Somehow Bellator 97 has crept up on the world without making any noise about what an incredible card this is until this week. Albuquerque, New Mexico plays host to this supremely underrated card, and the show will be broadcast live on Spike starting at 7 EST/6 Central. The night is headlined by Michael Chandler (11-0), the man who dethroned Eddie Alvarez and took his Bellator belt, meeting fan–favorite Dave Rickels (14-1). Chandler is arguably the best fighter on Bellator’s roster, while Rickels is a blue-collar grinder with a caveman gimmick. Chandler is a fantastic wrestler, and has shown flashes of greatness with his heavy hands, but Rickels holds the edge standing up, while Chandler will more than likely be looking to get Rickels on his back early and often. This fight has every reason to be a knock down drag out battle, and that bodes well for Rickels (see his last fight with the tough Saad Awad) but Chandler is a smart fighter, and is on another level. That’s not to diminish what Rickels has done, defeating Lloy Woodard, Awad and Jason FIscher in relatively short order, but Chandler has walked through everyone he’s faced. His drubbing of Rick Hawn in January was impressive, and he no doubt has momentum despite his lengthy periods out of the cage. Next, the long-time Bellator welterweight champion Ben Askren (11-0) takes on fellow undefeated fighter Andrey Koreshkov (13-0). “Funky” as Askren is known, is due to his unique wrestling style in which he seemingly throws caution to the wind over any sort of traditional submission defense. Some people find him boring, but I love watching Askren work, and his recent bouts against Karl Amoussou and Douglas Lima over the last 18 months have shown that Askren is developing some heavy hands. Koreshkov has looked pretty much as scary as a Russian can in his welterweight tournament run. He added a brutal knockout of Marius Zaromskis to his resume, and dominated Lyman Good in fairly shocking fashion to earn the right to challenge Askren for his belt. This is a ground vs stand up battle, with Koreshkov brandishing 8 knockouts, but Askren likely won’t waste anytime in closing the distance, eating a punch and taking down the Russian. Continuing this night of combat sports drama, the light heavyweight tournament concludes as Mohammed Lawal, AKA King Mo (10-2) meets Jacob Noe (12-2) for the right to fight the winner of Attila Vegh and Emmanuel Newton. There’s lots of bad blood between the tow of these guys, and whether or not they’ll allow the emotions to boil over in the cage is a big question. On paper, Noe has little for Mo’s elite wrestling and heavy hands, but as we saw earlier in the year, King Mo has the propensity to keep his hands down, and that cost him against Emmanuel Newton. Mo likes to keep it standing, and Noe has the ability to finish standing up or on the ground, as we’ve seen in his other three fights in the last year, which he won by TKO Babalu Sobral and Seth Petruzelli. It should be mentioned that Petruzelli injured his leg in their fight. Either way, we will likely see a highlight come out of this match. The heavyweight tournament finals are up next, with Vitaly Minakov (11-0) who has torn his way through Bellator, knocking out every man in his path, taking on Ryan Martinez (10-2). Martinez has improved quite a bit in the two years or so since he made an undefeated run in Pro Elite 2.0, and has burst onto the scene in Bellator with an 18-second knockout of Travis Wiuff at Bellator 93 and and a 2:19 KO of Richard Hale at Bellator 96. Neither of these men are afraid to stand and bang, and both men are coming in with a lot of power behind their hands. Minakov and Martinez both have good chins, but there is no doubt that Minakov is a better athlete, with a better gas tank and a closet full of Sambo gold medals, so he doesn’t have to rely completely on his fists. But Martinez is crafty, and somehow finds a way to win his fights. This is a fight where you don’t want to blink. In a featherweight feature match, perennial contender Patricio Pitbull (17-2) will face Jared Downing (9-2), who took this tough fight on short notice after Rob Emerson pulled out with an injury. Most viewers of Bellator thought Pitbull won his fight against Pat Curran for the title at Bellator 85, but the judges saw it the other way. His 5-2 run in Bellator has been exciting and full of highlights, with both knockouts and good decisions filling out his record. It should be noted that Pitbull plans on fighting 6 weeks after this match in the Season 9 featherweight tournament. Jared Downing has a tough test ahead of him, but Downing is a grinder who doesn’t take to complaints. Downing saw a brief run in Bellator in 2010, in which he went 2-0. Downing is a wrestler who can’t finish well, but Pitbull doesn’t like to be on his back very much. Pitbull indeed had good BJJ, but wrestling is the most dominant martial art right now in the MMA cage, so Downing does have that going for him.
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