Written By Dylan Knostman
Dating back to the early days of MMA, tournaments have always been a fantastic way to determine who the best fighter is out of a certain weight class, and who has the determination and resiliency to fight through a bracket of the toughest opponents in the division. While we don’t see one night tournaments akin to UFC 1, or even Pride, Bellator has managed to put together one of the finest Grand Prix tournaments we have ever seen. Taking 8 of the best lightweights their roster had to offer, these 155 pounders will not only compete for glory, but a $1 million check. While this tournament will happen over the course of 2023, the first four matchups will take place over the next few months, setting the stage for a tremendous calendar year for Bellator.
The first right of this absolutely loaded tournament comes on March 10th as current Lightweight champion Usman Nurmagomedov takes on longtime contender Benson Henderson, and on that same card we will see Tofiq Musayev battle with Alexander Shabily for a spot in the semi finals. The Grand Prix continues in Paris, France on May 12 with Mansour Barnaoui taking on the replacement Brent Primus. AJ McKee vs Patricky Pitbull is confirmed, does not have an official announcement yet, but late may to June seems to be the most likely time for this fight to take place.
In the opening fight of the Grand Prix, this fight is one of the more lopsided first round match-ups on paper. Usman Nurmagomedov, cousin of the famed Khabib Nurmagomedov, is perhaps the most hyped and one of the most talented fighters on the entire Bellator roster. His wrestling is outstanding, as we would all expect, but the main aspect that sets him apart from Khabib and other traditional Dagestani fighters are his kicks and overall striking ability. His most recent fight was for the Bellator Lightweight belt, where he absolutely battered Patricky Pitbull for 5 rounds to take the championship. There are few fighters who are more feared or highly touted outside the UFC than Usman, and he is for good reason one of the favorites to win this tournament.
On the other side of this match up, we have the always entertaining and ageless wonder Benson Henderson. A long time veteran of the WEC, UFC, and Bellator, Henderson has fought virtually every major star in the Lightweight division since the mid 2000’s. Notable fights of his include matchups with Nate Diaz, Donald Cerrone, Rafael Dos Anjos, Michael Chandler, among many others. Benson Henderson is perhaps one of the toughest fighters in MMA history, and breaks the mold of a fighter who frequently goes the distance, but is never in a boring fight. His grappling is elite, both on top and on bottom, with excellent sweeps, scrambles, and submissions from almost anywhere. He also throws excellent kicks on the feet, but he has slowed down with age, and has relied more on his toughness, stamina, and ground game to succeed over his last few fights. Benson Henderson has also seen 8 of his fights go to a split decision, meaning he is never out of a fight and it is incredibly hard for even the most talented fighters to dominate him inside the cage.
While Benson is always game, he draws the toughest matchup of the opening round in the Bellator Lightweight Grand Prix in Usman Nurmagomedov, and while this is going to be a tremendous fight, age and mileage has caught up to Henderson and I see Usman winning this fight by late finish or decision.
This matchup has already seen a shakeup, as Sidney “Da Gun” Outlaw was originally scheduled to face Mansour Barnaoui, but it was announced on February 22nd that Outlaw tested for 3 banned substances. This resulted in a 6-month ban from the sport and instant removal from the Lightweight Grand Prix. In steps Bellator veteran and former Lightweight champion Brent Primus. Training out of Eugene, Oregon, Primus originally excluded from the tournament, and reports came out saying he was “absolutely devastated” and that he couldn’t understand why he was overlooked. His opportunity presented itself though, and he faces my personal favorite fighter on the planet, Mansour “Afro Samurai” Barnaoui.
Brent Primus, currently ranked number 6 in the Lightweight division, is a strong grappler with decent standup skills. He utilizes kicks often, and had great success against Michael Chandler with leg kicks in both of their fights. He became the Lightweight champion when Chandler suffered an ankle injury in their first fight, but lost the rematch and has yet to reach the pinnacle of the division since. His grappling and flexibility truly stand out, and he is one of the few fighters at the highest levels to have landed a gogoplata choke against Tim Wilde in 2019. His guard is very active, and his ability to take the back and maintain control is impressive, although sometimes he can struggle to finish in dominant positions. Look for Primus to try to beat Barnaoui up with kicks, and grind his way to a decision through grappling and measured strikes.
