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Fightweets: Lyoto Machida signing caps Bellator’s big week

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Lyoto Machida (EL) Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Just when it seemed like we were all sitting around killing time until UFC 226 happens, along came Bellator with a big news week. The sport’s No. 2 company announced a superfight between middleweight champ Gegard Mousasi and welterweight champ Rory MacDonald, then followed up a day later by signing all-time great Lyoto Machida to a contract.

And with that, what had been a slow week turned into one with a lot of buzz, so let’s get right into it.

Bellator’s big week

@DreadedBeard207L @davedoylemma what do you think about Machida Joining Bellator ?

@jorgerabelo: Is Mousasi x McDonald a better fight than any fight that could possibly be made in the UFC Middleweight division? UFC honestly screwed up, in my opinion, on not fighting harder for both these guys

Bellator already had this week won by Thursday, when the company announced a superfight between middleweight champion Gegard Mousasi and welterweight kingpin Rory MacDonald. If that’s not the best on-paper fight in Bellator history, it’s, at worst, No. 2 behind the 2013 rematch between Eddie Alvarez and Michael Chandler.

Then came Friday’s news that Bellator has signed former UFC light heavyweight champion Lyoto Machida, and, now you have to think Bellator just might be shaking itself out of what’s been a bit of a rut.

Let’s face it, Bellator had all the appearances of a promotion losing momentum in recent months. Television ratings were dropping, the undeniable crop of young talent hasn’t quite gotten over with the masses yet, legends fights seemed a tired concept.

Fedor Emelianenko’s thrilling finish of Frank Mir at Bellator 198 breathed much-needed life into the Grand Prix tournament, and his run through the tourney remains one of the sport’s most exciting storylines of 2018 for as long as it lasts, but that doesn’t help set you up for 2019 and beyond.

But now, all of a sudden, we have Mousasi vs. MacDonald, a killer fight between two of the best in the world in their respective divisions, a battle of guys in their prime as good as any bout any promotion in the world can hope to sign.

The most intriguing thing about the Machida signing is that while he’s not the fighter he was in 2009, he’s still got mileage left, and comes into it on a two-fight win streak, with a highlight-reel face kick of Vitor Belfort in his last bout. A smart matchmaker -- and Scott Coker sure fits that bill -- can come up with all sorts of ways to use him.

Maybe you rematch Machida and Mousasi, should the latter win? Or maybe you rematch Machida with current light heavyweight champion Ryan Bader, whom Machida ruthlessly KO’d at UFC on FOX 4. Or, hell, would you be the slightest bit surprised if Machida didn’t end up in the Grand Prix as a substitute, and then won the whole thing?

Underneath this fresh burst of Bellator excitement, the same problem remains: They need to turn their homegrown talent into stars. That simply hasn’t happened yet. Tentpole events still feature too many boxing-style showcase bouts.

But at least Bellator’s showing it’s ready to step back into the fray. And that’s a breath of fresh air at a time the sport really needs it.

Josh Barnett leaving UFC

@spacebawz: How bummed are you about Josh Barnett exiting the UFC? Even with his prior indiscretions it feels like the man been wronged.

It’s been interesting watching Josh Barnett get propped up as a white knight for the anti-USADA crowd in recent days, following the news that he’s looking to get out of his UFC contract.

Josh Barnett (MMAF, EL)
Let’s pump the breaks a little bit on portraying Josh Barnett as a victim.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Barnett’s USADA case, for sure, highlighted problem areas in the UFC’s testing program. He was able to prove that his Dec. 2016 test failure was the result of a tainted substance. But USADA’s method of publicly identifying potential violators puts fighters in a “guilty until proven innocent” frame in fight fans’ mind. And in the case of Barnett, by the time he won his case with an independent arbitrator, he had already lost 15 months of his career at an age in which most fighters are winding their career down.

Still, though: To make Barnett a hero, you have to ignore the fact he was the first fighter in major mixed martial arts history to ever have to relinquish a major world title due to a failed steroid test, which came after defeating Randy Couture at UFC 36. That infraction came after he was let off with a warning when he failed a test after a win over Bobby Hoffman at UFC 34 (he still got the shot at Couture’s belt anyway, for those who think the UFC turning a blind eye when there’s a big-money fight to be had is a WME thing).

Then, Barnett was subject to an out-of-competition test before his big Affliction 3 main event in Anaheim against Fedor Emelianenko, and failed again, which resulted in Affliction, which had been hemorraging money, to cancel the show and fold their promotion.

That’s a warning; a title stripping; and a promotion imploding, all under the old testing system, which was considerably easier to get around than USADA’s system. if Josh Barnett is a poster boy for anything, it’s for why the sport needed something like USADA in the first place.

Now that said, even someone with two strikes against them going in deserves a fair hearing conducted in a timely manner. Barnett’s got a valid point with how his case was handled. And he also has his storyline out to go compete in RIZIN or somewhere that doesn’t conduct out-of-competition testing. But let’s pump the brakes a little bit on holding him up as some sort of role model.

Is Contender Series the best path into the UFC?

@philly_collins1: Is DWTNCS the best way to make it to the UFC these days?

Sure, why not? Look at the other common routes used to make it into the UFC these days: The Ultimate Fighter, which admittedly still produces legit fighters in its dying days (Did you see TUF 23 winner Tatiana Suarez’s most recent fight?), but no one watches the actual show anymore. You can jump on the “short-notice late replacement” train, which often comes with brutal weight cuts. But for every Jose “Shorty” Torres who gets notoriety for winning when their opponent knocks themselves out, there seem to be 10 who lose their fight, lose their follow-up fight, and are never heard from again.

And now that you mention it, in the WME era, we don’t seem to get nearly as many signings of fighters whose names are already established in the sport as the company used to have, at least since Justin Gaethje and David Branch came over post-WSOF.

That leaves us with Contender Series, and fortunately, that’s a hell of a spot to land. Contender Series is a fresh approach. The two-hour format is easy for viewers to digest. The fact the shows are held on Tuesday, in the middle of the week, gives the winners room to shine that probably wouldn’t happen if their victory was simply one of a dozen storylines on a typical crowded news weekend.

Another way to put all this: Look how quick Sean O’Malley’s star is rising.

Anyway, yeah, if I was an agent, and I had a young fighter looking to make a name, and the confidence to go in there and put on a sizzling performance with his potential new bosses watching, I’d be angling to get my guy or gal on Contender Series, which is the fastest way to create a buzz, certainly over the show no one watches, or by taking late-replacement fights. Contender Series is the way to go.