It’s not all that unusual for the UFC and Bellator to run events opposite each other. MMA, after all, is like business, a bloodsport. But at least from the view inside the bubble, this one felt different. Part of that was because the dazzling ascent of UFC heavyweight Francis Ngannou seemed destined to be reaching its zenith; part was due to Bellator producing a major card as it helped introduce the newly launched Paramount Network.
There were actual things at stake on Saturday night other than bragging rights, but this sport being what it is, we knew the only thing we could really predict was the bizarre to show up early and stay late. We kept a running diary of the night from the beginning of the prelims until the final punch landed, and it went something like this...
7:01 p.m. ET - The UFC broadcast goes live on FightPass, with Islam Makhachev vs. the fresh-off-a-two-year-PED-suspension Gleison Tibau kicking it off. (Totally MMA.) The Bellator prelims broadcast, scheduled to begin online at 7 p.m. as well, is not working. Instead, a graphic reads “Tonight’s Prelims Will Begin Shortly.” What a way to kick off the Paramount Network!
7:11 - Makhachev murders Tibau in 57 seconds. Ooh!
7:13 - Bellator tweets that it’s streaming the prelims live on its app. (Spoiler alert: The stream is still down! 0-for-2.)
7:20 - The Bellator stream finally goes live. Referee-turned-color commentator John McCarthy is dressed in a dark suit with a dark shirt. (Again, totally MMA.) He immediately declares the Douglas Lima vs. Rory MacDonald matchup the best fight of the evening. Sixty seconds into his debut, and he’s checked two of the three key boxes. All he failed to do is to show up with a shaved head. Speaking of which ...
7:22 - Jay Glazer debuts at the Bellator desk and makes the first of several jokes about how handsome Josh Thomson is, while Thomson fires back with jokes about Glazer’s baldness. Twenty-two minutes in, and we’ve reached peak MMA.
7:25 - Bellator shows a photo of prospect Joey Davis with Rampage Jackson during his UFC title days, when Davis was a kid. This is a nice tie-in to tonight’s main event. Even better, Davis — whose background is in wrestling — wins with a spinning back kick KO.
The first two broadcast fights of the night go 55 seconds and 39 seconds, respectively. I’d say I like where this night is headed, but it’s headed “back to the desk,” so let’s scrap that.
7:32 - Forty-four-year-old Haim Gozali steps into the Bellator cage to face Jose Campos. I’m always happy to see someone older than me competing in something other than the Senior PGA Tour. But let’s just say there isn’t any more good news to report about Gozali’s evening. Moving on...
7:36 - Enrique Barzola enters the UFC octagon to face Matt Bessette, and with Campos competing at the same time, two Peruvians are featured in the world’s two biggest MMA promotions simultaneously. Pretty cool.
7:40 - Bessette enters the octagon for his UFC debut. As a child, Bessette was diagnosed with leukemia, and given a 50 percent chance to live. As a fighter, he has had a long road to the UFC, having competed professionally 30 times to get here, so this is a great little moment that is going under the radar. He goes on to lose a decision because MMA is a cruel world.
7:57 - The Gracie Train adds another car as Khonry Gracie, son of legendary Royce Gracie, makes his pro debut against Devon Brock.
8:00 - Time to switch from Fight Pass to FS1 for the next set of UFC prelims. They kick off with Dan Ige against Julio Arce. The two look like they were twin embryos separated at birth and the good one is fighting the evil one. (The good one is the one without tattoos, naturally).
8:04 - Campos follows Barzola by winning a decision, and Peru goes 2-0. Go crazy, Peru!
8:18 - After spending most of the fight kickboxing, Khonry Gracie loses his pro debut. Most young fighters have a tendency to fall back on their strengths; he did the exact opposite.
8:27 - Arce (the good twin) wins!
8:32 - The Bellator prelims conclude, and with 28 minutes to go until they switch from their online stream to the Paramount Network, they go into full-blown Sonnen-Rampage hype. While they are calling that fight and MacDonald-Lima a “double main event,” it’s pretty clear which bout they’ve emphasized.
9:00 p.m. ET- Bellator goes live on Paramount TV, and introduces the Heavyweight Grand Prix fighters wearing some sweet varsity letterman-style jackets. It is brought to my attention that Paramount is following Spike’s path in tape-delaying the fights for the west coast, which is total poops. It’s 2018, why are they choosing to do this? I can understand it to some degree on a Friday night, when many more people might be working at 6 p.m. PT, but on Saturday, it’s nonsense.
9:05 - Mike Goldberg, never one to miss a chance to play his greatest hits collection, throws out his second “Let’s Get It On!” of the night. John McCarthy doubles down on his Lima-MacDonald proclamation, saying it’s “probably going to be the best fight of the year.” He’s taking to this hype thing like a fish to water.
9:11 - Bellator begins its broadcast with Georgi Karakhanyan vs. Henry Corrales.
9:14 - Over on FS1, Abdul Razak Alhassan stops Sabah Homasi with a destroy-mode uppercut, bringing resolution to a controversial finish between them just last month.
9:42 - King Mo Lawal is asked for his Rampage-Sonnen prediction. “I’m going to roll with Chael, because Quinton ain’t in shape,” he says. Then he pauses for a second before adding, “Round. That’s the shape he’s in.”
9:52 - Aaron Pico absolutely shatters Shane Kruchten with a body shot, and if I’m Kruchten, I can think of more enjoyable ways to destroy a liver on a Saturday night.
10:00 - We move from FS1 to pay-per-view for the new low, low price of ... gulp ... $64.95. UFC opens the show with a slick Francis Ngannou-Stipe Miocic package. Wait, no “Face the Pain?” Take my extra $5!
