Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.
Every top fighter competes for some degree to prove to be the best. That quest can prove to be more elusive in an individual sport like MMA than in a major league team sport with a season that builds each year towards a playoff tournament with one winner. Boxing is a clear example of that issue, with multiple champions at every weight class and no guarantees they’ll ever fight each other. In mixed martial arts, proving yourself to be the best has been a much simpler proposition over the past decade: You become UFC champion.
As Bellator MMA invests more heavily in the sport, it seeks to challenge that paradigm. Bellator has built up its roster in recent years, signing top-10 fighters like Rory MacDonald away from the Ultimate Fighting Championship and grooming potential greats like Aaron Pico. The short-term goal is just to put together the most compelling matchups possible. However, in the long haul, the hope is surely that the infusion of talent will enhance fans’ perception as to the overall quality of the Bellator roster. Eventually, Scott Coker would love to remove the unspoken assumption that the UFC champion is the best fighter in each weight class.
MacDonald may prove to be an interesting case study in that effort. There is no fighter outside the UFC today with a better chance of convincing fans that he or she is the best in the world in a UFC weight class. MacDonald was extremely impressive in his Bellator debut against Paul Daley, and if he continues to perform at that level, it won’t be long before that debate begins. Even if that debate doesn’t result in most fans anointing MacDonald the real king of the welterweight division, it’s a discussion that benefits Bellator and its top fighters across the board.
MacDonald’s potential future claim to best in the world -- obviously, he’ll have to string together a series of wins first -- is stronger than most non-UFC fighters for a variety of reasons. To begin with, he has the credibility of competing against the UFC’s best. Excellent fighters like Ben Askren and Patricio Freire can’t really pass a certain level in public perception without competing against those fighters with the highest level of credibility. Moreover, MacDonald has beaten the best. He holds wins over both current UFC welterweight champion Tyron Woodley and top challenger Demian Maia. That’s the most recent loss for both of those men.
The biggest problem for MacDonald’s claim is obviously that he lost his last two UFC fights against Robbie Lawler and Stephen Thompson. That will linger when he doesn’t have the opportunity to avenge those losses. Even there, MacDonald still has factors weighing in his favor. He’s still young at age 27 and has his peak years ahead of him. It’s going to be easier to make fans believe MacDonald is better than he ever was with a few key wins than it would be for 33-year-old Benson Henderson or 32-year-old Phil Davis.
Another reason MacDonald might be able to stake a claim to being the best outside the UFC is that the public has a fundamental belief in his ability. Remarkably, MacDonald has never been the betting underdog at fight time in his entire career. That’s exceedingly uncommon, particularly given all the elite competition he has faced, and it reflects the fact that fans believe in his skills whether he wins or loses. That underlying feeling is crucial when debating between two fighters who can’t compete to provide a definitive answer.
MacDonald has a lot of things going for him, but he still faces an uphill climb in convincing fans he’s better than anyone in the UFC. That’s why he’s such an interesting case study for Bellator’s overall effort to convince fans of its talent level vis-à-vis the UFC. The UFC doesn’t tend to let elite fighters leave while on a winning streak, so most are in MacDonald’s boat coming off a loss. Even if MacDonald puts together a number of wins, the last memory people have of him in the UFC will still be the losses. That’s difficult to overcome when stringing together wins against lower-level competition.
Fans have been educated to recognize that fighters can rebound rapidly in MMA. A fighter can suffer a devastating loss and still rebound to be considered the best with two convincing wins. However, the key to the equation is the credibility of the UFC championship. Without that title, something special is needed to stake the claim that you’re better than the UFC champion. A signature win is one possibility. Douglas Lima or Lorenz Larkin is unlikely to do the trick, nor even middleweight champion Rafael Carvalho.
Another possibility is a long string of dominant victories, but that’s always a tough task in MMA. There’s also a problem there for non-UFC fighters in that a single loss, even against a really good opponent in the middle of a bunch of high-quality wins, tends to play into the familiar refrain that the fighter is overrated and not really that good. Askren didn’t even lose to Jay Hieron, and that’s still held over his head five-plus years later. No one would think of arguing T.J. Dillashaw is no good because of his knockout loss to John Dodson which came more recently than Askren-Hieron.
The problem for Bellator, MacDonald and other fighters who aspire to be regarded as the best even while fighting outside the UFC is that the UFC champion for the time being is just assumed to be the best. MacDonald has a chance to convince fans otherwise, but it won’t come easily. Moreover, even if someone like MacDonald is able to overcome that assumption through a series of great wins, all that work can go up in smoke with one loss. Rather than the person who defeated MacDonald taking the top slot, it’s more likely the presumption would just shift back to the UFC champion instead. MacDonald is Bellator’s best hope to combat the presumption of UFC fighter superiority, but overcoming that longstanding presumption is still a very tricky task.