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The Ultimate Fighting Championship landed in Sunrise, Florida, with UFC Fight Night 150, and Bellator MMA touched down in San Jose, California, with Bellator 220 on Saturday, as the two rival promotions provided fans with some MMA overload. With those two events came some good, some bad and some ugly.
THE GOOD: FIGHT IQ?
Mixed martial arts at the highest levels has been accurately described by longtime UFC commentator Joe Rogan as “human chess with dire physical consequences.” When it’s at its best strategy and incredible mastery of the human body combine to put together a great sporting experience for the audience. Cory Sandhagen and John Lineker clearly got the memo. In what could’ve been a blood-soaked brawl, the two bantamweights used brains and brawn in an attempt to best each other.
Despite the baffling boos from the audience at Sunrise, Florida’s BB&T Center when Sandhagen got his hand raised in a split decision, the Elevation Fight Team product fought with intelligence and implemented an effective game plan. Using solid footwork, head movement, and a variety of offense gave his best efforts to negate the unrelenting power of Lineker. Since entering world-class competition in the UFC, Lineker’s only defeat at bantamweight came at the hands of former two-time champion T.J. Dillashaw. Sandhagen moves into rarefied air with the win and immediately graduates to contender status, as well.
While the two out of the three judges didn’t see Hands of Stone as the winner, he certainly proved himself capable of the on the fly adjustments that are necessary at the highest levels of a such competitive division. When his usual head hunting with potential knockout inducing punches came up short, Lineker wisely mixed up his game. Capitalizing on sneaky grappling opportunities gave Sandhagen enough to think about to slow his heavy offensive volume a bit. When he adjusted to that change, Lineker began incorporating more body shots in an effort to confuse his opponent even more. This was one of the rare losses that shouldn’t negatively affect him moving forward.
Shortly after, Mike Perry and Alex Oliveira decided to take the complete opposite approach. The two welterweights seem to throw strategy out of the window and play the game of human chess without much regard for where the pieces lay on the board. Both men aren’t exactly lauded for sound game plans and methodical approaches to the challenges before then. The consistency in their inconsistency was almost certainly why the two were paired by Sean Shelby in the first place.
From the start, the wild and dramatic spin kicks from Cowboy did little in the area of gaining an advantage in the contest, but went far to thrill the crowd and ESPN+ viewers. Similar to what Perry did against his previous opponent, Donald Cerrone, he initiated wrestling versus a man with the ability to snatch quick submissions. Oliveira engaged in a wild brawl with a man who has built his career making use of his granite chin and heavy hands in many wild brawls. It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t smart. But it was a lot of fun.
THE BAD: WELTERWEIGHT MODEST PRIX
The Bellator welterweight grand prix so far hasn’t lived up the expectations set by the recently concluded heavyweight tournament. For the second time in a row, a grand prix fight in the main event has left more questions than answers and dulled the excitement many have felt surrounding the possibilities. Just two months after a lackluster showing from Michael Page and Paul Daley, divisional king Rory MacDonald and Jon Fitch fight to a split draw in the main event of Bellator 220.
As champion, “The Red King” retains his belt and advances to the next round of the tournament to face Neiman Gracie. Considering the lone judge who thought one man was worthy of the W saw it for Fitch, that conclusion is deeply unsatisfying. While the grand prix will carry on and MacDonald continuing to defend his title may wash the taste of this disappointing result away, as of now we’re left with a huge blemish to the legitimacy of the future contests and MacDonald’s reign as a whole.
What is even more troubling than the draw and its effect on the plans for the welterweight division is what it may mean for MacDonald. Ever since the brutal war with Robbie Lawler at UFC 189, there have been question marks about how much the Tristar standout has left to offer the sport. Even though he managed to snatch the crown in Bellator, mixed results have followed him since.
A poor performance against Stephen Thompson and the beating he endured at the hands of Gegard Mousasi in a failed champ-champ attempt make the dominant Paul Daley victory and narrow win over Douglas Lima seem questionable at best and fluky at worst. There was a time in the not too distant past that a rather one-dimensional fighter like Fitch would’ve almost entirely negated against MacDonald. After all, this was the same man who shut down the expert ground game of Demian Maia at UFC 170. The questions around MacDonald will continue to linger until we get a definitive answer. It’s a shame that those questions may hover over the grand prix and the ambitious plans to breathe life into Bellator.
THE UGLY: BARGAIN-BIN MATCHMAKING
The bouts this weekend for the most part were matched appropriately. There were some reasonable rematches like Phil Davis and Liam McGeary. There were rising contenders like Jack Hermansson and Ion Cutelaba testing their skills against the old guard of Ronaldo Souza and Glover Teixeira, respectively. The pairing of former champion Benson Henderson and prospect Adam Piccolotti come to mind as well. The aforementioned Perry and Oliveira fight was an evenly matched fun affair that was perfect in last night’s lineup. Those fights represented something worthwhile to the landscape with some having implications of the future of their divisions.
On the other side of the coin are rogue bookings that don’t represent the best the sport has to offer. Greg Hardy being matched up with Dmitry Smoliakov was little more than a warm body for the controversial newcomer to beat up on. Smoliakov showed a willingness to be competitive akin to the blooper reel of Bob Sapp. Turtling up almost instantly without a semblance of intelligent defense was shameful. While criticizing a man willing to step in the cage against an elite athlete like Hardy is easy to do from the comfort of the leather chair I’m sitting in as I write, there’s no justification for this being a co main event. The sort of development that Hardy needs to become a worthy heavyweight contender does not need to take place so prominently in the world leading MMA promotion.
Hardy’s fight outing, another co main event, was a disaster on multiple levels. Allen Crowder proved that an untested fresh face to the big leagues was too stiff of a challenge. In order to find someone who could be a winnable opponent, the UFC had to dig deep and find a former castoff who was last victorious against a sub .500 fighter. Digging in the bargain bin for co-main event fighters is not what we expect from the brand. While Bellator decided to test one of its up-and-coming prospects, Gaston Bolanos, against Nathan Stolen on the heels of a three-fight losing streak certainly raises some eyebrows, the UFC efforts to force Hardy on audiences deserves the ugly portion of this week’s column.