In the main event of Bellator 244 this Friday, former Bellator MMA light heavyweight champion Ryan Bader and former Ultimate Fighting Championship light heavyweight champ Lyoto Machida will run back their first meeting, which took place in the UFC Octagon nearly nine years ago. More important than the chance for Bader to serve up some very, very cold revenge is that their bout represents the beginning of Bellator’s Light Heavyweight Grand Prix.
The eight-man field includes a bevy of familiar names. Besides Machida and Bader — whose Bellator heavyweight title will apparently be in mothballs for as long as he remains alive in the tournament — there are former UFC standouts such as Phil Davis, Anthony Johnson and Yoel Romero. However, according to the sports books, the shortest odds to emerge victorious lie with the man who already owns the end prize, at least until someone takes hit from him: Vadim Nemkov.
When Nemkov dethroned Bader at Bellator 244 last August, it felt like the thaw after an ice age. The title had finally changed hands after being defended only once in the previous three years, time during which Bader made his foray into the heavyweight division, winning the Grand Prix and the belt in dominant fashion. Better yet, Nemkov himself seems like a breath of fresh air; while the light heavyweight division worldwide is perceived to be aging and lacking in depth, Nemkov is Bellator’s only champion under 30. Now he enters a loaded grand prix, with his belt on the line each time he competes; if he runs the table, he will have added three very credible title defenses to his resumé, putting him in sole possession of the Bellator light heavyweight record.
Here is the 10-year history of the Bellator light heavyweight title and the times it was won, lost or defended. It tells the story of a division breaking out of a long period of stagnation and entering a dynamic new age with a young champion at its head.
Ben Duffy/Sherdog.com illustration