Back to the Future

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.

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You’ve probably seen this concept in a sci-fi movie before. A scientist, trying to explain how space-time works, punches two holes in opposite sides of a piece of paper. He or she then folds the paper in half so that the holes align, thus demonstrating how going through a black hole can theoretically allow people to travel a great distance in a short time -- faster than the speed of light, so fast that time itself is warped into a maelstrom of past, present and future.

That was how Bellator 198 was to me on Saturday: a blast from the past and a look into the future all at once.

In the grand scheme of mixed martial arts, Bellator MMA occupies an unenviable spot on the totem pole. In terms of its roster talent, it is a clear second banana to the Ultimate Fighting Championship; many of its biggest names and champions are UFC castoffs. Yet unlike Singapore-based One Championship, Bellator operates out of the same general region as the UFC. This makes it hard to consistently put together good shows, stay financially buoyant and attract and retain up-and-coming talent. That’s why it was a big deal that the main card of Bellator 198 had four consecutive prospects deliver breakthrough performances.

Rafael Lovato Jr. and Emmanuel Sanchez submitted their opponents -- both UFC veterans -- in a combined time of 5:03. Sanchez extended his winning streak to four fights, while Lovato remained undefeated at 8-0. Both won in exciting fights and moved closer to championship contention. Roufusport’s Sanchez, 27, has plenty of time to continue putting his game together. Lovato is no spring chicken at 34, but he should have several more years ahead of him, as well, since he has only been fighting professionally for four years.

Two more promising names for Bellator also shined on the main card. Dillon Danis kicked things off with a 98-second toe hold submission over the overmatched Kyle Walker. Even though Walker -- now 2-4 as a professional -- was brought in to lose, it was a promising debut for the 24-year-old Danis. Despite his awkward shtick as the Safeway Select version of Conor McGregor, Danis is a multiple-time world jiu-jitsu champion and a legitimate prospect with a ton of potential. It was smart to have Neiman Gracie fight immediately after him. Gracie is also an accomplished jiu-jitsu practitioner and also won his fight by submission. More than that, there is some bad blood brewing between him and Danis. Not only do they train out of rival jiu-jitsu schools just four blocks apart from each other in New York, but Gracies claims that Danis has ducked him -- in a jiu-jitsu tournament and in a Bellator fight. The 29-year-old Gracie is now 8-0 in MMA with seven submissions, making a potential bout with Danis a genuinely appealing offering in Bellator’s not-so-distant future.

The main event between Fedor Emelianenko and Frank Mir, however, was the highlight of the night. This fight was a long time coming. It hearkened back to the early 2000s rivalry between Pride Fighting Championships and the UFC. Emelianenko began his run as the greatest heavyweight of all-time in 2003, when he took the Pride belt from Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira. A year later, Mir won the UFC title by submitting Tim Sylvia. In the early stages of the Pride-UFC debate, a bout between the two champions was among the most fascinating hypotheticals to consider. Both were mid-sized for the division; both were particularly mobile relative to their contemporaries; and both were dangerous in very different ways.

Of course, the fight never happened. Mir got into a horrendous motorcycle accident and wouldn’t be the same again until four years later, and Emelianenko never made the jump to the UFC. There were four UFC heavyweight champions while Emelianenko was holding down the crown in Japan: Mir, Sylvia, Andrei Arlovski and Randy Couture. In the aftermath of Pride’s collapse and subsequent absorption into the UFC, Emelianenko went on to handily beat Sylvia and Arlovski, leaving Mir and Couture as the remaining question marks from that era.

While the matchup was still exciting 15 years after it became relevant, it also induced a specific type of dread. Mir and Emelianenko have lived nearly 80 years combined, and there’s always a risk of a brutally slow and sloppy fight when two old heavyweights step into the cage. Instead, we got to see a vintage performance, however brief it was. They both came out swinging wildly, and less than a minute into the first frame, Mir was out cold. Not only has Emelianenko defeated three of the four UFC champions from his era, but he has done so in a total of 4:38. He may not be the best heavyweight at the moment, but “The Last Emperor” remains the best heavyweight of all-time.

Indeed, the past and the future blurred into one another at Bellator 198. As for the present? That’s where Bellator is at its best, with these fleeting moments of excitement that evoke the feelings of yesteryear while breathing new life into our nostalgia.

Hailing from Kailua, Hawai’i, Eric Stinton has been contributing to Sherdog since 2014. He received his BFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University and graduate degree in Special Education from University of Hawai’i. He is an occasional columnist for Honolulu Civil Beat, and his work has also appeared in The Classical. You can find his writing at ericstinton.com. He currently lives in Seoul with his fiancé and dachshund.
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