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5:00 p.m.: Buckle up, because Bellator MMA is back in Madison Square Garden with another tentpole event. The good news is that this is one of Bellator’s most talent-stacked lineups in years, with eight or nine outstanding, high-stakes matchups. The bad news is that there are 18 fights on the card.
5:06 p.m.: Tonight’s drinking game: Every time someone on the Bellator commentary team refers to Madison Square Garden as “the Mecca of combat sports,” take a swig. If any of them call it “the Mecca of mixed martial arts” even though MMA has only been legal in New York since 2016, finish your drink.
5:10 p.m.: Bellator 222 features an interesting array of Bellator-style prospect signings in various states of feast, famine or farce. On the “famine” side, the undercard features Aaron Pico and Heather Hardy. On the “farce” side, we will see the second professional fights of Dillon Danis and Valerie Loureda this evening. More to say on that later, I’m sure.
How ya like me now? Actually, don't answer that.
5:20 p.m.: Our second fight this evening features Marcus Surin vs. Nekruz Mirkhojaev. As I am also handling the official Sherdog play-by-play for tonight, my only prayer is for a quick finish, so that I’m not forced to type Mirkhojaev’s name 30 times over three rounds.
5:40 p.m.: Three rounds and 28 Mirkhojaevs later, Surin takes the split decision.
6:00 p.m.: The only fighter out of 36 to miss weight for this card, Mike Kimbel, takes on Sebastian Ruiz in a near-bantamweight clash. Less than halfway into the round, Ruiz’s knee clashes with Kimbel’s cup. Referee Mike Beltran splits them up and issues a stern warning in Ruiz’s native Spanish. Good to know that Beltran can pull off his “angry vice-principal” routine in at least two languages. Of all the well-known refs I can think of, Beltran seems the most personally affronted by rule-breaking.
6:06 p.m.: Round 2, and Ruiz nails Kimbel with another low blow, this time a kick. A minute later, Kimbel makes his own debut entry in the ball-shot derby, as an inside leg kick strays high. Beltran is losing his mind here. Oh, man, he made them shake hands. He’s literally like a middle school vice-principal who broke up a fight at recess.
6:40 p.m.: The first of two fights tonight featuring talent on loan from Rizin FF is up next, as Rena Kubota takes on Lindsey VanZandt. I cannot figure out why this fight is buried in the prelims, but when you have an 18-fight card, I guess two-thirds of them are going to be prelims. Bellator isn’t exactly rolling out the red carpet for her in terms of matchup, either: VanZandt is a very solid fighter and is going to be the much larger woman in the cage.
6:42 p.m.: I tread very carefully here in commenting on a female fighter’s looks, but Kubota is really, really cute. Oh, you want one-liners? Um… how many yen are in a dime, something something, Rena Kubota. I got nothin’.
6:47 p.m.: Oh, man. VanZandt takes Kubota down in spite of eating a hard knee on the entry, takes her back and slaps on a rear-naked choke. Kubota squirms as VanZandt calmly adjusts the choke, but to no avail. Kubota’s face reddens, her arm goes slack and she’s out. Wow.
7:00 p.m.: It’s time for Loureda’s second professional MMA fight, and once again all of the attention seems to be of the wrong kind. In case you don’t remember, her February debut made headlines when the Mohegan Tribal Commission refused to sanction a fight between Loureda and a woman who I believe was 0-12. This time, the headlines are about the “Hooters girl” Bellator found as an opponent, a storyline helped along by the photo of Larkyn Dasch signing her contract in her restaurant, in her Hooters uniform. The visual implication was that Dasch was an untrained wing n’ beer slinger rather than a woman with five amateur fights, which is incorrect, but in a sport that has given us YouTube videos titled “Ilima-Lei Macfarlane vs. soccer mom” and “Ben Rothwell vs. fat kid,” the public has to wonder.
7:02 p.m.: I’m always up for cheap laughs at the expense of MMA weirdness, but none of this is Loureda’s fault, much less Dasch’s. Former Olympic karate hopeful Loureda is exactly the kind of prospect no good fighter wants to face, and Dasch getting plucked out of her foodservice job to appear on a major MMA card feels about like Patrick Cummins dropping his Starbucks apron to fight Daniel Cormier… with some weird added shaming tacked on.
