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Bellator 222: MacDonald vs. Gracie predictions

Rory MacDonald and Neiman Gracie
Rory MacDonald defends his welterweight title against Neiman Gracie in the main event of Bellator 222 at Madison Square Garden on Friday
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

With one win, Rory MacDonald can erase all doubts that he’s still worthy of being considered the very best in the world at 170 pounds.

All he has to do is stop a hungry challenger from a legendary family who has submitted almost every man who’s stepped into the cage with him. No pressure.

A year ago, it would have raised some eyebrows if one suggested that Neiman Gracie could present a serious challenge to MacDonald, the current Bellator welterweight champion and a former UFC standout with wins over the likes of Tyron Woodley, Demian Maia, and Nate Diaz. Now, ahead of their Bellator 222 main event meeting that will not only be for MacDonald’s belt but also a spot in the finals of the World Welterweight Grand Prix, there are serious questions about MacDonald’s mental state.

Facing a 41-year-old Jon Fitch in April, MacDonald squeaked by with a majority decision draw (a verdict that allowed MacDonald to advance in the tournament). And that was after being humbled by Gegard Mousasi at Bellator 206 in an ill-fated attempt to move up to 185 pounds. Add in MacDonald’s self-admitted doubts that came to light in the wake of the Fitch fight and you have a recipe for MacDonald’s downfall and Gracie’s ascendance.

In the co-main event, Chael Sonnen looks to tackle former UFC light heavyweight champion Lyoto Machida in his latest high-profile assignment. Sonnen’s talk leading up to their fight has been more decent than disrespectful, which could be a sign of renewed focus or he just doesn’t want to rouse “The Dragon” before fight night. The veteran matchup could also determine who is next to fight Bellator light heavyweight champion Ryan Bader.

In other main card action, polarizing jiu-jitsu star Dillon Danis goes for his second MMA win when he faces Max Humphrey, Ricky Bandejas welcomes undefeated bantamweight Patrick Mix to the Bellator cage, two-time champion Eduardo Dantas moves up to 145 pounds to face Juan Archuleta, and current bantamweight champion Darrion Caldwell looks for revenge against Rizin Fighting Federation star Kyoji Horiguchi.

What: Bellator 222

Where: Madison Square Garden in New York City

When: Friday, June 14. The 12-fight preliminary card will be available to stream on MMA Fighting and the DAZN streaming service at 6:30 p.m. ET (un-aired prelims will take place after the evening’s main event) and the six-fight main card begins at 10 p.m. ET and will also air on DAZN.

Rory MacDonald vs. Neiman Gracie

Good luck predicting a Rory MacDonald fight these days. On paper, the welterweight champion is more well-rounded than Neiman Gracie, and even if the fight goes to the ground where Gracie is at his most deadly, peak MacDonald should still be able to handle that. After all, MacDonald was once able to stifle the grappling of Demian Maia, one of the best to ever implement their Brazilian jiu-jitsu expertise in MMA.

That fight was over five years ago though. MacDonald isn’t the same fighter he was, for better or for worse. Skill-wise, he’s advanced, but mentally, there’s no way of knowing how much his recent internal struggles will affect him on game day. He’s a thoroughbred horse who could be slow to get out of the gate, if he gets out at all.

Gracie, on the other hand, has been saying all the right things about restoring his family’s name to glory in the MMA world. Though MacDonald is by far the biggest name Gracie has fought yet, the submission expert made a major statement with a fourth-round submission win over blue-chip prospect Ed Ruth in the opening round of the grand prix. Against Ruth, Gracie showed an ability to work out of a variety of adverse situations, while still finding openings for his own offense including the fateful rear-naked choke that sealed the deal.

This is such an intriguing fight and a worthy main event given that it could shape Bellator’s welterweight landscape for years to come. MacDonald wasn’t at his best against Jon Fitch and Gracie is much more dangerous from top position than Fitch. He’s also more of a wild card given his inexperience.

My brain says this is too much too soon for Gracie, but I can’t help but be discouraged by MacDonald’s recent performances. Gracie takes the title with a submission in the later rounds.

Pick: Gracie

Lyoto Machida vs. Chael Sonnen

If you’ve seen one Chael Sonnen fight, you’ve seen them all. And given how effective he’s remained in this stage of his career, that’s probably a compliment.

You know what Sonnen is going in there to do. He’s going to pressure Machida as soon as the bell rings, force him into a dogfight, and relentlessly shoot for takedowns. It’s not a bad plan for a fighter in his 40s as that wrestling base can make up for declining athleticism.

Unfortunately for Sonnen, Machida has notoriously been one of the most difficult fighters to pressure, especially against opponents who don’t have a significant speed advantage over him. That includes Sonnen, who as great as he is at pushing the pace, is known more for his determination than his explosive offense. I also question whether Sonnen’s chin can stand up to Machida’s accurate strikes.

