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Bellator MMA on Saturday closed the book on its heavyweight grand prix at Bellator 214 in Inglewood, California. With it came some good, some bad and some ugly.
THE GOOD: THE BADER REBRAND
When Ryan Bader left the Ultimate Fighting Championship, some interpreted this as evidence that the Reno, Nevada, native could not survive in the world’s leading MMA promotion. However, the facts tell a different story. Bader was coming off of back-to-back finishes and was 7-1 across his last eight appearances when his contract expired. In a light heavyweight division desperate for more names, the company strangely opted to let him go to Bellator and chose not to match the offer extended to him. Additionally, his losses in the Octagon came against former champions and two of the more notable power punchers in the history of the sport.
Regardless of the unusual circumstances and rationale behind it, Bader found himself fighting under a different banner and in need of a rebrand. His brutal stoppage of Fedor Emelianenko solidified that transformation. In less than two years under the Scott Coker-helmed promotion, Bader has gone from a highly skilled fighter who never managed to capitalize on his abilities to a dual-division champion and winner of the heavyweight grand prix. He accomplished the feat without absorbing a single significant strike in his three appearances in the tournament. His list of opponents along the way makes it even more impressive. Getting through former Strikeforce champion Muhammed Lawal, perennial heavyweight standout Matt Mitrione and Emelianenko without even the slightest bit of damage is nothing at which to sneeze.
Despite being on a four-fight winning streak between 2013 and 2015, Bader was passed over for a title shot against Daniel Cormier in favor of Alexander Gustafsson at UFC 192. Instead, the UFC decided to simply ignore the crushing knockout loss to Anthony Johnson to put the Swede in that position. This also ignored the fact that Bader and Cormier were scheduled to headline UFC Fight Night 68 in wake of Jon Jones’ sudden legal troubles. While Bader managed to defeat former champion Rashad Evans on that same card and drum up more interest after having a brief confrontation with Cormier at the post-fight press conference, Jones’ return took precedent. Unfortunately for Bader, he got finished by Johnson and killed the momentum he had built.
“Darth” Bader’s moment was several years delayed, but he seized the opportunity to add to his trophy collection and set himself up for future financial success. He reportedly has one fight left on his contract with Bellator. His options at this point are wide open. Defending the heavyweight title against the Cheick Kongo-Vitaly Minakov winner would serve as the cherry on top of his run in the promotion. Beating either Kongo or Minakov would only up his stock. That would be especially true if the undefeated Minakov gets past Kongo. In that scenario, Bader would have the opportunity to hand the Russian his first loss and re-establish the lineal chain that was broken when Minakov was stripped of the Bellator title.
Bader could also return to the light heavyweight division, where less-reputable but higher-profile bouts with Chael Sonnen or Tito Ortiz might await. Coker stated after Bellator 214 that there is also the possibility of Gegard Mousasi or Lyoto Machida moving back up to 205 pounds to challenge for the belt. Avenging his prior losses against Ortiz and Machida would help gloss over the earlier blemishes on his resume, while Mousasi provides another superfight opportunity and Sonnen stands as a promotional goldmine.
Alternatively, Bader’s brand value has increased, and other companies, including the UFC, will be calling. With the big names being lured over to One Championship, don’t be surprised to see Bader sitting across from Chatri Sityodtong with a pen and multi-fight contract in hand. If Bader plays his cards right, he has a future full of big paydays to go along with the prestige of carrying multiple belts.
THE BAD: PROBLEMS ON PICO BOULEVARD
Aaron Pico has once again hit a valley in what was supposed to be a straight shot upward in his career. Similar to his professional debut, the highly touted prospect was finished early in the first round after defensive carelessness compromised the Team Bodyshop product in the co-main event. Losing to Henry Corrales is nothing to be ashamed of. Since moving to Arizona as part of the MMA Lab team, Corrales has been on a tear that justifies a shot at the featherweight crown. What makes this worthy of being placed in “The Bad” section? The damage that Pico has sustained so early in his career. Even in his four dominant wins, he has proven to be alarmingly hittable.
Corrales, who has also proven himself capable of devastating offense, is a durable fighter. That combination proved to be lethal for Pico. Focusing exclusively on dishing out punishment while ignoring what’s coming back has spelled the end of many men in many fights. Some like Wanderlei Silva and Chris Leben managed to make careers out of this reckless abandon, but it doesn’t appear that Pico has the chin to continue down this path. Immediately after the event, Pico was not fond of the idea of taking a step down in competition or righting the ship in lower-profile fights. However, something must be done. A talent of his caliber should not be squandered as a result of his commendable high ambitions. With an all-star coaching staff that includes Antonio McKee and Freddie Roach, the older and wiser members of Team Pico need to dial back his rise for the benefit of his long-term health and success.
Pico is certainly deserving of the hype and attention he has received. His skill set is undeniable, and he appears to be mature beyond his 22 years. He also proved himself worthy of high-caliber competition by nearly finishing a 20-fight veteran. As the only losing fighter to appear in front of the media, Pico further separated himself from most of his contemporaries. Even Corrales expressed his admiration for his opponent saying he was “not worried about that kid. He’s a stud.” It’s time to go back to the drawing board and build him at a more appropriate pace.
THE UGLY: THE FORUM OF DECEASED DREAMS
On the flipside of the Bader coin is Emelianenko. The legendary heavyweight looked to be well beyond anything resembling his incredible run through Pride Fighting Championships after a losing streak ended his Strikeforce tenure. His dubious comeback culminated in one of the all-time controversial decision wins after he endured a beating from Fabio Maldonado. His quick loss to Matt Mitrione after joining the Bellator roster did little to restore any faith in his future.
Expectations were understandably low when it was announced that “The Last Emperor” would be a participant in the heavyweight grand prix. Then he finished Frank Mir in under a minute and went on to knock out Chael Sonnen in a chaotic 4:46. While you can certainly question how much Mir has left to offer the sport and the presence of a career middleweight in the tournament, Emelianenko handled the tasks in front of him like a higher-caliber fighter should have: through pure domination.
That was just enough to give our nostalgia-seeking souls a glimmer of hope. Would we witness the improbable return of perhaps the greatest fighter of all-time to championship glory at 42 years old? Looking back at Bader’s aforementioned roadblocks against heavy-handed strikers, it wasn’t completely ludicrous to entertain the idea of the famed Russian having yet another belt strapped on his waist to the thunderous cheers of fight fans. That fantasy never came to fruition, as Bader did what a higher-caliber fighter does to lesser opposition.
Unfortunately, the return to logic doesn’t dull the pain of watching Emelianenko be sent to the netherworld in just 35 seconds. It is yet another reminder of the cruel and unforgiving nature of prizefighting. The aura surrounding Emelianenko was felt throughout fight week and most importantly in The Forum prior to the fight. Fans recognized and respected the legendary competitor making his famously monotoned and emotionless walk to the cage on the brink of achieving greatness yet again, only to have it all shatter violently to a pile of rubble. Ironically, this was similar to several recent happenings at the Inglewood, California, arena. Within the past few months, Chuck Liddell, B.J. Penn and Carlos Condit also met with disastrous results in same building. While the results of those respective contests would have likely been the same no matter where the cage was located, it still is worth noting for the eerie similarities.
Considering his remaining popularity worldwide and his near-deity level of respect in his homeland, this probably isn’t the last time we’ll see Emelianenko. A New Year’s Eve Rizin Fighting Federation card or a showcase against a jobber in Russia is probably on the horizon in the not too distant future to give him a more ceremonious send off. However, if it wasn’t clear before, it is especially irrefutable now that his best days are in the rearview mirror.