7:22 p.m.: Loureda picks up the unanimous decision and moves on. Bellator was wise to match her carefully, as Loureda simply doesn’t have an answer yet for forward pressure other than “moving backwards really fast.” Karate-based fighters sink or swim in MMA with their ability to dictate distance. Not saying she won’t get it and become a high-level mixed martial artist -- she’s very young and has an impressive arsenal of standup weapons -- but so far she does not look like a world-beater.
7:30 p.m.: It’s Pico time! Three years ago, this man was perhaps the most hyped prospect in the sport’s history. Tonight, he’s 4-2, fighting on the prelims, and it feels as though his back is against the wall just a bit.
7:32 p.m.: In the lead-up to this fight, Pico, who started his training at American Kickboxing Academy, then moved to Team Bodyshop for the bulk of his young career, claimed that his switch to Jackson-Wink MMA was ”to learn how to fight.”
Because AKA is no good at teaching wrestlers how to fight.
7:34 p.m.: Pico is getting the worst bounce-back fight ever in the form of 12-0 Adam Borics, who has looked really good in his Bellator tenure so far. Given that Borics is young, undefeated, exciting and European, it’s almost tempting to think that Bellator is cutting bait on Pico, using the former super-prospect to put the new prospect over. I don’t believe that, though. Having spoken to Pico and experienced his incredible confidence first-hand, I am 100 percent certain he turned down multiple easier opponents before getting this booking.
7:37 p.m.: Pico goes for a takedown immediately and gets it. Considering that his last five fights have been some variation on “stand and trade haymakers frantically until one of us is dead,” this is definitely a new wrinkle.
7:40 p.m.: Through one round, by my count, Pico has 73 takedowns and Borics has gotten back up 72 times. Pico has been on the Hungarian like glue.
7:42 p.m.: Not to keep harping on the camp change, but who leaves the tutelage of Antonio McKee and then suddenly starts wrestlef---ing people?
Pictured: The patron saint of knowing your strengths.
7:48 p.m.: BOOM. Borics finally times one of Pico’s long shots and meets him with a flying knee. A few perfunctory ground strikes later it’s over, a second-round TKO victory for Borics.
7:51 p.m.: I’m sure there will be plenty of armchair coaches weighing in shortly, including better analytical minds than me, but it’s plain as day that Pico’s MMA game at this point lacks any mortar in between its (very impressive) building blocks. Last time out, he got starched in a firefight he probably could have averted at any moment with a well-timed takedown. This time, he got blasted after shooting a million long, telegraphed takedowns with little or no setup. I hope he puts the pieces together, but thus far it hasn’t happened.
7:58 p.m.: Kudos to Bellator; while a 12-fight undercard is inexcusable, they are moving rocket-fast. No in-cage interviews for the most part, just get the next fight going.
8:05 p.m.: Heather Hardy is up next, the third of our former super-prospects to take the cage this evening. Like Pico, Hardy has lost a lot of the initial shine; she has looked good, but not great in two wins over opponents with a combined record of 6-10, and against the one opponent who turned out to be a pretty good flyweight, the debuting Kristina Williams, Hardy got her beak busted. Unlike Pico, Hardy is 37, a mom and… oh yes, still an undefeated boxing champion. Put bluntly, Hardy doesn’t need MMA achievements in the same way Pico does.
8:10 p.m.: Which is good, because Hardy gets taken down, mounted, and pelted to death with half-speed punches by Taylor Turner. Turner was 1-4 coming in, hadn’t fought in two years, and it would be fair to say that she won every second of this fight. Hardy is simply not a good mixed martial artist and hasn’t made much visible improvement in the two years-plus she has been splitting time between MMA and boxing. In the same way I hope Pico gets it together, I hope Hardy gets out. MMA is generally unkind to dilettantes and part-timers not named Lesnar.
9:40 p.m.: Kyoji Horiguchi beats Darrion Caldwell in a completely dreadful fight.
I considered posting a GIF, but this is seriously what the whole fight looked like.
9:42 p.m.: Horiguchi moves to 2-0 against “The Wolf” and, more importantly, leaves MSG with the Bellator bantamweight strap. The co-promotional relationship between Bellator and Rizin, which has been the picture of harmony so far, may be headed for its first tension. Not because Horiguchi won -- Bellator honcho Scott Coker actually embodies the spirit of a martial artist and sportsman in the way other promoters only wish they did -- but because of the logistics. When will he defend each belt, and which will take precedence? The two organizations’ rule sets are different enough that it is not conceivable that he could defend both in the same fight, so if he intends to be a two-promotion champ, he will have to fight in the Rizin ring and the Bellator cage going forward, and do it often enough to keep two sets of contenders churning.
