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Rory MacDonald looked like his old self. It was an unfortunate development for Neiman Gracie.
The Tristar Gym cornerstone exposed the substantial divide between champion and challenger, as he won for the first time in more than a year and retained his Bellator MMA welterweight title with a unanimous decision over the previously unbeaten Gracie in the Bellator 222 headliner on Friday at Madison Square Garden in New York. All three cageside judges struck scorecards for MacDonald (21-5-1, 3-1-1 Bellator): 49-46, 48-47 and 48-47.
Gracie (9-1, 7-1 Bellator) enjoyed some success with a series of early calf kicks, threatened with a kneebar in the second round and achieved and maintained full mount in the fifth. However, it was not nearly enough to surpass MacDonald's efforts. The mercurial 29-year-old Canadian battered Gracie with a consistent jab, snuck in a few right hands and did his best work on the ground, where he willingly engaged the Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt and assaulted him with punches, both from inside guard and from a standing position.
In addition to allowing him to keep his title, the win advances MacDonald to the final of the Bellator welterweight grand prix later this year. There, a rematch with former champion Douglas Lima awaits.
Another Bellator titleholder was not as fortunate.
Reigning Rizin Fighting Federation champion Kyoji Horiguchi continued to cement himself as one of the sport's premier lighter-weight competitors, as he captured the Bellator bantamweight crown with a five-round unanimous decision over Darrion Caldwell. Scores were 48-47, 49-46 and 49-46, all for Horiguchi (28-2, 1-0 Bellator), who owns a 2-0 lead in his head-to-head series with "The Wolf."
Caldwell (13-3, 10-2 Bellator) was effective early, as he exploited his height and reach advantages in the standup exchanges and kept the Japanese superstar off-balance with well-timed takedowns. However, his gas tank could not withstand the workload. Horiguchi conceded takedowns but neutralized the Alliance MMA export from a seated position in a scene that repeated itself over and over again, scoring with short punches as the former NCAA wrestling champion clung to his legs. Caldwell scrambled on top in the fifth round but failed to consolidate his efforts with ground-and-pound or positional advancements, choosing instead to eat a few elbows to the side of the head before nearly wandering into an inverted triangle choke.
Horiguchi, 28, has rattled off 13 consecutive victories.
In the light heavyweight co-main event, onetime Ultimate Fighting Championship titleholder Lyoto Machida cut down Chael Sonnen with a second-round flying knee and follow-up punches. Sonnen (30-17-1, 2-3 Bellator) succumbed to an accumulation of blows 22 seconds into Round 2, then announced his retirement from mixed martial arts.
Machida (26-8, 2-0 Bellator) met his adversary's forward pressure with stellar defensive work in the clinch, as he managed to create separation midway through the first round with a pair of wicked body kicks, uncorked a concussive flying knee and swarmed for a potential finish. Sonnen, 42, survived the initial onslaught and used the one-minute respite between rounds to clear the cobwebs. Machida caught the Oregon native with the same flying knee in the first standup exchange of the middle stanza, chased him to the canvas and sealed the deal with punches and hammerfists.
The rejuvenated Machida finds himself on a four-fight winning streak and perhaps in position to challenge for Bellator gold.
Meanwhile, former King of the Cage champion Juan Archuleta knocked out Eduardo Dantas in the second round of their featherweight showcase. An unconscious Dantas (21-7, 11-4 Bellator) hit the deck 4:59 into Round 2, as he lost for the third time in four outings.
Archuleta (23-1, 5-0 Bellator) walked through a few right uppercuts and a spinning backfist from the Brazilian in the first round, then exacted his toll in the second. He opened a cut on Dantas' left eyelid and staggered the Nova Uniao standout with a clubbing right hand at close range. In the waning moments of the middle stanza, Archuleta retreated to the fence, ducked the oncoming Dantas and uncorked a brutal right hook for a spectacular last-second, walk-off finish.
One of MMA's best-kept secrets no longer, the 31-year-old Archuleta has won 18 fights in a row.
