Pep Talk: Welcome to Primetime, Bellator
(Huerta kneebars Hinton at Bellator XIII. Courtesy of Tom Hill.)
I have to confess that I didn’t watch much of the first season of the Bellator Fighting Championships. Sure, I saw Toby Imada’s reverse triangle at least ten times and Yahir Reyes’ spinning backfist a few times as well. But the idea of watching the English speaking broadcast on the Bellator website the day after the event when I was already well aware of the results didn’t appeal to me. To the promotion’s credit, they parlayed some of those highlight reel finishes and names like Alvarez and Lombard into maximum exposure through YouTube and other online outlets. It left many intrigued by MMA’s only domestic tournament format and a deal with Fox Sports to televise season two will finally enable what should be an emerging fan base to witness the new kid on the MMA block. Bellator 13, the first of twelve events that will answer the question of who takes on Season One champs Soto, Alvarez, Good and Lombard, didn’t disappoint.
Aside from signing several television deals after Season One, the most significant news for Bellator came in the form of corralling Roger Huerta. “El Matador” is a UFC vet and the only mixed martial artist to grace the cover of Sports Illustrated. What would make the lightweight superstar choose BFC over the UFC? “Basically the tournament format was what led to my decision to sign with Bellator. I like that I determine how far I go. But I’m not looking past anyone. All of these guys are hungry fighters. I’m still going to be the same Roger Huerta that comes in aggressive and takes the fight to my opponent.”
Huerta debuted against a tough, undefeated unknown by the name of Chad Hinton. The 38-year-old was very strong and showed good wrestling skills and toughness in round one, giving Roger all he could handle. Huerta, who hadn’t fought since dropping a split decision to Gray Maynard nine months ago looked a bit tentative in the first five minutes and Hinton more than held his own. Then two things happened in round two…Hinton began to gas while Huerta found his rhythm and dominated from bell to bell. Huerta came out in round three the aggressive fighter he promised he would be. Smelling blood and a spent opponent, he landed some big strikes and finished Hinton with a sweet kneebar at 56 seconds of the third as his friends, actor Mickey Rourke and New Orleans Saint Jeremy Shockey, looked on. Rounds two and three were vintage Huerta and could prove to be a handful for anyone in Bellator this side of Eddie Alvarez.
(Joe Warren narrowly escaped this armbar attempt. Courtesy of Tom Hill.)
• The very first fight of season two was a featherweight barnburner that saw Georgi Karakhanyan knock Bao Quach out cold with just under one minute left in round one. Georgi, a former soccer player, was given the nickname “insane” by his mother when he was a child. While Georgi seemed sane in his post-fight interview, the two knees that left Quach out cold might be what mom was talking about. Karakhanyan is a BJJ brown belt with the majority of his wins coming by submission but it was his striking power that earned him a spot in the semifinals and gave the rest of the featherweights something else to be concerned about.
• Based on the expressions on his face walking to the cage, that “insane” moniker might be a better fit for Featherweight Joe Warren. The 2006 Greco Roman World Champion is relatively new to MMA with only three fights under his belt coming into his Bellator debut. But sometimes you have to look at quality over quantity. Joe had wins over former world champions Chase Beebe and Norifumi “Kid” Yamamoto before losing by armbar to eventual Dream Featherweight Grand Prix Champion Bibiano Fernandes. His opponent, Eric Marriott, had a serious advantage in experience with a 17-2 record and eight submission wins, but hadn’t faced a similar level of opponent. Warren used his world-class wrestling to dominate close to 14 of the 15 minutes of the fight but it was Marriott who came closest to finishing with a tight armbar and an even tighter triangle in the first round. Warren survived those threats by heart, guts and athleticism, not technique. Warren’s wrestling technique, however, was exceptional in both his ability to take Marriott down virtually at will and controlling him on the ground for extended periods of time. Unlike many wrestlers turned MMA fighters, Warren was constantly striking and moving when he had ground control, making it impossible for the referee to stand up the action and give his opponent a breather. He’s also very good at stuffing his opponent against the cage, again making it harder to escape the attack. Warren will be interesting to watch in the semifinals as he appears vulnerable to submissions while having takedowns that look to be impossible to stop.
• Joe Duarte found out last Friday that he was the newest entrant in the lightweight tournament when Carey Vanier’s original opponent had visa issues. Duarte held his own in the opening rounds but Vanier wore him down with solid wrestling and ground and pound in the third that had the referee stopping the onslaught before the final bell. As is often the case with late replacements, Joe’s cardio escaped him as the fight went on, allowing Carey’s athleticism and wrestling to leave him with a huge mouse under his eye and the second loss on his record. Vanier collects his seventh straight win and a spot in the lightweight semifinals. If he and Huerta win in the next round, the former training partners will meet in the lightweight final.