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Bellator 221: Chandler vs. Pitbull predictions

Michael Chandler (pictured) defends his lightweight title against featherweight champion Patricio Freire in the main event of Bellator 221 in Rosemont, Illinois, on Saturday
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Michael Chandler and Patricio Freire have done it all in the Bellator cage, winning and defending championship belts, beating every lightweight and featherweight fighter who’s passed through the promotion, and being trusted by the matchmakers to carry the company banner from day one. One thing they haven’t done is fought each other.

That will change on Saturday night when the two meet in the Bellator 221 main event with Chandler’s lightweight title on the line. Freire enters as the reigning featherweight champion, and while he’d certainly relish adding another belt to his trophy case, he’ll also enjoy avenging the pair of losses that Chandler handed to his brother Patricky.

Make no mistake: This feud between Chandler and “Pitbull” is as personal as it is professional.

One Bellator Welterweight World Grand Prix finalist will be determined this weekend, when two-time champion Douglas Lima takes on the unbeaten Michael Page. “MVP” answered a lot of questions in his last fight against Paul Daley, but it remains to be seen whether he can handle the perennially overlooked Lima.

In other main card action, A.J. McKee welcomes two-time featherweight champion Pat Curran back to the cage after a 19-month layoff, and prospects Jake Hager and Tywan Claxton look to keep their perfect records intact against enhancement talents T.J. Jones and James Bennett.

What: Bellator 221

Where: Allstate Arena in Rosemont, Illinois

When: Saturday, May 11. The 10-fight preliminary card will be available to stream on MMA Fighting and the DAZN streaming service at 6:30 p.m. ET (un-aired prelims will take place after the evening’s main event) and the five-fight main card begins at 9 p.m. ET and will also air on DAZN.

Michael Chandler vs. Patricio Freire

This is the fight Patricio Freire has been waiting for all his life.

Laugh if you must at the proliferation of “Pitbulls” in MMA, but you don’t get that nickname without having dogged determination and a desire to tear apart anyone who steps into the cage with you. That’s the attitude Freire always brings, along with his all-around skill set and some of the best kickboxing in the featherweight division.

He’s moving up to 155 for this one to take on Michael Chandler, his main opposition for the title of Bellator G.O.A.T. Freire’s lone lightweight bout in Bellator didn’t give us much data to work with as he suffered a freak leg injury against Benson Henderson. He was faring well enough up to that point, which suggests that a size disadvantage won’t be the deciding factor against Chandler.

What will be a deciding factor is Chandler’s power punching and elite wrestling. Bellator’s lightweight king tosses human beings around on the regular. If he gets his hands on Freire, he’ll send “Pitbull” for a ride. And that might only be necessary if Freire is consistently getting the better of their striking exchanges. As Freire’s brother Patricky found out in his second meeting with Chandler, the champion has elite hand speed and he will check that chin real fast if it’s exposed for too long.

The same could be said of Chandler’s legs. Freire will chew those limbs up with low kicks if given the opportunity and Chandler will find his explosiveness nullified if he allows Freire to take away his base. Should this go to a decision, leg kicks should be a major factor in the scoring.

I expect the judges to make the call in this one and I’m leaning towards Chandler’s reach and strength, as well as him using his wrestling to dictate where this fight goes. A unanimous decision and historic Bellator bragging rights go to Chandler.

The pick: Chandler

Douglas Lima vs. Michael Page

Say what you want about Michael Page’s last outing against Paul Daley, but finally faced with an experienced, name opponent, “Venom” did enough to win. Daley was an enormous step up from Page’s previous competition and now Douglas Lima is one more notch above that.

While Daley has been known for dropping the occasional stink bomb, the same can’t be said of Lima who has been a model of consistency during his time at the top of the welterweight division. His only losses have been to Rory MacDonald, Ben Askren, and Andrey Koreshkov, and he’s twice beaten Koreshkov since their first meeting. That spells trouble for Page, who just hasn’t faced the high-level tests that Lima has.

Page has shown flashes of being a legit contender and there will be no denying his qualifications if he finds a way to take out Lima. He’s still too much of a wild card for me to pick though.

The pick: Lima

A.J. McKee vs. Pat Curran

Speaking of step-up fights, this is A.J. McKee’s chance to climb up the rankings and potentially put himself in pole position for a title shot. What better way to prove his worth than fighting two-time Bellator champion Pat Curran?

The 31-year-old Curran has been out of action since October 2017, and it’s unclear what shape he’ll be in having competed just four times in the last four years. At his best, Curran is an excellent kickboxer with great takedown defense, and he’s better at those two skills than anyone McKee has faced so far. McKee’s best wins are John Macapa and Justin Lawrence, not competition of Curran’s calibre.

That said, McKee is incredibly advanced for his age and he has clearly outgrown the middle tier of Bellator’s featherweight division. He was supposed to fight Curran last September, but after an injury forced Curran to withdraw he was replaced by Macapa and McKee dismissed him in short order. He did the same to Daniel Crawford in his last outing. It’s not McKee’s fault that he’s faced overmatched competition and to his credit, he’s dealt with them accordingly.

McKee is being pegged as a considerable favorite, which seems disrespectful given Curran’s accomplishments. I do think McKee wins, it will just be closer than the oddsmakers are predicting.

The pick: McKee

Jake Hager vs. T.J. Jones

Look, let’s not pretend that this is supposed to be anything more than a squash match for Jake Hager. Bellator sees serious potential in the former WWE star and they’ve booked him as such, essentially lining up a pro-wrestling jobber for him in his second professional MMA fight.

T.J. Jones does have experience in cage fighting and in boxing, so it’s not as if he’ll be completely defenseless against Hager’s aggressive wrestling. Just mostly defenseless. So long as Hager doesn’t get too adventurous in the stand-up, he’ll find an opening to shoot in for a double leg and put Jones on his back. And that’s where the fight will end, either by TKO or submission for Hager.

The pick: Hager

Tywan Claxton vs. James Bennett

It’s almost an insult to Tywan Claxton to talk about the athleticism advantage that he’s going to have over James Bennett, but it’s a credit to Claxton that he hasn’t relied on his physical gifts to win his first four fights. He’s shown sharp timing on the feet to complement his wrestling base and that’s led to crowd-pleasing finishes.

He’ll add to his highlight reel when he takes on Bennett, a scrapper with limited takedown defense. Even if Claxton can’t get this one down to the mat in the opening minutes, the threat of his shot will have Bennett thinking twice about how to proceed and that hesitation will cost him.

“Speedy” scores another fast finish.

The pick: Claxton

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