If Sonnen can set the tone early with a few takedowns in round one, it’s possible that he gets in Machida’s head and spends 15 minutes breaking the former champion down en route to a decision win. I like Machida’s defensive grappling to avoid this scenario and I actually think there’s a good chance he catches Sonnen with a counter-punch early and finishes him.

Pick: Machida

Dillon Danis vs. Max Humphrey

Here’s what you need to know about Max Humphrey. He’s a fighter with poor defense and limited ground skills, who is serving as one-half of a cooler match before the evening’s headlining bouts.

Here’s what you ned to know about Dillon Danis. He’s an accomplished Brazilian jiu-jitsu artist who definitely isn’t as good as he thinks he is, but more than good enough to impose his will against Humphrey.

Look for Danis to mess around on the feet a little before doing exactly what he did in his Bellator debut: rush in, trip Humphrey to the mat, and then go to work with his impressive grappling. Humphrey has never gone to a decision in five fights and that will hold true against Danis, though not in the way he’s hoping.

Danis by first-round submission.

Pick: Danis

Ricky Bandejas vs. Patrick Mix

I liked a lot of what I saw from Ricky Bandejas in his last outing, even though he ended up losing a decision to Juan Archuleta. His wrestling held up against the tricky Archuleta and while he needs to sharpen his striking, there’s a lot to work with in that department as well.

Patrick Mix enters his Bellator debut with a ton of pro and amateur experience and he’s faced good competition too, defeating future CES champion Tony Gravely and current UFC fighter Andre Ewell. Fighting out of the Jackson-Wink team, Mix is a threat to snag a choke at any time. His standup is solid if untested, mostly because he’s been able to take the action to the ground whenever he wants to.

Mix could very well be the next big thing at 135 pounds, but I need to see just how advanced his striking is first before I pick him against the hard-hitting Bandejas. This should be a close one with Bandejas having to work out of some trouble spots to keep the fight standing. I like his chances to win a decision.

Pick: Bandejas

Eduardo Dantas vs. Juan Archuleta

This one is flying under the radar and is a legitimate sleeper candidate for fight of the night.

Eduardo Dantas has never been one to play it safe, which makes him fun to watch and also, I imagine, stressful to watch if you’re rooting for “Dudu” to pull through. At his best, Dantas is a world-class fighter as he’s shown with two Bellator title reigns, and an opponent like Juan Archuleta is going to bring the best out of him. Something to keep an eye on will be how Dantas looks competing at 145 pounds. Will he join the list of fighters whose games are elevated without the burden of a tough weight cut?

He’ll have to be on point against Archuleta, who has been nearly unsolvable, winning his last 17 fights and 21 of 22 overall. He’s primarily a powerful grappler with wicked ground-and-pound, but he mixed it up on the feet in his win over Ricky Bandejas and he should be able to stand and bang with Dantas if it comes down to it.

Dantas fights with a certain joie de vivre and I think that’s the attitude he’ll bring to the cage against Archuleta, especially competing closer to his natural weight. A fast and loose Dantas is tough to beat, and though I think Archuleta is a future champion, it will be when he drops back down to bantamweight.

Pick: Dantas

Darrion Caldwell vs. Kyoji Horiguchi

Things were going well for Darrion Caldwell in his first fight with Kyoji Horiguchi until they weren’t.

It wasn’t a commanding performance for “The Wolf,” but it looked like he was on his way to taking Horiguchi’s Rizin title when they fought on New Year’s Eve. Horiguchi was never out of the fight though, despite having spent much of it on his back, and when Caldwell left his neck exposed in the third round, Horiguchi pounced for a guillotine choke. That’s the level that Horiguchi is at right now. You can’t make mistakes against him.

Horiguchi will be giving up plenty of size, just as he did in the first meeting, but he’ll also have the speed advantage, plus he’s a superior striker to Caldwell who just doesn’t have the wealth of MMA experience that Horiguchi has yet. When not going for takedowns, he’ll want to keep Horiguchi on the outside with his jab, a task that’s easier said than done given that Horiguchi is excellent at finding angles to pop in and punch from.

The differences between cage and ring will benefit Caldwell, but it won’t affect Horiguchi much given the success he’s had in both environments. If anything, Horiguchi is smart enough to use the fence to his advantage to both help him stuff takedowns and to walk back up when Caldwell puts him on the canvas. So I don’t see him getting smothered.

And if that’s the case, the quickness and power of Horiguchi should prevail. While Caldwell might be predicting a trilogy bout already, it might not be necessary after Horiguchi earns a close decision nod and a second victory over him.

Pick: Horiguchi

Notable undercard matchups:

Aaron Pico def. Adam Borics

Taylor Turner def. Heather Hardy

Valerie Loureda def. Larkyn Dasch

Robson Gracie Jr. def. Oscar Vera

Mike Kimbel def. Sebastian Ruiz

Rena Kubota def. Lindsey VanZandt

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