The light heavyweight grand prix semifinals look a little different than Bellator was expecting.
One of Anthony Johnson and Yoel Romero were supposed to be here at Bellator 268, but Romero was out of the tournament before it even began after failing a medical and then Johnson bowed out with an illness after defeating Romero’s replacement Jose Augusto in the opening round. Stepping in for “Rumble” is Julius Anglickas, a designated alternate with a bright future who now has the tall task of taking on Bellator champion Vadim Nemkov.
Nemkov has yet to generate much mainstream cachet despite being unbeaten in six Bellator appearances, but he’s crept up the charts—all the way to No. 4 in MMA Fighting’s Global Rankings—and if he can quickly dismiss Anglickas it would open a lot of eyes that have slept on the Fedor protege thus far.
To give you an idea of the uphill climb Nemkov is facing in terms of raising his profile, there are undoubtedly some fans who will be surprised that Saturday’s main event isn’t the other grand prix semi-final between Ryan Bader and Corey Anderson. Bader is a former two-division champion who still holds a heavyweight title, while Anderson is making a hard charge towards a seemingly inevitable clash with Nemkov.
In other main card action, Benson Henderson fights Brent Primus in a matchup that will likely produce the next challenger for the lightweight title, and Henry Corrales looks to keep Ukrainian featherweight Vladyslav Parubchenko winless inside the Bellator cage.
What: Bellator 268
Where: Footprint Center in Phoenix.
When: Saturday, Oct. 16. Preliminaries begin at 7 p.m. ET on MMA Fighting (un-aired prelims will take place after the main event). The four-fight main card airs at 10 p.m on Showtime. The main card will also be available for free on YouTube outside of the U.S. (may be geo-blocked in some regions).
(Numbers in parentheses indicate standing in MMA Fighting Global Rankings)
Vadim Nemkov (4) vs. Julius Anglickas
Springy, broad shouldered, and heavy handed, Julius Anglickas has all the makings of a contender at light heavyweight. It’s just not his time yet.
Anglickas definitely shouldn’t be written off, especially when you consider that he was probably headed to a Bellator title shot anyway even if he wasn’t stepping in as a grand prix alternate to fight Vadim Nemkov. He’s unbeaten in Bellator and has faced legitimate competition in his brief career. Beating Nemkov isn’t some pipe dream for someone with Anglickas’ talent.
My pick of Nemkov has more to do with my respect for the champ than any shortcomings on Anglickas’ part. The champ hasn’t shown any weaknesses on his current win streak. He’s a skilled boxer, makes effective use of leg kicks, can use his wrestling offensively and defensively, and he proved in the second fight with Phil Davis that he can go a hard five rounds when he needs to. He’s a worthy disciple of “The Last Emperor.”
Nemkov and Anglickas match up well both in terms of physicality and skill level, Nemkov is just further along at this point. Anglickas is a serious threat though and with nothing to lose, he might just end up winning the whole damn thing.
I’m sticking with Nemkov to win a convincing decision that earns him some more respect without dramatically affecting his standing.
Ryan Bader (6) vs. Corey Anderson (8)
It might be too late for Ryan Bader to find another peak in his career.
“Darth” has already peaked twice, first winning The Ultimate Fighter 8 and developing into a top-10 UFC contender, and then again by jumping over to Bellator and capturing two championship belts. At 38, it’s a lot to ask of him to make another run to the top, even with the grand prix tournament format providing a clear path in that direction.
Age is the biggest factor for me to consider in this matchup, with Corey Anderson six years Bader’s junior and looking like he’s ready for a breakthrough of his own. In his past seven outings, Anderson has only lost to current UFC champions Jan Blachowicz. Bader will be the first top-10 opponent that Anderson has faced since signing with Bellator last year, but the writing on the wall says that Anderson is up to the challenge.
Here’s something to consider: Since the start of his UFC career in December 2008, Bader has not beaten anyone over a year younger than him (in fairness, he’s rarely faced anyone significantly younger than him with the exception of Vadim Nemkov and Jon Jones, both of whom defeated Bader). That may seem trivial, but I think it says a lot about where Bader is at this stage of his career. He was once the young gunner chasing knocking off big name after big name, now he’s the name that Anderson needs to beat to vault himself to the top of Bellator’s light heavyweight division.
Both fighters are strong wrestlers and while I’d give Bader the edge in punching power, the edge in speed has to go to Anderson. And it’s speed that will make the difference. Anderson’s mental game is sharper than it’s ever been and he has to show he’s mature enough to stick to strategy even if Bader clips him early. With the benefit of five rounds, Anderson can take his time before putting his foot on the gas in the third and cutting a pace that will push Bader to the limit.
Anderson by decision.
Benson Henderson vs. Brent Primus
Benson Henderson remains one of the trickiest outs at 155 pounds and even with Brent Primus having championship experience, he’s still never faced anyone quite like “Smooth.” Critics of Henderson’s style have decried his tendency to point fight, but hey, it works, and when you have an opponent who can finish fights like Primus, the safer your strategy the better.
The plan for Primus will logically be to get this to the ground and either hunt for submissions or focus on control. Henderson’s scrambles will have to be on point and we could see some vintage “Bendo” escape sequences here if Primus hits a few takedowns. One key factor of this fight will be how much damage Primus is able to actually do should he get Henderson on his back.
I like Henderson’s chances of keeping this one at striking distance, where he’s always been sharp, if not explosive. Primus has power, but I don’t see him landing enough in a technical striking battle to outpoint Henderson. Henderson takes the scorecards and possibly puts himself on the doorstep of another world title opportunity.
Henry Corrales vs. Vladyslav Parubchenko
Tough one here. You get the sense that we didn’t see the best of Vladyslav Parubchenko in his Bellator debut 14 months ago. He was coming off of a two-year layoff and competing in a 150-pound catchweight bout as opposed to a featherweight contest. Those are the kinds of things that can throw a fighter off, especially one with a game based on patience and precision like Parubchenko. He’s young, he thrives on activity.
That said, even if we see the best version yet of Parubchenko, that might not be enough to get past the battle-tested Henry Corrales. “OK” is getting up there in years and his recent results have left something to be desired, but he’s gone the distance against stiff competition and is a huge step up for Parubchenko.
Sizing the two up, Corrales is clearly the better all-around fighter and were it not for Parubchenko having an excellent chin, I could even see Corrales putting him away early. As it is, this one should go the distance with Parubchenko suffering another competitive loss that sends him back to the lab for one more kick at the Bellator can.