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At Bellator 214, the promotion crowned its first heavyweight champion in almost three years but saw its most heralded prospect -- the man it hoped would be a future champion -- get demolished. The MMA gods giveth, and the MMA gods taketh away. I think that’s something we’ve all figured out by now, but I suspect there are some other lessons to be gleaned from the card.
Ryan Bader on Saturday at The Forum in Inglewood, California, continued his late-career emergence, cementing himself as a dual-division threat by smashing the legendary Fedor Emelianenko in a mere 35 seconds to win Bellator MMA’s heavyweight grand prix and the company’s vacant championship. In the process, he became Bellator’s first simultaneous two-division champion, pairing his new heavyweight gold with his 205-pound strap. The question now becomes whether or not he will be afforded the opportunity to have a dual reign atop both divisions.
“Darth Bader” has a pair of titles, but that was a future that the company -- and many in the MMA community -- was hoping for and predicting for 22-year-old Aaron Pico. Unfortunately for Pico fans, he had his four-fight winning streak snapped in vicious fashion by the surging Henry Corrales, who overcame an early knockdown to savagely lay waste to Pico in the first round, igniting questions about how far the highly touted prospect can and will go inside the cage. Pico’s failure is of course connected to the tough-as-nails Corrales, who was perhaps the biggest winner at Bellator 214 and certainly schooled onlookers about a few things. What’s in his future?
As usual, play-by-play man Mike Goldberg tortured the hardcore folks for most of the night, but there’s a reason Bellator just doesn’t care about our gripes. This event was certainly eventful for better and for worse, so let’s figure out what five bits of knowledge we can take away from Bellator 214:
‘The Last Emperor’s’ Future Should be a Couch, Not a Cage
Emelianenko ought to retire, but at bare minimum, he shouldn’t be competing in Bellator. I think above all else this is the biggest takeaway from Bellator 214. Not only is it patently obvious, but the whole appeal to having Emelianenko in Bellator was to capitalize on his star power and the fact that he is one of the most popular fighters in MMA history. As the Russian continues to deteriorate before our eyes and routinely get knocked out in a minute or so, it only serves to dispirit and alienate longtime fans and embarrass one of the greatest fighters ever.
Keep in mind, Emelianenko retired for the first time almost seven years ago after knocking out Pedro Rizzo. He didn’t return to action until three and a half years later. Since then, he has gone 4-2 but looked like a shell of his former self. Through the second half of his career, Emelianenko has transitioned from the well-rounded, dominant ground-and-pounder who took the world by storm 15 years ago and has instead fancied himself an aggressive knockout puncher, looking to slug it out at all times. Unfortunately, his reflexes, reaction speed and chin have all diminished greatly, which makes that sort of knockout-oriented style difficult and dangerous.
Would he have won if he clinched with Bader and tried to take him down and pound on him? Almost certainly not, which speaks volumes. Even if he gave sentimental fans a glimmer of hope in 2018 by clobbering Frank Mir and Chael Sonnen to reach this grand prix final, those wins were mere red herrings against similarly faded fighters. Emelianenko has nothing to prove, and at this point, he is doing legitimate damage to his body by subjecting himself to this kind of repeated trauma at 42 years old.
There is good news here, as the fight was the last one on Emelianenko’s Bellator contract, and at the post-fight press conference, Bellator President Scott Coker seemed content with the idea of the former Pride Fighting Championships ruler retiring for the second time. “Fedor doesn’t need to fight again,” Coker said. “He’s done it all.” If Emelianenko wants to have one more massive payday by staging a retirement fight in his native Russia, I think we could live with that, at least so “The Last Emperor” gets a more suitable sendoff, but he needs to end his career soon and should in no way be in a Bellator cage again.
Bader is Big and Bad Enough for Two Belts
In recent years in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, we’ve seen Conor McGregor, Daniel Cormier and Amanda Nunes put themselves in a special, elite category by grabbing titles in two weight classes simultaneously. We’ll see what fate awaits Nunes, but McGregor and Cormier both had one of their titles stripped so the UFC could get the belts back in rotation, denying them the chance to ply their trade in two divisions. We can debate all day long as to whether or not the UFC’s decision to snatch gold from McGregor and Cormier was the righteous or sensible play, but the fact of the matter here is that Bellator isn’t the UFC.
Following Bellator 214, Coker was receptive to the idea, which is the smart choice. Since almost all of the UFC retreads with star power that Bellator signed in recent years are either retired or have one foot out the door, the promotion needs all the help it can get, especially in the two divisions in which Bader holds titles. Consider that Bader has already easily beaten Phil Davis, Muhammed Lawal and Linton Vassell, and the only thing that’s going to legitimize its 205-pound division is to have one of the at worst four best light heavyweights on the planet wearing its belt. While someone like Jarod Trice may be the future of the division, he’s still only 4-0 and too green, so for now, Bader’s legitimacy and visibility are about the only things that could create interest in someone like Vadim Nemkov or Jordan Young fighting for the title.
