Featherweight has always been one of Bellator’s strengths, the problem being the title fights don’t come fast enough. Defending champion Pat Curran’s next fight will be against season 4 tournament winner Patricio Freire then the winner will face Daniel Straus who won the season 6 tournament. Meanwhile season 7 features a featherweight tournament in theory to decide the next in line, in essence the #3 contender. Maybe Bellator can have a tournament of the tournament winners to decide who faces the champion next. Point is this is Bellator’s strong (if not logical) suit and the competitors this season are impressive.
Despite being off from fighting for almost two years Wagnney Fabiano is the favorite in this tournament largely based on his former IFL title and his 4-2 record in the WEC. For his eight-win streak (and loss to Mackens Samerzier) Fabiano fought at featherweight, dropping to bantamweight for his last three fights where he went 2-1. Now returning to featherweight Fabiano brings black-belt level BJJ and competent standup to the cage, the unknown factor being how has he changed in the last two years.
Fabiano isn’t the only BJJ black belt, if one ignores Nazareno Malegarie’s Bellator record he is asrguably more impressive. Malegarie was a judo champion in Argentina in 1999 and 2000, won the 2004 Brazilian Jiu Jitsu World Championships when he was a blue belt, and made the switch to MMA as a black belt. Of his 22-2 record both his losses came in Bellator with one in the season 4 tournament quarterfinals and the other in the 2011 summer series semifinals, both by decision. His sole win in Bellator was a guillotine choke of Jacob DeVree in the third round of a fight DeVree arguably was winning. Since his first run in Bellator Malegarie picked up two wins in Brazil, both by first-round TKO. Malegarie’s ground game isn’t in question and his standup is improving, the question since his last two fights aren’t readily available is will he continue to be somewhat predictable and therefore stoppable or will he diversify his strategy incorporating his improved standup.
Bringing the wrestling background is Rad Martinez whose two wins in Bellator are the highlight to his 12-2 career so far, the majority of his fights having been in Utah. Martinez brings his wrestling background to the cage with a style reminiscent of Mike Brown but with less submissions in his arsenal. Six wins by KO/TKO and six by decision, one loss by submission and one by decision make up his career while nobody questions his conditioning. The question with Martinez being is he well-rounded enough to defeat a variety of opponents.
Mike Richman was impressive out-striking Chris Horodecki in BFC 64 but the TUF season 12 vet is actually better known for his submissions with six of his first seven fights ending by armbar or a variety of chokes. Not counting TUF Richman has one loss, a split decision to Brian Pearman in February of 2011. Richman would probably be more of an odds favorite if he had a record based on larger promotions or different opponents but so far the win over Horodecki is what his reputation is based on.
Compared to the above fighters Jeremy Spoon may not have a notable background in an individual martial art but he arguably is the most well-rounded fighter of the tournament. Spoon’s twelve-fight win streak was ended by Daniel Straus in March, Spoon’s third BFC fight. Spoon’s habit of going toe-to-toe may backfire if he wins and faces one of the more accomplished strikers but so far nobody has been able to finish Spoon.
Now at 13-2-1 Cody Bollinger is starting to be known for more than “just” a student of Joe Stevenson. Bollinger’s “no contest” against Din Thomas in May wasn’t very impressive as he originally fell to an armbar early in round 1 however that result was overturned. Bollinger is picking up momentum as a “vet hunter”, not just for the Thomas fight but also for his win over UFC vet Cameron Dollar last September. Based on his Thomas fight it is difficult to believe he would do well against the ground specialists but his quarterfinals fight should be interesting.
The first dark horse of the tournament is Shahbulat Shamhalaev, a Russian now fighting out of Bombsquad who is said (unconfirmable) to be a Muay Thai world champion as well as Russian champion in kickboxing and sanshou. Regardless of the hype Shamhalaev combines very strong and somewhat unorthodox (to Western fighters anyway) standup with the wrestling that Bombsquad is known for. Unfortunately none of his nine fights are readily available, one just has to believe in his seven-fight win streak (not counting a draw).
The second dark horse is M-1 Challenge vet Akop Stepanyan from Armenia. Spetanyan post-M1 is on a twelve-fight win streak by KO/TKO and decision.
FW tournament quarterfinals:
Rad Martinez vs.Nazareno Malegarie
Akop Stepanyan vs.Wagnney Fabiano
Mike Richman vs.Jeremy Spoon
Shahbulat Shamhalaev vs.Cody Bollinger