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The Ultimate Fighting Championship on Sunday staged its first event on ESPN, while Bellator MMA offered up a weekend doubleheader at the Mohegan Sun Arena with Bellator 215 on Friday and Bellator 216 on Saturday in Uncasville, Connecticut. With those events came some good, some bad and some ugly.
THE GOOD: THE UFC CLIFF NOTES
While this was not the official debut of the UFC on ESPN, as advertised, it was a more than fitting event as an introduction to that unimaginable segment of the sports viewing public still unfamiliar with mixed martial arts. There was something that represented almost every aspect of the sport at UFC on ESPN 1 in Phoenix. It played out like a sampler platter at your favorite chain restaurant.
Do you want to take a trip down memory lane? There was a member of the MMA’s royal family making his debut in the promotion. Kron Gracie did exactly what you would expect from someone wearing four-ounce gloves with that last name. In a style that was almost as much of a throwback as his “Whoomp There It Is” post-fight reference, Gracie squared off with Alex Caceres, and they did their best to relive the style-versus-style theme of the original UFC tournaments. The kick-heavy offense of “Bruce Leeroy” was paired with Gracie’s dogmatic dedication to Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Once the fight hit the ground, it didn’t take long for the foundation of modern MMA to prove itself effective.
The redemption story we all love was told twice over, as Francis Ngannou and Paul Felder managed to put more distance between themselves and the overall misfortune of 2018. It wasn’t that long ago that Ngannou’s demoralizing loss to then champion Stipe Miocic led to an uninspired and gunshy fighter being outpointed by a severely injured Derrick Lewis in one of the most lackluster fights in recent memory. The huge push of the promotional machine quickly morphed into one of the infamous tongue lashings from UFC President Dana White.
Ngannou has now delivered two consecutive fast finishes in main events to turn around his fortunes. Finishing an improved version of Curtis Blaydes much more decisively in a risky rematch may not have made the shockwaves necessary to justify the risk-reward ratio, as it was tucked away in a UFC Fight Pass-exclusive event. However, sending one of the consensus all-time great heavyweights home early -- a feat previously only achieved by world champions Junior dos Santos and Fabricio Werdum -- in a high-profile headliner should make those well needed ripples, as he stakes his claim to a redo for the heavyweight belt.
Felder had an unremarkable 2018 in the cage. With two of his fights being yanked on short notice due to circumstances beyond his control, big opportunities to stand out in a crowded lightweight division were lost due to the bizarre machinations of the sport. His lone appearance donning the Reebok gear was an ill-fated decision loss to Mike Perry at welterweight. Aside from the excellent work he has turned in by way of his cageside commentary, Felder was an overlooked commodity. That changed in Arizona, as he and James Vick finally fulfilled their repeatedly postponed bout and met in the co-main event. Felder handling Vick in such a clear-cut decision shows that “The Irish Dragon” has a lot to offer the fast-paced weight class and that he is worthy of more marquee matchups in the future.
For the bloodthirsty among us, Vicente Luque and Bryan Barberena gave plenty of plasma to please the people. The back-and-forth brawl gave us the best of both worlds in an action fight. Luque’s TKO win provided a finish for the highlight reel and served as a definitive stamp, as the surging welterweight continues to move up the ladder. The buzzer-beater timing of the stoppage allowed a full drama to play out, with momentum swings that engaged an otherwise ungrateful crowd at the Talking Stick Resort Arena and allowed Barberena to maintain his spot as a welterweight spoiler and reality checker.
THE BAD: LEGENDS OF THE FALL
The only thing worse about UFC on ESPN 1 than an audience that seemed to hate all of the best things about MMA was the dramatic fall from grace of former champions. Cain Velasquez and Renan Barao have provided us with great entertainment and performances that will be lauded for generations to come. However, it may be time for both men to ask themselves and their loved ones some serious questions about their respective futures in this brutal and unforgiving fight game.
Velasquez was understandably the darling of this card. As a former standout wrestler at Arizona State University, his presence would have always attracted attention in that market. Add this to the fact that he had been out of competition since UFC 200 in July 2016, and hunger for the Sun Devil’s walk to the Octagon only intensified. Unfortunately for him and his devoted followers, it only took 26 seconds for Ngannou to land his death blow of an uppercut, which appeared to buckle Velasquez’s knee and forced referee Jason Herzog to end the contest.
Whether Velasquez admits to the punch landing or any potential health problems during his training camp is irrelevant. The truth of the matter is that his body failed him yet again. Considering the absurd gaps in his schedule since concluding the trilogy with dos Santos, questions about his durability are indeed warranted. At 36 years old and with a stellar resume and legacy, how necessary is it for Velasquez to step in the Octagon again? If he does, who should he be fighting? At this point, the loss to Ngannou at the very least sets him back as a title challenger. However, if he continues to compete, would fights with the likes of Stefan Struve or Andrei Arlovski be worthwhile beyond the paycheck? Could we even trust his body not to betray him against that level of competition?
