Friday night’s Bellator 222 card, from Madison Square Garden in New York, was a lot of things. I mean a lot of things. So much so it’s nearly impossible to figure out where to start. However, more than anything, it was as if Bellator CEO Scott Coker’s soul and psyche suddenly erupted, raining down a million pieces all over the cage. For MMA fans, the card was like an emotional abstraction combining excitement and hopefulness, but also frustration and disappointment.
Again, it’s hard to pick a logical starting point, but let’s begin with just how quintessentially ‘Coker’ this card was. The lineup was an 18-fight marathon, comprised of UFC retreads, Japanese talent imported from Rizin, prospects who thrilled in breakout wins, prospects who were humiliated, a slew of ticket-seller locals; it was main evented by a tournament fight, and even a pair of Gracies. By no means was it a bad card—and despite its gruesome length was, by and large, a highly entertaining night of fights.
Yet, as I said, what made Bellator 222 such an instantly memorable card was the complex intersection of excitement, drama and politics. If I had to explain to a novice what Scott Coker is like as a promoter – his virtues and faults, and how they intersect in practice – I can’t think of a better card to use a teaching tool.
In the main event, welterweight champion Rory MacDonald defended his title and advanced to the finals of Bellator’s 170-pound tournament, with a five-round decision over previously unbeaten Neiman Gracie. MacDonald’s performance can only be seen as a positive. Just a month and a half ago he barely made it by a shopworn Jon Fitch, and this win sets up a fantastic rematch in the finale with former champ Douglas Lima. At the same time, in classic Coker fashion, he instantly suggested after the card that he was targeting September for the finals. Only for MacDonald to immediately balk at the idea, stating he wants more time to heal up. It’s not a Coker card until one of his stars instantly refutes him and takes the leverage in the situation.
Bellator 222 card did feature the crowning of a new champion, though; Rizin bantamweight title holder Kyoji Horiguchi picked up a second belt, replicating his win over Darrion Caldwell from this past New Year’s Eve. At this point, Horiguchi is probably the best fighter who fought on Friday night—having won his 13th straight bout, while dominating in two weight classes. But, there’s a bit of a problem: while Horiguchi is more than willing to fight stateside, he only came over as part of Bellator’s talent exchange with RIZIN, where he’s one of the focal points of the entire promotion.
If Horiguchi has a choice between defending his Rizin or Bellator title, he’s obviously going with his actual promoter in his native country. While Coker should be lauded for his willingness to work with other promoters, his longstanding obsession with Japanese MMA dating back to its boom era may create some headaches here.
But, was either title fight the focus of conversation after the card? Nope, because Coker lined up 42-year-old Chael Sonnen to face 41-year-old Lyoto Machida. Almost as soon as the second round begin, Machida crushed Sonnen with a flying knee and pounded him out. That knockout loss, in turn, immediately precipitated “The American Gangster”’s retirement. Also, it installed a diminished Machida as a top contender in not one, but two Bellator weight classes—an outcome that will probably lead to fans watching the Brazilian getting smashed up in the near future.
In fact, MacDonald and Horiguchi’s championship exploits probably don’t qualify as the second biggest post-event story, either. One the one hand, young talents Patrick Mix and Juan Archuleta – now a combined 34-1 – both looked outstanding in earning stoppage wins. Especially the latter’s sensational one-hitter quitter of former champ Eduardo Dantas in one of the year’s best knockouts. On the other, much more focus and concern has centered on the future of Aaron Pico – an athlete once hyped as the greatest MMA prospect ever – having suffered his third stoppage loss in just seven pro fights, to unbeaten Adam Borics.
Pico charged straight into a devastating flying knee in the second round and was knocked silly by a technique that’s a staple of Borics’ game—and that he even tried to launch at Pico earlier in the fight. While it’s true that Pico has shown some flashes of precocious skill, and has been matched tough so far in his career, he’s been hurt standing in all three of his losses and seems to be aggressive to a fault. Imagine if he started pro boxing, as he claimed he wanted to do.
He isn’t beyond redemption – at just 22 years old – but it’s abundantly clear he’s far from the “best prospect ever” mantle he was given. And as such, the promotion needs to dial it down with how he’s developed.
Speaking of pro boxing, far more ignominious was the lopsided beating sustained by pugilistic convert Heather Hardy—who fell to 2-2 in her brief career. She looked hapless as she was dominated by sub-.500 fighter Taylor Turner. When Hardy signed with Bellator in mid-2017, hopes were high she could be the company’s answer to Holly Holm—despite Holm having years of MMA prior to her transition to the cage. And obviously, the promotion would try to leverage her good looks. She was a pet project for Coker and Co., and it’s been a disaster. She’s shown absolutely zero aptitude for MMA. She’s now 37-years-old, and boxing promoter Lou DiBella just publicly promised her a six-figure payday to return to the boxing ring. She’d be wise to jump on that opportunity.
What Bellator 222 affirmed more than anything is that Coker is by no means a bad promoter; he’s easily one of the most successful MMA promoters ever. But, he has some unshakable proclivities and blind spots. Ones which often lead to boom-bust situations. For instance, the obsession with trying to leverage ex-UFC and Pride veterans in most cases hasn’t improved Bellator’s quality or visibility, yet it persists despite being costly. Hell, the exorbitant deals given to Fedor Emelianenko and Dan Henderson years ago were a huge part of why Strikeforce was sold in 2011.
And it’s not like Bellator doesn’t have talent, it’s just a question of how its utilized and promoted. Pico was rushed to the stars, yet far more achieved, undefeated ex-wrestlers like Joey Davis and Romero Cotton have both been inactive for nearly a year. For God’s sake, between Davis and Romero, they won seven Division II wrestling titles and Davis won the Dan Hodge Trophy.
Why on Earth wasn’t undefeated heavyweight Tyrell Fortune in the heavyweight grand prix? Why has his twin brother Tyree, also unbeaten, not fought in almost 18 months? We need main card space and promotional pushes for fighters like Logan Storley and Tywan Claxton, not Gerald Harris, John Salter and Chidi Njokuani. I mean, good lord, Salter-Njokuani was an actual main event for a Bellator card just seven months ago. The raw resources are there for Bellator, it’s just a question of fostering their development and putting the spotlight on them.
Scott Coker is unlikely to overhaul his promotional philosophy any time soon. He still has an eye for talent. And while moves like the fighter exchange with Rizin may create some difficulties in the future, for now it’s an exciting development. But, so long as there is a bizarre favoritism given to fighters who peaked a decade ago, ex-kickboxers and pretty faces, and no proper, smart cultivation of the truly talented prospects Bellator has, Coker will never be driving a train, but operating a rolller coaster.