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The concept of respect is a nebulous one, often trotted out as a vague substitute for love or kindness. When people talk about respecting themselves, they really mean they should accept themselves; when people talk about respecting others, they usually mean they should be courteous. True respect, however, is a response to something undeniable. True respect is earned through action.
The weekend that was showcased two domains of mixed martial arts that are due a little bit more respect than they have been previously given.
The first is Bellator MMA. At Bellator 183, former Ultimate Fighting Championship lightweight titleholder Benson Henderson continued his losing stint in the promotion, dropping a second straight split decision to Patricky Freire. His final fight in the UFC was a win against Jorge Masvidal, currently a top-five welterweight in the promotion. Henderson is now 1-3 in Bellator, and had Patricio Freire not suffered a freak injury, “Smooth” may very well be 0-4 in the organization right now.
It wasn’t long ago when Bellator was considered a joke, a place for fighters who were good but not good enough, or for fighters whose age had long surpassed their relevance. At best, Bellator was the NBA Developmental League of MMA compared to the NBA of the UFC. At worst, it was Worldstar videos with better production value. Now, however, those notions should be transforming, at least to some degree.
Keep in mind that Henderson was 16-4 in World Extreme Cagefighting and the UFC, and he was a three-time defending lightweight champion, tying him with Frankie Edgar and B.J. Penn for the most in UFC history. He had -- and still has, to a lesser extent -- a legitimate claim as one of the greatest lightweights of all-time. Yet ever since he has stepped into what should have been a lesser promotion, he has been largely ineffective and unsuccessful. There are two ways to look at this: Either Henderson is not as good as people thought, or Bellator is better than people thought. I tend to think it’s the latter.
The success of former Bellator lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez in the UFC is also a testament to the legitimate level of competition present there. While a number of Bellator’s best fighters are people who left the UFC -- guys like Rory MacDonald, Phil Davis, Ryan Bader and Gegard Mousasi -- Bellator has also been doing a fine job at developing its own talent. Bellator 183 on Saturday also showcased Aaron Pico, a highly accomplished wrestler and blue-chip MMA prospect. Other high-level wrestlers like Tyrell Fortune and Ed Ruth have also made successful debuts with Bellator. It would not be shocking for any of them to rank among the best fighters at their weight class at some point in the future and to do so outside of the UFC. Ever since the fall of Pride Fighting Championships and the absorption of Strikeforce, it was frivolous to entertain the idea of a fighter outside the UFC being the best. That may be changing.
Bellator’s emergence as a legitimate competitive arena is more than just signing UFC castoffs. That’s a symptom, not a cause. The reason established veterans like MacDonald and Mousasi left the UFC and upcoming prospects like Pico have signed with Bellator and not the UFC is because of the type of control a UFC contract represents. It limits outside competition opportunities, requires fighters to inform the United States Anti-Doping Agency of their whereabouts at all times and forces them to forego a lot of sponsorship money via the Reebok deal. Fighters have more freedom in Bellator and can potentially make more money through sponsorships, even if they start at a lower fight purse than they would in the UFC.
The call for more respect goes beyond promotional boundaries, though. Women’s MMA also reminded us that the sport is better off for the inclusion of females.
For the most part, UFC Fight Night 117 on Friday in Japan was a lackluster card. There were some nice finishes courtesy of Ovince St. Preux and Gokhan Saki, but the real standout fights belonged to the ladies. The strawweight co-main event between Jessica Andrade and Claudia Gadelha rightfully won “Fight of the Night,” and the undercard showcased a solid fight between Syuri Kondo and Chanmi Jeon. Those were probably the two best bouts of the event.
There was a time when female fighters were at best given courtesy. Their dedication and tenacity were respected, but a lot of fans thought of female fights as smoke breaks and beer runs. With the rise of Ronda Rousey and the consequent increase in prominence of Cristiane Justino, genuine respect was extended to specific fighters, but they were considered the outliers. Women’s MMA as a whole has historically been and continues to be regularly dismissed.
The rationale, it was complained, was that the UFC shouldn’t put on coed events; if people wanted to watch female fights, they could watch Invicta Fighting Championships. This line of thought was built on the implication and at times the overt position that women’s MMA is simply of a lesser caliber than men’s and that female fights diluted the overall product. This has been debunked to my mind on numerous occasions for several years now, but the mentality still persists, even as the women stole the show this weekend at the Saitama Super Arena. The inclusion of female fights undoubtedly made the card as a whole much better.
Is that to say every women’s fight is good? Of course not. Not every men’s fight is good, either. The strawweight division in particular is much richer in talent than women’s bantamweight or featherweight, which are both top-heavy at best. How is that different, though, from virtually every men’s division above 170? It would be dishonest to say that any of those divisions are stacked except for the top five. Whatever flimsy reasons there were to doubt the watchability and level of performance of women’s MMA in the past are now more dubious than ever.
Ultimately, the barnacle-like mentalities that have stuck to Bellator and women’s MMA should be gone by now or at least significantly diminished. You either enjoy watching good fights or you don’t; you’re either a fan of the sport or you’re not. You are welcome to watch whatever you want and patronize -- with your time and dollars -- whatever aspects of MMA you want. If you still don’t respect Bellator or women’s fights, however, it’s your loss.
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.