MMA: Michael Chandler
In late 2012, the UFC offered free agent Eddie Alvarez an eight-fight contract.
The contract consisted of an initial base salary at $70,000 with a $70,000 win bonus, with $5,000 increments each time Alvarez won. Additionally, the contract awarded Alvarez pay-per-view profits in his first fight and any subsequent bout in which he defended a UFC title. He was also to receive a $250,000 signing bonus, to be paid over three installments.
Alvarez, 30, accepted the deal but (as everyone knows by now) didn’t join the UFC. His former employer, Bellator MMA, exercised its right to match the deal. Alvarez, following a legal dispute with Bellator, eventually returned to its cage in 2013.
Earlier this week, Alvarez (25-3) received his unconditional release from Bellator and immediately agreed to a UFC contract. He will fight Donald Cerrone in the co-main event of UFC 178 on Sept. 27 in Las Vegas.
The second UFC president Dana White announced Alvarez’ UFC contract -- actually before that, since everyone assumed Alvarez was headed to the UFC -- the question was whether or not Alvarez would still receive such a lucrative deal.
Legally, Alvarez is refrained from sharing specific details on his UFC contract, but the former Bellator lightweight champion told ESPN.com he’s very satisfied.
“It’s comparable (to the 2012) deal -- it’s better,” Alvarez said. “Let’s just say that I’m pleased. I’m not sitting here with a sad face. That’s all I can say.”
Alvarez (25-3) said he’s looking at his initial fight in the UFC as a No. 1 contenders bout -- at least for himself. He is currently on a three-fight win streak, including a split decision over Michael Chandler for the Bellator lightweight title last November.
“I can’t speak for Dana, but I don’t want to wait in line too long,” Alvarez said. “Give me dangerous guys, let me show what I can do against them and give me a title shot. I don’t want to sit around and fight a bunch of guys I already know I can beat. I want the guys everybody thinks are dangerous. Let’s do that.
“(Cerrone’s) best attributes are his setups. He’s crafty but it’s nothing I haven’t seen before. I don’t think he’s very good defensively. I think I’ll be able to take advantage of that.”
Bellator MMA released lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez on Tuesday. One of the most recognizable and talented fighters on its entire roster -- gone.
Additionally, president Scott Coker released Alvarez knowing full well the likelihood he will appear in a cage for a rival company, the UFC, sooner rather than later.
Sounds like a lose-lose, but make no mistake -- Tuesday was a good day for Bellator.
Losing Alvarez (25-3) does hurt in the short term. In addition to holding the promotion’s lightweight belt, Alvarez was a fixture in that division and had essentially grown up in the Bellator cage, having fought for the company 10 times since April 2009.
In the long term, however, Alvarez represented a potential headache. He was clearly disenchanted with the Bellator brand, thanks to a falling-out with former CEO Bjorn Rebney, who was forced out of the company in June.
In late 2012, Alvarez had accepted a multifight offer from the UFC but was drawn into a legal battle by Rebney, who elected to exercise his right to match the offer and keep Alvarez in Bellator.
One can’t necessarily fault Rebney for wanting to protect his assets. As much as any fighter should be allowed to fight for whom he or she wants, Rebney felt that Bellator had a contractual right to Alvarez’s appeal and he had a business to run.
It was always questioned, however, if Rebney lost more than he gained by attacking Alvarez in the court system. Was Alvarez really worth so much individually that it offset the negative press and feelings that were created when Rebney essentially blocked him from leaving?
Current Bellator president Scott Coker, a former Strikeforce CEO who was hired to replace Rebney in June, is among those who would say "no." Shortly after accepting the job, he made it a point to personally meet with the fighter’s camp in Miami, where Alvarez trains.
Very early in the conversation, Coker read the writing on the wall. Alvarez was not going to sign any long-term deal with Bellator, despite the changing of the guard. The meeting transitioned from a business feel to a friendly one. Coker didn't see a reason to play hardball with Alvarez after two frustrating years.
He told me some things in private, and some of it I was pretty shocked by. It was something I would never do. I would never treat fighters like that. He got into that situation and they took him to court and -- I just don't believe in that.” -- Bellator president Scott Coker, on the treatment of former Bellator fighter Eddie Alvarez
“He told me some things in private, and some of it I was pretty shocked by,” Coker said. “It was something I would never do. I would never treat fighters like that. He got into that situation and they took him to court and -- I just don’t believe in that.”
So, Coker released Alvarez. It probably wasn’t a completely altruistic move. It allows Bellator to move on and eliminates the possibility of Alvarez leaving the company off back-to-back wins over lightweights like interim champion Will Brooks and Michael Chandler (whom the company are trying to build). It also should stop Alvarez from bashing Bellator publicly after he leaves, which he might have done otherwise.
What it does most, however, is send a strong message to everyone in the world of mixed martial arts -- athletes, trainers, managers, fans and media -- that Bellator has embraced a level of professionalism it has perhaps lacked before.
It sends the message the promotion is not going to tie Alvarez’s career in knots for its own gain and it’s not going to keep an interim champion like Brooks wondering on the sidelines whether he’ll be unfairly bypassed for a title shot (as Rebney alluded to when he was still in control).
Really, every move made by Coker thus far has sent that message. The promotion is doing away with the messy tournament format it was built on and switching to a more traditional, 16-event schedule in 2015.
Rather than bombard viewers with one live event per week, promoted within small markets, Coker will aim to build significant cards once a month, aided by shoulder programming intended to take advantage of Spike TV’s reach to 100 million homes.
Up to this point, Bellator has succeeded despite a difficult competitive landscape and, since the Viacom buyout in 2011, it is well funded -- but it’s felt stuck in adolescence at times and its fighter and manager relationships have struggled as a result.
When Coker joined the company this summer, he was expected to add experience and professionalism along with him. Tuesday’s announcement on Alvarez, which Coker followed with a personal tweet wishing the fighter luck, showcased that.
Over the weekend, Alvarez (25-3) was forced to pull out of a trilogy bout against Michael Chandler because of lingering effects of a concussion he suffered April 23. The bout was supposed to headline the first-ever Bellator pay-per-view on May 17 in Southaven, Miss.
Alvarez, 30, is no stranger to head injuries. In fact, five weeks prior to reclaiming the Bellator title in a decision over Chandler in November, Alvarez says he was knocked out during a sparring session and had to take two weeks off.
“I actually got knocked out before the last Chandler fight,” Alvarez told ESPN.com. “I got knocked out by a head kick. I didn’t go unconscious, but I had a little amnesia and I just took two weeks off from full contact.”
Alvarez had hoped a similar strategy would allow him to compete again this time, but a week away from contact had a limited effect on his symptoms.
I actually got knocked out before the last Chandler fight. I got knocked out by a head kick. I didn't go unconscious, but I had a little amnesia and I just took two weeks off from full contact."
-- Eddie Alvarez, on his history of concussions
The injury occurred during wrestling practice, when Alvarez slammed his head into the hip of Blackzilians teammate Abel Trujillo. Later in the practice, Alvarez got hit again, this time in the chin by the heel of a different teammate.
The next day, Alvarez experienced dizziness during a light grappling session. By the end of the week, he couldn’t brush his teeth without feeling pain.
“It felt like something was squeezing my brain,” Alvarez said.
He eventually flew to Pittsburgh to see Dr. Joseph Maroon, a neurosurgeon for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Doctors there were hopeful Alvarez would make a full recovery within a week and still be able to compete.
Alvarez’s condition failed to improve, however, and Saturday, at the encouragement of his team, he officially pulled out of the fight.
“The timing was awful,” Alvarez said. “It was a really tough decision. If it weren’t for doctors, coaches, management -- I might have taken the fight and I would have been in a very bad position if I had taken another punch to the head.
“Thank God I have the people around me, because as a fighter, I probably wouldn’t have made that decision on my own.”
Alvarez is confident his symptoms will not keep him out long term, as he's been told to expect a full recovery within weeks. He added that Bellator had given him full support during the past couple of weeks.
In the meantime, Chandler (12-1) has agreed to fight Will Brooks (13-1) this weekend for an interim Bellator title.
