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To no one’s surprise, days later we’re still talking about UFC 229 and the ensuing fallout from the post-fight brawl following Khabib Nurmagomedov’s successful lightweight title defense against Conor McGregor. It’s not unusual for a story of this sort of significance to overshadow an upcoming fight card. Unfortunately for Bellator MMA in this case, the Nurmagomedov drama casts a long shadow over not one but two events.
Yes, this weekend will see the continuation of the promotion’s ongoing heavyweight grand prix on back-to-back nights. Friday features Bellator light heavyweight champion Ryan Bader looking to cinch a berth in the tournament final when he takes on Matt Mitrione in the Bellator 207 headliner in Uncasville, Connecticut. Meanwhile, Saturday’s Bellator 208 card will feature the other bracket semifinal, with legendary heavyweight Fedor Emelianenko tangling with legendary salesman Chael Sonnen in Uniondale, New York.
It seems hard to believe a fight like Emelianenko-Sonnen would fly under the radar in any era, but that’s the kind of wild week it has been. The upside of having Bellator cards on back-to-back nights, however, is that it gives us more fights on which to bet and thus more opportunities to make some coin. Better still, because both events are grand prix cards, oddsmakers have even blessed us with more props than we typically get for a Bellator bill.
Are we going to be able to match the drama and sensationalism of UFC 229? Assuredly not, but with some smart bets, we can make Bellator 207 and Bellator 208 memorable in their own right. Let’s figure out how to get paid:
Straight Up CashRyan Bader (-320)
Admittedly, this made much more sense to bet back in August, when Bader was a juicy -210. Obviously, sharp-minded folks seized that line immediately and bet the hell out of it. However, between the two Bellator main events this weekend, a straight-up win for Bader is the most stable bet and likely outcome.
Bader has more than enough size, strength and athleticism to hang at heavyweight and his opponent in this case is a fighter who has traditionally relied on his athleticism to bust up other heavyweights while standing. Despite being 4-0 since making the jump to Bellator, Mitrione is now 40 years old and facing a superior athlete in Bader. More than that, Bader is a pretty miserable style matchup for “Meathead,” given his combination of heavy punching, powerful wrestling and sneaky good submission game. In his February quarterfinal matchup with Roy Nelson, Mitrione eked out a righteous majority decision but was still taken down and controlled in the second half of the fight by “Big Country,” who, despite some good grappling chops in top position, is nowhere near Bader’s level as wrestler, nor as threatening a finisher on top.
Now, this is Bader, so there will always be a sneaking suspicion, especially against a talented striker, that the Arizona-based champion might just run face first into a big punch, which has been a bugaboo for him throughout his career. However, it’s only happened to Bader once in the last five years, and that was against one of the most powerful strikers in MMA history: Anthony Johnson. While Mitrione is a surprisingly versatile striker and definitely packs some pop in his shots, his standup success tends to come via combination striking and not one-hitter quitters, which helps insulate Bader from potential disaster here.
Straight Up PassFedor Emelianenko (-250)
As usual with my “straight up pass” picks, let me be clear and offer some context here: No, I’m not picking Sonnen over Emelianenko. I still think that, even at 42 years old, “The Last Emperor” deserves to be a righteous favorite over Sonnen. Do I have considerable confidence in a faded Emelianenko? Certainly not and definitely not at -250.
Frankly, I was surprised when Emelianenko opened at -200, simply because I figured oddsmakers would be a bit more sheepish about the aged Russian, whose abilities have noticeably declined in recent years, facing a strong wrestler like Sonnen, who might be able to stick him on his back. Again, I like Emelianenko to win the fight and his overall skill set is one that in a more vintage form from yesteryear would have led to his pulverizing Sonnen. He’s a much more powerful, crafty striker; he has takedowns of his own; and he is a fantastic offensive grappler with the sort of submission chops that have long been Sonnen’s Achilles’ heel. Plus, this will only be Sonnen’s fourth fight in almost five years, and one of those fights resulted in his getting smoked in two minutes by Tito Ortiz.
Again, this is not a vote of confidence in Sonnen by any measure but more of an assertion of iffiness with Emelianenko. It isn’t the craziest thing in the world to imagine Sonnen getting takedowns in two of the three rounds and working a conservative top game to limit his own chances at screwing up and getting caught in a submission. If Sonnen did get top position, is it really so crazy to think one of his elbows could slash open Emelianenko’s notoriously thin skin? If I’m forced to bet on either of the Bellator main events this weekend, I’m much more comfortable with Bader at -320 than Emelianenko at -250. However, if you really have an urge to splurge on the former Pride Fighting Championships kingpin, Emelianenko inside the distance at -150 seems like the better value.
A Prop-ular PickSergei Kharitonov-Roy Nelson Goes to Decision (+125)
It might blow up in my face, but I’m willing to roll the dice on an appetizing prop like this. There might have been a time in years past when Nelson would have loaded up his right hand and traded haymakers with Kharitonov, for better or for worse. It might have been a heck of slugfest. However, with where we stand in 2018, I expect to see something a little different and less thrilling.
