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The Good: Answered Prayers
Crisis averted. Just when the collective MMA world was ready to hit the panic button for Rory MacDonald, the Bellator MMA welterweight champion proved to have enough of his inner violence to summon a successful defense of his title and a place in the finals of the Grand Prix. With his decision win over Neiman Gracie, he was able to preserve some of our longstanding thoughts about the hierarchy of elite fighters. Last night MacDonald proved he is still on that list.
It’s understandable why anyone would doubt what the “Red King” had left to offer. Last time we saw him, just weeks versus Jon Fitch, something seemed off. The same man who ran through former Strikeforce champion Tarec Saffiedine and neutralized recent UFC title holder Tyron Woodley struggled to get through a five-rounder with a 41-year old Jon Fitch. Even though Fitch has experienced a surprising resurgence as of late, the idea that he could bring MacDonald to a draw in 2019 still seemed rather far-fetched.
But there we were, watching Fitch control MacDonald in stretches and do enough to deadlock the judges. Perhaps the brutal loss to Gegard Mousasi in an ill-fated attempt at capturing middleweight glory had taken something away from him. When he cited his Christian faith and life as a family man dulling his appetite for violence, it seemed like a nail being lined up on top of a coffin lid. Some expected Gracie to bang a hammer into that nail but enough remained of the man formerly known as “Ares” to get his hand raised after 25 minutes.
MacDonald displayed some of the same attributes that aided in his rise through the rankings and championship status. Facing the expected hornets’ nest of submissions from a man named Gracie, MacDonald reminded us how good he is on the ground. Seamless takedown defense kept the action where he preferred it to be. But when Gracie did get the fight to the floor, he was largely shut down in a similar fashion to what Demian Maia experienced at UFC 170. Superb submission defense, position reversals and the ability to stall from the bottom kept MacDonald from falling into any traps. In addition, he was able to do enough on the feet to give Gracie resistance while trying to employ his grappling.
Overall, it was a good performance by MacDonald that extends his championship reign and may turn the volume down on those who point to his post-fight vulnerability as a sign that his end as a top level fighter is ending. The only problem is the performance was good. Good just may not be enough to handle what will surely be a motivated and dangerous Douglas Lima who can simultaneously avenge his last loss and reclaim the welterweight title along with the million dollar prize. Where he was able to do just enough to turn away Gracie, it is unlikely that “just enough” will be sufficient versus Lima. However, MacDonald will cross that bridge when he gets to it. For now, he has time to prepare himself mentally, spiritually, physically and emotionally for the tough test that awaits him in the Grand Prix final.
The Bad: If Co-Promotion Falls in a Forest
A good deal of the hype about Bellator 222 centered on this being one of the rare times major brands in the sport collaborate. Bellator and Rizin FF have shared talent for some time now but this had more of an air of importance surrounding it. Bantamweight champion Darrion Caldwell being loaned out to Rizin to face his Japanese counterpart in Kyoji Horiguchi for their annual New Year’s Eve show was special. Two champions from two different promotions sharing the same stage happens far too seldom. Those two rematching on American soil to test whether the Unified Rules and a cage would affect the outcome is a game changer. With most companies not named the UFC struggling to find a place in the landscape, anything that stands out in the crowded schedule of MMA for the right reasons should be highlighted. (That means the Justin Bieber-Tom Cruise bout need not apply.)
So why would Bellator bury its talent loaned from Rizin so low on the card? Lindsey VanZandt welcomed Rena Kubota to the cage with a first round rear-naked choke, but its placement on the bill was low enough to fly well under the radar, belying the significance of it being allowed to happen in the first place. The idea of opening the main card with the Horiguchi-Caldwell rematch was even more absurd.
The bantamweight title fight represented arguably the most interesting pairing of the entire event. Even with Horiguchi forcing Caldwell to tap six months ago, the change in scenery and rule set provided enough of a wrinkle to generate genuine interest in the contest. Placing it as the main card curtain-jerker behind prospects seems counterintuitive to the idea of boosting a special moment and making it feel bigger.
While Juan Archuleta and Eduardo Dantas were a fantastic pairing with legitimate title implications, and the fight between Patrick Mix and Ricky Bandejas put two incredible young talents center stage, there’s no way those should have been prioritized over a cross-promotional superfight. Having Dillon Danis’ second professional fight above that is a serious head scratcher.
It would be one thing if this was a one and done deal. Scott Coker could be justified in not boosting up that fight in fear of giving additional shine to the roster of another company. However, Horiguchi is contractually obligated to make his way back to Bellator at least once a year to defend new his belt.
The rarity of true co-promotion between major brands, especially with championship level talent, is something to remember. Burying it in prelims or behind inferior fights makes it much easier to forget.
The Ugly: Youthful Enthusiasm
It’s officially time to worry. Aaron Pico is in trouble and the ship must correct course if this young man is to fulfill his potential. The worst part about his knockout loss to Adam Borics is that Pico was doing things differently than before. He changed training camps, settling for the game plan-centric and risk-averse style of Greg Jackson. He showed patience and didn’t instantly charge in and throw full power with every punch while neglecting defense altogether. He even remembered his incredible wrestling credentials.
Unfortunately, it didn’t matter as he suffered another head-rattling defeat. Looking at what specifically went wrong, the finger can be pointed in two different directions. The first is a gap in skill set and the second is the stubbornness of Team Pico.
Pico is a gifted athlete, a noted hard worker and is obviously very skilled. However, the problem appears to be the connections he makes between the phases of combat. Either he is moving forward, intent on using his powerful punches, or he’s relentlessly diving for single legs to force his will on the ground. But there’s no transition between those mindsets. There’s no mixing of the martial arts. When Pico spent the large majority of the approximately two and a half rounds changing levels and reaching for legs without offering much else, it shouldn’t be too surprising a flying knee followed.
As far as matchmaking is concerned, after having his second setback against a surging Henry Corrales, it was clearly time to dial back the challenges put in front of Pico. Instead, he was paired with a 12-0 Adam Borics, eight of whose wins had come by stoppage. It’s speculated that Pico and his team have been asking for these tough challenges. He said it himself in the wake of his loss to Corrales at Bellator 214. It is an admirable quality that you’d like to see in a fighter with ambitions to be great. However, this is where he must be dialed back.
While fighters like Dillon Danis and Valerie Loureda were matched with opposition relative to their experience, Pico has been thrown into a lion’s den. It’s very possible that the three devastating knockout losses and the wild but brief exchanges in some of his wins may have severely diminished his chin. It’s also possible that he can move forward and have a great career by changing things now. That doesn’t mean he needs to leave Jackson-Winklejohn. It just means Pico, his coaches, family and managers need to sit down and honestly assess the situation and adjust their approach. Anything less is career suicide.