The Bellator 120 card remains a PPV offering, despite the loss of its main event. It is the company’s first PPV. No formal plans have been announced for a second one.
Alvarez says he’s pulling for Chandler to beat Brooks to set up the trilogy fight and is firm in his belief that bout will still appear on PPV and not Spike TV.
“I will be back in the gym very soon,” Alvarez said. “Doctors are saying so long as I rest and do what’s required, this is not a 'couple of months thing.' This is a 'couple of weeks thing.'
"This was such a huge deal for me -- headlining my first PPV. It was going to be a good gauge to see where my value is. This was big, man.
"[My next fight] will be on PPV, for sure. I want Mike Chandler to win. He deserves a rematch. He gave me a rematch and I honestly feel bad about the whole situation. If I needed to apologize to anyone, I'd be saying sorry to him."
Alvarez and Chandler first met in November 2011. Chandler won the bout via rear-naked choke in the fourth round to capture the Bellator 155-pound title. The two met for the second time in November, where Alvarez evened the rivalry 1-1.
It was different yet still great.
Michael Chandler and Eddie Alvarez renewed acquaintances Saturday in Long Beach, Calif., producing prodigious moments of mixed martial arts for the second time in two years.
Unlike their epic match in 2011, which Chandler won by rear naked choke on the fourth round to capture the Bellator title at 155 pounds, Alvarez lasted to the final bell, earning the belt back via split decision.
Judges at cageside saw it 48-47 twice for the repeat champion, with one dissenting opinion of the same score for Chandler. ESPN.com scored the fight for Alvarez 48-47, giving him Rounds 2, 3 and 5.
Both men were busted up after 25 minutes of hard, competitive fighting. There weren't the sort of dramatic swings the memorialized the first encounter, but it was nonetheless dramatic.
The slick lightweights moved well at the start, slipping and throwing punches. After mostly missing, action picked up in the second half of Round 1. Chandler worked to cut off the cage and score with right hands. Alvarez landed as well, until he was dumped down headfirst to the canvas and had to fend off a choke attempt.
The first response from fans came when Alvarez regained his feet at the close of the round. The 26-year-old challenger ate a series of jabs to start the second, but he scored with a solid counter left and began targeting an early-forming mouse under Chandler's left eye. An uppercut combined with a left hook put Chandler on the defensive, though a late takedown made things close.
Alvarez opened the third with a high kick and another pounding attack. The damage on Chandler's face was too clear to miss. Unlike the epic third round from 2011 in which he took unabated punishment for more than two minutes, Chandler was competitive. He also looked tired and sluggish, though that might have been a case of playing possum. Alvarez scored with left before being dumped again to the canvas.
A cageside California State Athletic Commission doctor checked Chandler between rounds, but there was nothing in his performance in the fourth that suggested the previously unbeaten face of Bellator was anywhere near done.
Chandler worked over his challenger for much of the period as fans begged for more.
Chandler's ground-and-pound opportunity came after he, again playing possum, bided his time along the fence before leaping forward with a jumping knee. The shot knocked Alvarez backward, and Chandler rolled him up into a takedown. Most of the damage came when Chandler trapped Alvarez's right arm and poured down punches and elbows.
Still, Alvarez pushed through to the fifth, which caused fans inside the Long Beach Arena to erupt.
The challenger and soon-to-be champion came out swinging punches. Neither fighter could have known how the judges had it, and in their 10th round, together they delivered.
Alvarez did well all night denying Chandler's wrestling. This paid off for him in the final round, as they mixed stand up and grappling sequences with intensity.
"I'm going to take zero credit for what happened tonight. It takes two people to put on a fight like that. Not just me. Me and Mike Chandler," said Alvarez. "The guy fights his a-- off. The heart of a lion."
"At the end of the fight, I didn't give a s-- who won. I was just happy to be a part of it."
Straus upsets Curran; wins title
Bjorn Rebney liked to say Pat Curran is the best featherweight in the world outside of Jose Aldo. He can't make that claim anymore.
It was Curran and the world versus Daniel Straus. And Straus won.
Straus initiated most of the offense off the start, forcing himself on Curran, who was unable to counter or untie his challenger's strong grip throughout much of the 25-minute contest.
The southpaw challenger scored with his left hand early and, though not often, enough to dictate range and distance. Curran, a terrific athlete who won his past six for Bellator, including two title defenses this year, struggled with Straus' pressure.
That sort of attack shouldn't have come as a surprise to the 26-year-old from Crystal Lake, Ill. Straus is a noted grinder was knocked out by Curran in 2009, and they had trained together in the past.
"I can't go to that fight, examine that fight and try to fight him again off that fight," Straus said on Thursday. "I'll lose, again. Pat can't watch that fight, examine that fight and fight me again. He'll take the a-- whipping I got that night. We're both two different fighters from the time I first met. We've grown as people, we've grown as fighters."
Four years following their first contest, Straus, who learned how to fight by fighting, was well prepared to meet Curran.
"It really opened my eyes as to the sport," he said. "Since that fight, I've won 17 of 18 fights. I went on a two-year winning streak of 12 fights. That fight changed me because going into that fight I knew I could beat Pat. And I got beat. So I started taking this sport seriously."
Now training at American Top Team in Coconut Creek, Fla., Straus (22-4) shook off ring rust from a one-year absence that featured injuries and run-ins with the law, to dissect his way to the championship belt.
Saturday's marked Straus' sixth straight win, and the 18th victory in 19 fights since falling to Curran (19-5).
Straus relied heavily on his left hand, which hit its mark multiple times as he mixed in a variety of takedowns and suffocating top control.
Curran showed life in the second, moving well and landing kicks to the body. That was as good as it got for the deposed Bellator champion.
Straus righted the ship in the third round, despite an obviously illegal knee to the face while his knees were on the floor. That sequence from Curran elicited a point deduction from referee Jason Herzog. The hard-nosed wrestler showed no ill effects, landing a quick takedown after the restart.
The situation was perfect for Straus, a grinder at heart, heading into the fourth round. Down two rounds to one, down a point deduction, Curran needed something to shift momentum. He upped the aggression in the third, but that difference-maker he was looking for never came.
During the fifth and final period, Straus who went after Curran, landing a solid left hook that had the soon-to-be former champion reeling.
"It's a good feeling," said the soft-spoken new champion. "I worked really hard."
"I know the type of person I am: I'm a winner, I'm a fighter. Since day one I wanted to get a belt."
Newton defeats King Mo
Emanuel Newton was tired of Muhammed Lawal's talk. Tired of not being taken seriously.
He might not have quieted doubters who don't see him as a top-10 light heavyweight, but he did enough to hush Lawal and his supporters after taking a unanimous decision to claim Bellator's interim light heavyweight title.
"I can't even describe the feeling that I have right now," Newton said. "I worked so hard for this."
Judges sitting cageside agreed on Newton, giving identical 48-46 scores. ESPN.com saw it for Lawal, giving the amateur wrestling world champion the first, fourth and fifth rounds for a 48-47 score.
Lawal, a decorated international wrestler, didn't wish to see a repeat of March, when Newton spun and unloaded a strike that put "King Mo" down in front of a stunned audience.
Newton, however, didn't make it easy for Lawal. Fighting in his hometown, Newton did what he does well: unorthodox striking that includes a multitude of vertigo-inducing techniques. Lawal was well prepared this time, dropping levels at the moment Newton turned his back.
In the second, Lawal (11-3) secured a takedown and top control, but only briefly. Newton's ability to stand after being put down saved him. Newton began doubling up his jab, and brought the right hand behind it, while Lawal appeared somewhat sluggish.
Lawal opened the third with a series of punches, though he was also frustrated and showed that on his face. Newton aimed to kick at the end of combinations, and he did this repeatedly. One to the body scored and hurt King Mo.
The fourth was tight. Lawal and Newton both scored and had their moments.
In the decisive fifth, Lawal opened with a short left hook. He scored on a counter right, and ducked under another spinning backfist attempt. Newton's face began to show damage, as he bled underneath his right eye.
Newton (22-7-1) responded to Lawal's aggression, and he connected with several rights before contending with Lawal's wrestling again.
The win sets Newton up to fight Bellator light heavyweight champion Atilla Vegh, who was forced to the sideline with an injury.
