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Fightweets: Is Bellator gaining on the UFC?

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Bellator 170 photos Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

The UFC returns to action tonight with Holly Holm vs. Germaine de Randamie — a title fight that doesn’t feel like one, topping a card that’s actually pretty solid. Meanwhile, fans are contrasting Bellator’s next London card to the one the UFC is putting on, and coming to some interesting conclusions. So let’s get on with things.

Is Bellator gaining momentum?

@gavinspringett: Could this be the year Bellator becomes more of a threat to the UFC, looking at the main events they are making already?

I got close to a dozen tweets along these lines this week, by far the most traction Bellator’s ever gotten on this subject. The announcement of Rory MacDonald vs. Paul Daley on May 19 in London was the impetus.

Let’s start with the obvious: Bellator still has a long, long way to go to even consider catching the UFC. It’s still Secretariat over whomever came in second at the Kentucky Derby.

But, readers sure seems to have taken a look at the Bellator 179 main event, compared it to the March 18 UFC Fight Night main event in London between Corey Anderson and Jimi Manuwa, and concluded, correctly, that Bellator is putting forward the better main event on paper. And that’s a first.

This has happened, of course, in large part because of the confluence of events in which the UFC loaded up UFC 205 and 207 -- with seven title fights in that span — and the degree to which it became hard to follow-up with the sort of blockbuster main events fans have come to expect over the past couple years.

(And hey, maybe if the UFC hadn’t let a steady stream of Phil Davis/Ben Henderson/Matt Mitrione/potentially Ryan Bader-caliber talent walk, they might have been able to put together a more appealing London main event than Manuwa-Anderson.)

This trend isn’t likely to continue, since Bellator still has a shorter bench and the UFC is starting to bounce back around from this cyclical blip in the schedule with a string of solid fights leading through the spring.

But the mere fact that in 2017, Bellator is at the point where fans are sizing up a show with the UFC’s in the same market and concluding that Bellator has the better card is a milestone in and of itself.

For the past couple years, Bellator’s inability to build momentum off their major events has left people pulling out their hair in frustration (okay, in my case that would be my beard, but you get my point). You’d get a legends fight on top of what more often than not came off like a bunch of thrown together afterthoughts of main card bouts, and nothing jumped out that made you want to tune in to the next card.

MacDonald vs. Daley, though, is a sign Bellator is learning how to capitalize on these moments. Daley’s brutal knockout of Brennan Ward at Bellator 170, the first big KO of the Year candidate in 2017, was seen by a large audience in the lead-up to Tito Ortiz’s win over Chael Sonnen. Matching up a veteran like Daley, coming off his most memorable victory in years, against one of the company’s biggest-name signees in MacDonald (I would have had him debut in Canada, but I’m nitpicking here), is exactly what the company needs to move the ball forward and keep things fresh and interesting.

If Bellator can continue building in this direction, it’s still not going to mean they’re going to catch up to the UFC. But a successful second promotion with a clear-cut sense of direction will only to help make the sport’s future more healthy and robust.

Another title reign for Silva?

@CleMeyerson: Does Anderson Silvia still have a title run left in him?

Depends on how you mean this. Do you mean “Does Anderson Silva have it in him to knock off killers like Luke Rockhold and Jacare Souza and Yoel Romero and Chris Weidman (who already beat him twice), and earn a title shot the old fashioned way for the title currently held by Michael Bisping?” And my answer to that would be a resounding “No.” As much as we want the old Spider back, he is, in fact, going to turn 42 in April, and he still doesn’t have an official victory since he waxed Stephan Bonnar back in Oct. 2012.

If your question implies “Will the UFC, in their quest to find sellable main events as new ownership tries to recoup their $4B investment, offer Silva the next shot at Bisping if he prevails in a winnable fight against Derek Brunson?” my answer would be “You can never count anything out under the new regime.”

This is probably why Romero’s team has really turned up the heat on Bisping this week, from making a fake GoFundMe page to calling into Bisping’s radio show. And I can’t blame them for it. Last year’s Silva-Bisping fight, while compelling, was a Fight Pass card, which doesn’t exactly scream “mega-fight.”

Still, if Silva turns back the clock at UFC 208 and lands one more Forrest Griffin/Vitor Belfot highlight reel knockout, who knows what the UFC decides?

Women’s featherweights

@Dynamite4Life: Where will the new women's featherweight division stand after #ufc208?

Do you mean in the immediate aftermath of the Holly Holm-Germaine de Randamie fight? We’ll have a champion in a three-women division, in which one, Cyborg Justino — who happens to be the best fighter in the weight class — is under suspension, although news breaking on Friday seemed to indicate Cyborg could be back in the game sooner rather than later.

In the build-up to UFC 208, both Holm and de Randamie have put faith in the UFC’s ability to build 145-pound class, pointing to the idea that when Ronda Rousey came over to the UFC, the bantamweight division was her, Miesha Tate, and little else. But that’s not quite the case. Sure, Rousey and Tate were heads and tails above everyone else in terms of name recognition. But you already had established, credible names like Sarah Kaufman and Sara McMann, and everyone from Holm to Cat Zingano was diligently working their way up. You simply don’t have the same depth of quality fighters at 145 ready to make similar moves.

In the short term, at least, the UFC needs a couple things to happen: 1. Hope Cyborg’s request for a therapeutic use exemption is granted, in which case Cyborg gunning for the belt is a PPV headliner; or 2. Other fighters take a cue from Holm and start moving up to 145 pounds. Otherwise, we’ve got ourselves our first Fight Pass/Fight Night exclusive title for the foreseeable future.

Holly as two weight-class champ

@dpop2: Should we really celebrate Holly as a two divisions champ if she wins.. she didn't defend the bantamweight belt

I mean, Holm is simply taking advantage of the opportunity which she’s been afforded. Between two UFC weight class titles and her three boxing weight class world titles, she’s going down as one of the most decorated women’s athletes of all-time, and that’s nothing to sneeze it.

If Holm defeats de Randamie, she becomes just the fourth fighter in UFC history to hold titles in two different weight classes, joining B.J. Penn (welterweight and lightweight); Randy Couture (heavyweight and light heavyweight) and Conor McGregor (lightweight and featherweight concurrently).

On one hand, Penn never defended the welterweight title he won in a massive upset of Matt Hughes at UFC 46, as he got into a contract dispute with the UFC and vacated/was stripped of the belt, depending on whose story you wish to believe. The fact that he never successfully defended the title has never been held against him and was held up as a Hall of Fame-worthy credential.

On the other, Penn’s victory over Hughes was Hughes’ only blemish during a run in which he won 19 out of 20 fights and was the undisputed best welterweight on the planet. It would be the equivalent of Holm going up from bantamweight to featherweight and scoring a first-round finish of ... oh, some woman named Cyborg you may have heard of.

But that’s not what she’s doing. Even if she gets past a tough out in Germaine de Randamie, everyone knows this isn’t the best 145-pound fighter on the planet. If Holm wins the title and goes on a big run from there, and the UFC makes a sincere effort to build out the weight class? Sure, we’ll have something. But as things stand now, there’s a little bit of an asterisk attached.

Outdoor shows

@mookiealexander: Will the UFC ever hold an outdoor event just so we can see how fighters deal with snow in the Octagon?

Good thought, Mook, but you’re going about this all wrong. UFC’s Hawaiian fighters have long insisted a show in their home state would be a big deal, so let’s set up the cage right on the edge of an active volcano. “UFC 250: BJ vs. The Volcano” has a ring to it, no?