The start of Bellator’s 2021 schedule is upon us! To kick off 2021 and Bellator’s new partnership with Showtime, we have a pretty solid night of fights for Bellator 255: Pitbull vs. Sanchez.
The main event is a continuation of the Bellator Featherweight Grand Prix which began in 2019 with 16 featherweights looking to capture the Bellator World Featherweight title and a check for $1million.
Competitors fell to the wayside as the tournament marched on, and on Friday, we get a semifinal bout between Bellator’s featherweight and lightweight champion, Patricio Pitbull and perennial featherweight contender Emmanuel Sanchez. This bout is a rematch of a 2018 title bout that saw Pitbull win by unanimous decision. The winner of the rematch not only takes home Bellator gold, but they will move on to fight A.J. McKee in the finals of the Grand Prix later this year.
Before we take a closer look at the main event, let’s have a peep at the rest of the main card.
Heavyweight: Tyrell Fortune vs. Jack May
Tyrell Fortune (9-1, 9-1 Bellator) is a heavyweight athlete out of Boca Raton, Florida. His entire professional MMA career has been with Bellator. Fortune came into MMA as a wrestler, but he has since added in quick footwork and relaxed striking. He is really big and really athletic, making Fortune an interesting test for any heavyweight. In terms of weapons, Fortune has a good jab and a nice right hand that often comes behind it. The punches are straight and measured. One issue I see is when Fortune exits a clinch – his hands are either straight out or down by his side, either way, they aren’t protecting his chin. When Fortune needs to, he can also go to his wrestling, which is strong and fast. He doesn’t chain takedown attempts often, but that’s mainly because he’s able to get the first attempt.
How Fortune Wins: I think Fortune should wrestle in this bout due to how his first bout against May went. It ended early due to an accidental low-blow from Fortune, but before that, Fortune was using his wrestling and starting to grind on May. Even for heavyweight, May is pretty tall, so it would do Fortune well to crush the striking range and go for a finish on the floor.
How Fortune Loses: If Fortune gets stuck at the striking range of May, he’s going to have issues. May has such a long reach, so Fortune will have to get on the inside to win. If Fortune chooses to play kickboxing, he has a chance of getting caught.
Jack May (11-7-1, 1-0-1 Bellator) is a fighter out of Whittier, California. He is a bit of a regional journeyman, but that doesn’t mean he is destined to be squashed by Fortune. May is a striker, having competed in not only MMA, but boxing, kickboxing, and bare knuckle boxing. While it’s nothing I would consider “high-level”, May is dangerous in striking exchanges. He is good at winging hooks while backing up, and he has some good elbows in the clinch. His conditioning leaves a lot to be desired, and taking a fight on short notice like he is in this one doesn’t bode well for that aspect of the game.
How May Wins: May wins with power and timing. As previously stated, May can time some powerful hooks while his opponent barrels into him. He has a chance of catching Fortune as he retreats.
How May Loses: If May misses on that retreating hook, he will end up with his back to the cage where Fortune will be able to start wrestling. If Fortune starts grappling, May will get worn down quickly. After he is exhausted, May will be at the mercy of Fortune.
Lightweight: Usman Nurmagomedov vs. Mike Hamel
Usman Nurmagomedov (11-0, 0-0 Bellator) is the cousin of the former UFC Lightweight Champion Khabib Nurmagomedov, and he is as hot a prospect as in any MMA organization. He is a more refined striker than his cousin. Nurmagomedov switches stances and stays unpredictable by mixing in crisp boxing with solid Muay Thai. The question mark kick is one that he throws quite a bit. When it comes to wrestling, Nurmagomedov honors his family name with fantastic chain-wrestling and some great jiu-jitsu as well.
How Nurmagomedov Wins: Just keep doing what he’s doing. Nurmagomedov is ridiculously well-rounded. He will probably get it done with his striking, but he can get it done on the floor as well.
How Nurmagomedov Loses: Nurmagomedov leans back pretty hard to avoid oncoming traffic. Most of the time, he will pair that with backward footwork, but he stands still if he’s in the pocket and looking to counter. This puts him out of position to defend a takedown, exactly what Hamel will be looking for. This was really the only thing I saw, but even the smallest detail can make a big difference in a cage fight.
Mike Hamel (7-4, 0-1 Bellator) is a fighter out of The MMA Lab in Glendale, Arizona. He is a strong wrestler who likes to overwhelm opponents early. Hamel sets a high pace early, even if that means he can’t maintain it the full 15 minutes. It’s a gamble he’s comfortable to make, I guess. Even though he lost, Hamel last fought to a split-decision against Adam Borics, the #3 Bellator featherweight contender. In that bout, we saw improvements in his striking, but Hamel ultimately tried to stick to his bread and butter: wrestling. He only knows one direction, and that’s forward.