Richman stops Stepanyan in Round 1
In a featherweight attraction that opened the televised card, Mike Richman hit pay dirt against Akop Stepanyan, dropping the Russian to score a finish at 4:05 of Round 1.
With both fighters stepping into the cage off a loss during Bellator's latest 145-pound tournament, they were lined up for a showcase. Action was measured in first 120 seconds. Richman, a southpaw, danced with Stepanyan, and the pair tossed out mostly range-finding punches. Business picked up when Stepanyan (13-7) dropped a straight right to Richman's body and followed with a left hook. Richman responded with several short right hooks, eventually scoring a clipping shot that sent his foe backward.
Vying to become the third straight fighter from Russia to defeat Richman, Stepanyan stepped up and powered a right that sent Richman reeling. The American told himself he was not going to go down.
"I'm going down swinging," he said in the cage afterward.
Riggs revives career with win over Bronzoulis
Veteran Joe "Diesel" Riggs sought a new lease on his fighting life. He may or may not have gotten one after beating Mike Bronzoulis by unanimous decision to take the finals of "Fight Master," Bellator's reality TV series.
Riggs pockets $100,000 richer and knows a tournament opportunity is in front of him.
"It means everything to me," Riggs said. "It means taking care of my family."
Judges cageside tallied identical 30-27 totals. ESPN.com saw it the same.
The fight was that one-sided. Each period looked alike, as Riggs played the aggressor and controlled Bronzoulis (15-6-1) with takedowns, including a big slam in the third. On the floor, Riggs advanced to Bronzoulis's back several times, forcing his way into the position yet never coming close to finding a finish.
The contest was sloppy, yet Riggs (40-14), who won four times on the show to get this fight and struggled with an eye injury that delayed the contest two months, was clearly the superior mixed martial artist.
Bellator MMA settled with Eddie Alvarez and secured the former champion's rematch with Michael Chandler for its Nov. 2 pay-per-view in Southern California.
For several reasons, this is significant news.
The real main event
Mark my words: Even with the gravitational pull of fighters such as Quinton Jackson and Tito Ortiz, Chandler-Alvarez 2 will earn the bulk of media and fan attention. That's a good thing, as it should receive the spotlight, even if their names aren't front and center on the marquee.
"I think the true-blue MMA fans will see this one, even though it's the co-main event, and think it's definitely as interesting if not more than Tito-Rampage," said Chandler, who made sure to pay his respects to the light heavyweight pair.
Chandler-Alvarez 2 provides something for the pay-per-view that Rampage-Ortiz could not: legitimacy. All of a sudden the card elicits a new feeling, one far less frivolous than the fun time implied by Jackson-Ortiz.
This lightweight rematch is, as Chandler described, the best contest Bellator can make right now, in part because it's the most promotable, which if done right looks like a useful combination for selling pay-per-views.
"There's been a lot of tension and drama built up since that [first] fight," said Alvarez's manager, Glenn Robinson. "I think people will tune in to see."
Said Chandler, when asked how to effectively promote a matchup that fans saw for free the first time: "All you got to do is hop on YouTube, type in 'Michael Chandler versus Eddie Alvarez' and you will be entertained for 21 minutes."
In speaking with Alvarez and Bellator founder and CEO Bjorn Rebney on Monday, it's clear neither man is happy with the other at the moment. They're glad the litigation is over. They're glad a contract and fight is in place. But they're not on the best of terms with each other.
Alvarez said regardless of how they feel, they'll do business together. Rebney basically said the same thing.
Asked if he was happy that Alvarez, who has been with Bellator since it began in 2009, returned in time to participate in the promotion's first pay-per-view, Rebney was cool in his response.
"I like the fact that Ed Alvarez is a world-class lightweight," Rebney said. "I like the fact that I've been able to make the rematch between Chandler and Alvarez, which was a fight that a lot of MMA fans ask me about and talk about. I like both of those facets a great deal."
One interesting point about the closing of this deal is the involvement of Bellator president Tim Danaher, who's thought of as a level-headed counterweight to Rebney's sometimes manic people skills.
"He's an incredibly talented executive and was able to step in and bring this entire matter, after a very long and involved negotiation, to a conclusion," Rebney said. "He did an amazing job. It was about time. It was about reaching a resolution."
Robinson called Danaher a "really, really great guy." And Alvarez said "we owe it to him for being able to nail this down and put this behind us."
Rebney suggested his feelings about Alvarez (and vice versa) don't matter. Focusing on them takes away from the point of the whole negotiation: getting both fighters into the Bellator cage again.
Free-agency lessons learned
Alvarez's experience as a free agent isn't typical. But it was valuable.
"Everybody wants to know their true value and what they're worth as a fighter," Alvarez said. "It's a rare occasion where you get to go out and do that."
Alvarez said when the UFC offer became public, he learned of five or six fighters who immediately received raises as a result.
"That made me feel regardless of what happened, a little bit of power was put back in the fighters' hands and guys got raises," he said. "We deserve it. We work hard."
Alvarez was willing to go to the UFC, which he called a "great" organization, but based on his history, it's fitting that, for now, the move won't happen.
Since his pro debut, Alvarez has bounced around the globe, landing some of the biggest non-UFC fights he could find in his division. Participating on the first Bellator MMA pay-per-view makes sense considering Alvarez was one of the company's first stars.
Alvarez said the most important lesson was not becoming emotional, which was easier said than done.
"I'm guilty," he said. "I got emotional about it because I was in it."
Did Bellator one-up the UFC?
UFC made a play for Alvarez.
Bellator countered and prevailed.
This is only one example, but it's an important boost for people inside the Viacom-tied promotion. The fact that Zuffa couldn't nab Alvarez means very little for UFC business. Joe Silva is swamped with terrific lightweights, and the Octagon will continue to host important fights at 155 for as long as it wants. But this news marks a rare loss for Zuffa outside the Octagon on the contractual/legal front.
Bellator has shown itself willing and able to make the most out of courtroom maneuvers. Against a litigious behemoth like Zuffa, this is incredibly important when it comes to competitive viability.
As for Rebney: Despite having to back off to nail down the deal with Alvarez, he comes out looking like a guy who can make good things happen.
News stories following Bellator MMA's first event of the summer will focus rightly on Muhammed Lawal's vicious knockout of Seth Petruzelli and Renato "Babalu" Sobral's retirement.
And for that, Bellator and Spike TV should be grateful.
Because without Lawal driving a rivet through Petruzelli's face, or the memories and plaudits inspired by Sobral -- whose decision to lay down his gloves in the center of the cage while kneeling reverentially was lovely -- Wednesday night's fight card came across as all sorts of ugly.
Bellator can represent itself as challenger to the UFC, as a place where competition between fighters is the only thing that matters -- toughest tournament in sports and all -- but that's undercut when guys such as 35-year-old, 5-foot-8, 260-pound Jeremiah O'Neal (12-22) are given bouts, and the Ron Sparks of the world receive live television slots.
In O'Neal's case, he fought boxing convert Raphael Butler, who went to 6-0 with an early knockout. I failed to see the point. O'Neal won't go anywhere -- he lost to a bunch of names, but mostly at welterweight and middleweight. He entered Bellator off a loss. Worse: O'Neal's last win came in 2011, against 1-3 Kelly Rundle, who turns 51 this August. Prior to that, O'Neal hadn't won since 2007. Want to kill some time? Check out the records of the guys O'Neal actually defeated.
Look, I don't want to tear down O'Neal. It's Bellator that deserves to be embarrassed. I've given them plenty of credit for finding young, fresh talent. For the most part, the promotion's scouting team of Sam Caplan and Zach Light do a very good job, but their work can easily get dinged when this kind of matchmaking happens, even on an undercard contest. Butler can't improve as a prospect against a guy like O'Neal, so what's the point? He hits hard -- fine. But we could have seen that just the same if he faced a heavy bag.
As for television, the decision to match Vitaly Minakov against Sparks was pretty sad. Minakov (11-0) looks like a legit heavyweight prospect, but no one could know one way or the other after he put away the 38-year-old Sparks in 32 seconds. Thankfully, Minakov faces Ryan Martinez on July 31, who at least appears a threat.
