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Between the Ultimate Fighting Championship and Bellator MMA, we were offered a weekend doubleheader. We were introduced to a new UFC middleweight contender and an underwhelming performance from a Bellator champion. Certainly, these are things from which we can learn.
Jack Hermansson pulled off, to my mind, perhaps the biggest upset this year by earning a unanimous decision over Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza in the UFC Fight Night 150 headliner in Sunrise, Florida. On the flipside, Bellator champion Rory MacDonald advanced in the promotion’s welterweight grand prix by the skin of his teeth at Bellator 220, settling for a majority draw against Jon Fitch.
Not every Bellator champ disappointed, though, as Ilima-Lei Macfarlane showed out against Veta Arteaga and cut her wide open like a horror movie, displaying another wrinkle to her game. On the UFC side, we still have to deal with the Greg Hardy conundrum. Let’s figure out what we learned from UFC Fight Night 150 and Bellator 220.
‘THE JOKER’ IS NO JOKE
Admission: I was caught napping on Hermansson. Not that a 6-2 UFC record is anything at which to sneeze, but I found ways to rationalize him as just another Octagon mid-carder. I couldn’t shake the image of his getting dummied on the floor by Cezar Ferreira two and a half years ago. I took his 49-second submission of David Branch not as a “fluke” -- I hate to use that word in a combat sports context -- but definitely an outcome that likely wouldn’t play out similarly in another 10 or 100 contests. Against Souza, the Swede disabused me of many of my misconceptions about him.
What stands out to me is that Hermansson really did a little bit of everything. Part of what has brought “Jacare” success in prizefighting in his transition from being a grappler is that even before he became one of the greatest Brazilian jiu-jitsu players ever, he was a judo black belt, which informed his fantastic takedown ability. However, across 25 minutes, he could not take down Hermansson once; “The Joker” took him down three times. Also, Souza is a fantastic athlete who naturally adapted to the standup game, yet Hermansson, who largely has made his bones on being a ground-and-pound artist, showed marked improvement in his striking, smoking the Brazilian with jabs and clean combinations throughout the fight.
Hermansson also showed his mettle. The fight was not a breeze by any stretch, and he was constantly figuring out ways to outwork and overcome a superior athlete. In the third round, Souza ripped him to the head and body and clearly had him hurt, but he never acquiesced to the underdog role. When the Brazilian stepped back in the fourth, Hermansson got right back to work for the final 10 minutes and never let up. I can’t say I see him a major threat to whomever might come out of the Robert Whittaker-Israel Adesanya showdown, but there’s no disputing he’s a Top 10 middleweight and clearly improving with every fight.
DID THE ‘GATOR’ DESERVE A GREATER FATE?
Souza was a considerable favorite against Hermansson. On some sportsbooks, he closed as high as -270, and that was after opening at -175. People were betting him up despite being a favorite -- clearly folks who were in line with my thinking -- and struggling to imagine how he would lose to a fighter like Hermansson, an opponent over whom he had so many athletic and technical advantages. That’s why fights don’t happen on paper.
Souza’s place in the middleweight atmosphere is confusing. He’s 39, but he’s a physical freak who shows no signs of physically depreciating anytime soon. However, he’s 2-3 over his last five fights inside the Octagon. At the same time, his bout with Hermansson was cobbled together just over three weeks ago after Yoel Romero pulled out due to illness. When “Jacare” and Romero met at UFC 194 three years and change ago, the majority of folks, myself included, thought Souza won. If the cookie crumbled the other way, what would our 185-pound UFC title picture look like now?
It’s not like the Hermansson fight was out of his reach. The most dominant round of the encounter was the third and saw Souza bust up “The Joker.” However, he then inexplicably coasted for the next nine minutes and 50 seconds before trying to wing on the Swede to close the fight. It’s difficult and puzzling to put together all of these elements and get a read on what awaits “Jacare” in the cage. He’s a supreme athlete, one of the greatest grapplers ever and has effortlessly picked up the striking game. He’s almost 40 yet still in better shape than fighters half his age. There’s no fighter in the division he could not submit, but he completely blew a must-win fight against an underdog by taking off several rounds. Any UFC title picture at this point is slightly baffling, but it is still confounding to think a fighter as athletically and technically gifted as Souza could just go down in MMA history as an also-ran.
