Alexander Shlemenko will enter the cage on a 10-fight winning streak. | Photo: Keith Mills/Sherdog.com
Following a trio of Ultimate Fighting Championship events in an eight-day span, Bellator MMA on Saturday makes its Season 9 debut live on Spike TV.
Bellator 98 takes place at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn., and ushers in the promotion’s second full season on the Viacom-owned cable network. Four eight-man tournaments will be contested this fall, as quarterfinalists vie for a guaranteed title shot in the featherweight, lightweight, welterweight and middleweight divisions.
Here is what to watch for at Bellator 98:
There is little to be said about Alexander Shlemenko that you do not already know if you have been following Bellator for the last three years. In short, he makes the violence that you love to watch.
Who could forget the Russian’s most excellent knockout of Brian Rogers in the Season 5 tournament semifinals or his decimation of Ikuhisa Minowa last year in India’s Super Fight League? Perhaps most impressive was his victory over hard-hitting Brazilian and future gas station brawler Maiquel Jose Falcao Goncalves, who saw his body battered with sharp hooks and knees before eventually losing consciousness in the second round.
Simply put, Shlemenko might be Bellator’s most violent fighter, and he is arguably the organization’s most entertaining talent. “Storm” now puts his middleweight strap on the line against Season 8 tournament runner-up Brett Cooper in a rematch of their 2011 affair, which saw Shlemenko walk away with a hard-fought unanimous decision win.
Cooper’s Rocky Moment
Cooper is not supposed to be here.
“Fudoshin” lost his chance at a rematch with Shlemenko in April, when he was knocked cold by former World Extreme Cagefighting light heavyweight champion Doug Marshall in the Season 8 final.
Thanks to a lucky break -- no pun intended -- Cooper now finds himself once again paired with the RusFighters Sport Club leader after Marshall injured his hand in training. With no backup tournament winner available to challenge Shlemenko, Bellator instituted an impromptu “worst-case scenario” policy, in which Bellator’s reigning champions and executives voted for Cooper as a replacement challenger.
The pick is a solid one. If you recall, the American’s first encounter with Shlemenko was a highly competitive, back-and-forth brawl that could have gone either way. Let us hope that we are privy to a similar level of action two years later.
Can Cooper complete his unlikely journey to the title by avenging his loss to the dangerous Russian or will this story have a sad ending for the 26-year-old?
I am not entirely sure of what to expect from “The Baddest Man on the Planet” at this point. A lot of time has passed since his brutal knockout losses at the hands of Alexis Vila and Pat Curran, and the former featherweight champion sustained virtually no damage against the overmatched Owen Evinger in his last in-cage appearance, which came roughly 10 months ago.
I am happy that Warren played this thing the right way and took the time he needed to properly recover before he jumped back in the fire against the more dangerous portion of Bellator’s bantamweight division. Frankly, I am pretty excited to see that cocky little man return to the cage and try to win himself another belt.
Can the former featherweight champion take another step toward that goal when he meets 12-fight pro Nick Kirk?
Bellator’s ninth-season middleweight draw offers up a mixture of old favorites and new talent, as Rogers takes his fourth crack at winning a tournament. “The Predator” faces Mikkel Parlo, who saw his perfect record marred in his Season 8 tournament run.
Meanwhile, two more tournament vets in Giva Santana and Andreas Spang look to advance to the semifinals against undefeated newcomers Jason Butcher and Justin Torrey. I am particularly interested in seeing Butcher and Santana mix it up on the ground and whether Butcher’s self-described “best guard in MMA” can stand up to the submission attack of “The Arm Collector.” Rounding out the field are tournament debutants Perry Filkins and Jeremy Kimball, who ride five- and six-fight winning streaks heading into their bout.
Patricky Freire is still one of Bellator’s most exciting and marketable commodities, but I have to wonder if he will be known as a fighter who could not win the big one when we look on his career in retrospect.
Granted, there is nothing wrong with losing to competitors like Michael Chandler, Lloyd Woodard and Eddie Alvarez. All of those guys are tough customers, especially the Bellator lightweight champion. However, our expectations for “Pitbull” were not set at him being a pretty good fighter. We expected this guy to achieve greatness, something that has thus far eluded him in the Bellator cage, despite producing spectacular knockouts of Rob McCullough, Toby Imada and Kurt Pellegrino.
Plenty of gifted people just need time to find consistency, and I would imagine fans of the Brazilian are hoping that is the case. He will have his chance to make a statement of authority during the undercard, as he takes on undefeated Californian Derek Anderson.