The eight-man tournament, whose quarterfinals kick off Saturday at Bellator 206 when Koreshkov competes in a trilogy bout with rival Douglas Lima, features a who’s who of notable names at 170 pounds, each with their own intriguing storylines.
Current champion Rory MacDonald is in the tourney, and his title will be on the line every time he advances in the tournament (he may also be carrying some extra gold should he defeat middleweight champion Gegard Mousasi in Saturday’s main event). Lima is a two-time titleholder who is fresh off of a five-round war with MacDonald.
Michael “Venom” Page and Paul Daley are finally going to step into the cage against one another after what feels like an eon of false starts. Ed Ruth and Neiman Gracie enter as undefeated up-and-comers looking to shock the world. Even Jon Fitch arguably carries bigger name recognition than Koreshkov, having competed for 16 years and several major titles including in the UFC.
So where does that leave Koreshkov?
The 28-year-old Russian is a two-time Bellator tournament winner and a former champion himself, having beaten Lima for the belt back in July 2015 only to lose it in their rematch 14 months later. He’s been with Bellator since 2012 and is one of their best homegrown talents, but since the Lima rematch he’s competed just two times against Chidi Njokuani and Vaso Bakocevic, while Lima had a pair high-profile title bouts with MacDonald and another former UFC standout Lorenz Larkin at Madison Square Garden.
Koreshkov (21-2) handled his assignments with minimal drama, knocking out both inside of a round, but that light work has only made his time out of the cage all the more frustrating. He told MMA Fighting that his main obstacle recently has not been preparing for any particular opponent, but his inability to get one booked.
“What disappoints me and what let me down, what makes me upset is the fact that after I beat Chidi, it was almost a year that Bellator kept me without fights and I wasn’t able to fight at all,” said Koreshkov, via a translator. “So I’m not even saying that I didn’t fight for the title. I didn’t fight at all, I wasn’t active with any fights. That’s what kind of upsets me.
“But at the same time I think that the eight-man tournament is probably one of the best things in our sport because it is really a great chance to make a big name for yourself. So right now, I’m in this tournament and I just fought recently and I have a fight coming up so now I’m again on a good start and I look forward to it actually. I’m looking at this eight-man tournament as an opportunity.”
Barring any withdrawals that might shake up the bracket, there won’t be much mystery as to who Koreshkov will face in the coming months. The winner of his bout versus Lima is set to face the Page-Daley winner, and then take on either MacDonald, Fitch, Ruth or Gracie in the Grand Prix final.
That at least narrows down the possibilities for Koreshkov, who is tired of the guess work that comes with not knowing who or when he will fight next. Pressed on why he’s been held to one fight in the last 12 months, Koreshkov couldn’t pinpoint an exact reason.
“I don’t have an answer because I’m not a Bellator employee, obviously,” said Koreshkov. “But we were promised fights on a number of days, but every time the fight was postponed. And it was very frustrating actually because every time when they promised that we are going to fight on a certain date, of course I started the training camp and I was getting ready for this date. Then when the fight was canceled and moved to a later date, it was always very frustrating. At least now I know my fight schedule and it really, really helps me as a professional fighter.”
Now that Koreshkov is back in the thick of the title picture, he’s looking forward to breaking his tie with Lima, even if it’s not a championship encounter like their previous two meetings. When the tournament was announced, he had expected that a potential fight between the two would be further down the road, but now Koreshkov is simply focused on correcting the mistakes that led to him losing their rematch.
He doesn’t see much changes in Lima’s approach, praising his rival’s leg kicks and ability to maneuver his opponents into situations where he’s able to do damage or set up a finish. For his own part, Koreshkov knows what adjustments he has to make, criticizing himself for deviating from his team’s strategy and getting into a wild exchange that ended with him absorbing a knockout punch.
“The difference is that in the first fight, I followed the game plan from the beginning to the end and I was able to beat him,” said Koreshkov. “In the second fight, I was winning the fight because I was following the game plan, but then I stepped away from the game plan for just one moment and that cost me that knockout loss. So it was actually a good experience for me for the third fight.”
Bellator 206 will stream worldwide on the DAZN subscription service Saturday, with the main card starting at 10 p.m. ET.