Let me leave on an up note. Bellator's card at the end of July near Albuquerque sets up as a terrific night of fights. Lawal meets Jacob Noe in the abbreviated 205-pound tournament finals. Minakov is matched with Martinez. Bellator lightweight champ Michael Chandler returns against gritty David Rickels. I'm most interested in watching 22-year-old Andrey Koreshkov (who is the embodiment of the anti-Jeremiah O'Neal) fight unbeaten American Ben Askren.
GSP-Hendricks is a go
The UFC welterweight championship contest between Georges St-Pierre and Johny Hendricks was made official this week. It will headline what most people will come to call the UFC's 20th anniversary event on Nov. 16, most likely in Las Vegas.
I'll just say this: I don't care that the UFC couldn't pull off an interdivisional mega-fight at Madison Square Garden to mark the occasion. GSP-Hendricks is absolutely fine by me -- no matter the night, regardless of the commemoration.
Why? Easy. Hendricks appears to be the biggest threat to St-Pierre in the welterweight division. And I think the once-beaten southpaw power-puncher pulls off the upset.
Good news, bad news
Bad news first.
Now the good news.
TJ Grant won't get pushed out of a championship spot against Henderson. The 29-year-old Canadian smoked Gray Maynard in May to earn the opportunity, and should be the man to face Henderson -- even if some may say it's not nearly as marketable a pay-per-view attraction as a rematch between Henderson and Pettis, Showtime Kick, et al.
Anyhow, like GSP-Hendricks, I'm calling an upset. Grant beats Henderson.
Lombard to 170
There had been calls for Hector Lombard to drop 15 pounds and fight at welterweight for as long as the strong Cuban competed in MMA. Yet for seven years, Lombard saw no reason to leave middleweight. He was strong and fast, and won more than enough contests by stoppage to form a convincing argument that 185 was the place to be.
Then he entered the UFC. And a year later, Lombard officially revealed it was time to shed the weight. Losses to Tim Boetsch and Yushin Okami indicated Lombard wasn’t as good as he thought, and larger middleweights who were also viable competitors could stifle his explosion.
What could a 170-pound Lombard do?
Get fans excited, for starters, especially if he carries his power down with him. Lombard posted on Twitter that he wants to fight Nate Marquardt, who was also a middleweight convert. That’s a nice first fight for him.
The real question is whether Lombard will be able to handle the speed of the welterweight division. For all of the talk of his power, it was Lombard’s haste that made him at 185. Absent that advantage and coupled with the realization that he’s probably shorter than most welterweights, Lombard will have to make full use of his skills, including a judo game that always seems underutilized when he fights.
Lady Liberty says 'no' to MMA again
Ready for the least shocking news of 2013?
Sheldon Silver, speaker of the New York State Assembly, declined to bring for a vote a bill intended to legalize MMA in the state. That makes Silver 4-0 against MMA legislation, having scuttled the process the past four years.
Because Silver obviously can’t watch pro MMA in New York -- the only state in the Union where MMA remains banned -- he might try the Glory event at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York City on Saturday.
See, kickboxing is legal in New York. Yes, even kickboxing three times on one night -- which is what the winner of Glory’s $200,000 prize will be expected to do.
It’s insane that New York licenses fighters to kickbox three times in a single evening and prohibits them from competing in MMA at all.
A solid start, suggested Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney, though not tremendous.
From Rebney's perspective the fights delivered what he hoped they would. Production took a "substantial step forward." More than half of their events were sold-out, a "huge change of direction from what we did in the past." He conceded "it's going well."
Spike TV president Kevin Kay agreed. Bellator delivered 36 percent more male viewers aged 25-34 from 10-12 on Thursday nights than the previous year. And for Bellator, viewership increased as a whole over the previous two seasons on MTV2 by roughly 400 percent.
"That first week we did over 900,000 viewers. The last week we came back and finished strong over 900,000. So I feel like it's a pretty good place for a first season to be," Kay said. "It's not like we're sitting around patting each other on the back, cause we have a lot of work to do, but I just feel like that's a nice number and certainly room for growth."
An expanded audience could come from a couple places, Kay suggested, including the upcoming summer reality show featuring Randy Couture, Frank Shamrock, Greg Jackson and Joe Warren. Spike TV's president is hopeful "Fight Master: Bellator MMA" will be a key ratings driver. Fan familiarity with Bellator's current crop of titleholders could pay off in a ratings bumps, too, he said, as evident by strong numbers for Pat Curran's second appearance of the just concluded season.
Based on Spike's experience working with UFC, the network stepped into its Bellator relationship carrying a strong sense of where they could excel. Fans needed to be made aware that MMA had returned to Spike TV, and that it was unique because of the tournament format. On both accounts Kay felt the job got done.
A Bellator app via Apple was downloaded over 105,000 times, Kay said. It'll debut for Android platforms this summer, giving more fans a voice during the televised broadcast.
"Ratings just tell you numbers, they don't tell you anything about how fans are emotionally connecting to your brand or your stars," Kay said. "We're looking at it all the time. On Bellator it's even more important because we're running shows every week for 11 weeks. We want to know how fans are feeling and connecting because it could help ultimately influence what you're putting on TV the next week."
There were moments the promoter and network couldn't control, such as Emanuel Newton knocking out promotional poster boy Mo Lawal, but even that turned out not so bad. The following week ratings increased by200,000 viewers. Kay owed that to interest created after Lawal's stunning loss.
Dependent upon several factors, Bellator could make good on a promise to promote pay-per-view this year, perhaps as soon as this summer. The most important element, Rebney said, is the type of fights it can sell. Atop that list would be a rematch between the promotion's lightweight champion Michael Chandler and former titleholder Eddie Alvarez.
"The reality is Eddie and I had an hourlong meeting," Rebney said. "We didn't get too terribly deep into things, but it was a good meeting and it was just he and I sitting and talking. If we can get something settled it could change the whole dynamic, but I don't know if that will happen. And if it doesn't happen of course we have Dave Jansen lined up and David Rickels lined up, both of whom are anxious to get their shot at the title."
Alvarez's manager, Glenn Robinson, declined to comment on the conversation, citing requests from the fighter's lawyers not to speak with media.
Pay-per-view would be a gigantic leap in the progression of Bellator MMA as a legitimate No. 2 to the UFC -- presuming its success. Rebney confirmed that Bellator has looked at venues in the midwest, but nothing is far enough along to make news. When the promotion goes ahead and offers a pay-per-view card -- and that seems bound to happen -- Kay said Spike TV will act as the promotion's partner, feature barker programming, and do anything it could to deliver a strong buy rate.
If Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney is to be believed, and thus far there's no reason to doubt him, the promotion featured its top two talents Thursday night at Bellator 85. Michael Chandler dominated Rick Hawn by second-round submission, and Pat Curran slugged his way to a split decision over Patricio Freire.
Following the post-event news conference, the champions sat alongside one another, posing for photos behind their respective belts. Given the chance, I wondered aloud who was Bellator's top dog.
Chandler, 26, uncharacteristically demurred, smiled, pointed to Curran, 25, and turned his attention elsewhere.
"It's hard to say. You can't ask that question," Curran said.
But when Rebney says stuff like "I think we'd be hard-pressed to get anybody who would rank higher than Pat Curran and Michael Chandler right now in this organization" and "I think you're looking at two of the best mixed martial artists in their respective weights here tonight," it's reasonable to wonder, no?
Part of this, of course, is Rebney doing what a promoter is supposed to do, but more to the point there will be questions about the quality of the fights and fighters as Bellator MMA moves week to week across North America.
How good are these guys, really? How much of our time are they worth?
Should they be included among denizens of Zuffa fighters who have for so long populated MMA rankings?
ESPN.com ranks Chandler No. 8 at 155 pounds. Curran, rather remarkably, is third at 145. The promotion's welterweight titleholder, Ben Askren, resides in ESPN's "others receiving votes" trough.
Curran's opponent, "Pitbull" Freire, came in tied for ninth in ESPN.com's last featherweight poll. Eduardo Dantas, the promotion's champion at 135, remains ranked at No. 9 at bantamweight despite a shocking upset in August against Tyson Nam.
