If ever there was a time for Bellator MMA to go big, it’s this weekend.
Rolling out some of its brightest stars and biggest guns this Saturday, January 20, at Bellator 192 (9 P.M. EST, Paramount Network), the Viacom-backed MMA promotion has booked legendary fighters Chael Sonnen and Quinton “Rampage” Jackson in a main event slot to kick off its year long Heavyweight Grand Prix, along with marquee welterweight Rory MacDonald, who takes on incumbent champion Douglas Lima in a five-round title fight. The event also marks Bellator’s debut on the newly rebranded Paramount Network, after five years on now-defunct Spike TV, and the timing couldn’t be better.
Up against a stacked UFC 220 pay-per-view card on the very same night, Bellator has high expectations for 2018 and beyond, beginning with it’s eight-man heavyweight tournament, which features a cast of former champions and MMA legends like Fedor Emelianenko, Frank Mir, Matt Mitrione, and Roy Nelson, along with current Bellator light heavyweight champion Ryan Bader and promotional mainstay Muhammed “King Mo” Lawal.
Much like the 2011 Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix, which was also booked and promoted by current Bellator President Scott Coker, the single-elimination tournament is designed to give the division a much needed boost after former champion Vitaly Minakov was stripped of his title in 2016. Bellator is hoping that the grand prix format, and the timing, will create the perfect opportunity for the promotion to push many of its newest signees.
For Sonnen, a three-time UFC title challenger and one of the biggest names in mixed martial arts, Bellator 192 marks his third-consecutive appearance atop the marquee after losing to Tito Ortiz in January 2016 and topping Wanderlei Silva at Madison Square Garden in June of last year. However, while Sonnen and Jackson, a former UFC champion and veteran of Japan’s Pride Fighting Championships, bring mass market name value to the event, their position as headliners was only recently announced, taking top billing away from one of the most intriguing welterweight contests in MMA today.
Once just four minutes away from securing the UFC welterweight title at UFC 189, MacDonald signed with Bellator in August 2016 with hopes of becoming a two-division champion. And after cruising to a win in his Bellator debut in May 2017, MacDonald now takes on the underrated and oft-overlooked Douglas Lima, a two-time Bellator champion.
For obvious reasons, the matchup is one of the most competitive bouts at 170 pounds and the best fight Bellator can make in any division. MacDonald, 28, who owns notable victories over current UFC champion Tyron Woodley, Nate Diaz, and B.J. Penn, is entering his athletic prime, while Lima, who hasn’t been finished in nearly 10 years, enters the bout riding a three-fight win streak.
Boosting the name value of the card is another Bellator mainstay, Michael Chandler, who makes his welterweight debut after two title reigns at lightweight, along with blue-chip prospect Aaron Pico, a former U.S. national team wrestler who began his transition to MMA last June. And then there’s the professional debut of Khonry Gracie, the son of BJJ legend Royce, who won the very first UFC tournament in 1993.
In a sport as unforgiving as MMA, where champions and challengers constantly and consistently falter and stumble, it’s rare to find so much intrigue in a professional debut. But Khonry is a Gracie after all, and with that last name comes mainstream exposure, along with high expectations. And whether or not he’s successful in his debut, the fight carries some weight, merely for the chance to see Royce work his son’s corner. It’s a true father-to-son passing of the torch.
It’s still unclear how Bellator MMA’s transition to the Paramount Network will affect the promotion after half a decade on Spike TV, a station synonymous with mixed martial arts, but they’re definitely making a big push to lure viewers to their new home on cable, bringing their biggest names to the Forum in Inglewood, California. And with the maiden voyage comes the unique challenge of promoting against its biggest rival, the UFC, on a night that will certainly be one of the biggest draws in MMA history.