While sitting in Mashantucket, Conn., octagonside for UFC Fight Night 50, a strange vibe picked up on Twitter stemming from the other show going on just 10 miles away in Uncasville on Friday night. Most of the sentiment seemed to be along the lines of the "just what in the f--- am I watching?" and "is this the Twilight Zone?" variety.
People began nudging each other with elbows on press row in the "get a load of this" manner. And there it was, evidence of something "bizarre as hell" (as one reporter called it) going down at the Mohegan Sun.
A masked man was sitting next to Stephan Bonnar, who himself was used in promos with a little blood spatter on his face to replicate Christian Bale's character in American Psycho, cageside at Bellator 123. The masked man was the most casual executioner ever to drop in on such proceedings, just some henchman of dubious origin wearing a blazer and taking in some fights. The snapshots looked like something from the world of professional wrestling, where costumes and histrionics are part of the show. Bonnar sat next to this deadly squire with a look of easy indifference.
You probably saw how it played out.
Bellator’s new president Scott Coker, who has made it clear that Bellator 2.0 would be more about star-building and entertainment, came into the cage and announced that Tito Ortiz would be fighting the newly-signed Bonnar on Nov. 15. Bonnar tried to wrest the microphone from color commentator Jimmy Smith for a spiel, but Smith held onto it for dear life, his dimples blushing at the struggle. Bonnar leaned in and bellowed out his piece anyway, talking about Tito mistreating people and why he needed a good ass-kicking, and the dark figure who was riding sidecar for the whole set up was revealed in two dramatic layers.
The henchman mask was pulled off by Bonnar, only to reveal…what’s this? a translucent submask?...which distorted the features of this mystery character and put the gongs to work in the imagination. The cornrows told us nothing. The look on Tito’s face was one of somebody trying to learn a parlor game. Jimmy Smith thought he was on Candid Camera. But then the gimp himself tore away the second mask and it was none other than...none other than…Justin freaking McCully?
Justin freaking McCully, the most random reveal in the history of impromptu theatrics. This scrambled, at least temporarily, our collective ability to comprehend. And then the polarization set in as the senses restored. Some people heard a resounding thud with this. Others felt filthy, like the whole thing had jumped the shark into the pot of pro wrestling schmaltz. Those who like pro wrestling of course reveled in it, thought it long overdue. Conspiracy theorists accused poor Coker of orchestrating the whole thing, or, in the very least, abiding by it.
One way or another, people were talking about it. That’s the name of the game. But what the hell was going on? Why McCully? Why the mask?
"There was no real inspiration," McCully told MMA Fighting. "I said to Bonnar beforehand, hey dude, how bout we come out in masks? Or what if I cruise out in a mask, and you can pull it off? And Stephan said, yeah that’d be great!
"I was cruising around doing a little bit of shopping, and I saw a Halloween section at one of the stores. So I dug through the Halloween section real quick, and I was like, how about these two things? Look at that? I showed it to him Thursday after practice in the parking lot. He loved it. As soon as I put it on, Stephan gets excited, and I could see the wheels turning, and I think that gave him inspiration to do the amazing speech."
McCully has known Bonnar for a decade, going back to the Jungle Fights back in 2003 when Bonnar fought Lyoto Machida, who at the time was a training partner of McCully’s. They are linked by their martial ancestry, as both were students of the great Carlson Gracie.
"Obviously Carlson was the godfather of jiu-jitsu and put together the best team in the history of Rio de Janeiro," McCully says. "That drew us closer."
McCully last fought in 2011. His last fight in the UFC was at UFC 102 in Portland, when he fought Mike Russow, in which he dropped a unanimous decision. At 38, he isn’t officially retired, but, like many fighters, he can’t even bring himself to say the "R" word with any kind of conviction. In fact, he says he’s been in the gym of late, dropping cryptic clues as to other machinations and motives for showing up out of nowhere on an Indian reservation with a mask on.
But Bonnar was using McCully on this night as Exhibit A of all the wrongs that Tito has done. Here stood a man -- perhaps a tender man dealing in strong emotions -- who was treated unfairly by "The Huntington Beach Bad Boy," who has since rebranded as "The People’s Champion."
Of course, this made sense to virtually nobody, because not many people are in on the Tito-McCully feud, just as not that many people knew that Justin McCully was an actual person who at one time took off his shoes to compete in the cage.
So what happened?
"It was a falling out, a financial falling out," he says of his dealings with Ortiz. "I literally helped the guy make a ridiculous amount of money, and I ran up bills and all kinds of things, and he was supposed to pay me. He was supposed to pay me for my time, and for my work, and he was wasting on going out to Vegas and leading a lifestyle I didn’t want to lead anymore. So I separated from him. Now years go by and there’s no effort, so you got to figure it’s not coming.
"Jesse Reid was a boxing coach we had in common, and he’s the guy put us together and had us sparring initially. Before that we had known each other from competing in the first ever grappling tournament in Orange County. I think it was a guy named Joaquin who put it on over there at the South Post Mixed Martial Arts Center on Beach Boulevard. It was an awesome little tourney. He won his division, and I won my division. And we beat some of each other’s teammates.
"Once we got together and started training together, it was a good fit. We brought the best out of each other and had some great success together. I think I was undefeated for something like six years, I wasn’t very active but a very good run. Then we started putting together the team. We got Kendall Grove and Josh Burkman and Melvin Guillard and all these guys, and we put together a successful team. We all complemented each other’s styles, and we had personalities that just matched up. Team Punishment came back on top, but selfishness and jealously and Tito’s want to be the only spotlight there broke it up."
And that is how Justin McCully came to arrive at the Mohegan Sun dressed in medieval garb while Stephan Bonnar cut a pro-wrestling style promo on Tito Ortiz. There was a rapid little escalation, with Ortiz trying to kick-start a melee, but there were too many peacemakers in the cage by the time to quell the tension.
Fighting is literal. Pro wrestling is a work. McCully said he and Bonnar like the idea of mixing the two up.
"What industry doesn’t use shock promotion?" he says. "What industry doesn’t try and get a rise out of the fans and the media? That’s across the board in every industry in every sport. We are kind of pro wrestling, but it’s just real. We can anything to each other, just without the chairs and all the kind of stuff that they have. In pro wrestling is worked, there’s a predetermined winner, it’s a stunt show for people to enjoy…but it’s based around what we do. We’re just a purer sport. So a little entertainment to go along with it isn’t a bad thing. I’ve heard over and over from people, ‘gosh, that’s just what MMA needed. We’ve been waiting for something cool to happen.’
"We didn’t go in there to injure Tito Ortiz, we went in there to get in his head. We didn’t go in there to sock somebody in his face and have a manager attack somebody or something, we were just going in there to play a game with somebody’s mind and get a rise out of him. Unfortunately, Tito lost his cool and came after us. Hat’s off to him for being ballsy enough to attack two guys, it’s kind of cool. He is who he is for a reason. He’s one of the toughest guys in the world and he should be respected, but he also should put respect into the people that helped get him there."
Justin freaking McCully, ladies and gentleman.