Eric Del Fierro helped groom UFC champion Dominick Cruz and contenders like Phil Davis and Alexander Gustafsson, along with a crew of respected Octagon-bound fighters across multiple weight divisions. He worked Chandler's corner in Irvine. Asked point-blank if the former University of Missouri wrestler could compete with UFC lightweight champion Benson Henderson, Del Fierro, usually honest even in the face of an obvious bias, quickly answered "yes."
"[Chandler's] intense," Del Fierro said. "All the similarities are there between him, Dominick Cruz, Ronda Rousey, Jon Jones. They're intense people. He's intense in training. He's a great kid. I love his enthusiasm for fighting and training.
Superlatives make for easy copy. Credit Chandler, though, for expressing a deep desire to prove his supporters right. This is not someone who wants to be handed his spot in life.
"I don't know where my style is going to continue to go and grow," Chandler said. "All I know is I want to be the best lightweight in the world, and however I get there that's how it's going to be."
Chandler is always talking about improving, and it was the first thing that came out of his mouth after beating Hawn. He must be "more conscious and cognizant" of what's going on in the cage, Chandler said, and that should happen as he spends more time in there.
"I want to keep that pressure, style, hard-nosed mentality and literally break people," he said.
Such was Hawn's fate. An Olympic judoka for the U.S. and a quality source when it comes to talking about guys who just beat him up, Hawn complimented Chandler's strength and ground-and-pound ability.
"We all knew he was a great collegiate wrestler," Hawn said. "When I was at the Olympic training center we had a lot of wrestlers in there, and they're tough bastards. I know what I was going to face and I got outwrestled."
Curran is less a wrestler than a well-rounded fighter, with a penchant for clean defense and counter-striking.
"I'm only 25 now and don't plan on peaking until my late 20s, into my 30s, so I got a few more years to really jump levels," Curran said.
Is that possible -- perceptually and in reality -- via Bellator's tournament format? Only time will tell.
A sport that paid him well and, to his chagrin, provided a whisper of fame, MMA has changed in so many ways since Sobral represented Rio de Janeiro in his pro debut against Sao Paulo in 1997 by winning an eight-man tournament via leg kicks, punches and stomps, and will-breaking, respectively. Yet through all the rubble, one component has remained a familiar element for Babalu and MMA: tournaments.
Few fighters are more steeped in the concept. Sobral won three of the five tournaments he entered, and came in second to Dan Henderson during a mammoth event in Japan in 2000.
On Thursday, the 37-year-old light heavyweight meets Russian Mikhail Zayats to begin his first multi-fight quest since 2003 (a classic one-nighter promoted by Paul Smith in Denver that featured, among others, Forrest Griffin and Chael Sonnen. Sobral went the distance with Trevor Prangley before guillotining Mauricio "Shogun" Rua and decisioning Jeremy Horn in the finals. The prize was $50,000 -- before taxes. Sobral hadn't considered that Uncle Sam might want his cut, and anyone walking the bowels of the Pepsi Center heard his frustration).
The prize for beating Zayats (19-6) and two others on Spike TV pays $100,000, plus a Bellator title shot. It won't need to be done on a single evening, yet the Brazilian sized up the challenge as the most difficult tournament format he's faced.
"On one night you can throw all yourself into it. After the fight it's a bucket of ice on the face, a bucket of ice on the hands and then you fight again," Sobral said. "But now, if you go home next day you're going to swell. And you have to be healthy for next time and get back into the gym to train. It's not possible to get beat up and rest. You have to train."
Into its eighth season, Bellator has almost been blessed when it comes to winners staying healthy enough to move to the next round a month later.
Asked about this, Bellator founder Bjorn Rebney knocked on wood.
"We've done, on average, four to five tournaments per season," Rebney said. "I think we've lost four or five guys total who have been declared the winner and been unable to proceed. So the numbers have been really, really good."
Bellator's good luck is rather remarkable considering the injuries that piled up around the Octagon in 2012.
While he was building out Bellator in his mind in 2006 and 2007, Rebney said he spoke with doctors and ringside physicians across the country, trainers and other players in the sport, to get "inside everyone's head" about how to avoid pushing fighters past their limit. Taking into account the typical arc of a television show, Rebney asked, "How many? How long? What could be done?"
"The consensus opinion was you could go one fight a month for three months," Rebney recalled. "You couldn't go longer. There were a lot of parameters. But it worked. The new tag line 'The Toughest Tournament in Sports' is well-founded. Hopefully those odds keep working for us."
Again, he knocked on wood.
Rebney created a scenario in which fighters, if they're good enough to make it to the final round, must maintain grueling training camps for a third of a year, if not longer.
"When you sign that Bellator contract you know that's what you're signing up for," said Michael Chandler, the promotion's lightweight champion. "There can't be any excuses. Three fights in one night sounds bad because you're taking more damage in one night. But when you're talking about training two months just for the first fight, then you have another fight and another fight, you're in camp for four or five months -- and that's a long time to be in training camp -- in the gym two times a day, six days a week, getting punched in the face and going through that many workouts and dieting that much and going through the ups and downs of emotions. It is a grueling thing, and it was something I knew I would excel at.
"It's definitely not asking too much, but it's adding a cool little spice to the mix."
During tournaments there's no such thing as a favorite, Sobral said, because "luck" has as much to do with advancing as hours spent toiling in the gym. He believes he's done well in these things because, as Renzo Gracie once told him, "when you choke somebody out, you don't get an injury in the hands."
Chandler and featherweight Pat Curran simply outclassed the competition en route to tournament crowns and Bellator belts. The mid-20-something fighters "exemplify what we're all about," Rebney said. "Using that tournament structure to go from unknown to top of the world."
Curran's upset victory over high-priced Roger Huerta, whom everyone earmarked for a fight with Eddie Alvarez, prompted Rebney to "put all my trust into the fact this tournament would give rise to the best fighters. They're the ones that are going to get through."
Hawn ready for his close-up
For the next 48 hours, Rick Hawn might best be known as Ronda Rousey’s Olympic judo teammate. But if the 36-year-old Massachusetts fighter upends Chandler in the first headliner of the Bellator on Spike TV era, the power-punching lightweight won't feel that he's been overlooked any longer.
Since shedding 15 pounds after dropping a split decision in 2011 to welterweight Jay Hieron, Hawn (14-1) has looked like the real deal.
"My technique and size weren't ready yet, but now I'm coming together as a striker -- as a well-rounded fighter," Hawn said. "With technique comes speed; with speed comes power."
While earning the shot against Chandler, Hawn took two of his three tournament bouts by knockout, capped by a highlight-reel straight right on Lloyd Woodard.
"Hawn has looked unbelievable in his last few fights for us," Rebney said. "So few guys are able to go '85 to '70, or '70 to '55, or even '55 to '45 and bring the power with them because they lose so much when they make the cut. But this guy, as an Olympian and world-class athlete, did it. He brought all that power with him."
After years of competing at the highest level in judo, the ability to drop bombs came easily.
"I've heard people say that not everyone has power or can create it," Hawn said. "Some people are just gifted with it and apparently ... I don't know. I don't know if I really buy that or it's something you learn in the gym.
"Judo is all about explosive power in the hips and being able to toss someone who doesn't want to get thrown. All that power generates in the hips, so maybe it's because of my lifetime in the other thing."
All his work has led him to Chandler.
"He can take a punch," Hawn decreed. "It's a tough fight. He's a grinder. I believe I am as well. You just have to get that perfect shot. That's all you need, right? It could be the end of the fight for him. Everyone he's fought he's destroyed or made a great fight out of it. Tall task at hand, but I'm ready to go."
News and notes
• In the wake of Strikeforce's demise, several fighters will hit the open market. Heavyweight Josh Barnett is a free agent with a following, but Rebney said Bellator doesn't plan to make any offers at the moment. "There aren't guys off that roster that I go, 'Oh, we've got to get him and make the move.'” He left the door open to scouring through whatever the UFC passed on, but demurred on the inclination of the tournament format as a divining rod for talent. "In this format, there's no big Kimbo Slice-esque superfight," Rebney quipped. "If you're not good enough to compete you're going to get blown out in the first or second round." Barnett is a classy enough heavyweight to have won any of the previous Bellator tournaments, that's for sure. Still: "Josh is a great character and he's had some great fights," Rebney said, "but he's not really on our radar."