On top of that, Bader holding the strap introduces the opportunity for a rematch with Lyoto Machida or a fresh and intriguing fight with middleweight champion Gegard Mousasi if he wanted to return to 205 pounds. For Bellator purposes, these are some of the most sellable fights it can produce in an otherwise moribund division and totally fit the mold of the sort of fights that Coker likes to promote.
As for heavyweight? Well, the division is no better, and unlike 205 pounds, Bellator has no real prospects outside of Domingos Barros and Valentin Moldavsky, who are solid but hardly blue chippers and certainly nowhere near ready for a fighter like Bader. Moreover, if Bellator actually does have reservations about Bader trying to reign in two divisions, the company may get its way shortly, as there is a de facto title eliminator on deck for Bellator 216, with Cheick Kongo taking on former Bellator heavyweight champ Vitaly Minakov, who vacated the title back in 2016. Minakov will likely wipe the floor with Kongo, at which point he is the only sensible matchup for Bader, especially when considering he never lost his title in the cage. More importantly, Minakov could prove to be a nasty matchup for Bader, which could solve the double-division conundrum in short order.
Pico Isn’t a Bust Yet, but His Game is Busted
After being hyped as the greatest prospect in MMA history years before he even set foot in the cage, expectations were high for Pico when he signed with Bellator. Remember, it signed him in November 2014, when Pico was still only 18 years old. When he finally made his long-awaited debut in June 2017, he was shockingly dropped and trapped by unknown Zach Freeman in 24 seconds. A simple rookie slipup, right? Well, after Corrales extracted his soul through his chin, it might not be that simple.
The Pico situation is complicated to say the least, but there are some definite truths we can divine from his upset to Corrales. Following the Freeman loss, he ripped through his next four opponents in devastating, thrilling style, vanquishing them all with powerful, creative body-head bangers. He did so with wild aggression and relentless punching attack, which worked against lesser opposition and nearly worked on Corrales, a man he dropped with a pretty uppercut. However, when you combine that breakneck boxing style with Pico’s shocking lack of defense, it becomes a massive problem.
Keep in mind, in the Freeman loss, he didn’t just run into a guillotine choke for no reason; he did it because Freeman dropped him right off the bat. Against Corrales, he was getting touched with clean right hands early. After the knockdown, he refused to stop attacking and punching Corrales, despite the fact that the MMA Lab rep had clearly recovered and was starting to land cleaner punches in every furious exchange. One counter right hook, and Pico was dead on his feet.
Relentless aggression combined with zero defensive responsibility is a recipe for disaster, especially when you’re facing by far the best competition you’ve ever faced in a young career. Pico’s offensive arrogance is harder to stomach when you realize what a brilliant wrestler he is. However, through six pro MMA fights, he has literally not attempted any meaningful wrestling with any opponent. Even MMA’s king of violence and brain damage, Justin Gaethje, knows when to shoot a double. This strategic foolishness is more confusing and disconcerting when you realize that Pico shifted camps from the American Kickboxing Academy to Team Bodyshop. If a coach like Antonio McKee can’t force you into fighting more conservatively and utilizing your wrestling, who can?
There’s so much yet to be answered about Pico. He’s a freakish athlete with great offensive gifts, but what if the light bulb never goes off for him, or what if his chin is simply not up to snuff? Is this a coaching issue or just the follies of being young and cocky? Since the Californian is only 22 years old, we’ll have plenty of time to figure out these questions. In the meantime, it’s incontrovertible: The kid needs to learn how to chill out in the cage, work a game plan, utilize his wrestling and, for God’s sake, bring his hands back to his chin after he punches. Otherwise, these upsets will keep happening, and eventually, they won’t even constitute upsets anymore.
‘OK’ Corrales? He Looks Pretty Good to Me
Pico deserves reprimand for his non-existent defense, inadvisable recklessness and wholesale lack of strategy. With that being said, Pico still managed to use his athleticism, punching and aggression to completely dunk on his four previous opponents. Pico getting crushed and humiliated isn’t just because of his own malfeasance; without Corrales being a rugged badass, it wouldn’t have happened.
Corrales, who has never been knocked out or even really rocked substantially in his career, ate a nasty right uppercut from Pico that may have KO’d a less hardened man right then and there. Instead, Corrales recovered within seconds, and when Pico tried to swarm with chain-gun punches, Corrales rolled with most of them and got the better of the exchanges all the way up until his lethal right hook ended matters. Post-fight, Corrales gave all credit to training with MMA Lab, and it’s hard to argue with the results: After suffering all three losses of his career consecutively to Daniel Straus, Emmanuel Sanchez and Bellator champ Patricio Freire, the Whittier, California, native made the jump to Arizona and is 5-0 with three knockouts since.
