Published time: 14 Jun, 2019 18:50 Edited time: 14 Jun, 2019 18:52
Bellator MMA returns to the mecca of the fight game for its second-ever event inside Madison Square Garden on Friday and they have stacked the event with a host of big names befitting such an occasion.
Rory MacDonald (c) v Neiman Gracie
The main event will pit Bellator welterweight champion, and former UFC top contender, Rory MacDonald against a man forged inside one of fighting's most famous families, Neiman Gracie.
The situation is something of a strange one for the reigning 170lb champion. MacDonald hasn't tasted victory in either of his last two fights, with his opening match in the Bellator welterweight Grand Prix against Jon Fitch last April ruled to be a majority draw after five rounds of action. Before that, last September, MacDonald was dominated in his bid to be a two-weight world champion when he was stopped inside two rounds by 185lb king Gegard Mousasi.
Regardless, MacDonald's draw with Fitch earned him a pass to the semi-finals by virtue of being champion where he will face Gracie in the final four.
And what exactly is Neiman's lineage in the world famous Gracie Jiu Jitsu family? He is the son of Carla Gracie, making him nephew to Renzo and a fourth-generation member of the family credited with popularising the sports of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and mixed martial arts. He is doing the family proud. Gracie is 9-0 in his professional career thus far, with eight of those wins coming by a variety of submissions - the last of which, against world class wrestler Ed Ruth in December, being the most impressive to date.
MacDonald, now a veteran in a sport he entered as a teenager, will hope to use his experience advantage nullify Gracie's aggressive submission game - but if the Brazilian pulls of the upset MacDonald won't just miss out on the Grand Prix Final, he will also lose his title.
Chael Sonnen v Lyoto Machida
What exactly happens when a dragon battles the 'bad guy'? That question will receive some clarity inside Madison Square Garden on Friday night when MMA veterans Chael Sonnen and Lyoto Machida meet inside Bellator's circular cage.
It is an almost perverse twist of fate that Machida and Sonnen meet, fighters whose careers overlapped in the UFC for several years but never threw down. But as is so often Bellator's wont, their matchmakers have seized an opportunity that the UFC's neglected.
Neither man will likely deviate from the skillsets that they have displayed to this point in their careers. Machida, the former UFC light heavyweight champion, will once again employ his karate-based in-and-out approach and look to score points on Sonnen from afar.
The American's approach is much more blunt; he will throw one, two or maybe even three strikes before rushing forward for a takedown or clinch opportunity. His success in doing this will be the key signifier for the fight, as Machida has laser-sighted accuracy in his punches so Sonnen will have to be wary if he wants to retain his consciousness in these scenarios.
Dillon Danis v Max Humphrey
Ask Dillon Danis and he will tell you that he is the biggest and best-paid fighter in Bellator. While RT Sport can't quite verify this claim, it probably is fair to say that he is one of the most notorious newcomers on the roster.
The world class Brazilian Jiu Jitsu player and training partner of a certain Conor McGregor is still a novice in mixed martial arts, though his skills in the Gi are very much transferable to the cage as he showed in his 98-second toehold submission win against Kyle Walker more than a year ago. His striking is nowhere near the finished article as of yet but you can expect his fight against the unheralded Max Humphrey on Friday to be a blueprint of his last one.
And if he truly is to be one of the biggest stars on the Bellator roster, Madison Square Garden isn't a bad place to announce your arrival.
Darrion Caldwell (c) v Kyoji Horiguchi
A fascinating second chapter of a story which began on New Year's Eve last. On December 31st Darrion Caldwell, the Bellator bantamweight champion, took on Japanese star Kyoji Horiguchi with the vacant RIZIN 135lb championship on the line in a cross-promotional battle.
The match took place in a ring instead of the cage to which Caldwell was accustomed and was won by Horiguchi by third round guillotine choke. Now, some six months later, Horiguchi is coming to America for to take Caldwell's Bellator title.
Horiguchi has an outstanding career record of 27-2 and has tasted defeat just once in the last seven years (a last-second submission loss to Demetrious Johnson in 2015) and is starting to earn such lofty praise as to place him among his country's best fighters in history. Caldwell, meanwhile, has compiled a dominant record of his own in Bellator and now back inside his familiar cage, expect him to pose some problems of his own. This has 'Fight of the Night' written all over it.
Aaron Pico v Adam Borics
With so many big names stacked towards the top of the Bellator 222 card, one of the most anticipated scraps is somehow buried on the undercard.
Aaron Pico is a blue-chip prospect if ever there was one. Very skilled in boxing and wrestling, the 22-year-old's name was whispered in MMA circles long before he made his professional debut and, somewhat against Bellator's usual practice of building prospects, he has been placed in the fire often and early. He was submitted inside 30 seconds of his debut fight before putting together four straight first round finishes of his own in the space of a year.
You might think that after he suffered another loss to Henry Corrales in January that Bellator might ease him back into the cage? Quite the opposite. Adam Borics has been a highly-touted name in European MMA for several years. The Hungarian fighter is 8-0 in the pros (3-0 Bellator) and owns a crafty submission game, particularly from his back.
A 4-3 record after seven professional fights for Pico would represent a less-than-satisfactory return on his blue-chip status but a 9-0 Borics (with a win over Pico among them) could well emerge as Bellator's 'next big thing' in his own right.
Valerie Loureda v Larkin Dasch
Quite frankly, Bellator wouldn't be Bellator without a couple of eyebrow-raising bouts hidden away on the undercard and a quick glance at the Loureda v Dasch clash might appear as such. Appearances can be deceiving.Also on rt.com 'I'm the face of women's MMA': Valerie Loureda aims high ahead of Bellator return
American fighter Valerie Loureda, a 20-year-old taekwondo master, took less than three minutes to dispatch Colby Fletcher in her Bellator (and professional MMA) debut in April and now the woman who describes herself as the 'face of women's MMA' will have a chance to underscore her claim when she faces Larkin Dasch.
Dasch has generated headlines of her own upon signing a deal with Bellator given her status as a 'Hooters' waitress. Indeed, the 22-year-old went viral on social media when she was pictures inking her Bellator deal while clad in her 'Hooters' uniform.