Elsewhere, SBG Ireland lightning rod Dillon Danis submitted overmatched organizational newcomer Max Humphrey with an armbar in the first round of their featured catchweight attraction at 175 pounds. Humphrey (3-3, 0-1 Bellator) bowed out 4:28 into Round 1.
Danis (2-0, 2-0 Bellator) toyed with his prey. The Marcelo Garcia-trained Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt executed a double-leg takedown, cracked Humphrey with punches and advanced to the back. Heavy punches with both hands followed — referee Mike Beltran appeared to be considering a stoppage — as Danis alternated between full mount and back mount. The brash 25-year-old New York native then fished for a rear-naked choke, switched to the armbar and went belly-down with the maneuver to prompt the tapout.
Finally, undefeated Jackson-Wink MMA prospect Patrick Mix made a spectacular promotional debut, as he submitted former Cage Fury Fighting Championships titleholder Ricky Bandejas in the first round of their bantamweight feature. Bandejas (11-3, 1-2 Bellator) conceded defeat 66 seconds into Round 1.
The 25-year-old Mix (11-0, 1-0 Bellator) pressured his counterpart with punches, bailed on a takedown attempt and transitioned to the back in a standing position. From there, he secured himself with a body lock and went to work on the neck. Bandejas fought to extricate himself, only to sink deeper into the quicksand, and once the choke was in place, he collapsed backward and reluctantly tapped.
Mix now has six first-round finishes to his credit.
In other action, Adam Borics (9-0, 4-0 Bellator) wiped out Aaron Pico (4-3, 4-3 Bellator) with a flying knee and follow-up punches 3:55 into the second round of their featherweight prelim; Phil Hawes (5-2, 1-0 Bellator) forced a doctor stoppage against Michael Wilcox (6-4, 0-1 Bellator) in between the first and second rounds of their middleweight pairing; Robson Gracie Jr. (2-0, 2-0 Bellator) submitted Oscar Vera (0-1, 0-1 Bellator) with an armbar 3:15 into the first round of their welterweight scrap; Lindsey VanZandt (5-1, 2-0 Bellator) put Rena Kubota (8-3, 0-1 Bellator) to sleep with a rear-naked choke 4:04 into the first round of their catchweight tussle at 112 pounds; Valerie Loureda (1-0, 1-0 Bellator) took a unanimous decision from Larkyn Dasch (0-1, 0-1 Bellator) in a three-round bantamweight tilt, drawing 29-28, 30-27 and 30-27 marks from the judges; Taylor Turner (2-4, 1-0 Bellator) put away Heather Hardy (2-2, 2-2 Bellator) with punches and elbows 3:53 into the first round of their undercard match at 125 pounds; Mike Kimbel (3-1, 3-1 Bellator) was awarded a split verdict — 28-29, 30-27, 30-27 — over Sebastian Ruiz (2-3, 0-1 Bellator) in a three-round bantamweight duel; Haim Gozali (11-6, 3-3 Bellator) submitted Gustavo Wurlitzer (22-23, 0-1 Bellator) with a triangle choke 4:02 into the first round of their catchweight encounter at 180 pounds; Marcus Surin (6-1, 2-1 Bellator) eked out a split decision — 30-27, 27-29, 29-27 — over Nekruz Mirkhojaev (4-3, 1-1 Bellator) in a three-round lightweight affair; John Beneduce (3-2, 1-1 Bellator) cruised to a unanimous decision over Kenneth Rivera (2-2, 0-1 Bellator) in a three-round featherweight battle, sweeping the cards with 30-26, 30-27 and 30-27 scores; Kastriot Xhema (3-3, 3-3 Bellator) dispatched Whitney Jean-Francois (2-7-1, 0-1 Bellator) with punches and elbows 3:17 into the second round of their catchweight contest at 165 pounds; and Brandon Polcare (2-2, 1-2 Bellator) submitted Brandon Medina (0-1, 0-1 Bellator) with a guillotine choke 4:33 into the first round of their flyweight skirmish.