Last weekend, two of the year's most thrilling mixed martial arts battles occurred on the same night.
Many expected the main event of UFC 139, when former Strikeforce and PRIDE champion Dan Henderson eked out a hard-fought decision against former UFC champion Mauricio Rua, to be a memorable fight. But the Bellator Fighting Championship lightweight title bout between Eddie Alvarez and challenger Michael Chandler was an unexpected surprise.
Alvarez, regarded as one of the world's top five lightweights, predicted a victory in the second round. Chandler matched Alvarez punch for punch, however, and secured a submission victory in the fourth round to win the title.
"This was the best fight I have ever seen," Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney said. "Mike Chandler just beat the best lightweight in the world. It was a spectacular performance."
Bellator will cap an already successful year when this Saturday's events close out its fifth season. Thiago Santos will fight Eric Prindle in the heavyweight tournament finale, and Alexis Vila will fight Eduardo Dantas in the bantamweight finale.
Lightweights Kurt Pellegrino and Patricky Freire and welterweights Lyman Good and Michael Costa will also fight on the main card, which will air live from Caesar's in Atlantic City on MTV2 and EPIX (9 p.m. Eastern). The preliminaries (spike.com, 7 Eastern) include: middleweights Gregory Milliard vs. Brandon Saling; featherweights Brylan Van Artsdalen vs. Scott Heckman; welterweights LeVon Maynard vs. Christopher Wing; lightweights Phillipe Nover vs. Marcin Held; and a catchweight fight between Karl Amoussou and Jesus Martinez.
"The Santos matchup against Prindle, I don't think anybody questions if the fight goes to the ground. Santos is going to have a very dramatic advantage on the ground," Rebney said. "But standing, Prindle is a four- or five-time Army heavyweight champion in boxing. His takedown defense has gotten better. It's still not the strength of his game. That's an interesting fight stylistically."
Heavyweights typically draw the fans' attention, but the Dantas-Vila fight could steal the show.
"It's a classic match-up between Vila and Dantas," Rebney said. "Dantas is just this young, fresh phenom that's fighting at an amazing level. ... He's training with the freaks of all freaks at 145 pounds and below. Then you got Vila, who at 40 years old is a monster with power in both hands."
With season six slated to begin in early 2012, Bellator's future looks bright. Viacom purchased the company in October.
"It's spectacular for the future of Bellator," Rebney said. "It's great for mixed martial arts as whole. It's the third-largest entertainment in the world making a long-term, very high-level commitment to our sport. I'm thrilled that it's Bellator."
The new partnership will deliver a new television home for the promotion, although the start date of a switch from MTV2 to Spike TV hasn't been determined. Spike has a contract to air certain programming from the Ultimate Fighting Championship in 2012. Rebney said the official date for the move is Jan. 1, 2013, but "could happen sooner."
Much like the UFC's move to Fox, the Viacom deal is expected to deliver cross promotion for Bellator. The added exposure and financial stability will pay dividends in the cage as well.
"It's going to give us an opportunity to aggressively pursue many of the greatest fighters in the world," Rebney said. "We've done an incredible job up to this point. But now it gives us a much better platform to go out and get those men and women. It's huge for our company."