After nearly five months away from the mixed martial arts stage, Bellator MMA returns with a flurry of events that starts with the solid Bellator 255 on Friday at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut. As is customary for this promotion, several fighters on the card come in as overwhelming favorites. By comparison, the Ultimate Fighting Championship has held 11 events so far in 2021, with just nine betting favorites above -500. Bellator 255 alone features five, and we will avoid most of those matches to discern better options and navigate the organization’s return in this edition of Prime Picks.
Patricio Freire-Emmanuel Sanchez 2 Goes to Decision (-170)
Whether a result of the so-called “Mandela Effect” or that Freire has been practically unstoppable since their meeting in 2018, Sanchez gave Freire a tough fight at Bellator 209. Sanchez kept the champ honest on the feet, even hurting him fairly early, although his defensive grappling shortcoming proved to be his undoing after 25 minutes went on. A fearsome striker with legitimate one-shot knockout power, “Pitbull” had his best moments against Sanchez not on the feet but when planting the Roufusport standout on his back. There is nothing that has shown that Sanchez has notably improved in this element to show he would be able to keep Freire at bay with the grappling, and as a result, this fight could look similar to their first meeting only more lopsided.
Sanchez’s durability has never been in question, as he has absorbed the best shots from fighters like Marcos Galvao and Daniel Straus; he even recently tangled with treacherous grappler Daniel Weichel and came out no worse for wear. Sanchez has developed a reputation over the years for taking the best opponents can dish out and be willing to play their game and take it right down to the wire. A Bellator record of four consecutive split decisions from 2015 to 2016 and other close bouts throughout the years is evidence of that. “El Matador” has never been stopped, and he has fought a litany of fighters who have done just that to adversaries over the years. While he has shown the skills to keep up with Freire and may have been a round away from capturing the belt, the wiser play may be that this will go all five rounds no matter who wins.
The champion is a -245 favorite at the moment, and the line on Freire winning on the scorecards is a palatable +140. This is a solid option should you expect that “Pitbull” will get his hand raised but not be able to put the screws to Sanchez and finish the job. Although Sanchez has enough pop in his punches to surprise Freire, this is not remotely his preferred method of victory. If Sanchez pulled off the surprise submission, he would be the first to tap the highly skilled Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt or even finish “Pitbull” in any way other than by injury stoppage. Sanchez’s durability coupled with his gas tank shows that he can be competitive until the bitter end, and the line of this fight going the distance allows for the potential upset to land without selecting it outright.
Neiman Gracie Wins by Submission (+175)
Jason Jackson comes into his co-headliner against Gracie with a slew of momentum behind him. Since a narrow defeat to Ed Ruth in 2019, “The Ass-Kicking Machine” has rattled off a trio of impressive decision wins over former Ultimate Fighting Championship names Kiichi Kunimoto, Jordan Mein and Benson Henderson. In each, Jackson was the larger, stronger man who was unafraid to take the fight wherever he needed. While he may have the size advantage against Gracie, his approach may find himself firmly in the danger zone early if he even sniffs going to the ground with the vastly superior grappler.
Gracie has tapped out seven opponents in the Bellator cage, one shy of the all-time record held by Goiti Yamauchi. Along the way, Gracie has easily taken down and put away adversaries with highly regarded grappling chops, with his last two wins coming over an immensely talented wrestler in Ruth and World Series of Fighting turned Professional Fighters League champ Jon Fitch. Not only was Gracie able to control them on the ground, but he was able to get them there in the first place—a feat few have managed to do over the years. Once on the mat, the savant grappler who took his mother’s name of Gracie while being trained by coral belt and father Marcio Stambowsky. Even if he may not manage to get the fight down in the early going due to Jackson’s strength, repeated attempts will find him in an advantageous position.
Jackson has faced excellent grapplers in the past, including Colby Covington, Hayder Hassan and the aforementioned Ruth. Unfortunately for the Jamaican, he lost in those bouts. His ability to stay afloat against Henderson came partly from him coming in practically a weight class above his opponent, and his strikes had pop that gave his opponent pause. A Jackson who is light on his feet and unwilling to accept any exchanges up against the fence or tossing aside takedown attempts could ride out a nail-biter of a decision (+240). However, the smart money should be on submission magician who can control where the fight takes place, as he finds Jackson waning as the fight progresses. Although Gracie dropped a decision to Rory MacDonald, he had the Canadian great mounted at a point in their fight. Should this happen when Gracie faces Jackson, the submission will almost certainly materialize.
