The Bellator Heavyweight World Grand Prix survived its first round with about as much grandeur as the promotion could have hoped for.
One side of the bracket in the eight-man tournament played out perfectly last month for promoter Scott Coker & Co., who must be giddy, maybe even dizzy, from all of the hype possibilities buzzing around their heads for an upcoming semifinal between the stoic legend Fedor Emelianenko and the legendary antagonist Chael Sonnen.
Then there's the other semi matchup, which was finalized Saturday night when light heavyweight champion Ryan Bader knocked Muhammed "King Mo" Lawal to the canvas with a crushing left hook in the fight's first exchange and finished him just 15 seconds into the main event of Bellator 199 at the SAP Center in San Jose, California.
The quick, explosive victory set up Bader (25-5) for a dance with Matt Mitrione, who earned his spot in February.
"He's my buddy," Bader said, "but he'd better get his ass to wrestling practice."
Bader was a two-time All-American wrestler in college, while Mitrione is a striker who has had trouble on the mat.
Lawal (21-7, 1 NC), a former Strikeforce light heavyweight champ, was fighting for the first time in more than a year. The 37-year-old has been knocked out in two of his past three outings.
Lawal said in a tweet following the fight that he intends to move up to the middleweight division.
This is MMA. Things don't always go the way you expected. Congratulations to @ryanbader for his big win tonight. He deserves it. Now, this being said, It's now time for me to move to the Middleweight division #KingMoneyweight pic.twitter.com/KY49qbXTub— King Muhammed (@KingMoFH) May 13, 2018
Bader's continued presence in the bracket, while perhaps a bit muted to be a boon for the Bellator publicity team, lends the tournament competitive legitimacy. Though he's a light heavyweight, not a heavyweight, Bader is the only Grand Prix entrant who is ranked in the ESPN Top 10 in either weight class. He has won five straight fights, 10 of his past 11.
"I know I have the tools," said Bader, 34. "I come out here every time to get better. I have a great team around me. And that perfect storm is coming right now, the perfect time, for the Heavyweight Grand Prix."
Pico speeds his momentum
Aaron Pico isn't exactly putting in the rounds as he builds his young career. The 21-year-old prospect needed only 1:10 to score a TKO over Lee Morrison for his third straight victory, all of which have come in the first round.
Pico (3-1) pounced on a stunned Morrison (19-9) for the fiery finish after flooring the 32-year-old with a thudding left hand to the body.
"That's just a vicious left hook," Pico said afterward. "His coach said that you're a you-know-what if you get knocked out by a body shot, so I told my dad and my girlfriend in the hotel room, I said, 'I'm gonna knock him out with a body shot.' So it came."
Pico has one of the most distinguished résumés of any young fighter in MMA. He is a two-time national junior champion in freestyle wrestling, and he won silver and bronze medals in the junior worlds. He also is a former national champion in Golden Gloves boxing. His MMA debut last June did not go well, however, as he was choked out in 24 seconds by Zach Freeman in a lightweight bout. But Pico has bounced back with three straight first-round finishes at featherweight.
"Man, I want to take on those A guys," Pico said. "I want to get closer to the world title. I feel I'm ready for it. I'm improving. I'm getting better every day. So one step closer to being champ of the world. That's my motto. I'm one step closer to being champ of the world. Now I'm one fight closer."