One week after the launch of Bellator MMA's new era as it debuted on its exclusive broadcasting home of Showtime in the U.S., the promotion will kick off a much-anticipated light heavyweight tournament this weekend.
Former Bellator 205-pound champion -- and the promotion's current heavyweight king -- Ryan Bader squares off with former UFC titleholder Lyoto Machida in a rematch that is nine years in the making. The five-round bout headlines Bellator 256 from Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut, and marks the start of the eight-man Bellator MMA Light Heavyweight World Grand Prix.
Let's take a closer look at the biggest storylines entering the tournament.
1. Vadim Nemkov has anything but a champion's advantage
The reigning Bellator MMA light heavyweight king came out of nowhere in recent years to become one of the brightest young future stars in the sport. Nemkov, a 28-year-old native of Russia, stopped Bader last August to record his seventh straight win. The victory was Nemkov's fourth straight against current or former Bellator champions and helped the Fedor Emelianenko protege announce himself on a global scale.
But Nemkov's challenges only get more difficult from here as he opens the tournament on April 16 against former champion Phil Davis in a rematch of their 2018 bout decided via split decision. Should he advance from there, Nemkov finds himself on a particularly dangerous side of the bracket awaiting the winner of the much-anticipated May 7 shootout between former UFC title challengers Anthony "Rumble" Johnson and Yoel Romero. As both the defending champion and tournament betting favorite, Nemkov will have a giant target on his back each step of the way. If he can finish the tournament this October as champion, it would also give him a strong case for both fighter of the year in 2021 and the moniker of being the most battle-tested 205-pound fighter on the planet.
2. Does Anthony Johnson vs. Yoel Romero fail to deliver?
Kudos to Bellator's matchmakers in booking this matchup between explosive free-agent signings as a first-round fight in the Grand Prix rather than gambling on chance to pair them up together. Johnson-Romero is, without question, the most anticipated fight in this tournament, and it could produce a dark-horse favorite given the ceilings of both fighters. The question surrounding both, however, is whether we will see them perform up to the image fans have in their heads. The matchup has the potential to be a surprise disappointment, similar to Romero's close decision defeat to Israel Adesanya last year in a fight largely void of action.
Romero is 43, technically riding a three-fight losing streak and is moving back up to 205 pounds, where he hasn't competed since 2011. Johnson, at 37, hasn't fought since a self-imposed retirement which began in 2017 following his passive UFC title loss to Daniel Cormier in their rematch. Both enter with plenty of questions surrounding their futures along with equal potential for outright fireworks once they touch gloves given their histories as violent finishers. Whether it plays out up to expectations or falls short, there's little debate that the fight will be tense throughout as Johnson and Romero circle one another ready to strike. This one has all the makings to be the most unique and interesting of any bout the tournament can produce.
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3. Ryan Bader's competitiveness deserves recognition
It wasn't that long ago that Bader was undergoing a career resurgence when he captured the Bellator heavyweight title by winning that Grand Prix tournament in 2019, adding to the 205-pound title he already owned. The longtime UFC veteran would run into the buzzsaw that is Nemkov, however, as the newly-crowned light heavyweight king ran through Bader with relative ease last year. Given his age at 37 and his newfound identity as a viable heavyweight fighter,
Bader could've easily left his 205-pound dreams in the past while focusing on defending his Bellator heavyweight title. Instead, Bader doubled down by quickly offering his name to the bracket when Bellator president Scott Coker shared plans for a tournament. Bader has subsequently explained away his loss to Nemkov as a lack of focus given a mounting level of unexplained personal issues threatening him outside the cage at the time. Starting with Friday's rematch against Machida, who knocked him out in their 2012 UFC bout, Bader begins his road to redemption in hopes the tournament final offers him yet another rematch -- this time against Nemkov to regain his title.
4. Sleeping dogs lie in the form of Phil Davis, Corey Anderson
Let's face it, the best part about any tournament is the potential for upsets and interesting matchups to organically develop. In many cases, particularly in fight tournaments, the early favorites aren't the ones who end up hoisting the hardware due to injuries and the wear and tear that comes with agreeing to fight three times against world-class competition over a six-month span. Elements like consistency can become just as important in a tournament as the potential to win spectacularly. When taking a closer look at the eight-man field, it's clear that each side of the bracket houses a potential tournament sleeper in the form of wrestlers Corey Anderson and Phil Davis.
Fresh off a dominant win in his Bellator debut, Anderson begins his title quest in an April 16 quarterfinal bout against newcomer Dovletdzhan Yagshimuradov. The former champion Davis, meanwhile, headlines that same card in a rematch of his split-decision loss to the current titleholder Nemkov. Both fighters possess the athleticism and motor to take anyone in the tournament to the ground and control long periods of time with their grappling. Provided both are offensive enough to leave no doubt on the scorecards, it isn't out of the question that either one goes on to run the table considering their styles are so heavily focused on emptying the gas tank of their opponents.
5. Winner has a case to be called best in the world
The above statement isn't hyperbole. Given the combined resumes and skill sets of the eight fighters in this tournament, including how many of them have held or competed for major titles across UFC and Bellator in recent years, the winner of the Grand Prix will hold a strong amount of bragging rights globally among 205-pound fighters.
Does it help that the UFC's light heavyweight division is currently undergoing a bit of a facelift following Jon Jones' move up to heavyweight, Israel Adesanya's unsuccessful attempt at winning the title and recent losses for top contenders Dominick Reyes and Thiago Santos? For sure. But whether it be Nemkov running the table, "Rumble" reintroducing himself to the division's elite or anyone else, for that matter, exiting the tournament holding $1 million and the Bellator title, they will undoubtedly have an argument for being the best in the world.