Bellator 222 Was Everything Bellator Needed it to Be

Bellator is not the end-all-be-all in MMA, we know this.  They’re #2 in North America but they might not be globally, with the rise of ONE FC and Rizin to contend with.  Thankfully last night’s show  in Madison Square Garden, the Mecca of Combat Sports, Bellator didn’t go at it alone.  Rizin and Bellator put on a great show for MMA fans, and now people are talking.

Rizin, a fight promotion out of Japan, and Bellator have worked together for years now.  Notable Bellator alum and the recently retired Muhammed Lawal represented Bellator in Japan during some of Rizin’s events.   The former Stirke Force Light Heavyweight World Champ won the Bellator 2013 Light Heavyweight Summer Series and then went on to win the Rizin 2015 Heavyweight Grand Prix.  Thanks in part to Lawal, the partnership between Bellator and Rizin grew.  Fans on both sides of the Pacific started to notice these on-the-rise promotions because of the cross promotion.

Last night two of Rizin’s best, Rena Kubota and Kyoji Horiguchi went to work in MSG and went 1-1.  Rena fell to Taylor Turner in the first round to strikes, while Kyoji won a five round slug-fest with the Darrion Caldwell to win Caldwell’s Bellator Bantamweight title.  This is historic in a number of ways, but the largest is that the 5’5 Kyoji is now a double Bantamweight champ…in two DIFFERENT promotions.  Kyoji had defeated Caldwell once before in Japan to win the inaugural Rizin Bantamweight title, just a few months ago in December of 2018.

Bellator’s international success was a great start to the night but the event wasn’t perfect as two top prospects suffered bad loss.  The first was Aaron Pico, nicknamed the Prodigy due to his age and the enormous potential he currently has/had.  He dominated then 12-0 fighter Adam Borics with his wrestling through the first two rounds but Borics is undefeated for a reason.   Borics  scored a late 2nd round victory thanks to a flying knee, causing Borics to move to 13-0.   This marks Pico’s 3rd lost, second in a row, for the 22 year old up and comer.  Pico currently stands at 4-3, with questions over his future now starting to swirl after the panelists pointed out holes in his game.  According to them Pico gets caught in a one dimensional game plan, and seems to be unable to take a shot.  He is still just 22 however, and has a long road ahead of him.  I think writing off Pico would be a mistake for anyone planning on doing so.

Pico has all the hype in the world around him due to his amateur wrestling background, and because of that Bellator believes he could be the next great.  Another sport-jumper who was also making waves is former WBC International Female Super Bantamweight boxing champion, Heather Hardy. Hardy doesn’t have time on her side, at 37 she’s significantly older than Pico and had a far more devastating loss.  For Pico, losing to Borics (a top prospect himself) on a knee is just how goes.  He has the tools, he just needs to put them together.  Does Hardy have those same tools though?

Hardy took on Taylor Turner and the former undefeated boxing champ was dominated from the outset.  The bout saw the taller Turner control Hardy on the ground, albeit with some soft blows.  Hardy was caught under Turner for a majority of the first round and while Hardy didn’t take any significant damage, she showed she had no idea how to escape the onslaught of kitten punches.  For nearly three minutes Hardy ate shot after shot, covering up and laying still before the ref finally called the fight.  For a dominant boxer to look so bad is not a good look for her going into the future.  Considering the master class in defensive submission grappling we got in the main event, Hardy’s lack of ground skills were really brought to light.

The main card saw some interesting, albeit minor wins for future Bellator challengers in Dillion Danis, Patrick Mix and Juan Archuleta all getting stoppages in their bouts, with Danis and Mix getting submission and Archuleta getting a knockout. All three earned rave reviews for their wins and are now one step closer to earning title shots themselves.

The two main bouts for the show  were where all the attention fell however.  In the semi-main Chael Sonnen took on Lyoto Machida in an old school wrestling vs. karate match up.  Both men are into their earlier 40’s and needed wins to prove they were still contenders.  According to Ilima-Lei Macfarlane, Bellator’s Flyweight Women’s Champion and guest commentator for the night,  Sonnen had a rough weight cut coming down from Heavyweight to Light Heavyweight.  This was important to note due to Sonnen’s goal to chase after Bellator Heavyweight Champion Ryan Bader next.  Sonnen needed the win over Machida to get a title shot.  With so much on the line Sonnen was going to give this fight everything he got.  It just wasn’t enough.

Machida for his credit was 1-4 from July of 2014 to October of 2017, with the now 41 year old looking as far from his past glory as possible.   However thanks to a then 3-fight win streak, with wins over Eryk Anders and Vitor Belfort; Machida was once again impressing people.  Only Sonnen stood in the way of Machida’s 4th straight win.

Unlike Pico, Sonnen ate a jumping knee in the first but survived and even got to the end of the first round.  He’d succumb to a second knee early in the 2nd after Sonnen went for a take down.  Machida got his fourth win.   Following the loss, Sonnen announced he was done fighting, and said he didn’t have it in him anymore.  Sonnen was also very honest and said he didn’t feel as tough anymore.  Sonnen will go down as a Hall of Fame fighter with a once-in-a-lifetime mouth.  Sonnen, ever the sportsman, even joked about the loss; saying he knew he was done after the first knee and allegedly asked the ref why he waited so long to stop the fight following the 2nd knee to the head.

With Machida on a four fight win streak, only the 2nd of his career (after starting 16-0), he’s in line for Bader as well.  Bader isn’t just the Heavyweight Champion, but also the Light Heavyweight Champion as well, the division in which Machida is in.  It seems that regardless of who won, Bader was next.

