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Bellator MMA and the Professional Fighters League took center stage with the Ultimate Fighting Championship idle during the weekend of Oct 12-14. Bellator 207, Bellator 208 and PFL 9 brought with them some good, some bad and some ugly.
Longtime fans of mixed martial arts are undoubtedly thrilled to see the reemergence of the tournament format in the modern era. This weekend was a delight for those feeling nostalgic for the days when the grand prix was commonplace. The PFL and Bellator have done a remarkable job of tapping into that emotion while deviating from today’s norm of high-level fights with subjective stakes.
Bellator’s heavyweight tournament saw significant movement, as the semifinal fights headlined the promotion’s dual-card weekend. The PFL mapped out the finals for its lightweight and light heavyweight divisions, as well. The best thing about both is that opportunities are being given to world-class fighters who otherwise would not have had them.
Ryan Bader -- who will meet Fedor Emelianenko in the Bellator heavyweight grand prix final in January -- was denied a title shot in the UFC’s light heavyweight division despite being on five-fight winning streak and had his booking against eventual champion Daniel Cormier scrapped. He has been given a golden ticket. Not only has he reached the mountaintop at 205 pounds under the Bellator banner, but he has been given the chance to test his skills at heavyweight. He now finds himself within sniffing distance of being the latest in the “champ champ” revolution. Not too shabby for a man who was passed over just three years ago.
In the PFL, the four men who have earned their spots to fight for the million-dollar prize can tell similar stories of opportunity knocking. Rashid Magomedov went 5-1 in the UFC, with wins over notable names like Bobby Green and Gilbert Burns. Despite that success and a stellar overall record, he was just another roster fighter that largely went unnoticed. Now, he is just one win away from a title belt and a million-dollar check. His upcoming opponent, Natan Schulte, would probably be in a similar position if he ever fought in the UFC. The incredible semifinal match between Schulte and Chris Wade was easily the best fight of the busy weekend. On a random fight night card, it would likely just be lost in the shuffle. Instead, it is now the springboard for a career-defining moment. Now the training partners will be the only thing standing in the way of the biggest purse of their respective careers.
Sean O’Connell carved out a reputation as an action fighter who could deliver entertainment in the cage and on the mic while fighting in the UFC. This did not earn him the money to justify the damage he has endured. In a scrum after the event, O’Connell described the disappointment that fighting at a high-level in MMA did not guarantee life-changing money. “A million dollars is life changing,” he said. His opponent in the light heavyweight final, Vinny Magalhaes, never managed to find his footing in MMA. Promising winning streaks were snapped several times and top-level opposition always managed to get the better of him. In fact, Magalhaes entered the PFL tournament riding a two-fight skid. Now, his four-fight winning streak -- all of the wins have come by way of first-round submission -- puts him in line for a championship credential and a huge payday.
Meanwhile, Benson Henderson had put together a rather uninspired run in Bellator MMA prior to his latest appearance. Aside from his submission win over Roger Huerta, his lone win under Bellator President Scott Coker’s roof was the result of a bizarre leg injury suffered by Patricio Freire. At Bellator 208, the former UFC and World Extreme Cagefighting lightweight champion showed up with a vintage performance against Saad Awad.
Henderson used an unrelenting array of kicks and varied takedown setups to impose his will against Awad and snap the Californian’s four-fight winning streak. “Smooth” looked like the man who stormed through Zuffa, as he kept up the pressure and stayed glued to his opponent without letting up. The MMA Lab product could not have picked a better time to plant his flag in the Bellator cage. Henderson has reached the end of his contract and is once again faced with the prospect of being a free agent. Coming off an impressive win as the co-main event for one of the biggest Bellator shows of the year should be a tremendous help as he sits down at the negotiating table with top-tier promotions.
