Everything you need to know about Bellator MMA's Lightweight Grand Prix.
MMA laid its early foundations in the grand prix's, a tournament-style competition similar to the NFL playoffs where winning meant you'd progress through and the loser went home with nothing to show for it. Long gone are the days when grand prix's were completed in a single night and in fact, some of MMA's leading promotions (looking at you, UFC) have completely abandoned the win-or-go-home format that fans had grown to enjoy.
Thankfully, Bellator MMA continues to host grand prixs, and while they go on for more than just a single event, they have still managed to capture the magic that made these tournaments so exciting to watch back in the day.
This Friday, March 10 sees the return of the format, when lightweight champion Usman Nurmagomedov takes on veteran Benson Henderson in the first quarter-final of the Bellator Lightweight Grand Prix. This will be Bellator's sixth weight-class-specific grand prix since 2018 and it can be argued that none of them have had the talent that the 155-pound tournament has to offer.
What is at stake at the Bellator Lightweight Grand Prix?
The playoff-style fighting tournament sees the eight best lightweights that Bellator has matched up against each other in the quarter-finals, with each winner progressing to the semi-final. The winners of each semi-final will be just one fight away from claiming the lightweight grand prix.
In the final, the two will face off for the Bellator lightweight championship and a $1 million dollar check on top of it. Unlike in other events, every single fight in the grand prix will be five, five-minute rounds, even if the title is not on the line. With reputations, bragging rights, and a generous check to put the icing on the cake, the stakes have never been higher for the eight competitors.
Who is in the Bellator Lightweight Grand Prix?
Usman Nurmagomedov (16-0) - Bellator lightweight champion
Opponent: Benson Henderson at Bellator 292 (March 10)
The man many are seeing as the overwhelming favorite, you'd maybe feel that Nurmagomedov has been hard done by the decision to host a grand prix at 155 pounds. After all, he has just won the title, back in November 2022, when he dominated Patricky Pitbull en route to a unanimous decision victory and his first world title However, the cousin of UFC Hall of Famer Khabib Nurmagomedov has proven to be nothing short of spectacular since arriving at the promotion.
Not only is his undefeated record still intact after five fights under the Bellator banner, but he is still only 24 years old. Many see Nurmagomedov as a future pound-for-pound king and he's shown a finishing ability that wasn't always found in his cousin. Of course, if things aren't going Nurmagomedov's way, he can grind out victories with his suffocating pressure and elite-level sambo. With the target solely on his back as the champion, it doesn't appear that Nurmagomedov is feeling the pressure at all. There is a reason why he's the favorite amongst the best 155-pounders that Bellator has to offer after all.
Benson Henderson (30-11) - No. 3 ranked lightweight
Opponent: vs. Usman Nurmagomedov at Bellator 292 (March 10)
The most experienced fighter here heads into the grand prix with very low expectations. Not only is he set to meet current lightweight champion Usman Nurmagomedov in the quarter-finals, where the champion is a -2100 (!!!) favorite on some betting sites, but it could also seemingly be the last hurrah for Henderson. The former WEC and UFC lightweight champion is hoping to become the first man ever to be called a WEC, UFC, and Bellator champion if he were to win the grand prix.
That is a big if. Henderson's style has long been one of MMA fans' favorite to watch and it is a reason why he is still so respected and liked in the sport. Despite his career being deemed over after suffering a three-fight losing streak, Henderson turned it around with two consecutive victories in 2022 and might just have enough momentum for one last swansong. The experience he has over all of his opponents might prove to be his X-factor if he wishes to walk away as the Bellator lightweight champion, and 1 million dollars richer.
Mansour Barnaoui (20-4) - Unranked
Opponent: Brent Primus at Bellator 296 (May 12)
Mansour Barnaoui might not be well known yet by Bellator fans but he soon will. Despite only one fight under the banner, a submission win back in October of last year, Barnoui has competed all across the world to devastating effect. Having an impressive 95 percent finishing rate, it is not a matter of if he'll look for the finish but rather when he will smell it coming.
The former Road FC and M-1 Global lightweight champion also has experience in the grand prix format, winning the 1 million dollar Road FC lightweight grand prix back in 2019. With tremendous power and an even better submission game, Barnaoui could turn many heads if he continues to show what he is capable of, and potentially walk away as the champion when all is said and done.