Mansour Barnaoui, hailing from France and Tunisia, is the international man of mystery in Mixed Martial Arts. Perhaps one of the most skilled Lightweights outside of the UFC, he has fought for promotions in almost every corner of the world. He is the former Grand Prix champion of the Korean organization Road FC, the former M-1 Lightweight champion, and his only defeats at Lightweitht have come to Kevin Lee, Mateusz Gamrot, and current UFC champion Islam Makhachev. His fight with Islam is one of the best fights in KSW promotion history, and he gave Makhachev his biggest challenge up until his fight with Alexander Volkanovski at UFC 284. Barnaoui is extremely long and lanky for the weight class, and on the feet he uses straight punches to rattle his opponents, and then will work his way into a clinch or shoot for a takedown. While he always wants the fight on the mats, he has 6 wins by knockout and no losses in his career, showing he is an extremely dangerous striker. As soon as he takes the fight to the canvas, there are few men in the world who are able to hang with Mansour Barnaoui, let alone control him. He has excellent hip control and uses his leverage tremendously, constantly off-balancing opponents and threatening sweeps and submissions. Perhaps his most famous technique is the giggler sweep, which is when from bottom half guard you grab the near side underhook, capture the post arm, flips his hips and drives through until he ends up in top position. This is extremely effective against wrestlers who seek to use heavy top pressure to control their opponents. Barnaoui made his Bellator debut against Adam Piccolotti at Bellator 287, absolutely dominating all areas of the fight and ending with a slick back take and rear naked choke to finish. This marked his 19th finish in 20 career wins, showcasing to the bellator fan base how elite his skills are.
It cannot be stated enough how talented of a fighter Barnaoui is, and little is known about him outside of the cage as he remains incredibly private and reserved. What is known, is he is the dark horse to win this tournament, and at only 30 years old he could still be a superstar down the line for Bellator, or whatever promotion he chooses to fight for next. I see Barnaoui finishing this fight however he chooses, and advancing to the next round easily, despite having a talented opponent in Brent Primus. This fight takes place in Paris, France at Bellator 296 on May 12th, 2023.
Admittedly, out of all the fighters in this tournament these two have the least amount of information about them available, so most analysis will come from the fight tape that is accessible. Despite the lack of information, both of these fighters are elite talents, and a great matchup is to be expected when these two meet in the Bellator cage.
Tofiq Musayev, hailing from Azerbaijan, is one of Bellator’s hottest new talents. Holding a record of 20-4 with an astonishing 16 wins by knockout, it is clear that his kickboxing is truly world class. Switching stances constantly, he is always giving his opponents different looks, and uses lightning quick combinations of both kicks and punches to overwhelm his opponents. His left switch kick is his most devastating attack, as shown particularly in his fight with UFC veteran Damien Brown under the Rizin banner, where Musayev was the former Lightweight champion. Musayev will typically dance around his opponents, moving in and out with his attacks, and will mix in takedowns, but less as a real threat of submission and control and more to open up his striking. The only concern is at 34 years old, there is a chance the best Musayev is in the past, but in his last fight he put the Lightweight division on notice with his knockout of Sidney Outlaw under 30 seconds. If Musayev can keep this fight standing versus Shabily, I believe he will have a stellar chance of advancing in this tournament.
On the flip side of this matchup, Alexander Shabily has been a rising prospect for several years in Bellator. He made is promotional debut in 2021, and has won three straight fights under the organizations’ banner, with wins over Bobby King, Allie Davis, and fellow Grand Prix participant Brent Primus. A strong wrestler hailing from Russia, Shabily comes into this fight with a 21-3 record with a very balanced record of 11 wins by knockout, 7 by submission, and 5 by decision. He uses his strong wrestling to dictate the pace of the fight, and showcases strong takedowns, and his top control is outstanding. He can get complacent with attacks on the ground though, and will opt for control over ground-and-pound or submissions. On the feet Alexander utilizes quick hands and good boxing, with the occasional kick mixed in. Shabily does tend to move backwards a lot in the cage, which typically is not conducive to successful wrestling or pressure which is when he has the most success. If Shabily finds himself on the back foot against Musayev, he could be looking at a tough night at the office.
