Bellator MMA returns tonight with Bellator 123, a stacked card as far as Bellator is concerned with the hallmarks of new CEO Scott Coker all over it. It’s a busy night, and a busy weekend, for MMA fans: the UFC has a competing show just down the road in Ledyard, CT (UFC Fight Night: Mousasi vs. Souza), while Bellator’s event takes place in Uncasville, CT.

That’s right: the two major promotions are going head-to-head not just on TV (well, TV and Fight Pass), but at the gate as well, staging events on the same day in the same state. Dana White would have you believe this is just a coincidence, but it should be noted that the Bellator event was booked prior to the UFC confirming their plans.

Aside from the two events, there’s also Invicta FC 8 on UFC Fight Pass Saturday night. So, as stated, a busy weekend for MMA fans. However, only one of the three events is available to fans with just cable, and if that’s you, or if you prefer Bellator’s offering over the UFC’s, well, there’s quite a card to consider.

Opening the show will be the Bellator debut of Bobby Lashley (10-2), the reigning, defending, undisputed, heavyweight champion of the world… in TNA Wrestling. See what we did there? Lashley hasn’t panned out in MMA the way a number of promoters hoped he would (meaning he has not become the next Brock Lesnar), and TNA Wrestling is just about out of business, but when we say that the Bellator 123 card has the hallmarks of Scott Coker all over it, this is what we mean. Lashley is still a draw, at least a medium sized one, and both Coker and the Spike TV audience are familiar with him: Coker from Strikeforce, where Lashley fought arguably his stiffest competition, and Spike TV fans from TNA, which is still high profile enough to get a few curious eyeballs to cross over.

Make no mistake, however, Bellator and Coker are protecting their investment in this bout, pairing Lashley up against an 8-7 fighter (Josh Burns) who has never won against legit competition at a high level, and who is, in fact, winless in Bellator. It’s an exercise in can-crushing, and a match Lashley should (and probably will) win. In fact, if he doesn’t, if he somehow gets tagged with a surprise punch and goes down, the Lashley experiment in Bellator may be over before it started.

It’s unlikely, however. Bellator’s heavyweight division is thin, and Lashley is arguably the third most recognizable name on their roster, behind Cheick Kongo and Lavar Johnson. That’s right, he’s probably more recognizable than Bellator’s heavyweight champion, Vitaly Minakov – though not a better fighter, to be certain. It’s also unlikely, however, that Lashley steals the show Friday night – not against a fighter like Josh Burns at least.

Speaking of Kongo and Johnson, they’re on the Bellator 123 card as well, squaring off against Johnson and Kongo, respectively. Yes, the two biggest ex-UFC fighters on the Bellator roster (literally, of course – Rampage and Tito have the popularity titles down) are facing one another Friday, in a “blink and you’ll miss it unless it’s a 15 minute hug fest” bout that could possibly land either man a shot at the heavyweight title, given a) Bellator’s heavyweight ranks are super thin and b) one win was enough to get Joey Beltran a title fight at light heavyweight.

This is a stand-and-bang spectacle fight that also has Coker’s handiwork written all over it, but once again it’s also a move that makes sense and protects their investment, or at least one investment at the expense of another.

Kongo (21-9-2) had and lost a shot at the title already, with Minakov outpointing him in one of the dullest heavyweight title fights in recent memory, and has since picked up a win over Eric Smith on the Bellator 120 PPV preliminary card. That fight was ugly, mainly because Smith looked like he was pulled out of the crowd after winning a “fight Cheick Kongo” contest, and even more so because Kongo fought down to his opponent’s level.

Lavar Johnson (18-9), meanwhile, was most recently seen being submitted by comeback kid (as in, comeback from a near-death experience) Blagoy Ivanov at Bellator 116 in the heavyweight tournament final. The loss represented his second loss in Bellator, where he is now 1-2.

These two will more than likely stand, but with Kongo being the more experienced, decorated striker, he should have the edge, as long as he stays out of range of Johnson’s power, especially early on. And entertaining fight? It has the potential. The potential to steal the show? That’s where it gets a little murky.

And then there’s the King, from Texas, not Graceland. King Mo (Muhammed Lawal) makes his return, coming off a loss to Rampage Jackson in the headlining bout of Bellator’s much maligned but relatively successful Bellator 120 PPV card. Mo clearly thought he won the bout, but given not much happened in it, and given that what did happen was pretty close, it’s far from the robbery of the century, or even the year, or probably even that week.

Mo is going to look to return strong here, as he, like Johnson, has not worked out the way the promotion had hoped (especially given they had a special on Spike TV dedicated to him). With Coker now running the show, the King should be able to rest a little easier (they have history from Strikeforce), and it shows – despite coming off a loss than caused him to sound off on the company and former CEO Bjorn Rebney, Mo recently signed a new contract with the promotion.

The 12–4 (1) fighter will face Dustin Jacoby at Bellator 123, which at least gives him an opponent with a wee bit of name recognition who has fought previously in the UFC; prior opponents Tom DeBlass and Marcus Sursa were lost to injury.

Jacoby (10-3) is on a two fight win streak since losing a bout to David Branch in the WSOF, and should provide decent opposition for Mo, but Mo is hands down the favorite here. Again, a fight that could steal the show? Not likely, given Lawal’s recent performances (his fight against Mikhail Zayats prior to the Rampage loss was one of the most tedious performances to watch of his entire career, and it’s a shock the judges were awake to score it).

So where does that leave us? Well, the main event, unless we go to the preliminary card, and really there’s no need to. Because the main event will “steal the show” – if you can really consider a main event living up to expectations to be “stealing” anything. Still, this is the fight that should bring the action, for a couple of reasons.

For starters, when you think of depth in Bellator, you think of their Lightweight and Featherweight divisions. The divisions where they actually have some legit top 10 or top 15 guys. That’s the territory we’re in here, with featherweight champion Pat Curran defending against Patricio “Pitbull” Freire, a man Curran eked by with a split decision back in January 2013.

Pitbull is looking to avenge that loss. He was furious about being forced to sit out of a title shot while Curran re-matched Daniel Straus in March of this year, after losing the featherweight belt to Straus last November. Curran did win it back, (which should make Freire’s revenge all the sweeter, should he manage a win in this fight), but he won by hail mary with a last minute submission in a fight that he was losing, and losing handily.

What does that mean? Well, this should be an exciting fight with the real possibility of the title changing hands, but don’t count Curran out. He might have used up all his luck with Straus, but at the same time, he has managed to beat most of the best fighters Bellator has to offer at 145lbs, and he won’t go down without a fight (literally, of course, so perhaps we should say he won’t go down without an excellent fight).

This is the fight to watch, but at the very least, Bellator has lined up an exciting night of spectacle leading into the most competitive fight on the card. If you’re set on watching UFC Fight Night, this one should at least be worth setting up the DVR for.

About The Author

Senior Staff Writer

Covering the sport of MMA from Ontario, Canada, Jay Anderson has been writing for various publications covering sports, technology, and pop culture since 2001. Jay holds an Honours Bachelor of Arts degree in English from the University of Guelph, and a Certificate in Leadership Skills from Humber College under the Ontario Management Development Program. When not slaving at the keyboard, he can be found in the company of his dog, a good book, or getting lost in the woods.