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Bellator MMA’s push into the United Kingdom and Ireland has taken a step forward over the last few years. The promotion saw an obvious gap in the market and acted slowly but surely by building the European series and striking new television deals. Initially, Bellator partnered with the British Association of Mixed Martial Arts but now must go it alone, as BAMMA appears to be out of the business following years of inactivity. There have been some hitches along the way, particularly with card quality and broadcasting deals, but things seem to be pointed forward.
Although Bellator’s battle to attract European talent continues to rage with Cage Warriors Fighting Championship and KSW, the promotion has another significant adversary in the region: the Ultimate Fighting Championship. In the United States, it has been next to impossible for Bellator to compete with the UFC at the highest level when it comes to putting on cards with known names and quality draws. Conor McGregor, Jon Jones and Nate Diaz are the kind of fighters Bellator would love to have on its roster, but it rarely gets its hands on them. Perhaps Cristiane Justino’s signing signals a possible departure from the ordinary.
In Europe, the landscape is different. Due to the time difference, the UFC historically -- UFC 232 was the most recent of a few exceptions -- has not put on pay-per-view-worthy cards in the region. That means the European scene rarely sees the top stars from across the pond on their local shows. Usually, a European star headlines the card, with lots of locals filling it out. That game has been disrupted by Bellator’s moves over the last few years, especially in Ireland. Its first move was to sign almost all of the local talent. That makes the UFC even coming back to Ireland less likely. Even if it did return, the card might not be on par with what Bellator has to offer because of that lack of local talent and the unwillingness to bring over the top talent.
Now, Bellator is taking another step forward. Along with the top local talent, a bevy of fighters who are usually kept for American cards are now being showcased in Europe. It is a move made possible because Bellator does not run American pay-per-views and can spare its top talent. Bellator 227 on Friday in Dublin includes great young Irish talent like headlining act James Gallagher, Kiefer Crosbie, Leah McCourt and Frans Mlambo, while also featuring Myles Jury, former UFC lightweight champion Benson Henderson and welterweight striker Michael Page. That is the sort of lineup that was once a dream for an Irish card.
Those fighters coming to Irish shores thrills fans and also provides significant opportunities for local standouts. For instance, former BAMMA title contender Richard Kiely gets a massive chance against Page. The matchup has caught the imagination of the people, with the brash and loud-mouthed Kiely talking his way to a fight against a much more experienced and well-known opponent. Many see it as a mismatch inside the cage despite Kiely’s kickboxing credentials, but after a shoving match at recent media day, it quickly turned into the most anticipated fight on the card.
“I think that it just highlighted the fact that he’s rattled now,” Kiely said. “He understands the fact that this isn’t going to be a foregone conclusion. All the pressure is on him. He needs a statement win. Mark my words, if I land on him indirectly, he’s going to feel the power, because if I land flush, he’s going out. This so-called world-class striker will turn into a grappler. I’ve got a lot more strings to my bow [than Page]. I’m not just a blitz 1-2 merchant. He’s an athlete; I’m a fighter.”
Not surprisingly, Page agrees with those who see this as a mismatch.
“I just know my ability is miles above his ability, regardless if he tries to copy my style or not,” he said. “I know for a fact I’m levels above him. When we get into the cage, we’ll figure it out. My main goal is to demoralize him, to break his soul. He’ll probably go out, maybe even like [David] ‘Caveman’ [Rickels], and wave the flag himself.”
Whatever you think of the matchup in terms of competitiveness, there is no doubting its magnitude locally. Outside of McGregor’s fights, there is a strong argument that it ranks up there as one of the biggest fights in Irish MMA history. That it only possible because of Bellator’s recent moves. It has taken a while, but it seems to all be coming together for the promotion in Ireland and the United Kingdom.