• A couple of hours before Bellator held open workouts at Tito Ortiz's gym in Huntington Beach, the UFC held a conference call to promote next weekend's Fox card featuring Demetrious Johnson defending the flyweight belt against John Dodson. Also on the card is one Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, who continues to scream bloody murder about the mistreatment he apparently feels he's been subjugated to under a tyrannical Zuffa regime. Basically, he's making it sound like he wants to leave, and, as an example of why, pointed to an inability to flaunt his sponsorship with Reebok. Zuffa, he said, would not allow him to wear it into the cage. Zuffa collects a sponsor tax, which they are well within their rights to do and have done for years. Bellator has not yet. Rebney said fighters are free to wear what they want and the promotion will not impose its own tax. He also said that when Jackson is free, he'd be a fighter that might be worth making a play for.
• Jeff Curran, pioneering lighter-weight fighter that he is, is intently focused on his cousin Pat's title defense against Patricio "Pitbull" Freire. But he hasn't lost the urge to fight and promises to return this year at 125 pounds. "Big Frog" set as his goal a contract to fight in the UFC as a flyweight.
• Thursday's card at the Bren Center on the campus of UC Irvine is scaled for around 4,000 seats. Bellator expects it to be full. "I think that's where we'll be," Rebney said.
Waiting to speak with Bjorn Rebney -- the promotion's promoter -- Wheelock and Smith happened to be screaming over Michael Chandler's epic finish last year of Eddie Alvarez, which was perfect, considering what I was calling about Tuesday morning.
Rebney published an open letter on Bellator.com on Monday stating the company's revised position on championship rematches. Essentially: Under the right circumstances, they would promote them.
The obvious place to begin would have been a second tilt between Chandler and Alvarez. Rebney said it's the fight he gets asked about most in airports and arenas during weekly jaunts from show to show.
There’s very little doubt in Rebney’s mind that “had Chandler-Alvarez happened today, regardless of Ed’s situation, I would be on the phone probably four minutes after the fight with Kevin Kay at Spike network saying ‘When are we going to do this again?’ Because it would have had such a dramatic impact on viewership and fan response.”
In reality, he’s talking up the rematch that got away. Alvarez is a free agent currently negotiating with the UFC and Rebney sounds accepting of the former champion’s likely departure. Still, the outcry to see Alvarez get a chance at avenging his title loss to Chandler, said Rebney, "got the wheels in motion" for change.
"I'm never going to be one that completely plants the flag in the ground and say there's no room for growth, there's no room for deviation," he said. "There's always room to make things better.
"There's always room to make the product better for fans, better for fighters. I think we did that."
Rebney is now promising that if fans call for a rematch, and if there's consensus from Bellator president Tim Danaher and matchmakers Sam Caplan and Zach Light, and if Kevin Kay at Spike is interested, then so it shall be. There’s also a move down the road to pay-per-view to consider.
“Those are going to be driving concerns,” he said.
Less worrying, Rebney noted, was the idea that Alvarez (or any fighter in the same position) could fight for a belt while not being locked up to a deal. If it’s worth promoting, he said, they’ll do it. And Bellator contracts, considered among MMA’s most rigid, would not have to be revised in any way.
"There's just a lot of fights coming up where you just want the option to be able to say, 'That was awesome, you're the champ and you earned your spot. Here, let's do it again,'" Rebney said.
This would appear to be a departure from the concept Rebney put forth in 2009, in which Bellator title shots are earned when a fighter advances through an eight-man qualifying tournament. Rebney said he'd considered the issue for a while and is "at peace with it" because the "decision stays true to who we are and what we're about" and the show maintains a substantial point of difference from other organizations in the sport.
“I think what you’re looking at right now is the industry kind of fitting into where the industry will fit for the next five years,” Rebney said. “And I think we’re heading in a good direction. Any time you’ve got a huge, powerful, innovative company like Viacom, not just distributing content, but vested, owning a huge piece of the company, and tremendously devoted to its success and brand development, and you’ve got another major giant out there [Fox] who has made a very large financial commitment to the UFC, who obviously has a vested interest in trying to see that that content does well, I think it’s a positive."
During a teleconference Tuesday for UFC’s return to Fox on Dec. 8 in Seattle, Eric Shanks, president of Fox Sports Media Group, came off as bullish over the network’s partnership with Zuffa heading into 2013.
By no means was this Rebney’s most difficult call, but it does indicate that a month before Bellator begins its partnership with Spike that clearing the deck for fan- and television-friendly fights is a big part of the thinking these days.
"No one is talking their way into a world title fight [in Bellator]. Nobody is being groomed a la a boxing format where you get 24 wins against nobodies and get there,” he said. “You've got to beat three spectacularly world-class fighters and once you've done it, if you give fans an unbelievable showing, if it's an epic fight, if it's an Alvarez-Chandler type of fight, then it just made sense to me, and I believe we're staying true to who we are. We're not by any stretch of the imagination eliminating the objectivity. We're not eliminating the tournament structure. We're not eliminating the need to earn your shot. But I think it betters who we are."
In the parlance of Bjorn Rebney, "spectacularly world-class fighters" Lyman Good and Andrey Koreshkov will fight for the welterweight tournament crown Friday at the Soaring Eagle Casino & Resort in Mount Pleasant, Mich. Bellator has roughly 170 fighters under contract as it enters the next phase of its existence, in which Viacom’s financial backing and Spike’s television platform portend a boost for the promotion.
Good or Koreshkov would fight either titleholder Ben Askren or Frenchman Karl Amoussou, whomever wins their meeting sometime in January. No date has been announced, though Rebney expects this and other news to be made over the next few weeks.
Rebney said he hopes for three title fights per year at each weight.
"God willing there will be a lot of rematches, because if we're doing a lot of rematches it means we've had a series of epic world title fights,” he said. “That's awesome. That's what you want. You want the biggest fights to be the best fights."
It's the reason bantamweight titleholder Eduardo Dantas felt compelled to step outside the Bellator cage for an Aug. 25 fight with Tyson Nam at Shooto Brazil 33 in Rio de Janeiro.
A right hand flattened Dantas in the first round.
Fighting outside of Bellator, especially while wearing the promotion's title belt, is something Dantas hopes he never has to do again.
"I was very anxious before the fight," Dantas told ESPN.com. "But I had a lot of confidence in myself. I trapped myself; I got a little anxious and got caught with the right hand. I had a lot riding on this show with friends and family there, and being the Bellator champion. I wanted to do my best in my home country. This made me very anxious before the fight.
"I will certainly think twice about fighting outside of the (Bellator) cage. But I was ready for the fight."
Despite the setback, Dantas remains confident he is a superior fighter to Nam. One way he'd like to prove it is with a rematch.
But if a rematch is to happen, it likely will have to take place inside Bellator. And Dantas has a more pressing matter to address -- defending his title against Marcos Galvao.
The two are tentatively scheduled to meet Nov. 2 at Bellator 79 in Rama, Ontario.
"I absolutely want that rematch in the future," said Dantas, who slipped to 14-3. "Tyson is the only name on my mind when I wake up in the morning. I'm going to focus on my Bellator title defense that is coming up. But before I'm done fighting I want to face Tyson again."
Before his recent loss, Dantas was ranked fifth among bantamweights by ESPN.com. He has since dropped to No. 9.
The loss by one of its champions to a fighter not under its banner can't help bolster Bellator's image among fight fans. But CEO Bjorn Rebney isn't losing any sleep over what took place in Brazil. For the time being, he will continue allowing his fighters -- especially champions -- to seek bouts with other promotions.
"In the fight, (Dantas) was dominating and he just got caught," Rebney told ESPN.com. "The fight is kind of self-explanatory: He was in control and got caught. This situation, unto itself, doesn't change my perception of wanting guys to be able to fight very frequently and willingness on our part to have fighters competing in other organizations.
"But it just so happens that with our Spike TV launch in January we're going to have many more tournaments, much more frequency of those tournaments and a greater number of tournaments going on. So our need to accommodate a guy like Dantas will to a large extent be eliminated."
