“Bracketology” was once a term reserved for that sport with the orange bouncy-ball. However, these days MMA has a way of going unexpected places, and it’s only fair that it borrows a little lingo from other sports along the way. So conjure up your best Dick Vitale voice as we take a look inside the latest Bellator tournament at the eight featherweights who’ve been invited to the Big Dance. (Okay, that may be going too far.)

At first glance, Bellator’s featherweight tournament looks a lot like their current light heavyweight tourney, only substituting the name Marlon Sandro for “King Mo.” Sandro considers it his tournament to lose; in his words, “There is nothing in this world I want more than the Bellator featherweight title, and this is my road.” Of course, there are seven other fighters who would make similar statements, and I believe at least three of them have good reason. Powering up the microscope, let’s start with a quick look at Sandro himself. Then, we’ll preview the road before him to see how well paved it is and what kind of 145-pound obstacles might be waiting to thwart his run.

In March Madness terms, Marlon Sandro is a No. 1 seed, and deservedly so. The former Sengoku champion and King of Pancrase shares a camp with names like Jose Aldo, Renan Barao and Eduardo Dantas. Sandro has fought top competition throughout his career and holds a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, equipping him with a submission game not for the feint of heart. He also possesses powerful striking that’s been known to send a few men to the canvas. But ever since Sandro’s loss to Hatsu Hioki at Sengoku: Soul of Fight, he hasn’t looked quite the same. His game has revolved heavily around intimidation and winging haymakers at just the right moment. Though he may be no less dangerous today than in years past, the holes in Sandro’s game have started to get exposed. Given his experience and power, however, the two-time Bellator finalist remains the favorite in this season’s featherweight tourney as he looks to add to his already-decorated career. Will the third time be a charm for “The Gladiator?”

Looking at the tournament brackets, the first thing of note is the potential for Sandro to face two Russian fighters before reaching the finals: Akop Stepanyan (his current opponent) and Magomedrasul Khasbulaev. Given the way the Russians have been performing in Bellator, that alone makes for no cake walk. It could be the fourth man in Sandro’s bracket that poses the greatest threat, however.

Fabricio Guerreiro is something of an unknown quantity in the tournament field. We can watch his impressive finishes on YouTube, but we still don’t know much about him or, more importantly, about the competition he’s faced. But anyone who comes out of Brazil with a 17-1 record deserves some extra attention. The Ronildo Nobre Judo Club fighter began his career with seven straight submission victories and has never looked back. Guerreiro’s upcoming fight with Khasbulaev seems tailor-made for him to show off these exquisite ground skills en route to a quick conclusion, but a meeting with Marlon Sandro is sure to pose more of a challenge. The 22-year-old Guerreiro should have an advantage in the gas-tank department, but this will give Sandro all the more incentive to take care of business early on.

To his favor, Guerreiro is built much like Hatsu Hioki, the one man for whom Marlon Sandro had no answers. Guerreiro is tall and lean with wiry limbs and a solid frame. The question is: does the Brazilian youngster possess anything comparable to Hioki’s Japanese wrestling? Not likely. He does, however, change levels well and shoots more like Chad Mendes than a guy who’s 5-foot-10. Guerreiro has also displayed nice submission defense which could come in handy against Sandro’s equally tenable ground game. Despite Sandro’s brute strength, Guerreiro might have just enough to get the old-timer to the mat and work a submission if he’s patient…and resilient…and did I mention patient?

If Guerreiro can stay composed and survive the first couple rounds, he could start to feel the advantage of his youthful stamina and find some of those holes as Sandro tires. Completing a takedown late in the fight might give Guerreiro the opportunity for an armbar or a triangle choke—something where sweat isn’t a big factor—to pull off the upset. Sandro will be aware of this, however, and mount plenty of early attacks, one of which could very well spell the end for his young countryman. In short, it’s an interesting potential match-up where just about anything could happen. Assuming, of course, that each fighter gets past his respective Russian opponent in tonight’s opening-round action—no small task in itself.

Taking a look at the other bracket, things get even more interesting. The two Brazilians (Alexandre Bezerra, Genair da Silva) and two Americans (Mike Richman, Mitch Jackson) who complete the field have a combined ten losses going into the tourney. On the other hand, these four warriors have racked up 49 finishes out of their combined 59 victories. If that doesn’t cause your eyes to widen, you might need a more intense sport. Lava-pit diving, perhaps.

One man from this opposing bracket who has the potential to foil Marlon Sandro’s plans is Mike Richman. Although Richman talks of moving to bantamweight, his career at featherweight has been impressive. Aside from his loss in last season’s tourney to Shahbulat Shamhalaev, Richman has dropped only a split decision to Brian Pearman in 2011. As he gains steam in the division, Richman continues to be a threat both on his feet and on the mat, finishing 80 percent of his opponents in a variety of ways—a claim very few fighters in the world of MMA can make.

Quick starts and overwhelming aggression often provide the catalyst for Richman’s finishing touches. This aggression will no doubt prove too much for the less-seasoned Mitch Jackson in Richman’s opening fight. But how does “The Marine” stack up against Marlon Sandro, should they meet in the finals?

