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Saturday night MMA breakdown: UFC 237 vs. Bellator 221

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Anderson Silva Photos Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Saturday night showdowns between the UFC and Bellator seem to be more common than ever, a byproduct of the endless need for content from their digital streaming partners. May 11 continues the trend as the two promotions square off with comparable events stemming from various corners of the Americas. UFC returns to exotic Rio de Janeiro with a predictably Brazilian-heavy card, while Bellator travels to the gateway city of Rosemont, Illinois for the resolution of a long-held grudge.

Which promotion has the better card? Let’s break it down…

PRELIMS

UFC — There are some recognizable names to help kick off the night, most notably B.J. Penn returning in hopes of collecting his first win in (gulp) eight-and-a-half years. Penn hasn’t captured a victory since knocking out Matt Hughes over 100 UFC pay-per-views ago. That’s ... a long time. He’s also coming off some troubling allegations of physical and sexual abuse that resulted in a restraining order being filed against him. If those factors don’t make you uneasy enough to skip his fight, Penn will be facing Clay Guida, who has won two of three since returning to the lightweight division. This could be ugly.

Other notable UFC fighters on the undercard include soon-to-be 43-year-old Antonio Rogerio Nogueira (facing Ryan Spann) and one-time women’s bantamweight title challenger Bethe Correia (fighting Irene Aldana).

Bellator — As usual, Bellator has stacked its prelim card with local talent to sell tickets to the surrounding market. The one name to watch is Chris Gonzalez, a former Team USA Greco-Roman wrestler and Team Alpha Male member who will debut in the promotion as a lightweight.

Edge: UFC

MAIN CARD BOUTS

UFCJose Aldo vs. Alexander Volkanovski, Diego Ferreira vs. Francisco Trinaldo, Thiago Alves vs. Laureano Staropoli

The Aldo-Volkanovski bout is a particularly intriguing one. Aldo has repeatedly discussed the possibility of retirement, this despite two straight sensational wins in TKOs over Renato Moicano and Jeremy Stephens. Volkanovski has won six straight since joining the promotion and is looking to make a name at the expense of the legend. Something has to give.

Meanwhile, the card lost depth when Ferreira was forced to withdraw from his scheduled bout with Trinaldo due to kidney stones.

BellatorPat Curran vs. A.J. McKee, Jake Hager vs. T.J. Jones, James Bennett vs. Tywan Claxton

McKee has always taken a backseat to his former teammate Aaron Pico when it comes to attention, but it may be time to admit he’s the prospect with more upside. A pairing against Curran is a good measuring stick, and if he wins, he’ll be speeding his way toward a title shot. The Hager-Jones matchup has been lampooned on social media, and it certainly puts Hager in a position where he has to win in a blowout to meet any expectation, but it is clearly a misguided booking. Still, many MMA fans love a good squash match.

Edge: UFC

CO-MAIN EVENTS

UFCAnderson Silva vs. Jared Cannonier — Even though Silva is 44 years old and just 1-5 with a no contest over his last seven bouts, it’s a little bit jarring to see him listed as an underdog against Cannonier, a fighter who has been an adequate but unremarkable UFC competitor so far, with a 4-4 record in the Octagon. Then again, Cannonier did look sensational in his middleweight debut against David Branch last November. Still, this is not any kind of conventional pairing. Usually, you match a legend against another legend or a young gun on the way up. With all due respect to Cannonier, he’s neither. I don’t think anybody knows quite what to expect from this one, but almost everyone is hoping they don’t end up feeling sad about it.

BellatorMichael Page vs. Douglas Lima — What feels like the slowest build in MMA history continues as Page draws a strong opponent capable of flustering him with a complete toolset along with his sheer veteran presence. If you’re wondering who else Page has to go through to get a title match, there is literally no one else, as the winner advances to the Welterweight Grand Prix final, and will have to wait out the other side of the bracket. This has all the makings of a sensational fight.

Edge: Bellator

MAIN EVENTS

UFCRose Namajunas vs. Jessica AndradeNamajunas is an exciting talent who disappeared after defending her title against Joana Jedrzejczyk 13 months ago, time off that was largely due to a gnarly sounding neck injury. Andrade, a perennial contender, only fought a single time in Namajunas’ absence, but put forth a sizzling performance, knocking out Karolina Kowalkiewicz in less than two minutes.

Over Namajunas’ last couple of fights, critics have questioned her mental fortitude, given her reaction to the Conor McGregor bus incident as well as her candid thoughts on fear and her emotional well-being. But any doubts about Namajunas’ bravery should have been answered long ago. Having topped Jedrzejczyk convincingly twice, she is a force to be reckoned with. Still, it’s worth wondering how she might handle Andrade’s bulldozer style. The Brazilian throws with both ferocious power and volume — her 6.58 strikes landed per minute is sixth all-time in the UFC — making her a stylistic problem for the champ. Similarly, that’s what makes the bout intriguing.

BellatorMichael Chandler vs. Patricio Freire — These two have been in Bellator so long and competed so well, it’s hard to believe they haven’t already squared off against each other. “Pitbull” has been one of the best featherweights in the world for several years now, and takes the leap up to 155 in attempt to avenge his brother’s defeat. Chandler is perhaps Bellator’s best all-time homegrown fighter. These two (mostly “Pitbull”) have been sniping at each other for years and it’s finally come to a head. There is not only a title on the line (Chandler’s lightweight belt) but a grudge to settle. That should ensure it’s a crackerjack.

Edge: Bellator


Saturday night should be an enjoyable and highlight-filled evening in both corners of the Americas. While the UFC card clearly has more depth top to bottom, the main cards — i.e. the fights most people truly care about — are surprisingly close in quality. If I had to choose one, I’d slightly veer toward the Bellator event. McKee looking to take the next step, the Page hype train facing potential derailment, and some main event bad blood sounds like all the elements of a fun evening.