Barao’s fall from grace has been a lot less flattering to watch. While Velasquez’s joints seem to have turned against him, Barao seems much more like the classic version of a shopworn fighter. He gave Luke Sanders a better version of himself than we have seen in quite some time, but it took just a few moments and a slight adjustment to destroy the bit of hope we had in Barao’s viability as a top-shelf mixed martial artist. With only two wins in nine appearances since dropping his bantamweight title, it’s sadly obvious that “The Baron” who plowed through the top names at 135 pounds is no more.
Part of Barao’s issues have stemmed from the difficult weight cut. He has failed on the scale twice in a row, in addition to the California State Athletic Commission forcing him to compete at a catchweight at UFC 214. It’s amazing to think that the scary bathtub incident that forced him out of UFC 177 wasn’t enough of a wakeup call. Reportedly, Barao is targeting featherweight for his next contest. However, it might be too little too late to save what was once an incredible career.
THE UGLY: WEEKEND AT SCOTTY’S
If you’re Bellator President Scott Coker, the weekend was something you’d probably rather forget. The previous dual-event weekends for Bellator have provided a number of memorable moments and boosted the profile of the No. 2 promotion in the sport. The good fortune disappeared with Bellator 215 and Bellator 216.
Although Austin Vanderford enjoyed a memorable promotional debut with his first-round submission and Logan Storley maintained his undefeated record, the fight-ending groin shot absorbed by Sergei Kharitonov at Bellator 215 stole the show. A meeting between Kharitonov and Matt Mitrione promised fireworks on paper, but the end result left the fans unfulfilled. Whenever a southpaw and orthodox fighter meet, that kind of foul is always a possibility. We see it often, but rarely does it end a fight so suddenly. While a rematch will most likely be booked soon, it won’t undo the disaster that was Bellator 215.
Similarly, Bellator 216 promised some great moments. Very little of that promise came to fruition. Aside from Valerie Loureda making good on her high-profile professional debut, nearly everything else fell flat. When the brackets for the welterweight grand prix were released, the opening round clash between Michael Page and Paul Daley was undoubtedly the most anticipated pairing. Page has thrilled audiences by decimating inferior opponents and offering braggadocious displays of showmanship in the process. Daley has maintained his spot in MMA as a premier one-shot-kill artist. In addition to the potential for excitement, we’d finally see what Page could offer the division as a top contender.
There were moments of excitement, but overall, the fight was a massive letdown. Daley did what a smart fighter should do in that situation: Play to your opponent’s weakness and take the path of least resistance. While the fan-friendly striker was reduced to a mediocre wrestler, the real disappointment was Page. While he ultimately proved victorious and found some moments reminiscent of his stylish previous wins, Page was exposed as an underdeveloped fighter who appears unready to take a spot among the elite at 170 pounds. If Daley could have success and arguably win against Page with basic wrestling skills and poorly setup takedown attempts, imagine what awaits the flashy Englishman further down the line in the grand prix. Douglas Lima has more than enough grappling ability to improve upon Daley’s game plan. Expect the same from Jon Fitch, Rory MacDonald and Nieman Gracie, who all could stand across from him if he gets past Lima.
A classic Bellator rematch between two of the more devastating heavyweights of yesteryear ended up being an overall ho-hum affair, as Mirko Filipovic and Roy Nelson lacked the stamina to maintain the pace they both wanted to keep. While it was far from the least-pleasing fight at Bellator 216 and expectations weren’t exactly as high as their original meeting at UFC 137, the common practice of matching two fighters north of 40 leaves a lot to be desired.
While Cheick Kongo and Vitaly Minakov weren’t expected to thrill audiences, their bout at least held significance, as it would help determine the future for newly crowned double champion Ryan Bader. Kongo’s exclusion from the heavyweight grand prix was rightfully criticized, as his winning streak simply couldn’t be ignored. Minakov never lost the Bellator heavyweight title in the cage and remained undefeated, with a credible claim to the lineal honor. A win from either man would be more than enough to justify his being the next challenger for Bader. While Kongo managed to avenge his Bellator 115 loss to Minakov, the victory did little to create anticipation for a potential crack at Bader. Both men had absurdly large spans of inactivity, with Kongo timidly holding back on most of his striking opportunities and Minakov blindly coming forward while throwing mostly ineffective and out-of-range overhand punches.
A win is a win, no matter how bland it is. By resume alone, Kongo deserves to fight for the Bellator heavyweight belt. Unfortunately for him, the resume isn’t always the first thing a promoter looks at when drafting bout agreements. Don’t be surprised to see him get passed over again in favor of the viewing public.