The Bellator MMA World Grand Prix is officially set, with the opening round scheduled to take place in early 2018.
Collectively, the eight-man field has accomplished virtually everything imaginable in the sport of mixed martial arts. And the eventual winner will add a Bellator heavyweight title to his résumé.
What should we make of the opening-round matchups? And what does each individual fighter need to do to win it all?
Tournament contestant and ESPN analyst Chael Sonnen offers his thoughts on both.
Chael Sonnen (29-15-1) vs. Quinton 'Rampage' Jackson (37-12), Jan. 20, The Forum, Inglewood, California
Chael's Take: Rampage and I have heat that goes way back. Last time we were together, we had to be separated in a hotel lobby in Arizona. I always thought that match could happen, but I thought it was impossible because he was going back to the UFC. Contractually, I'm not privy to how that worked out, but I'm happy it did. What other reason is there to fight than two guys want to?
How Rampage Jackson wins it all: I think that's a lot easier scenario to believe than perhaps some people. Rampage at 205 pounds is a tough out. He's a former world champion, and he's beaten a number of other world champions. The question is: How is he at heavyweight? I've only seen him at heavyweight once (decision loss to Muhammed "King Mo" Lawal in March). Does he move as well? Does he train as hard? I thought he held up well against Mo. We've all seen him push a little harder, but whenever a guy goes up or down in weight, it takes some getting used to. Rampage to win isn't that far out there.
How Chael Sonnen wins it all: Fight one fight at a time. Get in the right mindset. It would help to stay out of the clinch with these guys, stay out from underneath these guys. It's just a lot of weight for me to move around. I think I'll probably weigh around 214 pounds. Size was never a factor when I started my career though. I can't remember how many fights I was in before I even saw a scale. That's just the way it was, so I don't mind.
Matt Mitrione (12-5) vs. Roy Nelson (23-14), Feb. 16, Mohegan Sun, Uncasville, Connecticut
Chael's Take: Ugh, Mitrione got a bad deal in some ways. He was one fight away from being a world champion. Now he finds out he's three fights away. He and I must have had completely opposite perspectives when we got the news. He must have said, "Oh, geez, you're telling me I need to win three fights?" I got the phone call and said, "Wow, I can win three fights and be a world champion? I didn't see that coming." I think Mitrione is the best heavyweight out there. When I say that, it's usually met with resistance, but it's my opinion and I mean it. They have fought before though, and Roy beat him (December 2012). That does matter and they both remember that.
How Matt Mitrione wins it all: If Matt goes out and fights and competes and does what he does -- has a little bit of fun -- I think he's the favorite. He seems to be at his best when he's loose and having fun. He's the guy to beat.
How Roy Nelson wins it all: He can't just rely on being the bigger guy. He's going to have veterans of the sport who know how to move around him -- I'm one of them. I know how to hit and move and not get pinned by a bigger man. I think that's the trick to Roy. I don't think someone like me or Ryan Bader or King Mo is going to just change levels and take him down. Roy needs to go out and fight and use his skills. Everybody talks about the right hand but he can wrestle, too.
Fedor Emelianenko (36-5) vs. Frank Mir (18-11), April, Allstate Arena, Chicago
Chael's Take: Love this fight. Pride champion vs. UFC champion. I don't know if I agree that Fedor's been as rusty as others think. You take that Mitrione fight (TKO loss in June), Fedor knocked Mitrione out -- it just turned out he was knocked out at the exact same time. That was just a really weird match. But go back to when Fabricio Werdum beat him (June 2010), none of us knew how good Werdum was. Take when Antonio Silva beat him (February 2011). You want to talk about size disadvantages? Silva goes in there close to 300 pounds. I would never take my eye off the Fedor ball. I have always respected him and still do.
How Fedor Emelianenko wins it all: He needs to protect himself, and learn from some of his past lessons. He's a great grappler. He's had so much success going in there and trading punches, it seems he bought into that. Hey Fedor, don't be afraid to go out there with your hands up, your chin down, and grab ahold of these guys. Wear a guy down, then start fighting.
How Frank Mir wins it all: You know, Frank is such a tricky bastard. I've counted him out many, many times and he's gone out and broken a guy's arms, legs and shoulders. Frank's just very mean. He doesn't go for a submission to get you to tap. He and Josh Barnett are the same way: They go for a submission to rip a limb off. He's not the guy you want to draw in a tournament like this. He hasn't fought in two years though, and he needs to be in the gym now. His fight isn't until April, but if he thinks he can come off that layoff with a traditional eight-week camp, he's wrong. He needs to be busy now.
Ryan Bader (24-5) vs. Muhammed 'King Mo' Lawal (21-6), May, SAP Center, San Jose, California
Chael's Take: I didn't fully get it at first. You've got the light heavyweight champion in Bader, taking on a fellow light heavyweight in Mo, but the belt isn't on the line. So, let's say Mo wins, beats the light heavyweight champion ... he doesn't become the champion? Just the drama in that is compelling. It's going to piss a lot of people off, which is good for the sport, right? Get people arguing about something. Those are the two most athletic guys. They actually met up in college wrestling (in 2003), quarterfinals of the NCAAs, and Mo beat him pretty soundly. So, Mo knows he can beat him, believes he can beat him -- and Bader wants that back. That's very interesting.
How Ryan Bader wins it all: Matchup-wise, he's probably running into his toughest one right out of the gate. Here's a guy who can match his athleticism and his wrestling. In general, if Bader goes out and pushes his pace, forces takedowns, he'll be effective. He's a little sloppy with his punches, but that's what makes him so effective. He moves awkward, and I say that as a compliment. I've watched film on him thinking I might fight him and said to myself, "This guy does his own thing out there and he's hard to figure out."
How Muhammed Lawal wins it all: Real simple: Stay healthy. That seems to be his biggest Kryptonite. When Mo gets in there with heavyweights, he's a handful. He goes out weighing 207 pounds and knocks them out. He's explosive, hits hard, and finds his target. On top of that, his wrestling is on point. If he can get past Bader, he actually does better with heavyweights. He does well with light heavyweights too, but better with heavyweights. He's like a Dan Henderson -- for whatever reason, the bigger the opponent, the better Mo's chances are.