Being one win away from a shot at a belt is never guaranteed in mixed martial arts. Even when competing for an interim belt, a shot at undisputed gold in one’s next bout is never a certainty, as Tony Ferguson can attest.
One of the biggest attractions in Bellator today is the promotion’s welterweight grand prix, which features among its ranks 170-pound champion Rory MacDonald. “The Red King” will debut in the tournament against Jon Fitch at a yet-to-be-announced date, and whoever comes out victorious of that bout will return in a guaranteed title bout against the winner of Gracie vs. Ruth, which is booked for Saturday’s Bellator 231 card in Hawaii.
”What excites me the most is that I will fight for the title in my next fight,” Gracie told MMA Fighting. “The title is something I’ve always wanted, I imagined becoming a world champion in MMA since I was a child. Winning this fight, I will have the possibility of turning this dream into reality.”
MacDonald vs. Fitch is too close to call, Gracie says. He can see Fitch out-grappling the champion, or MacDonald knocking Fitch out.
Either way, whoever wins, Gracie expects to take the Bellator belt away from him in 2019.
”I think I’ve evolved a lot in my stand-up game and as a MMA fighter overall,” he said. “Even my jiu-jitsu, I’m feeling super well. I think this grand prix came on the right time so I can show how better I am and that I’m ready to become champion.”
The Gracie family hasn’t had a mixed martial arts champion in the United States since Royce Gracie’s early days in the UFC more than two decades ago, and Neiman is excited to make history for the clan.
”He did the right thing, leaving Japan to come here,” Neiman said of Kron, who racked up a 4-0 record in Japan before signing with the UFC. “I’m pumped up, can’t wait to see him fight. I’m a fan of his jiu-jitsu. I’m sure he will put on a great fight and win by submission.
”It would be wonderful to have a Gracie winning a championship again, being at the top,” he continued. “Being a champion has always been my plan and everything is going according to the plan. God willing, everything will be alright and we will have another Gracie at the top.”
The new generation of the family also includes Khonry Gracie, who scored his first win against Ron Becker at Bellator 209, and Robson Gracie Jr., who makes his MMA debut at Friday’s Bellator 212 against Brysen Bolohao.
”Our family never stops,” Neiman said. “That’s what we love doing and I’m excited to see other members of the family come to MMA so I’m not the only one representing. It takes a bit of the weight off of my back.
”My family has already proved everything they needed to prove, so I fight for myself and for my history. The history of my family has been written already and nothing will change it. When I fight, I fight for my history.”
Undefeated in eight professional bouts, six of them inside the Bellator cage, Gracie needs to get past Ed Ruth on Saturday to get to his first championship match in MMA, and feels ready after a “perfect” training camp.
”We’re two undefeated guys, and every time you have two undefeated guys fighting, it’s a great fight,” Gracie said. “He’s a tough opponent, but I’m ready to face him.”
Ruth is a decorated wrestler who won all six of his MMA bouts in the Bellator cage over the past several years. Yet, Gracie doesn’t see many similarities between the two prospects’ transitions from the grappling world to mixed martial arts.
”He became more of a striker, and I’m more of a jiu-jitsu fighter in MMA, going for submissions, which is what I really wanted,” Gracie said. “If you watch his fights, he doesn’t even go for takedowns, just stands and trades, so he’s more of a striker than a wrestler now. I think we had different transitions. He left his background behind a little bit, and I’m bringing jiu-jitsu with me.”
Avoiding the ground is what Gracie expects Ruth to do in Honolulu, but it really isn’t something new to the jiu-jitsu specialist.
”That’s what I trained for,” Gracie said. “That will be his gameplan, try to keep it on the feet and use his wrestling to avoid takedowns, but everyone I’ve fought so far tries to do the same thing, avoid the ground game at all costs, and I’ve been able to impose my game. It will be like every other fight.
”But if I have to stay on the feet, I feel ready. I’m ready to fight in all areas today.”