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There is no escaping the shadow of UFC 229. The MMA return of Conor McGregor against anyone would be a huge deal, but against Khabib Nurmagomedov, it almost justifies its Rogan-esque hyperbole as “the biggest fight in UFC history.” With a press conference scheduled this week that, unlike their first one, will be open to fanfare and all its attendant chaos, there is no doubt that all eyes will be turned toward Las Vegas.
While I wouldn’t blame anyone for forgetting about Bellator MMA, I would pity them. The sport’s perennial second banana has been quietly making strides to secure its spot through creative and intriguing matchmaking. In doing so, fans, fighters and the sport itself have benefitted.
Let’s get this out of the way: Bellator is not -- and almost certainly will never be -- a comparable competitor to the Ultimate Fighting Championship. The kneejerk criticisms that it is a home for second-rate talent, an island getaway for unsatisfied UFC castoffs and a retirement plan for stars of yesteryear are all basically accurate. Yet positioning itself as a UFC foil is not Bellator’s role, and it’s becoming increasingly evident that it really doesn’t need to be. The main card of Bellator 206 on Saturday proved as much.
It started with Aaron Pico. The 22-year-old notched his fourth straight first-round victory with a TKO over Leandro Higo. This is a notable win for Pico, not just because of its fast and devastating nature but because Higo is a tested veteran, much more so than any of Pico’s previous opponents. Higo was a big step up in competition, and Pico absolutely demolished him. It bears noting that this was only his fifth career fight, and he has been fighting professionally for all of 15 months.
This goes beyond Pico as an individual, though. While he is considered one of the greatest MMA prospects in the last few years -- if not ever -- Bellator has managed to snag a number of excellent up-and-comers. Fighters like Ed Ruth, Dillon Danis, Tyrell Fortune, Jarod Trice, Tywan Claxton and James Gallagher are all excellent additions to the promotion, each of them deserving of some level of hype moving forward. As is the case with any prospect, perhaps some of those names will become busts over time, but that is a solid list of signees for any organization. As the UFC becomes further embroiled in United States Anti-Doping Agency and sponsorship imbroglios, Bellator is steadily becoming a more desirable platform for talented fighters looking to prove themselves. If the Bellator brass needs to expose its talents by hooking viewers with gimmicky fights, so be it.
Speaking of gimmicky fights, let’s talk about the fourth fight between Wanderlei Silva and Quinton Jackson. Yes, they are two of the most important and accomplished light heavyweights of all-time, and yes, they are both way past their prime and should really be planning for life after fighting, but the storied rivalry still has some juice to it. “Rampage” evened the series at 2-2 by knocking out “The Axe Murderer” in the second round. It was a reasonably entertaining fight on top of being an entryway into MMA history for newer fans, who, if unaware of the previous fights, now have reason to go back and discover them. That’s a good thing.
Still, there is no denying that neither Jackson nor Silva has any business getting in the cage with any of the top fighters in this generation, and as such, they have no business being in the UFC. That’s what the top promotion is there to do: pit the best fighters against each other. In the case of Bellator, however, aging veterans have an avenue to end their careers with some degree of credibility and integrity while also earning some well-deserved paychecks and providing some spotlight to the younger generation coming up the ranks. It’s a win-win for everyone, even if the actual fights between the geriatric stars often end up as busts.
While Bellator has plenty to offer that has no overlap with the UFC -- aside from the various prospects the promotion has picked up and developed, fighters like Andrey Koreshkov and Douglas Lima, two of the finest welterweights in the game, have accomplished careers completely outside the Octagon -- the promotion offers disgruntled fighters new and exciting opportunities. The main event from Bellator 206 between Rory MacDonald and Gegard Mousasi is case in point. Both are Bellator champions now; both had sterling Top-5 runs in their respective UFC divisions; and there’s no way they would have ever fought each other had they not left the largest promotion in the world. The fight itself turned out to be uncompetitive, but the matchup was genuinely compelling.
That fight was no outlier, either. The next few Bellator headliners include former UFC heavyweight Matt Mitrione meeting former UFC light heavyweight Ryan Bader at Bellator 207, followed by former UFC middleweight title contender Chael Sonnen facing the infamously UFC-averse heavyweight G.O.A.T. Fedor Emelianenko at Bellator 208. Not every fight needs to be existentially meaningful or divisionally coherent. Sometimes it’s better to have something different and entertaining, and that’s the niche that Bellator is increasingly better at occupying.
On top of everything else, Bellator has the flexibility as a mid-major entity to go to places the UFC either can’t or won’t, like Israel, Hawaii, Hungary and Italy. This not only caters to a unique and overlooked demographic of fans, but it also helps to grow the sport’s popularity in other corners of the world.
Come this time tomorrow, whatever mental bandwidth that has been dedicated to Bellator 206 will probably be redirected to the Nurmagomedov-McGregor mayhem, and that’s understandable. Bellator will still be making moves, as quietly or as visibly as is required of it, and the sport is better off as a result.
Eric Stinton is a writer and a teacher from Kailua, Hawaii. He has been writing for Sherdog since 2014 and has published fiction, nonfiction and journalism in Bamboo Ridge, The Classical, Eastlit, Harvard Review Online, Honolulu Civil Beat and Vice, among others. He currently lives with his fiancée and dachshund in Seoul. You can find his work at ericstinton.com.
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