Richman trains under Greg Nelson at The Academy, and that means he possesses a balanced arsenal with a strong wrestling base. Richman has displayed solid takedown and top-control skills, along with superb footwork and wrestling defense. Such things provide a nice compliment against the wrestling-challenged Sandro.

“The Gladiator” evens the odds a bit with his BJJ, however Richman has faced decent submission artists such as Morgan Sickinger and Jeremy Spoon. A cardio advantage could also lie with Richman, as well as a slight height and reach advantage. But make no mistake, Sandro is a force of nature when he’s on his game. If Richman fails to execute a more patient and strategic game plan than he did in his fight with Shamhalaev, he’s likely to suffer a similar fate here.

Given the aggression of both fighters, there’s certainly the chance one or the other will get caught with an early overhand right, but this fight will more likely be played out in the later rounds. This gives Richman the slight advantage overall and could lead to a late TKO for him. Sandro’s veteran experience should largely offset the wrestler’s edge, however, making it anyone’s fight should it go to the judges. All things considered, this is definitely an entertaining fight in the making.

Before getting to Sandro, however, Richman is likely to meet a fighter with a skill set similar to his own in Alexandre Bezerra. Training with Jeremy Stephens and Michael Chandler at Alliance MMA, the Brazilian known as “Popo” possesses a full complement of dangerous weaponry. But in contrast to Richman, who prefers to KO his opponents, Bezerra usually angles for the tap. After using superior wrestling to wear his victim down, Bezerra employs his second-degree BJJ black-belt skills to bring a stoppage. Wait…Brazilian wrestling?

In fact, Bezerra grew up wrestling and went on to secure a position on the Brazilian national wrestling team. He has thus emerged as one of the few Brazilian fighters who can call wrestling his base. It’s a skill he’ll no doubt showcase in efforts to neutralize first-round opponent and Capoeira guru Genair da Silva to a successful outcome. But can it fuel “Popo” through the rest of the tournament and to a check for $100,000?

A match-up between Bezerra and Richman would mark a rarity for MMA—the meeting of two incredibly well-rounded fighters. It’s a classic in the making, and almost too close to call. But I’d have to go with “Popo’s” highly-honed submission skills—the only real difference between the two fighters—as the deciding factor. This would put Bezerra in the finals, and assuming Sandro grits his way there as well will bring us to a rematch that not too many fans will get excited about. At least not at first glance.

If we do see Sandro vs. Bezerra II, something tells me it will look much different from their first go-round. In season six, the two Brazilians fought to an uninspiring split decision in the featherweight tourney quarterfinals. The bout featured little action until the third round when both fighters seemed to come out of their comas and find the spark, but not enough so to re-claim the disaffected fans. Most would agree that “Popo” made the better showing in the final stanza, however it was Sandro who took home the victory.

This first outing was a learning experience for Bezerra, and the lesson was two-fold: no matter how much you respect your opponent, you still have to fight him, and don’t wait too long to make your move.

Expect Bezerra to apply his wrestling skills more in a rematch, especially during the early rounds. After he’s taken the wind out of Sandro’s sails, he’ll likely work for a submission in the later stages of the fight. Even as flat as Bezerra was in the first outing between these two men, he still managed to stagger Sandro down the stretch, and with the proper adjustments he could find himself in position for some type of stoppage.

In all, expect both fighters to bring more game. “Popo’s” contract with Bellator is winding down and Sandro’s career is no doubt winding down too. A renewed sense of urgency will be in the air and both men will be seeking the finish. But with the ever-evolving and maturing game of Alexandre Bezerra, we could see not only a different dynamic in the rematch but a different outcome as well, earning “Popo” a shot at the title.

The world looks very different from inside the guard, or inside the brackets, as the case may be. Upon closer examination, Bellator’s eight-man featherweight tourney is everything but up for grabs, and it presents a road with more obstacles than 35-year-old Marlon Sandro would perhaps care to admit. When it gets down to it, Bellator’s whole featherweight division is a shark tank from which a dark horse could at any moment rise. (Pardon the mixed metaphor, at least I refrained from using the term “Cinderella.”)

With the kickoff only hours away, consider filling out your own bracket with your own dark-horse pick. It’s not like the NCAA, where you have to set aside a whole evening or more; just a fun, short exercise to get into the tourney spirit. At any rate, Bellator’s season-eight featherweight showcase showdown has all the right ingredients and promises to be nothing short of a pulse-pounding affair. So let’s all sit back and enjoy the ride.

Photo: Marlon Sandro (Marcelo Alonso/Sherdog)

About The Author

Robby Collins

Robby Collins considers himself a johnny-come-lately to the sport of MMA. He was introduced to it less than three years ago but has since delved into the sport at all levels. As an aspiring fiction writer, Robby adapted his skills to promote his latest passion and landed with The MMA Corner by way of personal initiative and auspicious timing. Robby has dabbled in karate and wrestling, and is currently learning to kickbox.