Tyrell Fortune-Jack May Goes Under 1.5 Rounds (-170)
A rematch months in the making came together when Fortune’s former opponent Matt Mitrione was forced to withdraw from their pairing. In steps May, a rangy kickboxer with questionable takedown defense. When he faced Fortune the first time, the Arizona Combat Sports export took May down with ease, and the writing was nearly on the wall after just two minutes but for an errant knee that blasted May in the groin. At 39 years of age and after a disappointing wrestling-heavy loss in January to a man in Kyle Noblitt who took the fight the same day, May does not appear to have much in the tank for the talented wrestler. Be that as it may, the last thing to go is the power, and his kicks can still cause some serious damage.
Should May unexpectedly get his hand raised—“The Outlaw” is a huge +475 underdog for a reason—it will be because he blitzed Fortune and never let him get into a rhythm. Every one of May’s career knockouts have come in the opening five-minute period, whether from heavy punches or vicious kicks. While his power may still be with him, his speed has diminished a great deal. Even so, it still only takes the right kick up top or uppercut when Fortune is changing levels to do some damage, if May’s former opponent Derrick Lewis has anything to say of the matter. Otherwise, May is going to have to defend himself from either looping single strikes or a chain of takedown attempts until he gets put on his back. None of these scenarios forecast a long evening.
Most of Fortune’s career wins have come in the Under, and his only loss came at the 2:35 mark of the opening frame. A relentless stream of takedowns should take away May’s only possible way to win the fight, and the attempts came early in their 2020 meeting. When tied up while pursuing a low single-leg takedown, Fortune drilled May in the cup with a flush knee that ultimately halted the contest. The conventional wisdom dictates that Fortune would hit the takedown he sought so badly before long, and that this result should play out in the rematch. When Fortune gets on top, he is a smashing machine; May’s long legs will not allow him to get out of harm’s way, and he does not have any submission chops with which to threaten when inevitably placed on his back. Due to the odds as they stand, the bout lasting less than 7:30 provides far greater value than the anticipated result of Fortune Wins Inside Distance at -275. With all but one of May’s stoppage losses hitting the Under and all of his finish wins coming in less than five minutes, this has the makings of one that should not last long even if an upset takes place.
Alejandra Lara (-185)
Level of competition goes a long way in this sport. Both women grew their records thanks to generally questionable matchmaking on their respective ways up, as Lara did not take on an opponent who had won a fight until her seventh pro bout. On the other hand, Kana Watanabe remained unbeaten thanks to a schedule composed of either Shizuka Sugiyama or practical MMA neophytes like Justyna Haba and Soo Min Kang. This bout may simply boil down to who is ready to take on top-flight fighters, as Lara has faced the best that Bellator can offer while her Japanese rival has barely dipped her toes in the water. The Colombian is a fair favorite given her skillset in comparison to Watanabe, but there is still some value as long as she does not rise above a line of around -200 or so.
Of the two women, Lara is the one who has lost, but she has done so against UFC talent Sabina Mazo, former Bellator champion Ilima-Lei Macfarlane and current Bellator champion Juliana Velasquez; against the latter, she did enough to have one judge think she won. In this bout against Watanabe, Lara matches up well, as her striking game is far more sophisticated and her grappling ledger has shown to be able to stand up to anything the judoka may throw her way. Watanabe may be a physical specimen, but “Azul” is not far off and is still coming into her own at just 26 years of age. As her striking is leaps and bounds above that of her Japanese counterpart and her grappling is at least as good as Watanabe, this should be her fight to lose.
Watanabe does present challenges, as her strength can match Lara should the fight end up close-quarters. She almost certainly wants to drag the fight to the ground. The majority of the unbeaten fighter’s career has come against untested opponents, and Lara will unquestionably be the toughest combatant that Watanabe has faced. This rise in level of competition will surprise her and lead to her undoing. “Azul” presents danger on the feet and can threaten off her back or try to pull off sweeps, and she can very well become the first to beat Watanabe.