Bellator Fighting Championships will head to "The Land of Enchantment" this Wednesday night (July 31, 2013) at the Santa Ana Star Center in Rio Rancho, New Mexico.
The special three hour main card will air live on Spike TV on fight night, beginning at 7 p.m. ET.
Headlining the main event will be a lightweight title fight featuring top-ranked champion Michael Chandler defending his belt against season eight tournament winner David Rickels. Rickels stepped up on eight week's notice after season seven lightweight tournament winner Dave Jansen went down with a knee injury, having to drop 50 pounds from his original training camp weight.
Also on tap will be a welterweight title fight pitting a pair of undefeated fighters as champion Ben Askren looks to defend his crown against elite Russian prospect Andrey Koreshkov. Koreshkov won the season seven welterweight tournament, defeating the likes of Jordan Smith, Marius Zaromskis and former champion Lyman Good in the process. Koreshkov promises he won't break like Askren's previous opponents.
Last but not least, a pair of tournament finals will take place as highly touted signing Muhammed Lawal vies for the Summer Series light heavyweight tournament crown against rival Jacob Noe while much ballyhooed Russian heavyweight prospect Vitaly Minakov challenges Ryan Martinez for the Summer Series heavyweight tournament championship.
Complete Bellator 97 preview and predictions are posted below.
155 lb. title: Michael Chandler (11-0) vs. David Rickels (14-1)
Chandler has looked dominant thus far in his Bellator career, quickly becoming the face of the promotion after knocking off former champion Eddie Alvarez in one of the most entertaining fights in MMA history. He's since destroyed Akhiro Gono in a non-title fight and defended his belt in devastating fashion with a dominant submission of Rick Hawn earlier this year.
Rickels took the long road to this fight, working his way up from the Bellator preliminary card and stopping everyone to the point where he could no longer be ignored. He had moderate success as a welterweight but after dropping down to 155 pounds, he's looked fantastic, beating the likes of Lloyd Woodard, Jason Fischer and Saad Awad to earn his title opportunity.
The key battle will be Chandler's power matched up against Rickels' no-quit attitude and overall scrappiness. Chandler will be the superior wrestler and likely has better one-punch ability, but Rickels does a great job of hanging around in fights, making adjustments and punishing his opponents late. He's done as much against nearly everyone's he's fought, and don't count out Rickels' striking as he's scored a pair of explosive knockouts in tournaments already. The main thing to look out for is endurance. While Rickels hasn't had many issues before, the fact that his training camp was short and he had to spend a majority of it getting into fight shape could really hurt him here.
Final prediction: Michael Chandler via decision
170 lb. title: Ben Askren (11-0) vs. Andrey Koreshkov (13-0)
Askren has been nothing short of unstoppable since signing up with Bellator. The former Olympic wrestler has utilized his takedowns and top control to smother everyone in his path, taking out Lyman Good for the title and then defending his belt against Jay Hieron, Douglas Lima and most recently, his first TKO stoppage over Karl Amoussou where he showcased heightened aggression with some nasty elbows from top position.
Koreshkov is an extremely talented Russian prospect. Training out of the RusFighter team alongside Bellator champion Alexander Shlemenko, he's made a tremendous impact already, knocking out two opponents to warm up with the promotion and then working his way through the season seven welterweight tournament to earn his title shot. He's spent the last six months training in Siberia for the belt and considering his young age, still has a very high ceiling for improvement.
That being said, the only thing that matters in this fight is whether Koreshkov can either stuff Askren's takedowns or knock him out on the way in. If he can't do that, this will be the Douglas Lima fight all over again where he's taken down and dominated. Koreshkov has a decent ground game, but he's not going to submit Askren off his back. This fight will entirely come down to stopping Askren from imposing his wrestling and I just don't think he's quite there yet.
Final Prediction: Ben Askren via decision
205 lbs.: Muhammed Lawal (10-2) vs. Jacob Noe (12-2)
"King Mo" was a star signing for Bellator considering his prior history as a Strikeforce champion and his standout wrestling ability, but his first run through the Bellator tournament didn't go quite as expected as he passed to the semifinals with ease but was knocked out by Emanuel Newton with a beautiful spinning back fist. He bounced back in devastating fashion against Seth Petruzelli and is looking to get right back into the thick of the title picture if he can beat Noe.
Noe has quickly made a name for himself after stopping some well-known veterans of the sport. He blasted Seth Petruzelli in the season eight tournament before coming up short against finalist Mickail Zayats. In the Summer Series, he survived Renato Sobral's best shot before finishing him in the third round and actually beating the veteran into retirement. He has a chance to really make a name for himself against Lawal.
The most interesting thing about this fight is whether or not Lawal takes Noe down or stands with him. He destroyed Petruzelli with ground and pound, but also knocked out his season eight quarterfinal opponent standing. He's taking more of a risk by standing with Noe, but it also means for a more exciting fight most likely. Noe is not going to beat Lawal on the ground, so he'll have to do whatever it takes to prevent that from happening. I just don't think he'll be able to thwart the takedown.
Final Prediction: Muhammed Lawal via TKO in round two
265 lbs.: Ryan Martinez (10-2) vs. Vitaly Minakov (11-0)
Martinez has become quite the underdog sensation. He first made a name for himself by defeating national champion wrestler Mark Ellis in an MMA bout, but he's since stood out by knocking out back to back Bellator finalists Travis Wiuff and Richard Hale in the first round, the latter was a fight taken on 24 hours' notice. Now, he's had a full training camp to prepare for an extremely talented Russian prospect.
Minakov is a beast. He won the world championships in sambo four years in a row and transitioned smoothly to MMA, knocking out or submitting nearly everyone he's faced in the first round. His Bellator debut was finished with a devastating second round TKO and he proceeded to blast veteran Ron Sparks in just 32 seconds in his last fight.
Martinez will need to use some of his wrestling skills to either get inside and land with power on the feet or put Minakov on his back and work him over with ground and pound. He proved in his last fight he can do some serious damage even if just inside someone's guard. Minakov, on the other hand, will need to utilize his size and length on the feet, catching Martinez from distance and stopping takedowns similar to what Mike Wessel was able to do just under a year ago. I feel like Martinez won't be able to bully Minakov like he did Hale and Wiuff.
Final Prediction: Vitaly Minakov via decision