HARDY IS STILL A THING, WON’T STOP BEING A THING
We can wring our hands all we want about the fact that the UFC is using a woman-hitting ex-NFL player to get media attention. If anything, it’s only exacerbated by the company signing on with ESPN. However, this was the second consecutive time the promotion put Hardy just before the main event. You know what? It’s not like the dude can’t fight.
Hardy is still a neophyte, as illustrated by his ridiculous disqualification loss to Allen Crowder in January. However, his two-minute dusting of Dmitry Smoliakov was much more in line with how his other MMA fights have gone. The man stands 6-foot-5, weighs 265 pounds and clearly hits like a truck. We’ve seen lots of crossover athletes -- obviously gifted in their stick-and-ball vocations -- flunk out in the cage because they’re just not fighters. It’s grisly and, given his history, sort of morbid to say, but Hardy can fight. He has picked up striking technique easily, and what is most telling about his bouts is that once he lands clean on his opponents, they just cower. Smoliakov seemed terrified of Hardy’s punches and seemed resigned to shooting weak takedowns until he met his inevitable fate.
Remember, Hardy is still only 30 years old, and he’s a heavyweight. MMA’s big boys have a longer competitive shelf life than any division, and it’s a weight class where it’s not uncommon to see prospects in their early 30s. Yes, the UFC’s signing and promotion of Hardy may be craven. The man has done things in his personal life that shouldn’t be forgiven. Nonetheless, he’s a convenient star for a duplicitous company, and on top of that, it’s clear he can throw hands. Don’t be surprised in a couple months when he gets a third co-main event assignment.
A ‘RED KING’ WITH A TENUOUS THRONE
Regardless of how you scored the Bellator 220 main event between MacDonald and Fitch, the former was underwhelming, and despite only being 29 years old, he is already hinting that he might not be long for the hurt business -- a strange irony for a fighter whose career has been predicated on action fights.
“I feel like God has really called me the last little while. I don’t know. He’s changed my spirit, changed my heart,” MacDonald said after the fight. “It takes a certain spirit to come in here and put a man through pain. I don’t know if I have that same drive to hurt people anymore. I don’t know what it is. It’s confusing, but I know the Lord has something in store for me. He was speaking to me in here tonight. I don’t know. It’s a different feeling.”
On some level, his lethargic performance against Fitch -- as if he were just going through the motions -- is surprising simply because MacDonald has been a perennially elite fighter for almost a decade. On the converse, think about that: He’s not even 30 years old and has been fighting at the highest level of the sport for almost 10 years. He has been training and fighting for half of his life. He used to have to strip down and get on the scale inside broom closets because he wasn’t old enough to be inside the bars at which promotions would hold their weigh-ins. The religiosity isn’t a surprise, either. The first time I met MacDonald was before a King of the Cage Canada show, where he pulled off a third-round comeback against Kajan Johnson. Before and after the fight, he and his family clasped hands and held a prayer circle. For now, he has advanced in Bellator’s tournament, so we will see how he performs against Neiman Gracie next time out. However, it’s hard not to start viewing this bracket as an exit for the company’s welterweight champion, win or lose.
CALL HER ‘ILL’IMA-LEI
Bellator 220 was not so dismal for every champion, though, as Macfarlane made the third successful defense of her flyweight title, savagely slashing open Veta Arteaga’s forehead and prompting a doctor stoppage in the third round.
It’s not that Macfarlane won; that was expected. She closed as high as -1200 on some sportsbooks. However, what was notable was that Macfarlane was clearly going out of her comfort zone. In her nine previous bouts, “The Iliminator” displayed a unique, dynamic grappling style, but against Arteaga, she was much more willing to engage on the feet and really got the better of things in the second round. Also, as Arteaga struck her from guard on bottom, it seemed to inspire Macfarlane to display a natural knack for ground-and-pound.
The elbow that split open Arteaga early in the third round was a perfect posture and pounding technique. Macfarlane may already be Bellator’s women’s flyweight queen, and while she doesn’t have a deep field of contenders from which to choose, she’s marketable, highly entertaining and obviously improving with every fight. No, I don’t think she would be able to take a couple of rounds off of UFC champion Valentina Shevchenko, but she’s undoubtedly an elite talent at 125 pounds and not a product of Bellator’s manufacture.