Bellator's list of guaranteed title contenders grew by two Thursday at the University of South Florida Sun Dome in Tampa, Fla., when David Rickels and Emanuel Newton completed tournament runs at 155 and 205, respectively.
Though Newton's effort against Mikhail Zayats was slotted as the televised main event, Rickels stole the show, first with a comedic entrance that featured "The Caveman" walking a leashed Jurassic Park replica dinosaur to the cage, then with a controversial knockout at the end of Round 2.
As ridiculous as Rickels' entrance appeared, his effort against Saad Awad was utterly serious. It had to be because Awad, an unexpected participant in the lightweight tournament finals, hits hard and, through much of the opening round, controlled by grappling. Awad, a surprise finalist after starching Guillaume DeLorenzi in half a minute and hot prospect Will Brooks in 43 seconds, won the first round, and looked on his way to winning the second. Awad continued to handle Rickels, winning scrambles and securing top position, but at the end of the round they separated and exchanged.
"We ended up doing a little bit of wrestling," said Rickels, who earned a title shot against the winner Bellator champion Michael Chandler or his next challenger Dave Jansen, "but man that exchange in the corner, that's what I wanted. I got to land that right hand and I guess I do have some power."
Rickels scraped a left hand past Awad's face and followed with a wild right that dropped the 29-year-old as the bell sounded. Awad remained on the canvas, Rickels moved to his corner, and referee Troy Waugh circled back to look at the downed fighter. Awad (14-5) made no movement to stand or ind his corner, and seconds later Waugh waved off the fight.
"It feels amazing, man," said Rickels, now 14-1. "I really wanted to put an exclamation mark on the way I went at this tournament. I knew Saad was going to be the way to do that. I knew he'd kind of want to trade with me."
Awad's representative, Mike Kogan, took issue with Waugh's stoppage.
So did Association of Boxing Commission certified trainer for referees and judges Robert Hinds, who suggested on Twitter that Awad should have received the full minute between rounds to recover. At a minimum, Hinds criticized, Waugh should have let cage-side doctors have a look at Awad before calling the contest.
A hand injury might have also slowed Awad down.
"It didn't go my way tonight," Awad said. "I broke my hand in the first round and sorry I had to wrestle for two rounds. I really didn't want to do that. He caught me in the second round and there is nothing I can do about it; congrats [to Rickels]."
Regardless of the post-fight discussion, Rickels' decision to drop to 155 pounds has proven to be fruitful.
If Chandler defends his title against Jansen, he'll face a motivated opponent.
"I know fighting Michael Chandler we'll see a lot of" punching "going on, except for I think we'll be landing on each other's chin," Rickels promised. "He said a little something about how I was lacking a little bit of power. I don't know. I think I got a little bit still."
Newton's win in the main event completed an exciting run to a light heavyweight title shot and rematch against Bellator champion Atilla Vegh.
The 10-year veteran was overlooked coming into the tournament, which featured names like Renato "Babalu" Sobral and "King" Mo Lawal, whom Newton vanquished in the semifinal round with a spectacular spinning backfist. He also submitted Atanas Djambazov in the quarterfinals, a bout that was relegated to an undercard off-TV selection for Bellator MMA's debut on Spike TV on Jan. 17.
Zayats (21-7), who vanquished Sobral and armbarred Jacob Noe before meeting Newton, never looked comfortable in the tournament finale. The 31-year-old Russian, winner of 11 of 12 fights coming in, timed Newton's awkward attack relatively well, but failed to find an answer for the American's grappling.
"He brought it," Newton said. "Caught me with a couple. Cut me. He was hard to takedown. Good scrambling. Good punching. I just knew if I pushed the pace and stayed in his face, he'd get tired. I'd wear him down, eventually get the takedown and finish it on the ground."
There wasn't a finish to be found, however. Even headed into the final round, Newton, bleeding near his left eye, scored with a screaming right to Zayats' chin. The Russian momentarily dropped, defended a rear-naked and bulldog choke attempts, and regained his feet. The sequence was good enough for Newton (21-7-1) to take the final round, which brought with it $100,000 and a shot at the Bellator title.
"I was a little upset because I had an injury two days ago and I tried to postpone my fight," Zayats said after the bout." Newton is a great fighter and I congratulate him on a good fight."
Vegh (29-4-2) beat Newton by close split decision in July to earn a shot at the Bellator light heavyweight title. He decisioned Christian M'Pumbu in February to win the belt.
Melo grounds Houston
The 32-year-old Brazilian could have kept pounding Houston, 24, but instead he took mercy, passed guard and immediately wrapped up the finish. It wasn't all easy, though. Houston came out strong in the first until a flush foot to the groin dropped him like a taser. The American, looking to rebound from the first loss of his career, showed resilience over the course of the fight, but he was never quite the same after the low blow.
Melo (29-11-3) was relentless on the floor, unloading punch after punch including a monster right that bounced Houston's head off the canvas.
Despite the beating, Houston looked fresh at the start of the second, blocking a high kick and following with a left hook, high kick, left, right and pressure into the fence. Melo then was clubbed to the floor as he threw a knee at Houston's chest, and gave up his back. Houston (10-2) went for a rear-naked choke; it was deep, but he didn't have his hooks in and Melo spun to his left and escaped.
On the feet Melo changed things up, landing three consecutive angled left hooks, the last of which hurt Houston. The fight was Melo's the rest of the way, and he sealed it at 1:09 of Round 3.
Lima outworks Mann
Bantamweights Rodrigo Lima and Ronnie Mann are nearly identical in terms of height, weight, and reach, but as far as fighting goes, they're not close. At least they weren't on this night, as Lima, 21, dictated terms on the feet and the floor to take a sweeping unanimous decision, 30-27 three times.
The Brazilian's effort lands him in Bellator's next 135-pound tournament, and at 11-1, with speed, power, aggression and, he should not be underestimated. Mann, 26, a featherweight until this bout, had difficulty coping with Lima's combinations, overhand rights, and sharp left hooks.
Lima initiated most of the offense, forcing the Englishman to a knee in the opening round. Even when Mann (21-6-1) connected, Lima pressed forward. In part this was because Mann rarely put strikes together, though Lima's aggression had more to do with what he was about rather than what his opponent gave him.
After two striking rounds, they went to the floor. Lima threatened with a guillotine, established top position, and remained their until they scrambled and Mann fell into a triangle. Mann held off Lima, who peppered the bantamweight rookie's head with elbows until the bell.