How Hamel Wins: Hamel gets this done through his wrestling and ground control. He will need to set a high pace early because it takes a bit for Nurmagomedov to settle into his fights. Hamel’s forward pressure should be a weapon in itself.
How Hamel Loses: If Hamel’s wrestling is halted, he won’t have many options on the feet. He doesn’t have a ton of weapons there. He pretty much has an overhand right, a pawing left hook, and some stiff-looking kicks. He’s also quite hittable on the outside due to a lack of meaningful head movement.
Flyweight: Kana Watanabe vs. Alejandra Lara
Kana Wantanabe (9-0-1, 1-0 Bellator) has been perfect thus far in her MMA career. She started her martial arts journey with Judo and it definitely shows in her fights. Her standup fighting is not bad, but she is clearly looking for clinch-based takedowns. Those takedowns are fantastic Judo trips that she’ll chain together to eventually force her opponent to the mat. Watanabe likes to fight from the top position on the ground and she has some pretty effective and powerful ground and pound. Also, judging from her last bout against Ilara Joanne at Bellator 237, Watanabe has some great submission defense as well. Her major issue is when her clinches get thwarted. She sometimes just starts pawing at air and gets clipped with punches as a result. She also seems to be vulnerable to strikes on clinch exits.
How Watanabe Wins: Get to the clinch, trip takedown, and get on top. Watanabe is strong in top position and she’s shown finishing ability from either submissions or ground strikes. She can either go for the finish on the floor, or she can look to wear Lara out for a decision.
How Watanabe Loses: If she can’t get her Judo started, Watanabe will be in a bit of trouble. As stated earlier, her striking isn’t terrible, but it’s not on the level of Lara either.
Alejandra Lara (9-3, 3-2 Bellator) is an athlete out of Combat Training Club in Colombia. While 3-2 is not a phenomenal record for her Bellator tenure, her only two losses were against current Flyweight champion Juliana Velasquez and former champion Illima-Lei Macfarlane. If you’re gonna have losses, those aren’t the worst ones to have. Lara is a dynamic attacker on the feet, often utilizing multi-strike combinations in a straight darting line. Her kicks are accurate and fast, and she normally tacks them on the end of punch combinations. The main issue I see is a common one: she stuffs her offense when her opponents are against the cage. She will throw an awesome combination that connects with every part, but when her opponent retreats to the fence, Lara will push into the clinch instead of continuing to land bombs.
How Lara Wins: She wins with her striking, that’s clear, but she will also have to stay away from the clinch. Lara will also need to manage her distance when attacking or advancing on Watanabe, but she should be able to catch Watanabe with something kick-related. Lara’s head kicks are quite good.
How Lara Loses: If Lara tries to play in the clinch, she will be going directly where Watanabe wants the fight to take place. She has a natural tendency to push into the clinch, so she might do that here, and I think that would start the beginning of the end.
Welterweight: Neiman Gracie vs. Jason Jackson
Neiman Gracie (10-1, 8-1 Bellator) comes from MMA’s royal family and he fights like it. This ground specialist has been rounding out his game for a while, but you know it, he knows it, and I know it that he’s looking to end his fights on the floor. While he faced a pretty brutal defeat to Rory MacDonald where he was more or less brutalized for 25 minutes, Gracie rebounded a year later with a submission win over Jon Fitch. Even though Fitch is not the same fighter he was in his UFC heyday, it was an impressive name for Gracie to add to his MMA victim list. As stated, Gracie has put in work on his standup and he has much better kicks than boxing. He also doesn’t react to getting hit very well, often dipping his head and either turning away or reaching for a clinch. Whatever deficiencies he has on the feet, he more than makes up for on the mat. Either on top or bottom, Gracie is quick to snap onto submissions.
How Gracie Wins: This is pretty simple, he needs it on the floor. His wrestling is not the best from the open, so he will need to clinch Jackson against the cage and look to advance from there. I’d say stay at kicking range, which he is good at or get all the way inside the clinch. Avoid the boxing range.
How Gracie Loses: Gracie leaves his chin exposed on his striking combinations, especially on his hooks and body shots. If things go wrong, it will be because he gets clipped by a countershot from Jackson.
Jason Jackson (13-4, 3-1 Bellator) is a fighter out of Sanford MMA and he has put together a nice three-fight run in the lead-up to this bout against Gracie, the most recent win being a unanimous decision over former UFC and WEC Lightweight Champion Benson Henderson. Before his jump to Bellator, Jackson captured the LFA Welterweight title. His game is based on using his length to put together boxing combinations which are quite powerful. He doesn’t put people away often, but he is good at maintaining his striking distance and staying patient. In addition, since his decision loss to Ed Ruth, Jackson’s Bellator debut, Jackson has clearly worked on his wrestling defense and grappling in general. While I wouldn’t recommend Jackson going to the floor on this one, he has shown enough developments in the grappling aspect of MMA to make this bout against a Gracie a bit more interesting.
