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Bellator MMA in early 2018 announced eight-man, single-elimination tournaments in its welterweight and heavyweight divisions. It felt right for several reasons. It was a nod to the promotion’s original format in which tournaments determined the next title challenger in each division. It was also a reflection of the fondness that Bellator CEO and former Strikeforce President Scott Coker had for the tournament format. To elevate the stakes even further, reigning champion Douglas Lima entered the welterweight grand prix—his title was at stake in each fight—while the heavyweight tournament would fill the championship that had been vacant since Vitaly Minakov was stripped in 2016.
If the two grands prix exemplified much of what makes Bellator exciting—and distinct from the Ultimate Fighting Championship—the heavyweight bracket, at least, also reinforced some of the complaints. Six of the eight entrants were UFC veterans, and five would be over 40 by the time the tournament finished, two facts that did little to dispel the notion that Bellator sometimes served as a pre-retirement home for former UFC contenders. Nonetheless, the inclusion of the legendary Fedor Emelianenko and reigning Bellator light heavyweight champion Ryan Bader added plenty of intrigue to the proceedings.
At Bellator 199 on May 12, 2018, Bader faced Muhammed Lawal in their opening-round quarterfinal matchup. At 34 and 37, respectively, Bader and “King Mo” were the two youngest fighters in the field, and along with former UFC middleweight and light heavyweight title challenger Chael Sonnen, two of the smallest. As such, the matchup appeared to promise fireworks in a way that the Roy Nelson-Matt Mitrione rematch on the other side of the bracket did not.
Once the fight began, fireworks did indeed result but not for very long. Bader dropped Lawal with the first serious strike of the fight, a left hook, and swarmed for the finish. Referee Mike Beltran gave “King Mo” ample time to recover, but after at least a half-dozen unanswered shots to the head, he waved the fight off, giving Bader the TKO win just 15 seconds into Round 1.
From that lightning-quick win, Bader went on to dominate Mitrione in the semifinals, using his vastly superior wrestling to sweep all three rounds with almost comical ease. In the tournament final in January 2019, he met Emelianenko and wiped him out in 35 seconds with an overhand left and follow-up punches on the ground. Bader had advanced through a three-round tournament without absorbing a single significant strike from any of his opponents and became Bellator’s first simultaneous two-division champion in the process.