure under pressure. Lest we forget: this is the guy that ended Mark Ellis' career.

The problem is I tend to believe Minakov is on another level. He can absolutely win this fight on the floor, but the reality is his striking has developed in leaps and bounds. As long as he is mindful of distance and keeps Martinez guessing by mixing up the level of the attack, he should cruise.

Pick: Minakov

Jared Downing vs. Patricio Freire

Downing is absolutely not a pushover. He gave Lance Palmer everything he could handle before ever so slightly fading as the rounds in their bout transpired. He can do everything, not least of which is make opposition look worse than normal by being defensively stifling.

I still expect Pitbull to win here. I just don't see Freire taking his foot of the gas in terms of pressure. That should either lead to Freire acruing enough points to win a decision or a stoppage after Downing is pushed into making a fatal mistake.

Pick: Freire