“As for Dantas wanting a Nam rematch, Rebney likes the idea and will do whatever he can to put the fighters in position to make it happen. He's considering making an overture to Nam (12-4) about fighting in Bellator, but there are some things even Rebney can't guarantee.
Tyson is the only name on my mind when I wake up in the morning. I'm going to focus on my Bellator title defense that is coming up. But before I'm done fighting I want to face Tyson again.” -- Bellator bantamweight champion Eduardo Dantas, on his recent knockout loss to Tyson Nam
"We'll have to see what happens with Dantas in terms of his world title fight," Rebney said. "If Dantas is able to retain the world title against Marcos Galvao, then the only way Tyson Nam is going to get a shot at Eduardo Dantas is by winning a tournament. Given the depth of our 135-pound division, that is not an easy calling for anybody. But if Eduardo loses to Marcos, given our structure, it gives us more flexibility of making that rematch.
"When a guy like Tyson performs the way he performed [against Dantas] you have to take a good look at him. Our 135-pound division is deep, but getting a win over our world champion sure is a pretty good calling card for getting in one of those tournaments."
Nam has expressed interest recently in joining UFC. Attempts by ESPN.com to speak with UFC president Dana White have been unsuccessful.
Dantas isn’t the first highly touted fighter to suffer a devastating setback, and he surely won’t be the last. But anything short of exacting revenge against Nam, and Dantas will find it difficult to recapture his previous standing among bantamweights.
Rebney doesn’t share this point of view. In his eyes, Dantas will have his shot at redemption against Galvao.
"He happened to get caught, which can happen to the best," Rebney said. "It’s happened to Chuck [Liddell], it’s happened to Randy [Couture], everybody gets caught at one point or another during their career. My realization is that he just got caught. It wouldn’t have mattered on that night if it was Eduardo Dantas or Pat Curran or Michael Chandler or Ben Askren or anybody else. He just got caught.
"Perception-wise, Dantas fighting in Bellator on Spike network against Marcos Galvao should be an amazing fight. He’s going to answer a lot of those questions and kind of re-establish himself in terms of where he should be.”
Three months from now, Bellator’s longest standing and best known star will become a free agent. Whether or not the organization can re-sign him -- show him the money, I guess, or lose him forever -- might tell us a lot about its overall prospects, even as the promise of an increased market share, ad revenue and exposure all loom just beyond the end of the Mayan Calendar.
Eddie Alvarez, after all, has been there since the beginning.
Alvarez was around during Bellator's ESPN Deportes days; the tape-delay days; the shoestring, wing-and-a-prayer days back before Bellator was welcomed into the Viacom family and destined for a cushy programming spot on a cable network with a proven record of success broadcasting mixed martial arts. As Bellator’s first lightweight champion and the guy who (almost by default) was the face of the company prior to the rise of Michael Chandler, it will be a shame if Alvarez isn’t there as the promotion officially begins its 2.0 phase.
A shame for everybody -- except maybe Eddie Alvarez.
The 28-year-old Philadelphia-native has already spent three of the most precious years of his athletic career -- specifically, those where he was considered one of the world’s top five lightweights -- marooned on Isle Bellator, fighting whoever matchmakers could turn up on loot. Josh Neer. Roger Huerta. Shinya Aoki. Alvarez’s list of previous opponents reads like a who’s who of nomadic journeymen. His loss to Chandler in a fight-of-the-year-caliber brawl in Nov., 2011 badly hurt his standing in the division, reducing him to (at best) a peripheral member of the 155-pound top 10 and given the dearth of big names on Bellator’s current roster, there isn’t a lot of opportunity to rebuild his reputation, short of one day avenging that defeat.
You think Gilbert Melendez feels like an exile because he’s stuck in Strikeforce? Imagine how Alvarez must feel.
At this point, it’s pretty much Chandler-or-bust for him in Bellator and the notion of sticking around in the smaller company likely seems less and less appealing the longer it remains committed to its current tournament format. If I were Alvarez or his managers and Bellator really expected me to wade through another eight-man bracket to earn a rematch with the champ, I’d have two words for them: Bye. Bye.
Even if Alvarez did battle his way back into a rematch with Chandler -- heck, even if he did all that and beat him to reclaim the Bellator belt -- then what? Alvarez would have to believe pretty wholeheartedly in the organization’s future and believe that SpikeTV is the missing piece of the puzzle in order to play out the string any longer than he already has.
Either that or he’d have to be kind of insanely well paid.
Alvarez earned a reported $100,000 for blitzing Aoki in two minutes, 14 seconds in April, so it’s not like he’s currently making chump change in Bellator. Still, you’d have to imagine his suitors in free agency -- or, ahem, his suitor (singular) as the case will probably be -- will come loaded for bear in order to lure him away.
According to reports, Bellator has a three-month grace period during which it can match any competing offer made to Alvarez after his contract expires. Organizational honchos have also said they’ll try to re-up with him on a longterm deal before he even makes the last appearance on his current agreement.
If you’re Bellator brass though, at some point you have ask yourself how much Alvarez is worth to you. Do you break the bank to try to keep him, if it comes to that? Or do you stick to what has been a fairly successful formula for your company so far, keeping the budget under control and relying on your tournaments (and, now, the promotional power of Spike) to try to build new stars?
In any case, Alvarez’s final obligation for the company is currently expected to be on Oct. 12 in Canada. No opponent has yet been announced. Smart money says no one, not even Bellator itself, is quite sure who that’s going to be.
Maybe that’s as good an indicator as any of where all this is headed.
Chandler took a gamble, departed Strikeforce for Bellator, and two years later the 26-year-old, top-10 ranked champion said it's paying off.
Take last weekend, for example. Chandler, Bellator featherweight champion Pat Curran and light heavyweight Mo Lawal, the promotion's recent high profile signee, were sent to Hollywood to walk the red carpet at Spike's Guys Choice 2012 awards and MTV's Movie Awards, spots once reserved for UFC-stamped fighters.
Spike, of course, was closely connected with the Ultimate Fighting Championship for seven years until the sport's most successful organization signed a long-term deal with FOX which began in January. That left a gaping hole in the network's programming and, more importantly, created an opportunity for entertainment conglomerate Viacom to own a piece of the sport rather than simply play the part of rights holder.
"There were people talking like Bellator was going to go under," the unbeaten Chandler recalled Monday. "It's cool to smack those people in the face. Bellator is on the map. Bellator is doing big things. Bellator is sending people out to big things like this. And they're coming through on their promises. Hey, we're on MTV2. We're on Spike. We're going to do things outside the cage getting me to where I'd like to be.
"I wasn't in the very first stage but I still consider myself one of the pioneers. When people talk about Bellator I want them to say, 'Remember when Chandler was just a wrestler from Missouri and he ended up being a superstar through Bellator?'".
Nothing is guaranteed in MMA. But with backing from a corporation like Viacom, Chandler, Curran and Lawal, who signed a unique deal last month that will see him simultaneously fight for Bellator and work in Spike's TNA Impact wrestling, all sung the same tune: things are looking up.
Curran, an unassuming 24-year-old from the Chicago suburbs, indicated that people are beginning to recognize him and acknowledge Bellator, which remains “like a family” behind the scenes.
"I never thought I'd be on the red carpet,” he said. “To actually be out there and get a chance to walk down the same carpet as all the celebrities, all your favorite actors, it was unreal. All the cameras, interviews, sitting through the award shows, it was an amazing experience."
A couple hours before returning home, where Curran, the highest ranked fighter in Bellator, could again do what he likes most and focus on a tough August title defense against Patricio Freire, he fulfilled media responsibilities following a press luncheon. With the growth of a promotion comes more eyeballs and interviews and the sort of stuff he isn’t crazy about.
But he’s learning.
"Earlier in my career I didn't want to be in the spotlight,” he said. “I just wanted to fight and train, see how far I can take it. Now I realize you have to do this media and be in front of the camera. You just have to do that as champion."
