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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Eight men entered. Only one man will leave.

Okay, maybe the Bellator Heavyweight World Grand Prix wasn’t that dramatic, but it certainly produced its share of fantasy matchups that fans never thought they’d see. Quinton “Rampage” Jackson vs. Chael Sonnen. Fedor Emelianenko vs. Frank Mir. Fedor vs. Sonnen. And now in the grand finale, Fedor vs. reigning light heavyweight champion Ryan Bader. Many expected Bader — the youngest fighter in the tournament at 35 years old — to make the finals, while many hoped that the legendary Emelianenko could channel some of that Pride magic for one last run to the top.

He can complete that journey Saturday when he fights Bader in the Bellator 214 main event, with the Grand Prix championship and a vacant heavyweight title on the line. On the other side, a win would make Bader the first fighter to simultaneously hold two Bellator championships.

In the co-main event, two of the featherweight division’s hottest fighters face off. 22-year-old wunderkind Aaron Pico is coming off of four consecutive first-round knockouts and looks poised to live up to the hype that has surrounded him since he signed a contract with Bellator four years ago. In his way is Henry Corrales, who has rebounded from an 0-3 start in Bellator to win four straight. Could the winner be the next to challenge Patricio “Pitbull” Freire?

Also on the main card, former WWE Superstar Jake Hager (better known as “Jack Swagger”) makes his MMA debut against J.W. Kiser in a heavyweight bout, bantamweight contenders Juan Archuleta and Ricky Bandejas clash, and Brandan McMahan meets Chris Pratt’s buddy Adel El-Tamini in the featherweight opener.

What: Bellator 214

Where: The Forum in Inglewood, Calif.

When: Saturday, Jan. 26. The preliminary card begins at 6:30 p.m. ET and will stream live on MMA Fighting, and the five-fight main card will air on Paramount Network and stream on DAZN starting at 9 p.m. ET.


Fedor Emelianenko vs. Ryan Bader

Fedor Emelianenko doesn’t strike me as a man who believes in fairy tales, which is probably a good thing because that’s not the kind of ending I foresee for the heavyweight Grand Prix. The twilight of Emelianenko’s career has actually been impressive outside of a quick loss to Matt Mitrione and a questionable majority decision win over Fabio Maldonado, so it’s understandable that zealots of the “The Last Emperor” could talk themselves into him turning back the clock and winning this tournament.

This is Ryan Bader’s fight to lose.

Once saddled with the reputation of never being able to win the big one, Bader has grown comfortable in his own skin and while his skills remain mostly the same (outstanding wrestling combined with a hammer right hand), it’s his confidence that has put him over the top. Bader dictates the pace of every fight he’s in, whether it’s using his wrestling to set up his vicious ground-and-pound or pawing with his jab to set up a power punch.

On the flip side, Emelianenko has always been a master of adaptation. He’s also one of MMA’s all-time great comeback kings, a trait he displayed as recently as his last fight when he was able to shake a persistent Chael Sonnen off of him and finish with strikes. If Bader gives Emelianenko time to get into a groove, don’t be surprised if Emelianenko is able to put the light heavyweight champ in some precarious positions. Bader has strong defensive skills, but we’ve seen him get rocked before.

I think Emelianenko will look as good as he has in his last handful of wins. It just won’t be good enough to beat Bader on Saturday.

Pick: Bader

Aaron Pico vs. Henry Corrales

It’s almost a shame that one man’s winning streak has to end here as these are two of the most promising and exciting fighters at 145 pounds. Aaron Pico has become a highlight machine after faltering in his pro debut and Henry Corrales’s non-stop action style has helped him go from nearly being released to Bellator title contender.

I like Pico’s speed and precision to make the difference in this one. Not to take anything away from Corrales who is an excellent striker with good pop in both hands, but Pico is proving to have unreal finishing power. His penchant for working the body shows how advanced he is for a fighter his age and should this turn into a pure firefight, Pico can more than hang with Corrales.

However, if Pico is lax in his defense, he could end up suffering a similar fate to that which befell him in his fight with Zach Freeman. He’s young and has a fresh chin, so you get the sense that Pico is as content to trade blows as he is to avoid them. Against a hard hitter like Corrales, that could absolutely lead to Pico being finished again.

This is Pico’s biggest test so far and I’m picking him to win via another fast finish based on how his skill set and maturity have rapidly evolved with every outing.

Pick: Pico

Jake Hager vs. J.W. Kiser

As many have pointed out, comparing Jake Hager to CM Punk just because they both have a background in professional wrestling is ridiculous. Before Hager became famous for his exploits as “Jack Swagger” in the WWE, he was an All-American wrestler at the University of Oklahoma and probably would have been a top MMA prospect out of school if Vince McMahon hadn’t scooped him up.

Now he’s being matched up with combat sports journeyman J.W. Kiser, who turned pro in 2018 after a lengthy amateur career. That actually makes Kiser more dangerous on paper that it might seem given that he has the experience advantage and really has nothing to lose.

But Hager’s wrestling expertise is the best possible base a fighter can have making a debut on this stage because if the fight gets too hairy, he always has the option of shooting in with a power double and dumping Kiser on his back. Hager is an above-average athlete at heavyweight, which gives him another natural advantage in a fight where the skill gap isn’t likely to be too wide.

Hager won’t waste any time taking Kiser down and pounding him out inside of around.

Pick: Hager

Juan Archuleta vs. Ricky Bandejas

It was hard not to be impressed by Ricky Bandejas’s Bellator debut in which he massacred highly touted bantamweight prospect James Gallagher. Juan Archuleta is a completely different beast.

One of Bellator’s best kept secrets, Archuleta joined the promotion on a 13-fight win streak and hasn’t looked back since, winning his first three bouts for the promotion. He’s dropping back down to 135 pounds for this one and should be even more dangerous in this weight class. He’s a well-rounded fighter who can also be an absolute grinder when the situation calls for it. His elbows are dangerous both in the clinch and in top position, where he excels at control and finding openings to do damage.

Bandejas will need to get loose early to keep Archuleta honest and it will be intriguing to see how his wrestling background holds up against the gritty takedowns and trips of Archuleta. If he can keep this standing, I favor Bandejas slightly.

That said, I see Archuleta scoring enough takedowns to frustrate Bandejas and winning the majority of the grappling exchanges to pick up a win on the scorecards.

Pick: Archuleta

Brandan McMahan vs. Adel El-Tamini

For those wondering why this bout is opening the main card, let’s just say it pays to be friends with Star-Lord.

Adel El-Tamini won’t have a Guardian of the Galaxy in the cage to help him out, but what he will bring is a ton of heart and aggression, as well as a knack for finishing fights. This style has put El-Tamini in some bad spots before, as evidenced by his having never been past the second round, win or lose.

His striking can get wild, which actually might serve him well against the relatively conservative Brandan McMahan. McMahan is solid on the feet and he has a sneaky submission game. It’s unclear how he’ll deal with El-Tamini putting the pressure on him though.

Predicting main card openers with obscure fighters is difficult, but I’ll lean towards El-Tamini’s Hollywood supporters spurring him on to a first-round submission victory.

Pick: El-Tamini