With the strong possibility of Eddie Alvarez joining the roster at One Championship, do not be surprised if the Singapore-based promotion makes an offer Henderson can’t refuse. Fans speculated about what a showdown between the two former titleholders would look like since their respective reigns in Bellator and the WEC overlapped. It may be a bit late, but “The Underground King” vs. “Smooth” would be one of the best non-UFC matchups that can be made at lightweight.
It’s only appropriate that the man who calls himself The Bad Guy would make the bad list. Chael Sonnen had a rough night at Bellator 208 in Uniondale, New York. In less than 10 seconds, Sonnen found himself floored by a huge punch from Emelianenko, and aside from two takedowns and a brief positional advantage, he enjoyed very little success in the short fight. It’s not surprising at all that the undersized wrestler was finished by a bigger grappler with devastating power. What makes the loss noteworthy is the sequence that led to the finish.
It’s always bad news when someone takes your back on the ground in MMA. Submission and striking opportunities open up, and damage is usually the inevitable result. Instead of capitalizing on what was a brief flash of light for Sonnen, he instead went for what looked like an ill-advised brabo choke. Badly missing on the attempt forfeited his position and exposed him to Emelianenko’s legendary ground-and-pound. It didn’t take long for Dan Miragliotta to mercifully step in and end the night early.
Sonnen has once again squandered a potential big moment with questionable tactical decision making. While he was definitely losing the fight at that point, taking the Russian’s back could have been a turning point for “The American Gangster.” Instead, it will rank right next to the spinning backfist attempt that proved to be his undoing against Anderson Silva in their UFC 148 rematch.
Ironically, Sonnen has perpetually fallen upward. He managed to turn the aforementioned loss to Silva into a light heavyweight title shot at UFC 159. He turned an embarrassing departure from Fox Sports into a job at ESPN. Don’t be shocked to see him parlay this into a heavyweight or light heavyweight title shot in the not-too-distant future.
Meanwhile, Kevin Ferguson Jr. shows a lot of promise as a mixed martial artist. At 26 years old, he has time to grow, increase his skill set and mature as a fighter. However, his loss to Corey Browning on Friday was a serious setback. While having a loss so early in a career is nothing noteworthy, it certainly throws a monkey wrench into the plans that Bellator laid out for him.
It’s not a secret that the promotion has been pushing him to capitalize on the star quality name of his late father. This is when taking an underdeveloped fighter and propelling him into the spotlight goes wrong. The fight itself looked sorely out of place, with the high-level fighters that were standard on the Bellator 207 main card. Sloppy scrambles, strange position battles and wild momentum shifts with no rhyme or reason were sandwiched between a “Knockout of the Year” candidate from Mandel Nallo and a technical clinic from Lorenz Larkin. To make it even worse, “Baby Slice” ended up being finished in the second round.
Antonio McKee and Co. have done some tremendous work at Team Bodyshop. There’s no doubt that this work will continue, and Ferguson will continue to develop and improve as a result. However, it’s a tough to place him so prominently on the card and hide the differences in the product.
Roy Nelson has established a unique place for himself in the sport, as the man with the near-granite chin who looked like any regular guy on the couch watching the fight on TV. Despite being knocked out in the first round by Sergei Kharitonov at Bellator 207, that granite chin is still holding up relatively well. It took a hellacious onslaught of perfectly placed punches and knees to end Nelson’s night. Lesser men would’ve fallen much sooner than the 4:59 seconds it took to close out “Big Country.”
Nelson still has the ability to absorb damage. However, the troubling part is the deceptive speed and explosiveness that made that incredible chin something of a backup plan is gone. Now it appears that the chin is all that’s left. Fighting at this level with only a sturdy beard to fall back on is a dangerous proposition. It might be wise for Nelson to reexamine his motivations as an active fighter.
With his being ousted from the heavyweight tournament and losing a potential spot as an alternate, there is no clear path to glory for Nelson. If he is content fighting mid-level opposition for the paycheck, then so be it. Anything else may not be the wisest move. It got ugly against Kharitonov, and it could get uglier moving forward.