Better still, Corrales capped the most important win of his career with a vulgar-yet-sublime promo in the cage, which began with one of the hardest lines I’ve ever heard in MMA: “I’ve lived a mediocre life, and I’m ready to die in this mother [expletive].” What a quote for the ages and one that truly reflects the hardscrabble, no-nonsense nature of the man.
With a performance and promo like that, it’s only sensible that Bellator pulls the trigger on a Freire-Corrales rematch for the 145-pound title in the coming months. While A.J. McKee is now 13-0 -- with all those wins coming inside of Bellator -- “The Mercenary” is still a work in progress, and given the extent to which the promotion covets him, it should continue to develop and expose him on television. Corrales’ April 2016 loss to Freire was his last defeat and marked the moment where he decided to jump to the MMA Lab, where he has sharpened his game in every way. That only served to bolster his punching ability. Meanwhile “Pitbull,” though he regained his title from Straus and made successful defenses against Daniel Weichel and Sanchez, has looked less dynamic than he did early in his career, perhaps due to his struggles with injuries. A championship rematch, in addition to being righteous, would be infinitely more competitive and intriguing than their first go-around.
Goldberg’s Worse Than Ever, but Only You and I Care
If you’re reading this -- especially if you’ve read this far -- chances are you’re the kind of dedicated MMA fan who knows what’s what and appreciates the long-running depreciation of Mike Goldberg. He has been calling this sport for over 21 years now, yet he has been getting more insipid and intolerable year after year for well over a decade, becoming a caricature of his already caricature-ish persona. Since signing with Bellator in June 2017, Goldberg has only gotten worse, further magnetizing many of us to the mute button. Unfortunately, our discontent is irrelevant to decisionmakers.
Bellator 214 was a great example of how Goldberg has gotten more insufferable since his UFC departure. At least with UFC cards, even as the roster bloated and schedule expanded, he was still generally familiar with the majority of fighters on a card; and even if he was relying on his rote catchphrases and crutches, he was slightly more engaged. Putting on play-by-play to call an eight-fight undercard populated with novice, local fighters on whom he has done no research? He’s literally just reading the FightFinder in between doing live reads for sponsors. Even when the main event came around, he told us that both Bader and Emelianenko had “never lost … by decision.” Never mind what an irrelevant stat that is, but he used it for both guys and awkwardly paused when describing Emelianenko, hence my ellipses, making it obvious he’s just reading off a piece of paper.
What magnifies this is that Goldberg has now been paired with “Big” John McCarthy, who is not only a natural color commentator but very well-researched. In fact, it’s extra troubling because on a card like Bellator 214 in southern California, McCarthy has actually refereed a bunch of these faceless 2-1 and 6-4 fighters, with a keen recall that allows him to drop tidbits about their tendencies and style off the top of his head. While he suffers Goldberg gladly and does his best to create whatever could be considered chemistry, there’s a quiet tension when it seems like he’s always trying to get Goldberg back on the topic at hand and to focus on the fight instead of extraneous matters. I imagine watching a fisherman trying to reel in an 800-pound tuna and imagine the bend of the rod and the taut tension of the line. McCarthy trying to steer Goldberg toward the fight is the auditory equivalent of that.
In reality, none of this matters. Bellator could bring in another veteran play-by-play announcer or even build a competent sportscaster from the ground up. Look at how quickly Brendan Fitzgerald has come along for the UFC. However, the whole reason Goldberg was signed is that Viacom, Paramount Network and Bellator were all keen on bringing in a familiar face and voice that will be forever associated with the UFC. They know that diehard fans are going to watch the product anyway, and if they can’t stand Goldberg, they’ll simply mute the audio, but there’s a legitimate chance that he will serve as a positive asset for a certain kind of fleeting, fair-weather fan. You know what? It works. Just run a Twitter search for “Mike Goldberg” or “Goldberg Bellator,” and you notice it’s populated with comments like this:
I should watch more Bellator. It's nice hearing Mike Goldberg— Stink (@TheIconStinky) January 27, 2019
Goldberg doing the announcing for Bellator adds something to the event for me.— Leo (@Senor_Rudo) January 27, 2019
Hearing Goldberg on Bellator is very comforting.— Stoo Rad (@discostoo) January 27, 2019
There are dozens and dozens of comments like this from the kind of people who would probably only watch a Bellator event if they were clicking through the channels and suddenly said, “Wow, there are fights on!” Bellator may not have a massive audience, but the company will certainly subject the rest of us to the tyranny of the masses.