clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Fortunes changed for five in Friday night fights

Friday night's head-to-head battle with the UFC and Bellator ended up showcasing two very different visions of mixed martial arts. It also set up a second go-around in November with those same differences.

The UFC presented its typical Fight Night show. With so many shows, and so little time to promote the shows, the UFC almost comes across like something with a take-it-or-leave-it approach. We're putting on a show. We have some good fighters, some of which you may know, some of which you don't. More often than not, the fights will be good. And this week it's free. If you miss it, next week we have another show.

Bellator doesn't have the depth of fighters so it relies on attention grabbing. And Friday night's fall season opener, the first of ten straight weeks of fights before the new vision of Bellator begins in 2015, was a weird amalgamation. It featured a serious quality main event title fight, and a couple of name fighters going in no particular direction. It also featured the most talked about thing on either show, whatever it was that Stephan Bonnar, Tito Ortiz and Justin McCulley were doing.

In many ways, it felt like this missing link between pro wrestling and sport MMA. It was a little bit of both, and a lot of neither.

Bellator has three fighters that dabbled in the past year as pro wrestlers for TNA, Spike's pro wrestling company, in Rampage Jackson, Tito Ortiz and "King" Mo Lawal. A fourth, Bobby Lashley, is a full-time pro wrestler, and TNA's current champion, who debuted in Bellator on Friday. Lashley (11-2), who scored a dominant win over Josh Burns (8-8), said that he's not dabbling in MMA, but making a serious run at the sport. A fifth, McCulley, is a former UFC fighter who also has his own background as a pro wrestler. A sixth, Bonnar, had no pro wrestling background, but of late, has been training at the World Wrestling Entertainment Performance Center in Orlando, Fla

What happened in the cage, with Bonnar doing an interview with a masked man (McCulley) by his side, trying to promote the Nov. 15 Bellator fall season finale in San Diego that promoter Scott Coker dubbed the battle of MMA Hall of Famers, felt more like a wrestling pull-apart brawl. It's not unusual in Bellator, and it's not something Bellator didn't do before the Coker reign, as Lawal and Jackson were doing the same thing to build up their pay-per-view match. The unmasking aspect fell flat. Almost nobody knew it was McCulley, or for that matter, knows who McCulley is, a longtime training partner of Ortiz to fit the narrative that even Ortiz's buddies don't really like him and want to help Bonnar knock his head off. But McCulley's significance to Ortiz was never explained, nor was it even said who he was.

Ortiz responding that both were drug addicts only made it come across as even more of an ill-conceived sideshow.

It hardly felt spontaneous or serious, and came off cartoonish. But the idea was to draw attention. Quietly putting on fights with skilled fighters with no national names on Nov. 15 isn't going to get it done for Bellator, given UFC is putting on a pay-per-view, head-to-head, its first foray in Mexico City, with heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez facing Fabricio Werdum.

So it's the nostalgia and the circus. There was even a weird bit of karma given that the "Battle of Hall of Famers," is in reference to UFC's own hand-picked Hall of Fame, where Bonnar is a heavily questioned inductee, there almost exclusively for one fight, with Forrest Griffin, in his UFC debut. That preceded a career where he largely lived off the name recognition of that fight, had a mediocre record, never beat a top contender, never had a title shot, and failed two drug tests. His career ended with a retirement in 2012, and last year's induction, before his signing with Bellator was announced last week.

But it's the only chance Bellator has for that night to garner any significant attention.

When Saturday was over, few were talking about Pat Curran vs. Patricio "Pitbull" Freire, a battle of quality featherweights going for the Bellator title, with Freire taking the title.  Nobody was talking about Will Brooks vs. Michael Chandler, a battle of Bellator's two best lightweights, coming off a great fight in their previous meeting, battling for the championship on Nov. 15 in the co-main event underneath the superstars of 2005.

But it's a trip to nowhere. Lashley spoke of going right back to training and wanting to go on a run to challenge for the heavyweight title. While Lashley dominated in his win, beating Burns, who is now 0-5 in the Bellator cage, didn't really prove much past the point. Lashley didn't get tired after one round and that interest in a pro wrestler fighting for real on television is far different today than in 2008 when Brock Lesnar debuted in UFC.

Perhaps Ortiz, Bonnar, Lawal and Jackson can take turns facing each other, and boost ratings a little. But they hardly garnered the level of attention Kimbo Slice did. And the run of Slice as the star of Elite XC in the long run was one of MMA's most high-profile debacles, leading to the entire company unraveling and closing up.

The theory behind all this is you bring in viewers, and hopefully, they get interested in the younger fighters you are promoting. That's easier in theory than in fact. But for Nov. 15, it's not like they had a better plan up their sleeve when putting on a show against a UFC heavyweight title fight.

