Bellator NYC: Real Winners and Losers from Madison Square Garden

Steven Rondina@srondinaFeatured ColumnistJune 25, 2017

Bellator NYC: Real Winners and Losers from Madison Square Garden

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    Gregory Payan/Associated Press

    Bellator NYC, the biggest and possibly most important event in the promotion's history, is done. It was a solid night of fights that did a strong job of balancing local New York flavor with top-end talent and old favorites alongside young up-and-comers.

    While Saturday's event as a whole was filled with some devastating losses, like the one Fedor Emelianenko suffered, and some feelgood wins, like that of Heather Hardy, the full collection of winners and losers won't be known for a few more days. And ultimately, Bellator MMA will find itself as either the biggest winner or the biggest loser of the night.

    Making its first jump to pay-per-view since Scott Coker's coronation as company president in 2014, the buyrate for this card will determine whether Bellator has successfully established itself as a high-end player in the MMA sphere or whether it remains a small fry next to the UFC behemoth. Those are some high stakes for the promotion that will likely determine its direction for the foreseeable future.

    The initial numbers won't come back for a few days, however, so for now, feel free to browse over the real winners and real losers from the fights.

Real Winner: The Boxer-Turned-Fighter

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    Heather Hardy made a successful leap from the ring to the cage.
    Heather Hardy made a successful leap from the ring to the cage.Al Bello/Getty Images

    Bellator is great at promoting hot, new, young talent and it had its latest pet project curtain-jerking on Saturday night. Heather Hardy was on opening duty for Bellator 180 and got the night started right by scoring an impressive TKO victory over Alice Yauger.

    The boxer was already an interesting commodity for Bellator, even before her fight. Her 20-0 record in the ring and presence in the wide-open women's flyweight division immediately established her as an interesting contender and a potentially high-end talent. Just as importantly, her pre-existing fan following in New York makes her a perfect addition for the promotion, which does excellent work in terms of promoting its athletes as local heroes.

    With that in mind, Bellator gave her something of a softball in Yauger, a 4-4 fighter who hasn't faced any high-end opposition, in the hopes of her starting the televised portion of the show with a feelgood win. She managed to do just that, methodically boxing Yauger up before turning up the heat in the final minute to take the stoppage win.

    It was the perfect start to Hardy's MMA career, and the perfect start to Bellator's Saturday night. If she can keep going like this, she could have big things just around the corner.

Real Winner: Bellator's Conor McGregor

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    Irish prospect James Gallagher looked phenomenal at Bellator 180.
    Irish prospect James Gallagher looked phenomenal at Bellator 180.Associated Press

    Mixed martial arts is big in Ireland these days, and while the UFC seems content in farming eggs from their golden goose, Conor McGregor, Bellator has been scooping up the country's most interesting young prospects. Foremost among that lot? James Gallagher.

    The 20-year-old submission whiz has a strong grappling pedigree, and those skills have held up in the cage to this point, translating to a 6-0 pro record. Still, that work has only been seen by the most diehard of MMA fans, making Bellator 180 his coming-out party for North Americans.

    It was a big stage for him, and he made the most of the opportunity by scoring a quick, clean, first-round submission win over Chinzo Machida.

    While this victory didn't turn him into a star overnight, it was just what the doctor ordered for Bellator's version of McGregor. The young Irishman is already an interesting talent and has lots of time to grow. It's hard not to be excited about what comes next for him.

Real Loser: The 'Guaranteed Money Means More Exciting Fights' Argument

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    Ryan Bader managed to once again squeak out a win over Phil Davis.
    Ryan Bader managed to once again squeak out a win over Phil Davis.Gregory Payan/Associated Press

    There were a lot of interesting narratives converging inside the light heavyweight title fight between Phil Davis and Ryan Bader. The state of the UFC's 205-pound division, the UFC's willingness to let go of top-10 talent, the inconsistent performances of defectors...

    But one of the most interesting was Ryan Bader's new contract. His deal, which doesn't operate by the UFC's show-plus-win bonus structure, provoked a larger discussion about how the UFC compensates its fighters. This spun off into another debate over whether that approach encourages competitors to fight safer than they would otherwise like in an effort to secure their income.

