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Bellator MMA’s first event of 2019 went off with a bang. While I usually cringe at cliched sentiments like that, it perfectly describes the main card of Bellator 214: short and sudden. Four of the five fights on Saturday ended in the first round, combining for a total of five minutes and seven seconds of fight time. Our natural instinct is to cheer for such expediency. Finishes tend to be exciting, and fast finishes are almost always surprising. There are few ways for finishes to suck, whereas there are new genres of sucky decisions birthed every year.
Yet not all quick finishes are the same. They can mean vastly different things for different fighters, depending on the career context of the fighters themselves and how the fight was finished. For starters, there is a substantial difference between quick submissions and quick knockouts. Quick subs usually mean one of two things: Someone has a particularly sneaky and tricky one up their sleeve -- think the journeyman Cody McKenzie’s strangely lethal guillotine -- or one person in the cage is simply that much better than their opponent.
For both Adel Altamimi and Jake Hager, it was clearly the latter. It was technical dominance for Altamimi; for Hager, his strength and size were also responsible. Neither winner proved anything we didn’t already know or suspect, though. Altamimi is a legit prospect, while his opponent, Brandon McMahan, was making his Bellator debut with a 3-4 record. Even though Hager was making his MMA debut, he wasn’t exactly outmatched in experience. His quadragenarian counterpart, J.W. Kiser, turned pro last year after going 1-3 as an amateur and has never seen the halfway mark of a round in the entirety of his career. By crushing outmatched opponents in highlight-reel fashion, both Altamimi and Hager did exactly what they were supposed to do and nothing more. The most we can glean is that they are so far living up to expectations.
However, the main and co-main events were different for a number of significant reasons, the most obvious of which is that they ended by knockout. A quick submission loss is rarely devastating beyond the immediate shock of the result. There is little in the way of lingering damage, physically or psychologically. Not so with knockouts. A crushing knockout blow has every bit as much likelihood of breaking a bone as a submission does, and it can alter a fighter’s psyche for long stretches of time, sometimes permanently. When you get caught in a submission, you have to learn how to defend that submission, which is adding an additional skill. When you get knocked out, you have to learn how to not do that, which is a lot more complicated and fraught. There’s a risk of overlearning striking defense that doesn’t apply to submission defense.
Of course, it is doubtful that Fedor Emelianenko will be affected in any lasting way. Ryan Bader didn’t do anything to him that Matt Mitrione or Dan Henderson didn’t already do. As for Aaron Pico, it’s way too early to tell what he will learn from his loss to Henry Corrales, but it will certainly be something to watch for the next time he fights.
The stakes in the main and co-main fights were also significant departures. The other two quick-finishes on the main card were booked to propel visibility for prospects. The co-main pitted a rising star against a former King of the Cage champion, both of whom were on four-fight winning streaks. The main event was for the heavyweight title. Naturally, getting your block knocked off means a lot more when a title shot or an actual title is on the line.
It wasn’t surprising to see people proclaim Pico as “exposed” or “overrated” after the loss. Pico was the favorite for a reason, and it felt more like he lost via stupidity than Corrales won via knockout. Pico was impatient. He blasted Corrales with an uppercut and didn’t take his foot off the gas after that, even when “OK” had clearly recovered. Instead of backing off and going back to the combination striking that led to the initial knockdown, he got tied up and chewed up in the clinch. The win puts Corrales, 32, at most a fight away from a title shot. I don’t buy into the “exposed” talk about Pico, though. He’s still a promising prospect with a legitimate record in Bellator. His opponents have a combined record of 82-28, which is a much higher level of competition than most fighters meet in their first six fights. He’s only 22 years old and still has the raw materials to become champion. It was a tough loss, but it’s way too early to write him off just yet.
The 35-second blitz that Bader put on Emelianenko also has completely different ramifications for those fighters. Emelianenko is in a strange position. At 42, his legacy is and has been secure, and there’s virtually nothing that could happen that would severely diminish his run in the sport. Even if he were to suffer a string of 100 straight first-round knockouts -- as horrifying, pathetic and feverishly stupid as that scenario would be -- it wouldn’t make what he did in Pride Fighting Championships any less remarkable. That he was in another title fight in another organization was itself a notable achievement. Was it really surprising that a strong, stout power puncher put his lights out? That’s why he’s in a good spot, strangely enough. Any win will be huge because he’s so clearly past his prime -- had he beaten Bader, it would have been another chapter in his illustrious career -- and any loss, no matter how sudden or devastating, can be shrugged off because he’s 42 years old and has 19 years and 45 fights of wear and tear on him. Though I’d like to see him retire sooner than later, from a career standpoint, the loss did little to diminish his stature.
On the other hand, it was a particularly validating win for Bader. It capped off a heavyweight run that saw him beat Muhammed Lawal, Matt Mitrione and the greatest heavyweight ever in a combined time of 15:50, all while absorbing essentially zero significant strikes. If you didn’t know how good he was before he was a two-division champion, there’s no excuse now. It wasn’t a shock that he won, but he still managed to win in shocking fashion. Walking away from the biggest win of your career with no damage is about as good as it can get.
With that being said, I’m not convinced this is a new and improved version of the Bader we watched in the Ultimate Fighting Championship. After winning Season 8 of “The Ultimate Fighter,” he won four more fights in a row, albeit unspectacularly. Then he ran into Jon Jones in a title eliminator match. Losing to Jones, probably the best fighter on the planet, is hardly an indictment. The Tito Ortiz loss was bad, granted, but the only other losses Bader took were against elite level competition: to Lyoto Machida in 2012 when “The Dragon” had only really lost twice at that point, to Glover Teixeira in 2013 when he was on a 19-fight winning streak and to Anthony Johnson in 2016 when “Rumble” was on his reinvigorated return run in the UFC and had only lost to Daniel Cormier once.
Surrounding those five losses are 15 wins over most of the rest of the light heavyweight division at the time. This recent Bellator run is par for the course. The big difference here is the rate of knockouts, which is almost certainly a testament to his improvement as a fighter and the additional power he carries at heavyweight, but it is also a side effect of fighting older -- and lesser -- competition. Against opponents in or nearing their 40s, he’ll probably keep catching bodies, and until he faces a transcendent talent, he will likely extend the winning streak for some time.
Eric Stinton is a writer and a teacher from Kailua, Hawaii. He has been writing for Sherdog since 2014 and has published fiction, nonfiction and journalism in Bamboo Ridge, The Classical, Eastlit, Harvard Review Online, Honolulu Civil Beat and Vice, among others. He currently lives with his fiancée and dachshund in Seoul. You can find his work at ericstinton.com.