How Jackson Wins: Jackson wins by staying at boxing range and using his fantastic jab/cross. While he doesn’t kick much, he should do it even less here. If Jackson can avoid the clinch and maintain his boxing range, he may be able to capitalize with his counter-striking.
How Jackson Loses: If he gets too close hunting for a finish, he may end up in the clinch which will not be good for him against Gracie. Jackson will sometimes accept top position against fighters who want him there. If he chooses to play in the guard of Gracie, it will not last long.
Featherweight Championship: Patricio Pitbull vs. Emmanuel Sanchez
Emmanuel Sanchez (20-4, 15-3 Bellator) is a fighter out of Roufusport in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He is currently the #2 ranked Bellator featherweight and has only lost once since 2017, dropping a unanimous decision to Patricio Pitbull in 2018. Sanchez rebounded from that loss and has stormed his way to three straight wins heading into this title rematch and Bellator Grand Prix semifinal bout. Sanchez’ avenged his second most recent loss in his last fight when he won a decision against Daniel Weichel, earning himself this semifinal slot against Pitbull. In that bout against Weichel, Sanchez showcased a gas tank that is on par with any I’ve seen at 145lbs, regardless of promotion. While Sanchez has great striking, solid jiu-jitsu, and always improving wrestling, his #1 weapon is his pace. He just doesn’t stop coming forward, throwing attacks left and right.
Sanchez’ first fight against Pitbull showed some promising avenues to victory in a potential rematch. Sanchez is one of the only men to drop or hurt Pitbull in a meaningful amount of time. In addition, Sanchez wore on Pitbull a bit with his previously mentioned high pace. As stated, that gas tank has only improved. He needs to avoid getting taken down, that’s what cost him most the first time he had a shot at Pitbull.
How Sanchez Wins: Set a high pace and keep it. Sanchez wears opponents out through forward motion and high attack volume. He can mix in some offensive wrestling from time to time, but he should stick to his striking, the thing that almost won him the title in their first conflict.
How Sanchez Loses: Sanchez has had a consistent issue defending takedowns. Now, he usually finds his way up, and he is constantly attacking from his back, but he can’t afford to let Pitbull get his wrestling going. That is how Pitbull won the first fight, and while Sanchez has improved a ton since then, but he hasn’t completely fixed that issue in his game, and Pitbull’s wrestling has only gotten better.
Patricio Pitbull (31-4, 19-4 Bellator) is Bellator’s first and only double-champion, having captured both the featherweight and lightweight titles. Bellator hasn’t stripped him either, so Pitbull comes into this bout with both belts around his shoulders. In the last four years, Pitbull has looked as elite as any MMA featherweight on the planet. He has great boxing, solid kicks, and a wrestling game that has become a serious part of his overall skill set in recent bouts. Pitbull trains out of the Pitbull Brothers Gym in Natal, Brazil.
What I’m impressed most with from Pitbull is his constant evolution. Starting from the Benson Henderson bout, Pitbull was already really good, but he kept polishing his game. He used to not set up his big right straight with jabs, but now he does. His kicks used to be an afterthought, but now he throws spinning kicks. The largest evolution of his game is his wrestling, especially from clinch positions. He is able to find his underhooks really well, and he is now able to hit some great greco-roman inside and outside trips. All this evolution is just within the last five years.
How Pitbull Wins: Pitbull wins with timing. Pitbull’s timing will be important for not only his counter-striking but also his wrestling. I fully expect him to exercise his grappling in this bout, just like the first one. Pitbull was able to turn the tide in his first meeting with Sanchez because of his improved wrestling. It’s only gotten better, so I expect Pitbull to get his wrestling started earlier.
How Pitbull Loses: Pitbull gets tired, and he sometimes takes rounds off, which he cannot afford to do against the current-day Emmanuel Sanchez. Sanchez won round 4 in their first bout because Pitbull took it off. He threw very little and just tried to avoid getting caught. The Sanchez today is a much better volume striker throughout the entire length of a 25-minute contest. Also, remember that Sanchez was the last athlete to hurt or drop Pitbull, so Pitbull might also get clipped in some of the wild exchanges he’s down to get into.
And that’s it! Thanks for reading, and enjoy the fights!
If you’d like to keep up with me outside of the predictions, you can catch me on the Sparring Partners Podcast, either on YouTube or Spotify.
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Categories: Bellator, Editorials
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