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Bellator MMA staged a doubleheader on Friday and Saturday with Bellator 231 and Bellator 232 in Uncasville, Connecticut. Meanwhile, the Ultimate Fighting Championship made its way back to Kallang, Singapore, for UFC Fight Night 162. With them came some good, some bad and some ugly.
THE GOOD: FINALLY OUT OF HIS BROTHER’S SHADOW
In case you didn’t get the memo, Douglas Lima is one of the best welterweights in the world. For the third time in his eight years under the Bellator banner, he has captured the crown at 170 pounds. To those with their attention on North America’s second-best source of MMA, this isn’t breaking news. Lima has consistently handled nearly every test put in front of him and has delivered a variety of violence along the way. Even with a notable resume and two prior stints as champion to his credit coming into the Bellator 232 main event, his decision win over Rory MacDonald stands head and shoulders above anything else he has done in the cage for several reasons.
Legacy is one reason why getting his hand raised stands out on Lima’s record. Because he has never made his way over to the Ultimate Fighting Championship, a lot of people may have been unaware of just good Lima was in comparison to the sport’s top welterweights. When MacDonald jumped ship for Bellator and challenged Lima for the belt, it was the best gauge for those who needed Zuffa validation before recognizing his status. Lima wound up on the losing end of their first meeting, casting doubt on where he stood in the overall hierarchy. Defeating a man who challenged for the UFC title in an all-time great fight and holds a victory over the recently dethroned champion adds a bit more prestige to the Lima resume.
Vengeance is certainly an added bonus for Lima. After Andrey Koreshekov ended his first reign as champion, “The Phenom” quickly regrouped and set his sights on a rematch. Just 16 months later, he avenged his decision loss with a definitive finish to recapture the belt. Similarly, MacDonald paid for ending his second reign with a clear-cut loss. Even though Lima was unable to get a finish in a bout that lacked much of the fireworks many anticipated, there was a clear evolution to his game that can’t be ignored. In their first meeting, MacDonald relied on takedowns and top control to curry favor with the judges. Despite taking a severe punishment from Lima’s infamous leg kicks, that formula worked throughout the 25-minute affair and all but sealed the outcome in the pivotal final round. This time, the wrestling just didn’t get the job done, as Lima used great balance and footwork to avoid going to the floor as often. Since emerging as one of the top talents at 170 pounds, the only unavenged loss Lima has on his ledger is to Ben Askren. While their current employment situations make that rematch unlikely to happen, it wouldn’t be a shock at all to see another serving of revenge if they were to meet again.
Of course, as a prizefighter, a big check for $1 million is a huge reason why Lima’s victory was more memorable than others. That sort of money is hard to find by just simply jumping in the cage and winning in MMA. Even if critics can cast doubt on MacDonald’s mental state in light of his performance or still assert that Lima must step in the Octagon before being recognized as one of the division’s great fighters, plenty of his counterparts don’t have that many zeroes in their bank accounts from a single night of work.
THE BAD: WHY?
It’s hard to fairly label an entire card bad. It certainly wouldn’t fair to paint all of Bellator 231 with that brush. There were some good matchups and excellent finishes to be seen, and Phil Davis again proved his worth as a top-shelf light heavyweight. Ed Ruth and Jason Jackson had a razor-thin back-and-forth fight that provided genuine suspense as the scorecards were read. Jake Hager’s groin strike no-contest and the failed debut of adult film actress Rebecca Bryggman kept up the mandatory Bellator weirdness quota. Even well-past-their-prime versions of Frank Mir and Roy Nelson had a much better fight than they should have had in 2019. Did we need it, though?
The presence of an entire event just 24 hours before the conclusion of the welterweight grand prix seemed more like a distraction than an appetizer for more relevant action the next day. Once again, Bellator insists on double dosing audiences in one weekend and diluting its final product. How much better could a Scott Coker-sponsored weekend be with one streamlined event that took the best of both cards for a single night? Instead of a woefully outdated Mir-Nelson rematch in the main event, why not give it a main card spot the next night? Why showcase an emerging talent like Ruth on a card that by default flew under the radar as opposed to the night when the world would be watching Lima and MacDonald close out the tournament?
Bellator’s devotion to 25-fight marathon weekends comes across like a double album. Sure, you could end up with a Life After Death- or All Eyez On Me-type classic, but more often than not, you end up with a Blueprint 2 or an Art of War. It was good, but it could have been so much better without the extra filler.
THE UGLY: ONE BIG DEAL
For years, Ben Askren was the evidence used to indict the UFC for everything wrong with the organization’s modern era. How could an undefeated and dominant fighter be passed over by the promotion? How could his teammate, Phil Brooks, be invited to make his competition debut in the Octagon while Askren was told that he needed to “get some more experience?” As former flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson decided fighting for One Championship made more sense for him and his brand, the powers that be made a deal that finally saw the biggest omission from the UFC roster since Fedor Emelianenko right that wrong. We finally gotten to see what the wrestler could do when mixed in with some of the best welterweights the company has to offer. The results haven’t met the high expectations many had.
Fellow elite grappler Demian Maia worked his way to a third-round rear-naked choke and handed Askren his second consecutive defeat in the UFC Fight Night 162 headliner. In what was one of the ugliest displays of striking in high-level MMA, the two battled to a stalemate on the feet. Maia largely controlled the striking at range with jabs and straight rights, while Askren used dirty boxing to score points. Of course, nobody signed up for their interpretations of K-1, and the fight got very interesting once it hit the floor. Where Askren would typically be able to completely take over the fight after a successful takedown, against Maia’s elite Brazilian jiu-jitsu, things did not go so smoothly. Quick submission threats and skillful sweeps kept Askren from smothering his opponent as he had done many times before. Towards the end of a particularly grueling third frame that saw lots of activity in all ranges of combat, a frustrated and exhausted Askren tapped once to a rear-naked choke before briefly blacking out.
Where Askren largely breezed through his competition in Bellator and One Championship before briefly retiring in 2017, this year has undoubtedly been the toughest of his professional life. A controversial win over Robbie Lawler at UFC 235 came with a price, as he took a hellacious beating before cinching the disputed bulldog choke. The war of words between him and Jorge Masvidal was settled in historic fashion by a knee that will live in highlight reels forever. His being submitted in the unofficial “Best MMA Grappler” title fight puts the idea of Askren continuing his championship belt collection in the UFC firmly in the rearview mirror. Beyond any title aspirations, it will now be an even bigger uphill battle to promote Askren should he choose to continue competing. Trash talk rarely converts into viewership when the man with the sharp tongue doesn’t get his hand raised. Additionally, only one of his opponents was even willing to engage in any sort of war of words.
With the benefit of hindsight, how does that surprising trade of talent look? Askren seems to have stalled out for the moment, while Johnson just won a One Championship grand prix. One champion has potentially hit his ceiling while the other is still adding hardware to his shelf. Sure, from a personality standpoint, both men seem to be in better places to maximize what they have to offer outside of their in-cage abilities. Maybe Askren peaked before ever stepping into the Octagon and left his best days behind before stepping away from the sport after vacating titles in both One Championship and Bellator.
As the BMF headliner at UFC 244 approaches, it’s important to note that it wouldn’t have been possible without Askren to assist in propelling a long under-the-radar journeyman to stardom. From that alone, the UFC benefitted greatly from the trade. One Championship CEO Chatri Sityodong is undoubtedly enjoying the presence of “Mighty Mouse,” who is still winning fights and seems likely to be a major piece of the company’s E-Sports endeavors. Beyond the paychecks cashed, the only one to not benefit from the personnel swap is Askren himself.