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Lots of questions come out of Bellator’s first major 2019 show

Fedor Emelianenko Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Bellator’s first big show of the year was built around four names: Ryan Bader, Fedor Emelianenko, Aaron Pico, and Jake Hager.

The four combined for less than four minutes of total fight time on Saturday night at the Forum in Los Angeles. In that four minutes, we got a lot more questions than answers.

If there were any true answers, they were in the main event where Bader finished Emelianenko in 35 seconds, perhaps putting an end to one of the greatest careers in mixed martial arts history. Emelianenko had talked retirement earlier in the week. He’s 42 and his contract with Bellator expired after the fight.

Unless there is a financial need to do so, it really makes no sense for Emelianenko at this age to continue on.

Bader had one of the greatest tournaments of all-time with three fights and not even getting hit once or being at a disadvantage for a second in wins over King Mo Lawal, Matt Mitrione and Emelianenko.

The question becomes, “Is Bader that good, or was the tournament that weak?”

The one thing about the tournament is that most of the fighters were older and even though Bader was a natural light heavyweight, he was still the closest of being in his prime of any of the eight competitors.

The aftermath leaves him with two championships and a question of what he’s going to do next. Bader fought Saturday at about 227 pounds; a weight where most fighters would cut to light heavyweight. But he seems to have more potential opponents right now at heavyweight.

Bellator has two big heavyweight fights coming up. Bellator’s next big shows are Feb. 15 and 16, both at the Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, Conn., with main events involving three fighters who were not in the tournament. The Feb. 15 fight has Sergei Kharitonov (29-7) against Mitrione (13-6). The next night has Cheick Kongo (29-10-2) taking on Vitaly Minakov (21-0).

The natural direction would be the most impressive of the two winners, provided Mitrione isn’t one of them, as Bader’s next opponent. The first Bader-Mitrione fight was almost the epitome of a fight where you wouldn’t want to book a rematch. Bader does have one legitimate contender at light heavyweight in Vadim Nemkov (10-2) who is coming off a win over Phil Davis.

The situation with Pico, who suffered a stunning knockout at the hands of Henry Corrales, leaves nothing but questions.

Writing him off at this stage of the game is terribly premature. A number of fighters who went on to legendary careers stumbled multiple times early on.

Still, there has to be concern, because both of his losses were very early in the fight from a hard punch that he didn’t recover from. In MMA, there’s a reality that you’re almost surely going to get hit in a fight, and against top competition, almost everyone gets hit often.

No matter how skilled your all-around game is, if you can’t recover from punches, you’re not going to have a successful career.

This past September, Frank Shamrock was talking about why he thought Pico would lose to Leandro Higo, in his previous fight in San Jose. That didn’t happen, but the exact scenario Shamrock talked about that week is what finished Pico in his very next fight.

Now that the hole in his game has been shown, he needs time to learn to correct it because everybody will be looking for the same opening.

An interesting aspect of this regards the career of Georges St-Pierre who was similarly blown out by Matt Serra in a stunning fashion at a time when he was a heavy favorite, also from not recovering from a great power punch. It changed St-Pierre’s style and approach. St-Pierre many times explained that if you’re going to stand and slug, the percentage of you being the one to take the shot and go down is much higher than if you control the fight on the ground. He said a fight is like a mathematical equation and his style was playing the percentages. St-Pierre took a lot of criticism for what people said was a boring style but it was a dominating style that led him never losing again, and being arguably the greatest MMA fighter in history, or at least the greatest without a drug test failure.

Pico has the wrestling ability to implement the game plan but it’s not a perfect game plan for him because when St-Pierre changed his style, he was a master at avoiding submissions. Pico’s wrestling is such that he can virtually take anyone down that he faces, but with the wrong opponent, it’s not necessarily a path to victory.

As far as what’s next for Pico, he probably shouldn’t be rushed back into his next fight even though he’s probably clamoring to do himself, and there’s a San Jose show coming up April 27, in which he would be a natural. The good sign was his popularity as the crowd was clearly there to see him and Emelianenko on Saturday.

In this day and age when it’s so difficult to make a new marquee star, the reaction to Pico showed that he was on his way. And MMA fans have historically not abandoned fighters after a loss, even though the timing of this loss will hurt his momentum.

The one thing this fight did is that it slowed down any talk of him imminently facing featherweight champion Patricio “Pitbull” Freire.

Theoretically, what Pico needs now is a long fight to test his mettle when a fight goes past round one. Unfortunately, it’s going to be difficult to pull that off because Pico’s power is such that almost every fighter of his level of experience he’s going to finish quickly. And this is probably not a good time to move him against fighters of top level.

The other star from the show, the debuting pro wrestling Jake Hager (aka Jack Swagger) did use his wrestling to dominate and submit J.W. Kizer. We really didn’t learn a lot about Hager past that he didn’t freeze and he didn’t make any major mistakes against an opponent he was expected to go through.

Hager clearly has certain gifts including size, reach and wrestling ability, along with the obvious drawback of being almost 37-years old in a young man’s sport. Hager talked about fighting 10 more years, but history has shown that would be very unlikely to do so at any kind of a decent level.

As far as how much his pro wrestling notoriety helped the show is a question. He had been with WWE for years, but he was not the level of star that Brock Lesnar, CM Punk, or even Bobby Lashley were. With the age, he may have to be rushed to have any marquee fights. He becomes very difficult to program. If you put him in two or three more fights against inexperienced fighters, which is probably the smartest way to go, you’re quickly running out of the sands in his hourglass.

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