Last year was a lesson in frustration for Liam McGeary. Or as the former Bellator light heavyweight champion puts it, 2017 was a bit of a “kick in the nuts.”
Once the face of Bellator’s 205-pound division, McGeary entered the year eager to redeem himself after dropping his title in a five-round, wrestling-heavy decision to Phil Davis, an altogether anticlimactic return after the 35-year-old Brit was forced to the sidelines for over 14 months due to a devastating knee injury. But just McGeary began to regain steam with a bloody win over Brett McDermott, the ex-champion suffered another wrestling-heavy setback at the hands of Linton Vassell. Then came the long wait to be re-booked, the withdrawal of his next opponent, and finally the broken thumb that ensured 2017 would go down in the record books as a lost year for the Norfolk native.
Now, once again, McGeary finds himself at the start of a new chapter, awaiting a return from another near-year-long layoff at Bellator 194, hoping to simply rediscover the groove that led him to become one of the promotion’s brightest homegrown stars. McGeary is nothing if not honest with himself, perhaps to a fault. So when he looks at the new road in front of him, which starts on Friday against 25-year-old prospect Vadim Nemkov, McGeary is frank with what he hopes to accomplish over the next 11 months.
“To earn my place to a title shot,” McGeary told MMA Fighting. “I’m not hoping to fight Ryan Bader after this fight, no, because I don’t deserve the title shot after this one. I deserve the title shot after I’ve earned the title shot. That’s the way it used to work in this game. You fight and you fight and you fight, and you earn the title shot, you earn your place for a title shot. You don’t cry about, ‘Oh, I need the title shot,’ and, ‘I deserve a title shot.’ No, you earn it when you start beating people. You earn it when you start winning.
“That’s the way it should be. Vassell, he had his title shot, he f*cking lost. Now he’s down at the bottom of the hill, now he’s got to climb back up again. Same as I did; I lost, so I’ve got to climb up the hill. And my climb starts [at Bellator 194] with that Vadim Nemkov.”
Curiously enough, McGeary saw this fight coming.
A Russian up-and-comer who first emerged on the scene with a pair of knockout wins in Rizin FF, Nemkov announced his newfound presence in the Bellator light heavyweight division last autumn with a thunderous first-round stoppage of Philipe Lins in his Bellator debut. Given that a sizable chunk of Bellator’s best light heavyweight names were already tied up with the promotion’s heavyweight grand prix, McGeary figured it wouldn’t be long before he and Nemkov were pitted against one another.
“I hadn’t heard too much more of him before that, but as soon as he beat Lins, then I saw that I was getting tagged in some stuff that was like, ‘McGeary against this dude would be a good fight,’ so obviously I started looking into him,” McGeary said. “So then when they gave me the fight, alright, sound, it’s no problem. I know what to do to deal with this guy.
“He’s tough. He’s a tough opponent, durable. He’s Russian. They’re all tough guys, the Russian dudes, and he’s coming for a fight. And that’s exactly what I come for. I don’t coming for these f*cking lay-down-and-pray fights, and just wait for the timers and wait for the judges to give me the decision. I like to take my decisions on my own. And so does this guy. So when you’ve got two guys who like to do that, then you’ve got two guys who like to bang and two guys who try to put on a performance — I cannot wait.”
McGeary missed out on his own chance to compete in the tournament because of his injury, but the same can’t be said about his division’s latest champion: Ryan Bader.
Bader, a longtime UFC contender and accomplished NCAA wrestler, captured Bellator’s 205-pound strap with a listless decision win over Davis. Now, Bader’s participation in the grand prix and ambitions to be a two-division Bellator champion have effectively put the light heavyweight division on hold, with the 205-pound belt locked up until Bader either loses in the tourney or the bracket is completed. But rather than complain, McGeary is choosing to view the situation as a positive — grounds to stay as busy as possible and reclaim the momentum that once carried him to the belt.
“The way I look at it, the champion’s going to be out of action in this tournament, fighting in the tournament. Sound. Give me fights,” McGeary said. “Give me the fights that I want to get f*cking back to fight the champion. That’s the way I’m looking at it. I’m looking at it as a good thing.
“If he’s out for a year, then that gives me a year to take out the other lot.”
McGeary didn’t watch Bader vs. Davis when the two met last summer, but he wasn’t surprised the matchup was received poorly by fight fans. Rather, he expected it.
An all-action figher, McGeary isn’t a fan of the grinding styles both Bader and Davis have brought to the division. It’s not the wrestling that bothers McGeary, but instead both man’s seeming contentment to use that wrestling to ride out a boring decision, rather than applying it in a more destructive fashion. McGeary cites up-and-coming middleweight Ed Ruth as an example of someone who uses his wrestling to inflict damage while still entertaining the fans.
Still, McGeary is keenly aware of his need to adapt to the two former UFC standouts. That’s part of the reason he was so frustrated after being sidelined by his thumb injury throughout the second half of 2017. With all of his time off, McGeary believes he has taken much-needed strides in his defensive wrestling game, and he is eager to show off his improvements against the best the division has to offer.
“I learned how to stop a wrestling takedown,” McGeart said. “I learned how to control things. I learned the game that I didn’t know really before. It’s a learning curve, you know? To learn a lesson, you have to learn it the hard way, and I learned that the hard way, so I kind of had to take a step back and I had to evolve. And plus, the fights before that, I was out for a year-and-a-half. I couldn’t even walk. My knee was busted. So I had all of that catching up, then I jump in there with Davis straight away.
“Then the (thumb) injury happened, so it’s been a very, very weird, weird route. ... It’s like a train. When it stops, it takes pick up more speed, pick up even more speed, and now I’m full-speed ahead. So now I’m ready to go.”
McGeary said he hasn’t felt this energized and healthy since his 2014-15 light heavyweight tournament run, which saw him score three straight first-round stoppages before toppling of then-Bellator champion Emanuel Newton. He is also quick to note that the Liam McGeary of today would “kick the sh*t” out of the Liam McGeary that won that tourney.
So while the belt probably won’t be in play, 2018 could still be very big for Bellator’s former light heavyweight king. And it all starts with a promise McGeary is making for his return against Nemkov at Bellator 194.
“Violence,” McGeary said. “Lots of violence.”