Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.
There’s a lot to like about Bellator MMA’s upcoming welterweight grand prix. Tournaments often create significantly more interest in the fighters involved than isolated fights, and with the Ultimate Fighting Championship showing no interest in them, it creates an opening for Bellator to fill a void when it comes to high-end tournaments that have been prominent in the sport’s past but are much rarer now. There are many talented fighters in Bellator’s welterweight division, and the tournament puts a spotlight on them as the promotion looks to create new attractions.
Considering the amount of talent involved, the tournament could go many different ways and it would offer a crowning achievement for the career of so many of the competitors. Douglas Lima and Andrey Koreshkov dominated the Bellator welterweight division for years and each held the title, but many fans don’t perceive them to be elite because of the level of competition they have faced. Winning this tournament would make it hard to deny their talent, and either Lima or Koreshkov would routinely get brought up in that elite discussion with a win.
Rory MacDonald similarly is looking for high-end accolades to put on his resume. MacDonald has wins over so many premier fighters that his talent is pretty well universally recognized. However, he fell short in the UFC when it came to capturing the welterweight title he had targeted since the beginning of his career. Those sorts of titles and accomplishments define fighter legacies, and the perception of his legacy may not match how great he was as a fighter.
In that sense, the Bellator welterweight grand prix is a particularly juicy opportunity for MacDonald. He already captured the Bellator welterweight title, but that championship has limited cache, right or wrong. If MacDonald were to defeat highly respected middleweight champion Gegard Mousasi and then follow that up by winning a top-notch eight-man tournament, it would be something fans, writers and historians could point to at the end of his career as a reflection of how good he was.
Ed Ruth isn’t getting a lot of discussion heading into this tournament, but neither was Daniel Cormier heading into the Strikeforce heavyweight grand prix of 2011-12. That turned out to be the coming-out party for the amateur wrestling great turned MMA champion. Likewise, this tournament could be the three-time NCAA wrestling champion Ruth’s chance to show he is going to be a world-class fighter.
There are plenty of storylines circling around Bellator’s upcoming tournament, which is why it’s a compelling event on the calendar. Make no mistake, however: The impact this tournament makes will depend on one fighter above all the others. That man is Michael Page. This isn’t to say Page is the best fighter in the field; we don’t know that by any means. There aren’t a lot of fighters in the history of the welterweight division better than MacDonald, and there is plenty of talent beyond that. However, nothing in the field offers anything resembling the intrigue of how the unique, charismatic MVP will do when finally matched against top-flight opposition.
It used to be when MMA had far fewer divisions and far fewer events that fighters could frequently become stars just by winning. Those days are long gone, and even the best competitors need an intangible star quality in order to captivate larger audiences in 2018. No fighter on the Bellator roster and few fighters in the sport have that quality more than Page. The undefeated Brit talks like a star, carries himself like a star and fights in a way that grabs attention.
MVP has had his ups and downs as a fighter. He alternates between electrifying performances and less entertaining bouts because his counterattacking style depends on the way his opponents approach the fight. To this point, Bellator has been careful with the rising star, choosing his opponents. Now, we’ll finally get to find out just how good he is.
The tests of Page will commence with what is easily the most anticipated fight of the first round of the tournament: a battle with fellow brash English striker Paul Daley. The rivalry between the two has been simmering for years, and for a while, it didn’t look like the bout would ever end up taking place. Bellator worked hard to bring Daley back into the fold, and now, they promotion finally has the fight it sought. Daley has always been vulnerable on the ground but he remains as tough as they come on the feet. It’s a real test for Page and should produce excitement.
If Page can get by Daley, the challenges will keep coming. The field is full of championship fighters and the argument can be made that the seven other participants plus the two alternates are all tougher than all 13 professional opponents MVP has taken on to this point. In short, we’re going to find out where the man stands. He may not get far, but if he does, he’s likely to be the most talked about fighter in the promotion by the end of the tournament.
In many respects, MVP now faces the same point in his career that Conor McGregor did in the middle of 2015. McGregor’s cocky attitude and spectacular striking turned heads, but it felt uncertain how he would perform against the best of his division. Remember, Dustin Poirier and Max Holloway proved to be better competitors than they were generally thought to be at the time they took on McGregor. Chad Mendes and Jose Aldo offered McGregor the chance to prove he could do the same things against the best opponents. When he did, he became an icon. Of course, if he had come up short in those key moments, the future landmark bouts never would have materialized.
It’s Page’s time to show whether or not what he does will translate against world-class opponents. The answer to that question more than anything else will be the key to the Bellator welterweight grand prix. No other fighter has more on the line. The wait to learn just how good MVP is has lasted years. Now we’ll find out, and it could be the crowning of a new superstar or the fizzling of a great hope.
Todd Martin has written about mixed martial arts since 2002 for a variety of outlets, including CBSSports.com, SI.com, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, MMApayout.com, Fight Magazine and Fighting Spirit Magazine. He has appeared on a number of radio stations, including ESPN affiliates in New York and Washington, D.C., and HDNet’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Wade Keller at PWTorch.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. Todd received his BA from Vassar College in 2003 and JD from UCLA School of Law in 2007 and is a licensed attorney. He has covered UFC, Pride, Bellator, Affliction, IFL, WFA, Strikeforce, WEC and K-1 live events. He believes deeply in the power of MMA to heal the world and bring happiness to all of its people.