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Bellator beat UFC to the Hawaiian punch

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

On Jan. 26, the UFC and Bellator were supposed to go head-to-head with shows in the Los Angeles area. It would have been the first time the promotions erected their cages so close together on the same night since September 2014, when Bellator rented a room at the Mohegan Sun in Connecticut and the UFC put on a Fight Night just 10 miles down the road at Foxwoods in Mashantucket. That was the night that Stephan Bonnar and Tito Ortiz had their awkward confrontation and Bonnar — somewhat against convention — introduced a gimp to the situation, a soft-spoken heavyweight by the name of Justin McCully.

In my opinion, Bellator won that head-to-head battle. And it won this one, too, as on Wednesday it was announced that UFC 233 — which was to take place in Anaheim — was being rescheduled for a later date. Whether that had anything to do with Bellator or not, it’s left to your deductions — but there’s been plenty of gamesmanship going on between the promotions over the last few years, mostly indirect trolling (from Bellator) with small doses of snobbery (from the UFC).

This weekend is no different — Bellator is trolling the UFC pretty hard by going to Hawaii, and not with one event, but with two. The UFC, who has a champion from Honolulu in Max Holloway, has not yet visited the islands. Scott Coker? At this exact moment he is wearing a brightly colored lei with freshly picked plumeria. Why the smile on his face?

Back in April, White said it was damn nigh impossible to get the Octagon to Hawaii. “I’ll tell you guys today, we were working on it,” he said. “Hawaii was happening this year, and it got shut down by the tourism board there [Hawaii Tourism Authority]. So it won’t happen anytime soon, but we were geared up and ready to go there this year. Isn’t happening.”

As Max Holloway might say, it is what it is. Bellator didn’t get the same memo. Bellator is in paradise, while the UFC is in Milwaukee. Coker beat Dana White to the punch.

And he knows it.

And the UFC knows it.

And freaking Max Holloway — who is so homesick when the UFC makes him travel to cold climates that he designated Toronto the 10th island — damn well does, too.

“I don’t know what it is,” Holloway told MMA Fighting last week while shivering in the Ontario cold. “I’m proud that Bellator is going, and I hope the event goes super-well, so we can say look UFC, these guys did super well. I’m glad for Ilima [Macfarlane]. Hawaiian pride. That girl, she did it. She took it home. I’m so proud for her.”

And here Max grew wistful thinking about nene geese that visit his beaches.

“I can’t wait to go home,” Holloway said. “I’m going to go home, mark my words. UFC Hawaii’s going to happen in my era. If I got to fight my grandmother, my mother...if I need to fight Dana White in a boxing match, I’m getting on that card. I don’t care if I’m a prelim, or if I’m the main event. It’s going to come to fruition.”

Poor Max. He just put on one of his all-time performances against Brian Ortega — a four-round clinic in which he fired off his punches in great steady salvos — at UFC 231 in Canada. A week later, Bellator is visiting the place he has been (literally) begging the UFC to hold an event at since he won the featherweight title. On Friday night, Bellator 212 will feature the rematch between Michael Chandler and Brent Primus. On Saturday night, it’s a women’s flyweight title fight between Ilima-Lei Macfarlane and Valerie Letourneau.

Why does Max want to fight at home so bad? Conor McGregor truly arrived in the UFC when he fought in front of his fellow Dubliners in 2015. Stipe Miocic got a hero’s welcome in Cleveland at UFC 203, when he dusted Alistair Overeem. The capital of La Plata awarded Santiago Ponzinibbio the keys to the city after he beat Neil Magny in Argentina. Fighters who are given the chance to fight in front of their countrymen — or fellow islanders — achieve a kind of cult status forever on their native soil.

It’s a matter of legacy, as much as it’s a matter of pride.

So this week Bellator brings Macfarlane home to defend her flyweight title, and we’ll get see how the Hawaiians receive her. To spice things up, Lyoto Machida is making his promotional debut against Rafael Carvalho. If that weren’t enough, Ed Ruth and Neiman Gracie will continue the semifinals portion of the middleweight grand prix. Oh, and Muhammed Lawal is fighting Liam McGeary. That’s a strong card.

Stronger than UFC on FOX 31, the UFC’s last show on the flagship before entering the new deal with ESPN? Kevin Lee versus Al Iaquinta is a good fight, but it’s not a special event. One is taking place near a bunch of beer plants with headliners from other places. The other brings a Hawaiian champion back home, to the islands, where MMA has been missing for a decade. Hopefully Bellator was good enough to leave Max Holloway some tickets at will call.

In any case, the game goes on. Dana said he couldn’t and, upon hearing that, Coker went ahead and did. From 5,000 miles away you can almost make out what he’s saying…it sounds like…

Aloha.

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