It’s a funny thing that’s happened since Bellator stopped churning out low-level “Friday Night Fights” style cards alongside the occasional freak show-led tentpole event and started buying up the hottest free agents on the market: people actually started watching it, and dare I say, even buying into President Scott Coker’s claims that the promotion would soon be nipping at the heels of the UFC in the ratings battle.
Less than a year ago, we were watching 52-year-old Ken Shamrock get groin-shotted into a living death by 49-year-old Royce Gracie and the late Kimbo Slice defeat a street fighter with a robot’s name via heart attack. On the same night. All while being reassured that what we were watching was as legitimate as anything you’d see in any premier mixed martial arts organization (kind of?). Now, we’re seeing top contenders like Gegard Mousasi, Benson Henderson, and Lorenz Larkin leave the ivory towers of the UFC just to get a piece of the Bellator (or technically, Viacom) pie. It’s been a hell of a turnaround, at the very least.
In 2018, Bellator will look to continue narrowing the gap between itself and its chief competitor starting with its very first event of the year, Bellator 192, where former UFC star Rory MacDonald will challenge champion Douglas Lima for the promotion’s welterweight title. It’s already the most anticipated title fight of the year (albeit by default), but beyond that, it might just be the greatest title fight in Bellator history — and one that reasonably stands to make good on the Coker’s lofty promises.
“They have the potential to overtake [the UFC],” said MacDonald in an exclusive interview with Uproxx MMA.
“But that’s going to take some very strong moves and some good luck as well. The UFC has a stronghold on everything… for the very general pop culture fan, they know MMA as UFC. To switch that dynamic over, it’s going to take some time, but I do believe that Bellator will be a very strong competitor [in the coming months], even more so than Strikeforce was at its peak.”
And for Bellator, the time could not be better to strike. Last weekend’s UFC 217 may have gone down as one of the greatest events in recent memory, but there’s no denying that it came amidst one of the most underwhelming years in UFC history from a promotional standpoint. MMA fans hoping that the promotion’s new leadership under WME-IMG would address its historical inability to create new stars were met by mediocre event after mediocre event, with even UFC 217 reportedly “not selling well” in the lead-up according to Joe Rogan. Meanwhile, Bellator’s own trip to Madison Square Garden for Bellator 180 was being heralded as “the best card of the year” (again, somewhat by default) right up until last weekend, a distinction that the promotion had rarely (if ever) found itself in the running for previously.
According to MacDonald, the reason for Bellator’s rise can be attributed to a simple lack of compelling cards from its competition.
“Honestly, I think [fans are losing interest in the UFC] everywhere. It’s not just Canada, it’s in Brazil, and even these cards they put out in the states are lacking. It could be incompetence [on the UFC’s part], or trying to have too much say in the way things are being presented. I think there’s a lot of stress on the shoulders of the new owners. The debt they have is steering the decisions they have to make.”
It’s a notion that “The Red King” has driven home before. Shortly after leaving the UFC’s good graces for Bellator last year, MacDonald blamed the UFC’s much-maligned — and in his words, “boring” — deal with Reebok among his grievances with the promotion, which Coker has also echoed in the not-so-distant past.
Like many of his former UFC cohorts, however, MacDonald isn’t solely interested in exploring the past. After dominating Paul Daley in his promotional debut back in May, he now finds himself facing one of the most dangerous and talented fighters to ever step foot inside the Bellator cage: Douglas Lima. It’s a matchup that MacDonald calls “An A-level fighter fighting an A+-level fighter” (with himself obviously representing the latter).
When asked if he feels any additional pressure to represent the UFC as the “true” top-level brand against Lima, especially in light of the rocky landing that guys like Henderson and Larkin have found in Bellator, MacDonald stated just the opposite.
“It helps legitimize the level of the opponents in Bellator,” said MacDonald.
“The fact that there have been some [former UFC] guys that have been unsuccessful, I think it opens some eyes to the level of competition that Bellator has here, and has always had.”
Lima, on the other hand, isn’t interested in the brand wars. Referring to MacDonald as “just another guy on the list,” Lima tells us that his upcoming defense is just one of those fights that won’t struggle to draw eyes to television sets.
“I’m sure it will sell. It won’t need a lot of promotion for this type of fight. It’s one of the best fights in Bellator history,” said Lima.
Brash though it might seem, Lima’s claim is a hard one to deny (on paper at least). Even for an organization that has gifted us with Eddie Alvarez vs. Michael Chandler, Imada vs. Masvidal, and Page vs. Cyborg, MacDonald vs. Lima might just be the best technical pairing of them all. With wins over Paul Daley, Andrey Koreshkov, Lorenz Larkin, and Ben Saunders to name a few, Lima has firmly established himself as “THE guy” in Bellator’s welterweight division, compiling an incredible 11-2 record since debuting with the promotion back in 2011. And although MacDonald may have left the UFC on a two-fight skid, there isn’t a pundit out there who wouldn’t rank him as a top 10 welterweight in the world on even his worst day.
Luckily for Lima, MacDonald is exactly the kind of fighter he’s been looking to prove himself against for years. Following his somewhat lackluster decision win over Larkin (a top-10 ranked welterweight in his own right at the time) at Bellator NYC in June, some critics argued that maybe Lima had gotten caught up in the moment and even choked on the big stage. “The Phenom”, however, assures us that the fight with MacDonald will put all doubts about his star potential to rest once and for all.
“I will deliver,” said Lima.
“I’m going to knock this guy out and prove to everybody that I belong in the top of the division. I don’t like to put pressure on myself, because it doesn’t matter where the fight takes place, or how big the fight is. [Rory] has a big name behind him, but at the end of the day, he’s fighting me. The pressure should be on him.”
In a sense, Lima’s right. The pressure truly lies on MacDonald to follow through on the plans he’s laid out for his Bellator tenure, which in recent months have included *three* titles and a money fight with Chael Sonnen. But beyond that, it lies on Bellator, not just to avoid screwing up what should be their easiest fight to sell in quite some time, but to avoid falling back into the patterns that have earned them so much ire in the past (see: 5000, Dada). Could 2018 be the year that Scott Coker elevates Bellator to heights most of us wouldn’t have ever seen them reach? It’s a tough question to answer, obviously, but there’s no denying that MacDonald vs. Lima is a solid start.