Two title fights. Two champions still searching for respect.
That may seem like an odd tag line for reigning champions Rory MacDonald and Ilima-Lei Macfarlane as they head into their respective defenses against Jon Fitch and Veta Arteaga on Saturday at Bellator 220, but the fact is that they still have plenty to prove despite their impressive resumes.
MacDonald is coming off of a humbling loss to Bellator middleweight champion Gegard Mousasi, a result that threatened to overshadow MacDonald’s gritty, five-round welterweight championship win against Douglas Lima in January of last year. This will be the first title defense of MacDonald’s 14-plus year career and it will be his last for a while if he’s upset by Fitch in what is also an opening round bout of the Bellator Welterweight World Grand Prix.
As for Macfarlane, she has been touted as a the rising star in Bellator, but there are questions about the depth of her division and whether her 9-0 record is as impressive as it sounds. She looks to make it three straight successful defenses when she fights Veta Arteaga, a woman whose only two losses have come by split decision.
In other main card action, Benson Henderson and Adam Piccolotti battle for a potential lightweight title shot, Phil Davis goes for a second win against Liam McGeary, the man Davis beat to become light heavyweight champion back in November 2016, and featherweight Muay Thai specialist Gaston Bolanos hunts for another highlight reel finish against Nathan Stolen.
What: Bellator 220
Where: SAP Center in San Jose, Calif.
When: Saturday, April 27. The 13-fight preliminary card will be available to stream on MMA Fighting at 7:30 p.m. ET (un-aired prelims will take place after the evening’s main event) and the five-fight main card begins at 10 p.m. ET and will air on the DAZN streaming service.
With gold around his waist and a tournament field in front of him, Rory MacDonald has the opportunity to remind everyone that he’s as good as any fighter in the world at 170 pounds. It starts with him beating Jon Fitch on Saturday.
And he can’t just eke out a win. MacDonald must assert himself and show that he is in another league compared to Fitch. Though Fitch has always been a tough out, MacDonald has all the tools needed to leave the judges out of the equation. He’s the better striker and he’ll use that advantage to set up takedowns and put Fitch down at will, just as his mentor Georges St-Pierre did all those years ago.
Fitch has never had much success fighting off of the back foot and MacDonald is not going to give him a moment to find his rhythm. The grappling should be fairly even at first, but MacDonald’s ability to do damage in a variety of ways will wear on the comparatively limited Fitch.
As Fitch slows, MacDonald’s superior ground game will become even more pronounced. He has nasty ground-and-pound that he’ll use to put Fitch away in the second or third frame. No championship rounds needed.
The good news for Veta Arteaga is that she’s mentally tough and more than skilled enough in the grappling department to avoid becoming Ilima-Lei Macfarlane’s fifth consecutive submission victim; the bad news is I don’t think she has enough tools to win.
If there’s one thing Macfarlane has shown she can do it’s grapple, and not just from dominant positions. She’s strong in the clinch, lively in scrambles, and in constant attack mode whether she’s on her back or in top control. Though that will suit the like-minded Arteaga, it also means she’ll be playing right into the champion’s hands.
Another submission win for Macfarlane is possible if she can wear Arteaga down and set her up for a finish in the championship rounds. I see Arteaga going the distance though and making Macfarlane earn that third title defense.
Adam Piccolotti might not be an A+ in any category, but he’s a perfect representative of the new school of mixed martial arts that prioritizes versatility above all else. He is a solid kickboxer and is comfortable switching between striking and wrestling as needed. Of course, the same could be said of Benson Henderson, a veteran who is known for essentially having zero weaknesses.
If there has been one major criticism of Henderson it’s that he tends to fight safely, rarely overextending or pushing the pace like he did in his younger days. His all-around game keeps him competitive against Bellator’s best and he put on a vintage performance against Saad Awad last October, so there are signs that he’s still an elite lightweight.
Henderson fights are traditionally difficult to pick as he’s almost guaranteed to go the distance and rarely takes any visible damage. But I like how much Piccolotti pushes forward in his fights. I expect him to bring the fight to Henderson early and keep the pressure up if he feels that the crafty Henderson is edging him out on the scorecards.
Piccolotti does enough to win a close one.
I’m struggling to picture this rematch going differently from the first encounter between Phil Davis and Liam McGeary. Davis is still a wrestling machine and a freak athlete. Unless McGeary has suddenly discovered a new method of stopping takedowns that he’s been saving for this weekend, he’s in trouble. Keep in mind that Linton Vassell didn’t have too many problems putting McGeary on his back either.
McGeary could even the score if Davis decides that he wants to turn this into a striking bout for whatever reason or if he gets sloppy in McGeary’s guard and winds up getting caught with a triangle choke. Those are remote outcomes though and the safe bet is that Davis will stick to what brought him to the dance and wrestle his way to another decision win.
Man, Gaston Bolanos is fun to watch, isn’t he? Bellator knows this and that’s why the Peruvian striker has been matched up with Nathan Stolen, a spirited fighter with questionable survival instincts.
Bolanos is liable to break out a spinning streak at any moment or simply bide his time and crack Stolen’s chin as he marches forward. The best path of victory for Stolen would be to shoot in early and often, but his wrestling is not at a level that he’ll be able to easily impose his will on the fight. In all likelihood, Stolen will have to stand and trade, a scenario that overwhelmingly favors Bolanos and probably ends in Stolen being knocked out cold.