Brent Primus (11-3) - No. 6 ranked lightweight
Opponent: Mansour Barnaoui at Bellator 296 (May 12)
A new addition to the eight-man tournament, Primus was not even selected in the original lineup. One positive drug test for Sidney Outlaw later and Primus finds himself in the hunt to become the best lightweight that Bellator has to offer once again. Winning the lightweight title for his first, and only, time back in Bellator NYC, when he defeated Michael Chandler, Primus was not able to maintain his momentum and would lose the belt in a rematch to Chandler in his first title defense.
Now, nearly five years since his last title win, Primus has a chance to show why he was a world champion in the first place. While not many will take him too seriously given his last-minute addition, don't sleep on the jiu-jitsu ace. He might spring a few surprises.
Tofiq Musayev (20-4) - No. 2 ranked lightweight
Opponent: Alexandr Shabliy at Bellator 292 (March 10)
Perhaps the most exciting name on the list, Tofiq Musayev could very well prove to be Bellator's most dangerous lightweight. Making his debut on short notice against the formerly no. 1-ranked Sidney Outlaw, not many expected the former Rizin lightweight grand prix champion to be able to handle the top-ranked contender. Instead, Musayev knocked him out cold in just 27 seconds to cement his place as one of the best lightweights in the promotion.
Carrying a 90 percent finishing rate, it is clear that Musayev is a threat to anyone, especially when considering that 16 of his 18 finishes have come by way of knockout. A name that no one was very aware of prior to his fight with Outlaw, Musayev could easily find himself in the final with a chance at becoming a world champion for the first time in his career.
Alexandr Shabliy (22-3) - No. 4 ranked lightweight
Opponent: Tofiq Musayev at Bellator 292 (March 10)
Making his Bellator debut a little under two years ago, Alexandr Shabliy has proven to be difficult for many of the top 155-pounders in Bellator. Exclusively fighting in his home country of Russia until he was signed by Bellator, he has wasted no time since signing for promotion, winning three straight and even knocking out former champion Brent Primus in his last fight.
Shabliy enters his quarter-final with all the momentum in the world and would look to prove that he is indeed one of the most dangerous lightweights out there. With elite-level grappling, a tough chin, and heavy hands, Shabliy is poised for a strong grand prix. That is if he can defeat Tofiq Musayev this Friday.
A.J. McKee (20-1) - No. 7 ranked lightweight
Opponent: Patricky Pitbull (TBA)
The face of Bellator is here. The man who's already won a Bellator grand prix when he defeated Patricio Pitbull back down in the featherweight division to become the 145-pound champion and the winner of a 1 million dollar check, A.J. McKee could cement himself as Bellator's G.O.A.T. if he were to win this grand prix. Having fought all 21 of his professional fights under the Bellator banner, McKee holds the record for most consecutive Bellator wins (18) and most wins by finish (13) and many feel that his only loss, a split-decision loss in the rematch with legendary Bellator champion Patricio Pitbull, was a robbery as many fans and media members had the fight going McKee's way.
He will only be taking part in his third fight ever in the weight class but has won both of his previous encounters, including an impressive unanimous decision victory over Rizin lightweight champion Roberto de Souza. McKee comes into the tournament with many eyes on him as we will finally get to see him against the best 155-pounders that Bellator has to offer, and if he can handle them the same way he did at 145 pounds, don't be surprised to see McKee praised as the greatest Bellator fighter of all time.
Patricky Pitbull (24-11) - No. 1 ranked lightweight
Opponent: A.J. McKee (TBA)
Not one man in this single tournament will be looking at the belt with as much desire as Patricky Pitbull. After all, he was the one who dropped a unanimous decision loss to current champion Usman Nurmagomedov to give the latter his first world title. Unfortunately for the former champion, he was thoroughly dominated throughout all five round and it was unlikely to see him fight for the title again.
The grand prix has presented Pitbull with the perfect opportunity. The record holder for most knockouts (10) in Bellator history, as well as the most fights (23) and the most wins (15) in the 155-pound division, will be looking to avenge his championship loss by steamrolling through the entire division. At age 37, it might be the last chance for Pitbull to show us that his destructive knockout power can still carry him to the top.