    That's a particularly interesting topic relative to Bader, who swings from emphatic knockout victories to offensively boring grinders, and raised one simple question: Will this new contract result in a more game version of the top-10 staple?

    The answer is no.

    Much like their original contest, Bader took a questionable split-decision win. And also like their original contest, it was aggressively uninteresting, as both men took turns throwing low-risk, low-reward offensive flurries from bell to bell.

    Granted, it's not right to blast Bader or Davis for this. MMA is a sport and, as Herm Edwards once said, you play to win the game. 

    That said, this bout killed the idea that the UFC's contract structure directly affects the performances of competitors like Bader. He's capable of posting snoozers no matter how his contract is structured.

Real Winner: Douglas Lima

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    Douglas Lima put the welterweight division on notice at Bellator NYC.
    Douglas Lima put the welterweight division on notice at Bellator NYC.Gregory Payan/Associated Press

    Douglas Lima has long been an underappreciated fighter. Over his five years with Bellator, he has scored a slew of emphatic victories over consistently solid competition. Unfortunately, every time he stepped into the main event picture, he was emphatically slapped out of it.

    That changed last year when he scored a refreshing victory over Paul Daley followed by an impressive knockout of Andrey Koreshkov to capture Bellator gold. Those wins vaulted him into many top-10 lists and established him, at least momentarily, as the clear-cut best 170-pound fighter on the Bellator roster.

    While that wasn't necessarily an impressive achievement at the time, his weight class has transformed into one of Bellator's best over the past year with the addition of Rory MacDonald, the rise of Michael Page and the resurgence of Chidi Njokuani. Now sitting on a hotly contested throne, Bellator NYC was a do-or-die affair for Lima.

    He would either take a win over UFC import Lorenz Larkin and assert himself as the man to beat in the division or he would be washed away by that new wave of talent. He did the former.

    For five rounds, Lima did a generally solid job of bottling up the Monsoon, landing cleaner shots and scoring a clean knockdown in the second round. While it wasn't necessarily a particularly memorable fight, it was a decisive win for the Brazilian against an opponent whose name was trending.

    Now cemented as a top-10 talent, he is lined up for one of the biggest Bellator fights of the year opposite MacDonald, a longtime UFC contender who retains elite status. And if he can take that fight? Some big things could be around the corner.

Real Loser: Hype Trains

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    Bellator promoted the heck out of Aaron Pico's debut...and he lost it in just 24 seconds.
    Bellator promoted the heck out of Aaron Pico's debut...and he lost it in just 24 seconds.Associated Press

    Aaron Pico was the next big thing for Bellator. A wrestling prodigy, he had all the physical and technical tools to be an elite contender in MMA. Not only that, he had a unique swagger that made it easy to buy into him as a future star.

    Bellator knew it too, placing the 20-year-old's debut on pay-per-view and promoting it heavier than almost any other contest on the card. The promotion made sure there were a lot of eyeballs on his first fight. Unfortunately, that resulted in a lot of people seeing Pico post one of the most epic flops in MMA history.

    Facing the almost completely unknown Zach Freeman, Pico was rocked by an uppercut and submitted with a guillotine choke in just 24 seconds.

    Make no mistake: Pico's MMA career doesn't end here. He's still a young, hot prospect, and he still has all the time in the world. But boy! A coming-out party can't go much worse than that.

Real Loser: Everyone Involved with Michael Chandler vs. Brent Primus

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    Chandler has taken yet another strange loss.
    Chandler has taken yet another strange loss.Gregory Payan/Associated Press

    Michael Chandler is a great fighter. Heck, a case can be made that he is the best lightweight in the world today. Unfortunately, Bellator's on-again-off-again poster boy is a magnet for MMA oddities.

    Not long ago, a pair of controversial split decisions and the strangest KO ever put him on a three-fight losing streak. While he righted the ship and reclaimed gold in 2016, his second reign as champion ended at Bellator NYC in weird fashion.

