Promotion president Scott Coker called it the “biggest lightweight tournament in MMA history.” Friday will be the first chance to see if he can live up to the hype.
SAN JOSE, Calif.—Friday’s Bellator 292 event marks the start of an ambitious lightweight grand prix for the promotion, bringing together eight of the organization’s best 155-pounders to vie for a tournament title and the $1 million prize that comes with it.
With the participating athletes coming from four different continents, each one brings a special flavor to the field and choosing one as a sure winner is a daunting task.
With 163 combined professional wins between them, not to mention a staggering 73.6% of those won by knockout or submission, the bouts seem certain to produce fireworks.
Bellator president Scott Coker believes it’s the best tournament the promotion has ever put together, which is saying quite a bit since the California-based organization has hosted annual contests for the past 15 years.
“This is going to be, I think, arguably the biggest lightweight tournament in MMA history,” Coker said. MMA Underground. “I mean, you’ve seen the gauntlet of fighters that are going to be in this tournament, and I think there are two or three dark horses that could upset a lot of these other fighters, and it’s going to depend on how they perform under pressure.”
Nurmagomedov (left) and Henderson (right) will compete for the lightweight title.
Photo courtesy of Lucas Noonan/Bellator MMA
The first two quarterfinal bouts will take place Friday at the SAP Center, headlined by Bellator 292 airing on Showtime (10 p.m. ET). The night’s main event sees lightweight champion Usman Nurmagomedov (16–0 MMA, 5–0 BMMA) put his title on the line in a grand prix bout with former UFC and WEC champion Benson Henderson (30–11 MMA, 7–6 BMMA). ).
Meanwhile, the co-main event featured some lesser known but dangerous fighters with Russia’s Alexander Shabliy (22–3 MMA, 3–0 BMMA) taking on Azerbaijan’s Tofiq Musayev (20–4 MMA, 1–0 BMMA) .
Coker said attracting both household names and rising stars was essential for the venue and believes it could prove to be a breakout opportunity for some of the organisation’s younger faces.
“This is a business where you need consistent talent and these young people that we have in front of us are the future of this company,” Coker said. “I guarantee you that after this tournament is over, everybody’s going to know all these guys because they’re all very, very good.”
Additional first round bouts scheduled for upcoming Bellator events include French-Tunisian newcomer Mansour Barnaoui (20–4 MMA, 1–0 BMMA) vs. former lightweight champion Brent Primus (11–3 MMA, 9–3 UFC) and former featherweight titleholder AJ McKee (20–1 MMA, 20–1 BMMA) vs. former lightweight champion Patricky ‘Pitbull’ Freire (24–11 MMA, 15–9 BMMA).
Quite simply, there doesn’t seem to be an easy road for any of the eight competitors in the field, and Coker believes the winner will have a real claim to being the best 155-pounder in the world, regardless of the event. It’s a bold claim, but one he believes has merit, and Coker points to the likes of American Top Team founder and industry veteran Dan Lambert to support his belief.
“Honestly, come on, how could you deny that?” asked Coker. “The guy doesn’t go through one, two – he goes through three fights in a year period with fighters of this quality, he has to be the best lightweight. And listen, talk to Dan Lambert. Who is the best 185 in the world right now? Johnny Eblen. He’ll tell you and he fights for Bellator. Who is the best 170? [Yaroslav] AmOsov, right?
“These guys, you know, they don’t think they get the respect they deserve, but I’m telling you right now, they’re the best fighters. We have the best 205 in [Vadim] Nemkov, best 185 in Eblen. We have the best 170-pounders, and then for me, the glove is here. We’ll see in a year who will come out No. 1.”
UFC president Dana White would likely have a different opinion, but so would the heads of other major promotions like ONE Championship and the PFL, as well as top regional organizations around the world like KSW, Rizin FF and others.
Traditional MMA business practices leave very little opportunity for these various organizations to step in and support these claims in an actual fight, but Coker—who teamed up with Rizin FF CEO Nobuyuki Sakakibara for a co-promoted event in December—does not rule out the idea of such an arrangement in the future.
“Listen, we’re waking up and focusing on our business,” Coker said. “But does it have to happen one day? Surely it has to happen one day, and we’re not stopping it, are we? And when it happens, hopefully one day, it’s going to be big, and it’s not just us or not just the UFC, but it’s going to be ONE FC, it’s going to be everybody—Rizin, and everybody everywhere in the world. Let’s make a World Cup, a real World Cup, not a school World Cup, and let’s get on with it.”
Easier said than done, but it’s an idea for the future. In the meantime, Bellator officials will focus on their own brand, and Coker said he’s really excited to see who ultimately comes out of the grand prix that starts Friday night.
“I’m really excited for this first night of fights because Shabliy and Musayev are killers and Benson has been around for a long time but he’s still got it,” Coker said. “The guy is going to be scrappy, and he’s going to be in Usman’s face, he’s going to put a lot of pressure on them and let’s see how Usman handles that pressure.
“I would say this tournament is extremely exciting. This might be the best tournament we’ve hosted to date, and it’s going to be a year of just great competition and I can’t wait to see who the finalists are.”