It’s time for Bellator’s Summer Series 2013, ladies and gentlemen, and the main card that kicks off the three-event set comes this Wednesday evening with the return of War Machine.

Bellator 96 contains the start of tournaments in both the light heavyweight and heavyweight division and contains two of the Bellator’s marquee names at light heavyweight.

Muhammed “King Mo” Lawal returns to the cage after a disappointing performance in his Bellator tournament debut. Lawal faces a very game Seth Petruzelli, who always brings entertainment to his fights. Both men will be fighting for the third time under Bellator’s banner and it all begins in the semifinals of the Summer Series Light Heavyweight Tournament.

In the other light heavyweight tournament fight, Renato “Babalu” Sobral faces Jacob Noe. Noe was a semifinalist in the last tournament before ultimately falling to Mikhail Zayats by submission. Sobral, another big-name signing by Bellator, had a disappointing quarterfinal exit when he too lost to Zayats in the first round by knockout. Sobral and Lawal will look for some much-needed redemption on this Bellator 96 card.

The card also houses two heavyweight tournament semifinal fights, with Vinicius Queiroz taking on Richard Hale and Ron Sparks facing Vitaly Minakov.

At the welterweight level, it is the much-anticipated Bellator debut of War Machine, who makes his return to the cage after an almost two-year layoff to kick off the action on the main card.

Bellator 96 heads to Thackerville, Okla., and the Winstar World Casino with the main card airing at 8 p.m. on Spike TV. Bellator 96 will also serve as the lead-in for Bellator’s debut of its own reality show, Fight Master: Bellator MMA, that airs on Spike TV after the main card.

LHW Tournament Semifinal: Muhammed “King Mo” Lawal (9-2, 1 NC) vs. Seth Petruzelli (14-7)

Let me preface everything I’m about to say with this: Seth Petruzelli always has a chance. I always have trouble picking against him because every time I have to make a prediction in a fight he’s in, he is never the favorite.

Regardless of where this fight goes, Muhammed “King Mo” Lawal has the advantage. Last time out, Mo let his confidence get the better of him and Emanuel Newton took advantage and knocked him out.

Now, if King Mo decides to be stubborn and keep his hands dropped in this fight against the “Mighty Kimbo Slayer” himself, then he’s going to have a bad time.

Lawal isn’t going to submit Petruzelli—Petruzelli is a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu—but I’ll bank on Lawal getting the knockout. Lawal has knockout power that has earned him seven knockout victories, and his confidence in his hands is warranted to an extent. Lawal, a NCAA Division I and D-II All-American wrestler, also has great wrestling.

Lawal will either keep this fight on the feet and knock out Petruzelli, or bring this fight to the mat, avoid submissions and pound him out. Hopefully Lawal learned his lesson from last time and his hands stay glued to his face, because Petruzelli is an upset specialist and it would be hugely disappointing if Lawal once again gets knocked out of the tournament, literally.

LHW Tournament Semifinal: Renato Sobral (37-10) vs. Jacob Noe (11-2, 1 NC)

Jacob Noe has the chance to create disappointment for one of Bellator’s big signings. Renato “Babalu” Sobral fell short his last time out in the quarterfinals of the light heavyweight tournament when he was dispatched by Mikhail Zayats.

Noe is a wrestling-based fighter and has some oh-so-sweet ground-and-pound. Noe has finishes in 10 of his 11 victories, with five each via knockout and submission. Noe didn’t get to really show the world what he really is capable of, since both of his fights in the tournament were over in the first round.

Sobral was beaten by Zayats as well, except it was a spinning backfist that got the best of him. The round wasn’t really anything exciting from Sobral, as Zayats was able to keep him clinched up, which eventually led to the backfist and then the finishing hammerfists.

Sobral is a great grappler with 19 submission victories and great ground control. If Sobral was to bring down Noe, it wouldn’t be too long before Noe has to start fending off submissions. Sobral’s biggest weakness is the knockout, which has been the deciding factor in his last six losses. In fact, Sobral hasn’t lost any other way since January 2002.

Sobral will be able to keep the fight standing and work in a few takedowns to win the fight by unanimous decision.

HW Tournament Semifinal: Vinicius Queiroz (6-3) vs. Richard Hale (21-5-1)

Standing tall at 6-foot-7, Vinicius Queiroz is a huge heavyweight and it massively helps his submission game. In his fight with Mark Holata, Queiroz could easily utilize rubber guard and it eventually led to him submitting Holata off his back with an armbar.

It was a good fight for Queiroz, but it also showed his weakness: striking defense. Holata was able to rock Queiroz early on before Queiroz recovered and submitted Holata. Queiroz has a tendency to drop his hands, but given that Richard Hale’s last four wins are knockouts, Queiroz should be working extremely hard to break that habit.

Queiroz does possess a good clinch game, and that could definitely help play a factor in Queiroz’s game plan.