For those of you new to Bellator, Bader has become one of MMA’s best all around big men, and is on a seven fight win streak with wins over top talent like Lil Nog (Antônio Rogério Nogueira), Muhammed Lawal, Matt Mitrione and the Greatest of All Time, Fedor Emelianenko.  A match up against Sonnen or Machida would only help Bellator down the line and now that Machida won, fans should get excited about a potential title fight between Machida and Bader before years end.

In the main event we got a true masterclass in defensive fighting. Rory MacDonald dominated in his title defense, putting on a showcase of submission reversals.  MacDonald’s future was up in the air  just two months ago after he said that maybe he wasn’t cut out for fighting anymore following his first round draw against Jon Fitch in the Bellator Welterweight Grand Prix.  Despite his pondering of retirement, MacDonald showed he still had what it takes to be a champion.

MacDonald faced off with the next-best Gracie brood member in Neimna Gracie in a five round tit-for-tat submission classic.  While Gracie was the more aggressive fighter, MacDonald’s defensive prowess and ability to inflict damage on Gracie while on the ground was the big determining factor.  While Gracie did push the action, he couldn’t lock MacDonald down and MacDonald expertly evaded just about everything Gracie threw at him.  The only moment of worry for MacDonald was in the first round when Gracie landed a leg kick on MacDonald’s shin.  The kick caused some damage and further strikes could’ve been problematic if Gracie followed up efficiently.

MacDonald won in a unanimous decision, with the judges ruling a 49-46, 48-47 and 48-47 for the man known as the Red King.  MacDonald seemed a bit shocked that the other two judges scored his bout so close.  This was an expected result however, as even ‘Big’ John McCarthy said on commentary that MacDonald dominated the fight with is defense but that judges don’t often see that in their scoring.  That ended up being the case here.  Gracie’s ground game wasn’t as good as MacDonald’s and standing up with MacDonald wasn’t wise, due to Gracie’s weak stand up game.  Gracie’s ground game was nearly perfect however and against anyone else maybe would’ve gotten the win.

Now MacDonald goes on to face Douglas Lima, someone he’s already beat for the Bellator Welterweight Championship once before.  They’ll meet for the belt once again, and the one million dollar purse in a big time rematch to close out the Bellator Welterweight Grand Prix.  To think the winner of that not only gets the Grand Prix win, but also the Welterweight title and the seven figure pay day.  Not a bad ending.

Bellator 222 delivered in the cage but it wasn’t just the fights that looked good or were praised.  As mentioned before, Bellator’s Women’s Flyweight Champion Ilima-Lei Macfarlane filled in as a guest commentator with host Jay Glazer and (retired?) Bellator fighter Josh Thomson.  The duties of the trio were to fill air time between bouts, talk about the match up’s and provide analysis for fans at home, while Mike Goldberg and John McCarthy called each fight as play-by-play and color commentary at  ringside.

Despite this being MacFarlane’s first time filling in, she dazzled viewers with her insights.  The internet was abuzz with how good MacFarlane was with her duties as guest commentator, breaking down the fights and detailing spot-on analysis as to each fighters strengths and weaknesses. I’d be shocked if MacFarlane wasn’t invited back more often, though that’s not a guarantee.  MacFarlane was only filling in due to regular commentator Chael Sonnen not being able to due to having a fight of his own.  Now that’s Sonnen’s retired for good, there isn’t a seat for her.  You could always replace   Thomson, as he’s never proven to be that engaging as a commentator but for now I don’t think a shakeup is coming.

The extra work did raise MacFarlane’s profile and she stands with Ryan Bader and Rory MacDonald as a pillar of Bellator going forward.

Speaking of going forward, Bellator 222’s post fights also saw the announcement of Fedor Emelianenko signing one last contract with Bellator to finish out his career in MMA.  The man known known as The Last Emperor will finish out a Hall of Fame career in a world tour of sorts across the next few years.  It’s likely to be another four fight deal but that’s not confirmed.

Fedor’s first fight under the new deal may be against a former UFC Heavyweight Champion and recently signed Josh Barnett.  The two were once set to fight about a decade ago in the defunct Affliction promotion, and to finally get that fight would be a treat for fans.  This however was merely a speculative statement from Bellator President Scott Coker about Fedor’s next opponent.  Quintin Jackson was also mentioned.

As of right now the rest of 2019 looks rather unclear.  Bellator’s Middleweight champ Gergard Mousasi is facing off with Rafael Lovato Jr. on June 22nd in London, with Paul Daley fighting Erick Silva on the card as well.   Julia Budd, the Bellator Women’s Featherweight Champion is set to face Olga Rubin on July 12th, and the bout could be must see.  Budd hasn’t lost since 2011 when Ronda Rousey made her tap, and for the next eight years all she’s done is win, racking up a ten fight streak.  After that the only top bout booked is a rematch between Matt Mitrione and Sergei Kharitonov.  The first time these two fought saw Mitrione hurt Kharitonov with an accidental but sitll illegal goin shot.  The strike caused too much damage and Kharitonov couldn’t recover in time, so the two will run it back as they say.

The rest of the year will be crucial for Bellator.  The company has never had this many top headliners, or as deep of a talent pool.  With so many fighters in their prime, the partnership with Rizin, and so many legends of the sport still able to go, Bellator can’t mess up building off of the foundation 222 gave the company.  There has never been a better time for Bellator to finally up their game.