Who will win Bellator's Heavyweight World Grand Prix?

Chael Sonnen, above, will square off with Quinton "Rampage" Jackson on Jan. 20 in Bellator's World Grand Prix. AP Photo/Gregory Payan

Bellator's Heavyweight World Grand Prix kicks off Saturday when Chael Sonnen faces Quinton "Rampage" Jackson at The Forum in Los Angeles. Other fighters participating at later dates include Frank Mir, Ryan Bader, Fedor Emelianenko, Muhammed "King Mo" Lawal, Matt Mitrione and Roy Nelson.

We asked our panel -- ESPN MMA reporter Brett Okamoto, ESPN MMA editor Greg Rosenstein, SportsCenter hosts Max Bretos and Phil Murphy, and digital contributor Eric Tamiso -- for their picks.


Okamoto: Matt Mitrione

As boring as it is to take the odds-on favorite, I'd be lying if I said anyone else.

Only half of the field (Emelianenko, Mir, Mitrione, Nelson) can even say they're a natural heavyweight. And of that group, Mitrione is the closest to still being in his prime (by far), and he's not stylistically overwhelmed in any potential matchup. He's the favorite for obvious reasons.

That said, he has already lost to opening-round opponent Roy Nelson in his career -- and this is the heavyweight division we're talking about. It's probably foolish to expect the most reasonable, predictable outcome. But my early money is on Mitrione.


Rosenstein: Matt Mitrione

I tried to pick someone other than Matt Mitrione. I really did. But in the end, out of the eight fighters competing in Bellator's Heavyweight Grand Prix, he presents the least amount of questions and therefore will reign supreme.

Frank Mir, as technical as he is, hasn't fought since March of 2016. Chael Sonnen, Rampage Jackson, Roy Nelson and Fedor Emelianenko are all past their primes. King Mo is my wild card in this tournament, but he faces a very talented fighter in Ryan Bader in the first round. Bellator's light heavyweight champion is an exceptional wrestler and striker, but he's a light heavyweight. Even with added weight he'll be at a size disadvantage to Mitrione, who is coming off three consecutive wins.


Murphy: Ryan Bader

It wouldn't be a terrible idea to take someone outside the field. Vegas odds have "Any Alternate Fighter" at the same plus-600 payout as Fedor Emelianenko and Roy Nelson. UFC light heavyweight champ Daniel Cormier won the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix that way.

But looking at the existing field, I like Ryan Bader. At 34, he's three years younger than anyone else, can win a fight from almost anywhere and looked fantastic in his previous light heavyweight title defense. The former Arizona State wrestler and longtime UFC veteran has won four straight, three of those by TKO or knockout. At minus-260 in his quarterfinal against King Mo, he's the heaviest first-round favorite. In a survive-and-advance environment, it's wise to take someone with a winnable opener.


Tamiso: An alternate (if not, Matt Mitrione)

Bellator's next heavyweight champion isn't officially in this tournament, yet. I'm picking an alternate to win the World Grand Prix.

In 2012, Daniel Cormier won the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix after replacing Alistair Overeem in the semifinals. Overeem was removed from the tournament after refusing to fight on the scheduled date with an injured toe. If Bellator plans to finish this 8-man tournament in this calendar year, they inevitably will hit a wall with someone facing a short turnaround or an injury. That's MMA in a nutshell, a promoter's best-laid plans often get thrown in the trash. The company has already had numerous fighters raise their hand to be considered as alternates. Imagine the fervor on social media with fighters campaigning when Scott Coker & Co. need to pick someone to jump into the semifinals, or even finals.

If I had to pick one fighter of the original eight, I'd go with Matt Mitrione. His toughest test could be in the first round with Roy Nelson, who he lost to more than five years ago. In the semifinals he'd go up against a light heavyweight in either Ryan Bader or King Mo. Mitrione's athletic background should keep him relevant.


Bretos: Frank Mir

Perfect timing means I will be in Los Angeles for Bellator 192 this Saturday. I look forward to seeing the World Grand Prix kick off in person on one the best Bellator cards (on paper) in recent history.

I have been looking at the bracket a lot, and therein lies the intrigue in this kind of format. I truly believe Ryan Bader is the easy pick, however, a light heavyweight hitting the finish line in a heavyweight tournament over a whole year is folly.

Just like the NCAA tournament, the pairings are key. Mitrione and Bader would be my favorites, but since they would meet in semifinals, my pick is Frank Mir. I don't know how much Fedor Emelianenko has left, so I think Mir has the best possibility to have the bracket opened up.