UFC's version of Friday Night Fights at least felt like a story with a series of directions coming out of the show. So let's look at how Fortunes Changed For Five:

RONALDO "JACARE" SOUZA - Souza (21-3, 1 no contest), in scoring a decisive win over Gegard Mousasi, established himself at the head of the class of next middleweight title contenders after the scheduled Chris Weidman vs. Vitor Belfort title fight on Dec. 6.

Dana White, afterwards, said that he wanted Souza to fight one more time. As a promoter, that makes sense with so many shows to run, you need the top names to fight as much as possible. Souza seemed willing to wait rather than put at risk his shot.

There are three potential directions, should White get his way. They are Thales Leites (24-4), coming off a knockout stoppage of Francis Carmont on Aug. 23, Lyoto Machida (21-5), still looking for a new fight after his loss to Weidman, and C.B. Dollaway (15-5). With Machida coming off a title loss in an exciting match, but a decisive enough decision that nobody is clamoring for a rematch, the Leites fight makes the most sense. But sitting and waiting may not be the most advisable option for the company, but makes the most sense for Souza.

GEGARD MOUSASI - Mousasi (35-5-2), who has been champion in Strikeforce and Dream, and a name fighter since 2006, even though he's only 29, has now lost in contenders fights at both light heavyweight and middleweight. While he has been able to stop wrestlers of late, notably Ilir Latifi and Mark Munoz, Souza took him down every round and Mousasi had trouble getting off his back. That's a weakness that makes the difference between a top ten fighter and a No. 1 contender in today's UFC.

He's probably going to have to wait for losers to emerge from Luke Rockhold vs. Michael Bisping on Nov. 8, or Tim Kennedy vs. Yoel Romero on Sept. 27, for a next opponent. Losing via clean finish, as opposed to a decision, for the first time since 2006, looks to have left him a long way from championship level.

BEN ROTHWELL - The 14-year-pro scored the highest profile win of his career in his quick knockout over Alistair Overeem.

But the win over this version of Overeem meant far less than it would have even a year ago. Rothwell (34-9) is in the mix and there are a number of potential opponents for him. Stipe Miocic (12-1), is still waiting for a fight. The winner of Roy Nelson (20-9) vs. Mark Hunt (9-8-1) on Sept. 20 in Saitama, Japan is another, although Rothwell does have a decision loss to Hunt. The winner of next week's Andrei Arlovski (22-10) vs. Antonio "Bigfoot"Silva (12-5-1) fight in Brasilia, Brazil, is also a potential foe. And there's even Junior Dos Santos (16-3) and Travis Browne (16-2-1) wafting for opponents, as well at Matt Mitrione (8-3), who won earlier in the evening.

ALISTAIR OVEREEM - "The Reem" has been regarded as one of the sport's top fighters for a decade, from his days in the light heavyweight mix in Pride through a period when he came across like an unbeatable heavyweight, but was never tested against the top-tier of competition.

At 34, Friday's fight with was the one he couldn't afford to lose. It's his third loss in four fights, all via knockout. His chin isn't going to get better. At this stage there are more than just the original questions as to whether he could compete in an environment where he was regularly drug tested.

With each loss, the potential to be one of the biggest stars in the sport that Overeem (37-14, 1 no contest) came into the UFC with, which allowed him to walk in with a high-priced contract, has crumbled to the point that after this one, it's pretty much gone. If he had come out of the Rothwell fight with a win, he'd have still been kept near the top. Had he faced Dos Santos next, a fight UFC had attempted to put together earlier this year, he was only one win from a title match.

Now, the idea of rebounding to get to that level seems like a foolish discussion.

With what he was being paid, he had to headline. After losing to Rothwell, even in an era of weekly shows, he becomes at best a weak headliner to put in a shootout with the likes of a  Hunt, or a Nelson. If he was just another guy, the questions would be the three knockouts. But with his rate of pay, there have to be questions asked by UFC management as to whether he's worth top pay, and whether he's willing to renegotiate to a lower level.

MATT MITRIONE - Mitrione has spent most of his UFC career as a heavyweight booked into shootouts, the big hitting fights that often end quickly with a knockout. Mitrione's last five fights have ended in the first round, with him going 3-2. Mitrione will forever be a "What if," type of fighter. He was 31 when he started, with no background in boxing, kickboxing or wrestling. But he's near 260-pounds, in condition at that weight, and light on his feet. He's got natural power in his punches.

The question is, at 36, how much time is left for improvement. Mitrione spoke that if he had been able to fight and beat Stefan Struve, who had a panic attack before their scheduled fight, he thinks he'd be top ten now. With the win, he's not quite at the level of Rothwell, but the same list of opponents are also people Mitrione could face next. But perhaps the best opponent would be to try and put the Struve fight back together.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for the MMA Fighting Daily Roundup newsletter!

A daily roundup of all your fighting news from MMA Fighting