While Nelson still throws wild, lunging punches as part of his arsenal, the 42-year-old has increasingly gone to his top-position grappling in recent outings against Mitrione and Javy Ayala, whether as a function of the style matchups, an eye toward self-preservation in his 40s or both. Meanwhile, the 38-year-old Kharitonov is heavier and slower than he has ever been but still packs a wallop with his punches, so it’s hard to believe Nelson, who is 3-6 in his last nine fights, wouldn’t try to press the most obvious advantage he has at his disposal.
In his 18-year career, Kharitonov has only been a decision three times, but a lot of that is owed to his own finishing ability and lack of a guard game when he is put on his back. Traditionally, those fighters who have put the Russian on the mat and smashed him with ground-and-pound or exploited his submission defense. However, despite his penchant for exploiting the top crucifix, Nelson tends to favor position over punches or submissions on the ground and is nowhere near the level of finisher that others who have schooled Kharitonov on the floor, like Alistair Overeem, Josh Barnett or even Jeff Monson. Sure, either one of these guys might unload a vicious punch that separates the other from consciousness -- and there is a chance Nelson could tap Kharitonov on the mat -- but regardless of who wins, the combination of Nelson’s control-based grappling and ability to absorb heavy leather give this fight a great shot at going the full 15 minutes.
An Unprop-ular PickBenson Henderson Beats Saad Awad Inside the Distance (+260)
I have to admit, when I saw this line, I thought about it long and hard. Sure, Henderson is long removed from his vintage form, circa 2010, but he’s still a crafty grappler with a nasty squeeze and owner of one of the nastiest guillotine chokes we have ever seen in the sport. Fortunately -- well, at least I hope -- I ruminated on the modern incarnation of Henderson and talked myself out of it.
What tempted me about the line is that I know that Henderson, even if he has lost a step competitively, still has the unique physical and technical traits that made him a dangerous, sudden fight-finisher throughout his career. However, Henderson increasingly deemphasizes them in his fight strategy or lack thereof. More and more over the last three years, Henderson is seemingly content to circle around the cage, throw sporadic bursts of kicks back and forth with his opponents and let them dictate the course of the action before unfurling some wacky, flying attacks. While he tapped a faded Roger Huerta in April, it was Huerta that was pushing the grappling issue to his own detriment. The “Smooth” one was happy to kickbox with him, right until he tripped Huerta off of a kick and essentially had the guillotine gifted to him in a sloppy scramble.
Awad is a solid, well-rounded fighter who on occasion has been let down by his striking defense and chin, but he has gotten more defensively reliable and packs some power in his hands. He’s going to want to have a striking battle with Henderson, who will likely oblige him and doesn’t have the one-shot power to put Awad in danger standing. If Henderson does opt to use his grappling, it will likely just come out in flashes, in the form of late-round takedowns and scrambles rather than a concerted effort to take down Awad early and often and hunt for the throat. Henderson deserves to be the healthy favorite, but the current version of the man is not the same fighter from years ago that used to put his foot down on the gas pedal and not let up, so this fight is likely going all three rounds.
An Accumulation ContemplationRyan Bader (-320) Timothy Johnson (-130) Mandel Nallo (+105) Total Odds: (+376)
I already made the case for Bader topping Mitrione in convincing and thorough fashion. Again, it would have been much sweeter to have swooped in on Bader when he opened at -210, but even if he has been bet down to -320, he’s still a safe and sturdy anchor for a classic three-teamer, especially given how many favored fighters on Bellator 207 and Bellator 208 are -300 and above in potentially trickier matchups.
With so many clear favorites and the mediocre odds that come with them, we have to make some money somewhere. I’ll admit that I’m a little nervous about Johnson, as so much of his style is predicated on throwing heavy punches to close the distance and then attempting to maul opponents in the clinch. He’s facing Cheick Kongo, who despite years of lip service being paid to his vaunted striking, really prefers to clinch along the cage and rough up his opponents with sporadic punches and knees to the body. However, that style of fighting is one of the reasons Kongo ends up in so many close decisions, as he tends to use athletic gifts to simply neutralize opponents along the fence rather actually affecting real offense. Johnson could eat a few big shots when he comes barreling in, but Kongo should be happy to oblige him with the style of fight the American wants; and if Johnson can put the 43-year-old on the canvas, he should be able to rack up points while punching away, as Kongo does not have much to offer from his back other than explosive hip escapes to stand. Plus, Kongo himself has a history of backing straight up without moving his head, which has gotten him busted in the past by the likes of Nelson, Frank Mir and Mark Hunt.
As for Nallo, I think if he had the benefit of more exposure, this line would be flipped or set with the Vancouverite as a clear favorite. Everyone who has worked with him at the Tristar Gym raves about his skill and potential, and if you watch him fight, you can see why. He’s a plus athlete who does everything well, pairing a snappy kickboxing game with strong wrestling, great scrambling and a nose for submissions. Is he as good of a pure wrestler as opponent Carrington Banks? No, probably not, but Banks is mostly just that: a pure wrestler. He’s doesn’t do much on the feet, except to set up his powerful double-leg takedowns and then mostly just controls and chips away on top. Banks’ last outing, his first career loss to Adam Piccolotti, showed the gaps he has on the feet and on the ground. Piccolotti managed to get takedowns of his own by pressuring Banks standing and completely schooled him every which way on the floor with repeated mounts, back mounts, sweeps and submissions. Nallo’s got all the same skills Piccolotti used to dominate Banks and then some. Get on the hype train now.