Lawal isn’t so shy, and as Curran went to his room to hurriedly pack for a ride to Los Angeles International Airport, the former Strikeforce light heavyweight champion dominated the small gathering of reporters. Currently serving a nine-month suspension by the Nevada State Athletic Commission that was issued in March following a positive test for anabolic steroids, Lawal took swipes at Zuffa, which owns the UFC and famously purchased Strikeforce last year. Being loud is one of the major reasons Lawal scored the dual contract. He said his priority is MMA, and pro wrestling won’t require more than two weekends on the road in any given month.
"I'm going to look to improve in MMA,” said the 31-year-old amateur wrestler turned fighter, “but use pro wrestling to supplement my fun time. It's going to be hard work, but at the same time it's something I always wanted to do."
Lawal delivers something Bellator hasn’t had: a character and headline maker. To this point, the promotion has gained attention on the strength of its action, which Curran suggested is a result of the tournament format Rebney established from the beginning. Lawal will enter a light heavyweight bracket at the start of next year when the promotion transitions from MTV2 to Spike, and he believes that success on the pro wrestling side will be directly tied to how well he does in the cage.
Curran and Chandler rose through tournaments to claim Bellator belts. As a result, both are ranked and regarded as among the best young fighters in their respective divisions. That’s why a quiet kid from Illinois and God-fearing fighter from Missouri were picked to join a loud Texan for a weekend in the world’s entertainment capital.
Curran suggested his fellow titleholder named most of the celebrities the group encountered over the last few days.
"Except for Jean Claude Van Damme,” whom the crew ran into outside their boutique hotel in Westwood, “I didn't really know too many of them."
Maybe not, but more often these days they’re moving in the same circles.
It wouldn’t really feel like a Diaz victory, after all, without copious shout-outs to the homies. It wouldn’t feel right without some chest-thumping on behalf of the 209, or Stockton, or NorCal, or just California in general (it seems the place the Diazes call home gets bigger the farther away they get). The evening just wouldn’t be complete without the now obligatory praise for a newly vanquished opponent and at least one out-of-the-blue announcement to make us all narrow our eyes at the TV a little bit and go: “Huh?”
On Saturday night in New Jersey, it was Nate Diaz’s turn.
Diaz had just defeated Jim Miller at UFC on Fox 3 to solidify his position as top contender for the organization’s lightweight title. In an absolutely appropriate summation by UFC color commentator Joe Rogan, Diaz had “completely handled” Miller en route to dealing him the first stoppage loss of his MMA career via funky second-round guillotine choke. It was Diaz’s third win in a row since dropping back down from welterweight last year. He seems to have suddenly come into his own inside the Octagon and is now set to take on the winner of the Aug. 11 do-over between champion Ben Henderson and ex-champ Frankie Edgar.
When asked by Rogan how he views his own standing in the sport’s most competitive division, Diaz first stumbled through the typical clichés about wanting to be top dog, but then tacked on an addendum that -- while not exactly surprising -- speaks to the unique landscape of the 155-pound division right now.
“I’m trying to be the No. 1 in this world,” Diaz said. “There’s only one person above all of us and that’s Gilbert "El Nino" Melendez, the true world champion lightweight.”
Diaz, of course, is terribly biased. He and Melendez are longtime teammates on the Cesar Gracie fight team, so it’s in no way shocking that he would use a live mic on national television to give the Strikeforce champion his propers. However, it is somewhat surprising that anyone on the doorstep of a UFC title shot would so readily and publicly admit he thinks the best fighter in his weight class competes elsewhere.
Also, even if Diaz didn’t know it, he had a point. His words actually did much to underscore the fractured state of the lightweight ranks right now.
For perhaps the first time in the modern history of the sport -- or, at least, in recent memory -- there are no fewer than five fighters who can lay somewhat serious claim to being the No.1 lightweight in the world. Sure, maybe not all of them could make overwhelming cases for themselves, but you wouldn’t immediately laugh any of them out of the room, either.
Since, as Diaz sort of pointed out, several of said guys don’t fight in the UFC, it makes the question of who is truly the best in the world more difficult to answer than ever. It also obviously makes the 155 pound class one of the most interesting in the sport.
Considering that what we typically do when we fill out MMA top 10 lists is just insert “Whoever has UFC Title” at No. 1, Henderson is the conventional pick as top lightweight of the moment. In the former WEC titlist’s case, however, his meteoric rise is undermined a tad by the razor-close decision in his championship victory over Edgar at UFC 144.
At least some observers think Edgar rightly should have gotten the nod in that bout and people who subscribe to the old adage that it's necessary to “take” the title off a standing champion might be able to make a convincing case that Edgar is still the best lightweight on the planet. That matchmakers granted him an immediate rematch against Henderson at UFC 150 only adds fuel to that argument.
Michael Chandler is the undefeated 155-pound champion of Bellator and the 26-year-old Xtreme Couture product has spent the last couple of years laying waste to most of the competition in MMA’s highest profile mid-major organization. His title victory over Eddie Alvarez was a fight of the year candidate for 2011, but the back-and-forth nature of that affair’s three-plus rounds might lead some to wonder if Chandler is truly even the best lightweight in his own promotion right now. As long as Bellator doesn’t move to set up a Chandler-Alvarez rematch, instead appearing content to book its champ in quizzical, non-title fights against guys like Akihiro Gono, we might never know how good Chandler actually is.
Since that loss in November, Alvarez might have the least compelling case as a legitimate world No. 1, but nonetheless still deserves to be in the discussion. Prior to that defeat, he’d won seven fights in a row dating back to 2008 and last month followed up the loss of his Bellator title by dispatching erstwhile top-10 lightweight Shinya Aoki (also the last guy to beat Alvarez prior to Chandler) in just two minutes, 14 seconds. Alvarez is just barely hanging onto his own top 10 spot in the latest ESPN.com rankings, but remains the sort of guy who could beat any other lightweight on the list on any given night.
You can’t have a conversation about who's the best without at least mentioning his name.
Then there’s Melendez, who can likely make the best case for the top spot of any non-UFC fighter. At 20-2, he too is undefeated since 2008 and has avenged both his career losses during that current stretch. In his last four fights, Melendez has looked every bit the part of the world’s best lightweight but, similar to Chandler in Bellator, Strikeforce just doesn’t have the clout to offer him many new an interesting tests, especially with Zuffa still opting not to lessen its own glut of lightweights by sending them Melendez’s way.
At this point, it seems the most Strikeforce can do is book him into an endless series of rematches against Josh Tompson. They’ll fight for a third time on May 19 and if Melendez wins, his tenure in Strikeforce will seem more pointless and maddening than ever.
Should Melendez lose? Well, that seems like an even worse outcome.
Lightweight remains the most vibrant and hotly-contested weight class in our sport, but it’s also the most maddening, considering the wealth of high-level talent spread out over numerous promotions. There are enough contenders jockeying for position in the UFC alone to keep us busy for the next few months, but the question of who can lay legitimate claim to the 155-pound throne will be too-close-to-call until all the top fighters congregate under the same banner.
Until then, at least we know who has Nate Diaz’s vote.
Chandler is determined not to be a one-and-done champion so he has upped the ante in training camp. He's worked extra hard to improve every aspect of his game, especially his striking.
The extra work paid off Friday night as Chandler stepped into the cage for the first time since becoming a champion to face veteran Akihiro Gono.
Though his title wasn't on the line, the younger, stronger, faster and more determined Chandler wasted little time quashing any hopes Gono might have had of pulling off an upset.
Chandler landed a hard right hand that dropped Gono less than a minute into the Bellator 67 main event in Rama, Ontario.
He would follow the punch with another right hand, that forced Gono to cover up. With Gono making no attempt to mount an attack, Chandler began delivering right and left hands, many of which found the mark.
That was enough for referee Yves Lavigne, who jumped and waved the fight off at the 56-second mark.
Despite the impressive win, Chandler (10-0) preferred to downplay his effort. He has set his goals high, and knows there is much more to do before they can be achieved.
“I have a lot of work to do,” Chandler said. “By no means am I complacent. I promise you I am going to be the best lightweight in the world, and I’m working toward that.
“I’m blessed with great sparring partners and trainers. It’s going to be tough to take this [title] away from me.”
Gono, 37, has now lost three fights in a row. His professional record stands at 32-18-7.