Sonnen, Fedor, Rampage among big names signed on for Bellator heavyweight tourney
Bellator World Grand Prix will fill title vacancy with eight-man heavyweight tournament in 2018
The vacancy atop Bellator MMA's heavyweight division is finally getting filled.
Three years after it last promoted a heavyweight title bout, Bellator is set to unveil an eight-man tournament in 2018 to crown a new champion. Multiple sites confirmed Friday's original report from MMAjunkie.com.
The tournament, which will be known as the Bellator World Grand Prix 2018, has no shortage of blockbuster names, including aging former UFC champions and active light heavyweights.
Among the most decorated are former PRIDE champion and MMA legend Fedor Emelianenko (36-5) and two-time UFC champion Frank Mir (18-11), who will join fellow heavyweights Matt Mitrione (12-5) and Roy Nelson (23-14).
Current Bellator light heavyweight champion Ryan Bader (24-5) joins former UFC champ Quinton "Rampage" Jackson (37-12), former Strikeforce champ Muhammed "King Mo" Lawal (21-6) and two-time UFC title challenger Chael Sonnen (29-15-1) in those who are moving up in weight from 205 pounds.
"This is going to be something that's iconic for us," Coker told MMAJunkie.com. "Tournaments, traditionally, are kind of the way martial arts contests happen. Now we get to put eight iconic brand names in our sport together over a year, and then whoever wins will be crowned the heavyweight champion."
Coker, who previously ran Strikeforce until the company was purchased by former UFC parent company Zuffa, has plenty of history with heavyweight tournaments. His Strikeforce World Grand Prix, which launched in 2011, also featured Emelianenko and presented UFC with legitimate promotional competition.
The tournament featured the likes of current and former UFC heavyweights Alistair Overeem, Fabricio Werdum, Josh Barnett, Sergei Kharitonov and Andrei Arlovski. Late replacement Daniel Cormier, current the UFC's light heavyweight champion, initially rose to prominence by defeating Barnett in the 2012 final.
"I think there are certain fights that people want to see," Coker said. "Believe me, we're going to have some amazing matchups in this tournament. These are iconic names, big brands."
Lawal, 36, has experience in tournaments having won the 2015 Rizin World Grand Prix in Japan. Two months earlier, Lawal had defeated Linton Vassell in the opening bout of a one-night, four-man Bellator light heavyweight tournament, but was forced to pull out of the final against Phil Davis due to an injury.
"I signed up for the [heavyweight] tournament because I want to win the tournament," Lawal told CBS Sports on Friday. "I'm not sure how I match up against the bigger names. I guess we are going to find out soon. Let's just see the match ups and go from there."
Bellator has crowned just three heavyweight champions since launching in 2009. The most recent champion was Vitaly Minakov, who defended the belt just once over a three-year span (in April 2014). He was finally stripped in May 2016 due to inactivity.
The inclusion of Jackson in the tournament came directly off the heels of Thursday's announcement that he had signed an exclusive multi-fight deal to return with Bellator. Jackson, 39, is 4-1 since making his Bellator debut in 2013. Sandwiched in between that run was a one-off UFC return in 2015 when he defeated Fabio Maldonado.
Bellator expects to begin the tournament on Jan. 20 and crown a champion tentatively in December 2018. Tournament bouts will be spaced out, one per event, over a seven-card stretch. The draw has yet to be determined.
"When Scott Coker signed on with Bellator in 2014, we knew that he would constantly innovate and bring new and creative ideas to the promotion," Spike Senior Vice President of Sports and Specials Jon Slusser said. "The heavyweight grand prix is a perfect example of that. The tournament will provide outstanding sports content for the soon-to-launch Paramount Network in 2018, and we're excited about delivering this type of entertainment to our viewers."
While the majority of fighters in the tournament are past their prime, the star power alone should make this a big ratings draw for Bellator, which has created a comfortable home in recent years for big names to finish their careers in headlining bouts. There's also plenty of potential for action.
Emelianenko, 41, returned from a three-plus year retirement in late 2015 and made his promotional debut at Madison Square Garden in June at the Bellator NYC pay-per-view. The Russian legend combined with Mitrione to produce the highlight of the night with a double knockdown before Mitrione finished him via first-round knockout.
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