Bellator MMA on Saturday is planting its flag in Russia for the first time in company history with an event that will counterprogram the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s lackluster showing stateside. This 12-bout offering sees at least one local in every match of the night and brings with it several potential squash matches, especially on the main card. While we will not touch the 20-to-1 favorite Usman Nurmagomedov as he takes on a comically outmatched Finnish opponent, the main and co-main events are primed for finishes. While fans might not leave the VTB Arena in Moscow happy with the headliner result, big men will likely be punched out before all is said and done.
This Bellator 269 edition of Prime Picks, much like the UFC drawing reluctant eyeballs for its wholly unranked event, will receive split coverage as a result. Should you wish to pad your wallet a little thicker, check out the duo of options in the UFC Fight Night 196 Prime Picks.
Timothy Johnson Wins Inside Distance (+125)
Word has it that Fedor Emelianenko hand-picked Johnson as his second-to-last opponent, with the hopes of scoring a victory that puts him in prime position to challenge for the heavyweight strap in his final battle. Brushing aside alluring options over legendary names like Junior dos Santos, Alistair Overeem, Josh Barnett or even Anderson Silva, the stoic Russian elected to keep his title ambitions alive. It is not an inevitability, as some think, that Johnson scores the mighty knockout, deflating hardcore fans and Moscow residents alike in the final fight of the night. It is, however, a mighty enticing option at plus money given Emelianenko’s issues with his chin against power punchers since returning from retirement in 2015. Both men may get cracked, but the man nine years his junior should have better recoverability to outlast the worst of it and put the legend away.
Outside of a bizarre slobberknocker against Fabio Maldonado in 2016, each of Emelianenko’s appearances in nearly a decade have ended by knockout, win or lose. Only Matt Mitrione and Ryan Bader have found the way to put him down, but considering his strength of schedule—high on name recognition but low on active competitive drive—it might have been worse had he faced better names. The shell of Quinton Jackson at heavyweight, Chael Sonnen shifting up two divisions or lumbering Frank Mir falling like a felled tree hardly feel like fair opposition for the Pride Fighting Championships great.
A brawler by trade, Johnson will not shy away from a striking exchange if it means grappling is at a standstill. Leaving the UFC after alternating wins and losses in seven outings, things did not look good for Johnson when Cheick Kongo and Vitaly Minakov starched him in less than three minutes combined. A sudden run and his first win streak since 2015, with knockouts of Mitrione and Tyrell Fortune, placed him in pole position for prime opportunities. A close decision in the rematch with Kongo led to a title fight that went about as poorly as it could for the North Dakotan, who dropped all five non-competitive rounds to Emelianenko protégé Valentin Moldavsky. The Xtreme Couture product wants to trade leather, and that is exactly what Emelianenko will do for as long as it lasts.
If one wanted perhaps the safest option of the night, the -400 line of Fight Doesn’t Go to Decision is practically guaranteed money, as someone is unquestionably getting knocked out in the main event. Based on Emelianenko’s recent ability—or lack thereof—to take damage compared to his opponent, Johnson is the smarter play. The clearest alternative is that the Russian turns things back and blasts his mustachioed adversary with strikes, and +200 is a fair option if you want to ride the “Fedor Train” until the wheels fall off. While 10 years ago this line and recommendation may have been quite different, historically one gets more fragile as he ages. Having recently turned 45, the Emelianenko clock is loudly ticking. For whom the bell tolls, time marches on.
Vitaly Minakov Wins Inside Distance (-125)
Relying on prop bets for fights such as these two allows for a greater value from an expected outcome. Both are heavyweight clashes, and they feature large hammer-throwers against those who struggle with getting hammered in the face. This will be Minakov’s first appearance since August 2019, over two years ago, and opponent Said Sowma has seen the majority of his young career take place in this stretch. The American Top Team upstart out of Suriname has faced off against some of the tougher names Bellator currently has to offer—Fortune and Steve Mowry—in the past, and he has fallen short both times. As long as the time away has not weathered the stony Minakov to rubble, he should get back to his brutally effective ways and record a finish.
To knock out ex-middleweight Ronny Markes and then have to take on a former champion in Minakov makes the youngster Sowma appear to be little more than a sacrificial lamb for the Russian viewers. Ring rust or “cage corrosion” may not be real to some, but Sowma has a real opportunity to get in Minakov’s face early and never let him settle in and get comfortable. Unfortunately for Sowma, he has yet to display real stopping power against bricks that hit back. Minakov has stood up against some of the best fighters outside of the UFC and arguably beaten them all, while Sowma has one solid left hand on a retreating Markes on which to rest his own laurels. Longer and rangier than his opponent, the Russian can chew Sowma up with strikes, toss him to the mat and wrench a limb off or simply catch him cleanly and put him down. While Sowma may have a future in the division, the matchmaking is not doing him any favors. Minakov winning by stoppage at -125—he is a favorite of 3-to-1 and climbing—makes this a worthwhile endeavor.