Hale made it to the finals of the same heavyweight tournament that Queiroz failed to win and lost to a very game Alexander Volkov. Volkov is a great heavyweight in his own right and there really is no shame in that loss. Hale likes the finish, with 10 knockouts and eight submissions, so don’t look for this fight to go the distance. Hale has good submissions and some knockout power, but like Queiroz, his striking defense tends to be lacking.

Both guys need to bring their A-game in the defense department, as either guy can finish the fight with their hands. Queiroz takes this one by submission after a few takedowns and a round’s worth of work.

HW Tournament Semifinals: Ron Sparks (8-1) vs. Vitaly Minakov (10-0)

Ron Sparks will be making his return to the cage after a two-year vacation to face unknown Russian Vitaly Minakov.

Minakov had his first fight stateside last November at Bellator 79 and took just over a round to finish off his opponent with punches. Minakov is a judo black belt and a four-time Sambo World Champion, which means he has some pretty solid grappling. Minakov also owns a couple of knockout victories over former UFC fighters Eddie Sanchez and Fabio Scherner. He also has nine finishes to his credit.

Sparks is a pretty simple fighter. He doesn’t possess overwhelming grappling skills and relies on his hands to knock out his opponent. But Minakov hasn’t been beaten, let alone finished yet in his career. Minakov takes the win by TKO in the second. A few takedowns and some control is all he will need to get the job done.

WW: War Machine (12-4) vs. Blas Avena (8-6, 1 NC)

We finally have the debut of War Machine in Bellator and it opens the main-card action at Bellator 96.

Machine has had some run-ins with the law, which have sidetracked his career since November 2011. This will be his first fight back after he stopped Roger Huerta. Machine’s cardio and ring rust could be a factor here, as the fighter’s long layoff and jail sentence could derail his debut in Bellator.

Machine was once known for his striking while in the UFC and on TUF, and he began submitting opponents just before his jail sentence. Machine’s purple belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and his Muay Thai make him a dangerous fighter in this fight. Bellator also seems to be setting him up with an easy debut.

Blas Avena is a jiu-jitsu black belt and he will certainly try to drag this fight out as long as possible on the ground and test Machine’s cardio late in the game. It’s a good game plan for a guy facing a fighter who has had a long layoff. Avena has six submission victories and is coming off a TKO win at Bellator 91 in February.

Don’t be surprised to see an upset here, but it’s more likely that War Machine comes out strong and gets a decision victory.

Preliminary Card

LHW: Mikey Brown (2-0) vs. Brandon Halsey (3-0)

With a combined five fights between Mikey Brown and Brandon Halsey, there really isn’t much to go off of besides the fact that they have four finishes between them. Halsey is coming off a slick technical submission victory at Bellator 92 in which he won with an arm-triangle choke. With that performance in mind, look for Halsey to win with a submission.

BW: Steven Artoff (5-1) vs. Justin McNally (1-1)

There really isn’t much to say about Justin McNally, considering that he has only two fights under his belt and both ended with a submission. McNally hasn’t gone further than a minute and a half into the second round, so his gas tank could be a question in this fight. Steven Artoff lost in April for the first time in his career, and it was also the first time his fight went past the first round. Artoff is coming off a four-round loss, but all of his wins are finishes, and very quick ones at that. Artoff by TKO.

LW: Damon Jackson (5-0) vs. Keith Miner (5-4)

Damon Jackson likes the submission and won his last fight in Bellator in January by rear-naked choke. Undefeated so far in his career, he faces Keith Miner. Miner is 1-2 in his last three fights and lost his last time out against Josh Quayhagen. Two of Miner’s four losses come by submission, so expect a third one here. Jackson by submission in the second round.

BW: Mike Maldonado (4-0) vs. Jason Sampson (10-1)

Jason Sampson is a grappler with seven wins by submission and is coming off a win in January in Bellator. Mike Maldonado, on the other hand, has been the more well-rounded fighter thus far in his career with two wins by submission and one by knockout. Maldonado went the distance his last time out, but Sampson’s experience and submissions should give him the win.

MW: Keith Berry (14-10) vs. Cortez Coleman (9-3)

Nine knockout finishes, a three-fight winning streak and a submission victory last time out in Bellator make Keith Berry a good pick here. Cortez Coleman is on a two-fight winning streak himself and has three victories apiece by submission, knockout and decision. Berry has fought more recently and he goes for the finish, which makes him the choice here by TKO.

Photo: Muhammed “King Mo” Lawal (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

About The Author

Sal DeRose
Staff Writer

Sal hails from New Jersey and is currently training for his first MMA fight. He hopes to use his knowledge and insight to generate articles that interest and entertain you. Outside of MMA, Sal is a big fan of every other sport. He's a diehard New York sports fan, with the exception of cheering for the Packers.