    After a striking exchange with his opponent, Brent Primus, Chandler put his foot down awkwardly and rolled his ankle. Then he did it again. And again. And again. And then one more time. The action was paused by the referee for a brief time as the doctor checked out Chandler's leg, and the fight was waved off when he couldn't stand under his own power.

    It was an awkward climax to the fight that left no one satisfied and no one looking good.

    Primus' title reign started with a confused referee. Chandler's reign ended in a fluky manner. The fans were cheated out of a compelling lightweight matchup. And one of Bellator's most interesting fighters is once again in rebuilding mode.

    Nobody came out of this fight looking good.

Real Loser: MMA Legends

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    Fedor Emelianenko's Bellator debut did not end well.
    Fedor Emelianenko's Bellator debut did not end well.Gregory Payan/Associated Press

    Legends are slow to fade away in MMA. While team sports have hypercompetitive systems in place that weed out athletes as soon as they start losing a step, you're only done in the cage or ring once people stop paying to see you.

    That makes for a lot of slow, painful ends for the favorites of yesteryear, and Emelianenko was a great example of that. Long regarded as the greatest fighter in MMA, and still regarded by many as the greatest of all time, the legend of the Last Emperor has lived on despite a number of awful performances over the past seven years.

    In the NFL or NHL, an athlete like Emelianenko would have had his number hung in the rafters years ago. He would have had a tearful farewell speech to kick off Opening Day, and he would've been greeted by fans as a hero in his Hall of Fame induction ceremony. In MMA, however, he was slotted into the co-main event of a high-profile pay-per-view for a ceremonial execution.

    Facing the bigger, stronger Matt Mitrione, he was brutally finished after being slow to recover from a surprise double knockdown. He laid flat on the canvas for what felt like minutes afterward before struggling to his feet and being helped on to the stool by doctors.

    It was a sad sight that confirmed what every MMA fan already knew: Emelianenko is done.

    His career isn't over. Bellator will likely bring him back for a legends fight against a Wanderlei Silva or Tito Ortiz. And if Bellator doesn't, a Eurasia Fight Nights or Rizin FF will. 

    But the Emelianenko who survived the Randleplex? The Emelianenko who tore apart Tsuyoshi Kohsaka? The Emelianenko who decapitated Brett Rogers? He's gone. And he's not coming back.

Real Winner: Bellator's 'Legends' Division

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    Chael Sonnen's American Gangster shtick returned on Saturday.
    Chael Sonnen's American Gangster shtick returned on Saturday.Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

    Chael Sonnen is one of the most important fighters on the Bellator roster. He is one of MMA's all-time best smack-talkers and has beef with a who's who of legends. 

    The promotion gains a lot by having him around, and because of that, it needed him to rebound from his ugly loss to Tito Ortiz by beating up Wanderlei Silva. He did just that and did the company one better by letting his opponent look strong in defeat.

    The first round saw a surprisingly strong showing by Sonnen. An early double-leg takedown was followed by some of the heaviest ground-and-pound he's ever produced. While Wanderlei escaped and briefly turned the tables by badly rocking Sonnen, he still rallied back and managed to seal the round with more work on the mat.

    The second round was quite similar. Silva landed a hard shot and grabbed hold of a guillotine choke early on. The submission attempt slowly turned into a rest hold, however. And shortly after the referee stood the fighters up, Sonnen was back in charge on the ground.

    The Axe Murderer was visibly tired at the start of the third and fought down to that. Sonnen once again shot early and had little trouble in working over Silva on the ground. This time, however, there was no rally from Silva, and the final bell sounded with the Brazilian frustrated underneath his longtime rival.

    While it wasn't an electrifying performance by Sonnen, it was good enough for a unanimous-decision victory to the tune of 30-26, 30-27, 30-27. More importantly, the finish kept both Silva and Sonnen in play for Bellator at a time when they need name attractions. 

    Sonnen, always planning his next step, knew it too. After the official decision was read, he planted the seeds for a bout with Emelianenko, as well as a rematch with Tito Ortiz. While neither fight would be a technical marvel, there's no question those are money fights for Bellator, and the promotion needs money fights more than it needs exciting ones.