10:19 - Thomas Almeida vs. Rob Font (UFC) and Michael Chandler vs. Goiti Yamauchi (Bellator) start within 20 seconds of each other.
10:28 - Rob Font electrifies the Boston crowd by mind-scrambling Thomas Almeida with a head kick and punches.
10:44 - Chandler handles Yamauchi and is asked about fighting Bellator lightweight champ Brent Primus next.
“Who? Who?” he says. “No, it’s not who I want. If that’s what [Bellator President] Scott [Coker] wants, that’s probably what’s going to happen. I’m a model employee, I’m a great employee, I do what I’m told.”
I’m guessing that didn’t go the way Bellator expected.
11:03 - We’re four hours into this fight night and Gian Villante and Francimar Barroso managed to bring the night to a screeching halt. Honestly, I can’t even remember what happened for the last 15 minutes between them. My mind has been erased, which is just as well. Luckily, MacDonald-Lima is in the queue.
11:07 - Fighting the universally lauded MacDonald, this is Lima’s best chance to gain recognition as a great welterweight. Pressure’s on.
11:10 - Watching MacDonald, I’m reminded that he was Pico before Pico. He was the mega-prospect who was on the MMA’s world’s radar as a kid and had to work out the kinks in public. After his nightmare debut, Pico is doing pretty well these days, but if he ever needs to talk to someone who has walked a mile in his shoes, MacDonald might be that guy.
11:15 - We get our 37th preview of Paramount’s upcoming miniseries “Waco.”
11:18 - It’s worth noting that John McCarthy has done a credible job in his Bellator booth debut. His best work comes in the circumstances that a seasoned referee has seen many times up close. This is exemplified here when MacDonald throws a front kick that lands as a low blow. As Lima takes a breather, McCarthy quickly and concisely explains it was clearly unintentional, because Lima moved forward as MacDonald threw the kick, thereby changing the distance between them. That’s an explanation well done.
11:24 - MacDonald is seemingly in control but Lima’s low kicks suddenly add up to a knockdown, and the fight seems to change in an instant.
11:28 - MacDonald instantly shoots a takedown to start the fourth round and Lima stuffs it and ends up on top in full mount. The leg kicks have swollen up MacDonald’s leg so much, it looks as if he’s growing an alien in his left shin.
11:43 - MacDonald survives the injuries (in addition to the leg, he also appears to have a broken nose) and captures the Bellator welterweight belt. It wasn’t an awe-inspiring performance, but he gutted it out.
MacDonald: “He’s the best fighter I ever fought. Easy.” With Tyron Woodley, Robbie Lawler and Carlos Condit among those on his resume, that’s a pretty big statement.
11:44 - Did you know that “Waco” airs later this week?
11:47 - Daniel Cormier is ready to attempt to defend the UFC light heavyweight title he recently lost ... which is bizarre, yet ... say it with me ... totally MMA.
11:52 - After a few exchanges, it seems clear that DC appears to be a little dismissive of Oezdemir’s power. DC slings some leather of his own and nearly finishes with a choke at end of first before the clock runs out on him. You could say he had “No Time” for the choke. (I’ll see myself out now.)
11:57 - Cormier gets a takedown into full mount, gets to the crucifix position, and finishes with strikes from the top. A nice win for a great representative of the sport, and the TD Garden justly gives him his due.
12:04 - Bellator decides that a 5+ hour event is not quite long enough, and has country singer Trace Adkins sing the National Anthem before Sonnen and Jackson get down to business. Also, “Waco.”
12:07 - Rampage-Sonnen kicks off. What kind of fight is this going to be? We have no idea. It could be over in 10 seconds or it could be a disaster.
12:13 - Francis Ngannou is in the Octagon. We could use a quick finish, Bellator.
12:16 - Miocic is in the Octagon, while Rampage and Chael are still fighting in a fight that has slowed to clinches and ground work. Uh-oh. As an interesting side note, the last time Miocic fought in Massachusetts, he was the curtain-jerker of the infamous Moosin MMA card that featured Polish strongman Mariusz Pudzianowski against Tim Sylvia. He’s come a long way, baby.
12:20 - It’s main event time! Ngannou comes out with an unexpected wrinkle, fighting southpaw. Miocic shows his hand early going for a takedown in the opening moments, but Ngannou uses the underhook to get up. Ngannou is stalking but Miocic’s head movement makes him a hard target. Ngannou is fast, but Miocic looks far more mobile. He also has better timing and looks more relaxed.
12:27 - Sonnen wrestles his way to a decision. A middleweight advances to the second round of the Heavyweight Grand Prix, because Bellator lets its freak flag fly like that.
12:28 - Miocic is out here teaching lessons by making Ngannou carry his weight against the cage. The better fighter is already clear.
12:36 - Ngannou landed a huge left that rocked Miocic, but as Ngannou advanced, Miocic ducked underneath him for a takedown. That was probably his one and only chance. Miocic doesn’t seem as though he’ll be denied history.
12:52 - It’s a wipeout, with a trio of 50-44 scores for Miocic, who becomes the first UFC heavyweight champion to successfully defend the belt three times. The final strike count of the bout, per FightMetric is Miocic 200, Ngannou 33. Also of note, Miocic out-landed Ngannou in the fourth round by a tally of 82-0. That’s ... really good.
So that’s it, just your typical two-promotion, five-network, six-hour event.
We saw a little bit of everything. A UFC champ set a record, a couple of young bucks rose up, a couple of old veterans did what they could to prop up a show. As a head-to-head battle, it was a relatively tame back-and-forth, and if it didn’t feel completely routine, it felt somewhat anticlimactic. It may not have been the night we were hoping for, but we’ll always have Waco.