This fight is somewhat of a wild card, but I believe Musayev’s terrifying striking and willingness to push the pace and offense will result in him winning this fight. Alternately, if Shabily can get this fight to the ground and fight a submission, that will be his best path to victory as Musayev does have three losses by submission. This bout will take place on March 10th, 2023 at Bellator 292.
AJ “The Mercenary” McKee and Patricky Pitbull have long been staples of the Bellator roster. Formerly a featherweight, AJ McKee was widely regarded for a long while as one of the best talents outside of the UFC, and has fought for Bellator for the entirety of his 21-fight career. The son of former MMA fighter AJ McKee Sr, “The Mercenary” comes from a lineage of talent and before his loss to Patricky’s brother, Patricio, he held the Bellator Featherweight belt. Following his unsuccessful defense of the title, he announced was moving up to 155 pounds and made his debut in 2022 against wild man Spike Carlyle. He won the fight by unanimous decision, and it was later announced McKee would be staying at Lightweight to participate in the Grand Prix. His opponent, Patricky Pitbull, is the brother of former Lightweight and current featherweight champion Patricio Pitbull. These two men mean more to the Bellator brand than almost any other fighters, as they have long represented the organization and shown great pride and loyalty to the promotion over the years. Patricky is the former Lightweight champion, prior to his loss to Usman Nurmagomedov. This title came from strange circumstances, as his brother Patricio vacated the title, only under the circumstance that his brother would receive the next title shot. He faced 13-5 Peter Queally, who frankly never deserved the title shot in the first place, simply based on his record, how many fights he had in Bellator, and his quality of opponent and wins. Patricky easily took the title, which was arguably his greatest career achievement to date. McKee has previously faced his brother twice, so a matchup with Patricky should be semi-familiar for both men, as the Pitbull brothers train together and share a similar fighting style.
Despite only having two fights as an official Lightweight, there is extensive tape on AJ McKee as a 145-pounder. He is quick and mobile on the feet, and is an absolute ace on the ground. He uses good wrestling to dictate the pace and area of the fight, and if he chooses to keep it standing he is almost as dangerous there as on the mat. His boxing is crisp and fast, and uses excellent clinch work to control his opponents as well. On the ground he will look for front chokes and to take the back, while quickly transitioning between jiu jitsu and wrestling. He was able to beat Rizin champion Roberto De Souza in his last fight, who is widely regarded as one of the best MMA grapplers in the world. AJ McKee is expected to challenge for the Lightweight belt soon after the Grand Prix ends, so keep an eye out for his fights as they may be indicative of future success against the top Lightweights in the division.
Patricky Pitbull, at age 37, has most likely seen the best of his days behind him. A grinder of a fighter, he uses his short stocky stature to bully opponents, both on the feet and the ground. He uses clean uppercuts to slice through the guard, and will never stray from a firefight as his toughness is one of his defining characteristics. Lacking the natural athleticism and talent his brother Patricio boasts, he’s no walk in the park for any fighter, despite his extremely one sided loss to now champ Usman Nurmagomedov. Patricky will be very undersized in this matchup, facing an eight inch reach disadvantage, and a five inch height discrepancy. Look for Patricky to try to close to distance and work McKee to the body and head with hooks and uppercuts, but there is little path to victory as McKee is on the ascent and Patricky is in the twilight of his career.
AJ McKee is the better fighter in almost every area of this fight, and there’s no reason he shouldn’t absolutely handle Patricky Pitbull in any area he chooses. McKee is one of the stars of Bellator and he is one of the favorites to not only win this tournament, but continue to challenge for the title in the time after. This first round matchup does not have an announced date yet and location is yet to be determined.
This Grand Prix is without a doubt some of the best matchmaking Bellator has done in a long time. These are the kinds of moves other promotions need to make if they want to compete with the UFC as the top MMA organization. While every participant is so talented, Mansour Barnaoui, Tofiq Musayev, and Usman Nurmagomedov are the three favorites in my eyes, although truly anyone could win the grand prize of one million dollars. Let us know what you think will happen in the comments below!