Pictured: A man about to rack up some serious frequent flyer miles.
10:25 p.m.: Next up, completing our quartet of prospect fights, is Dillon Danis, finally making his second appearance in the cage, over a year after his first. Danis is obviously a divisive figure; if his goal is to be talked about, for good or ill, out of proportion with his actual accomplishments in the sport, he is succeeding spectacularly.
“There’s no such thing as bad publicity” -- P.T. Barnum
10:28 p.m.: I interviewed Danis last year, just ahead of his MMA debut, and frankly I think the persona is just a bit of a put-on. (I can hear you saying “duh” from here.) He was confident, certainly, but the cartoonish cockiness he affects was largely absent. If I had to guess, his natural disposition is closer to how he was as a grappler: combative, a trash-talker for sure, but closer to a Diaz brother than a McG---OH MY DEAR SWEET LORD WHAT IS THAT MAN WEARING.
Frederick’s of Hollywood makes its long-awaited foray into the fight gear industry.
10:40 p.m.: Danis does exactly what he should to a 3-2 fighter who was stepping out of the regionals for the first time. “El Jefe” took his time, to the point that he appeared to be toying with Humphrey for a while, but denied him even the moral victory of making it out of the first round.
10:42 p.m.: So what now for Danis? Like Pico, Danis is very young and has plenty of time to develop if he wants, but like Hardy, he’s a legitimate star in another discipline and doesn’t necessarily need to become a champ in MMA. I suppose, both as a fan of the sport and someone who reports on it professionally, I want him to s--- or get off the pot. He has intriguing amounts of potential, and I always love when high-level practitioners of grappling or striking arts cross over to MMA, especially when they’re young. But at the same time, Danis is two years from his announced jump to MMA and has yet to take a single fight in an actual weight class. That’s far more interesting to me than the antics.
11:10 p.m.: Lyoto Machida vs. Chael Sonnen has a strange, nervous feeling to it for me. I am not sure why; this should be as snoozy a matchup of 40-something UFC retreads as Bellator has ever put on, but for some reason I’m feeling some kind of way about it. Part of it is probably down to the fact that Sonnen’s trash talk has been so absent in the lead-up. Five years ago -- hell, two years ago -- a matchup with a Brazilian who practices karate, trains with Anderson Silva and drinks his own urine would have provided so much comedic gold to “The American Gangster” that he would have jingled audibly as he walked into press conferences.
11:16 p.m.: Wow. A frenetic first round ends with Machida stunning Sonnen with a knee, but failing to finish the job before the bell. The real eye-opener was Sonnen’s behavior after eating the knee. I hesitate to psychoanalyze fighters, but it sure looked to me as if Sonnen was fighting harder to survive in a bad situation than I have seen him do in several years.
11:19 p.m.: Machida drills Sonnen with the exact same knee on the exact same kind of level change, but this time he has all the time in the world, and it’s over. Second-round TKO for Machida. But wait! Sonnen is waving Big John McCarthy over and… leaving his gloves in the cage. Retirement. I guess that’s a wrap. People are going to call bulls--- on this, I’m sure, but I believe Sonnen, or at least I believe he means it right now. For a guy who is so often “on,” and is frankly a liar a lot of the time, his moments of sincerity are pretty damn unguarded.
11:21 p.m.: Assuming the retirement does stick, you are going to have plenty of people trying to define Sonnen by hanging a single word around his neck. Whether that word is “warrior,” “cheater,” “legend,” “criminal,” “entertainer,” “troll” or something else, don’t believe them. There’s no one-word dismissal -- or valediction -- of Chael P. Sonnen. Love him or hate him, he leaves a complex legacy and a profoundly changed sport. Good night, freaks.
11:26 p.m.: Wait, what do you mean there’s another fight? Ugh.
11:58 p.m.: MacDonald 49-46, the most impressive thing was how completely unafraid he was to mix it up on the ground with Gracie, and, um… he still doesn’t sound like a guy who wants to beat people up for a living. Stay tuned, I suppose, and get some money in on Douglas Lima before the next round of interviews.