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USA Today

It has been a long time since Gilbert Melendez competed in a mixed martial arts fight.

This is not to say he has not been busy. Melendez hasn't spent his time playing video games or getting fat or hitting nightclubs during frequent trips to Las Vegas. He spends his days overseeing the evolution of his San Francisco gym, mostly. That, and attempting to find enough time to play with his four-year-old daughter. And help his prodigy kickboxing wife prepare for her 115-pound mixed martial arts debut. And train with all of the teammates who need him. And perform duties as an analyst for ESPN and Fox Sports.

You get the point.

He spent a chunk of 2014 in Las Vegas, of course, but it was in the service of The Ultimate Fighter. Melendez coached opposite Anthony Pettis, overseeing a team of 115-pound strawweights who are all vying to become the first UFC strawweight champion. And between finding the time to spend with his family—who came to Las Vegas during roughly half of the filming days—and balancing his own training needs with the needs of the TUF production staff, well, Melendez says the experience was a whirlwind.

Family is important to Melendez. He and his wife have put off the inevitable second baby because his wife wants to make a run at the UFC. But it will happen, eventually.

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Justin Ford/USA Today

UFC owners would probably bristle at the suggestion they even occupy the same universe as their counterparts over at Bellator MMA.

Actually, the bristling is obvious pretty much every time the topic comes up.

“I don’t give a s--t what Bellator’s doing or what’s going on with them,” UFC President Dana White said five months ago—via MMA Junkie’s Mike Bohn—as the two rivals prepared to put on competing shows at Connecticut casinos on Sept. 5. “It’s not like Bellator is some organization you have to look out for. Let’s be honest here.”

White’s demand for honesty is rational and well put. He’s right. So far, Bellator hasn’t been on the UFC’s level. Not close. Not yet.

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Alexandra Wyman/Associated Press

When it comes to the topic of Cristiane "Cyborg" Justino, UFC champion Ronda Rousey has never been one to mince words.

She's been vocal about Justino and steroids and other weighty issues for years. But Rousey's comments have always felt like they were made in the service of building a fight. Because that is what Rousey does so well, when she wants: she builds animosity and creates drama, and then you pay to see her fight. It has worked out well for her ever since she talked her way into a Strikeforce title shot with Miesha Tate.

And so you take what Rousey says about Justino with a grain of salt, because you figure she's going to fight her eventually and she wants to make money.

But after a Monday media day in Las Vegas attended by Bleacher Report, I'm not sure that's the case. In fact, I'm pretty certain Rousey passionately hates Justino.

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Christian Palma/AP Images

Much of the lead-up to UFC 180 focused on Mark Hunt’s chance to complete his Cinderella run to the interim heavyweight title.

After Saturday night’s final plot twist, however, it turned out Fabricio Werdum was the hero of this story all along.

Despite some dicey early moments, Werdum was always the more complete MMA fighter here. He weathered Hunt’s best stuff in the first round and then caught him with a perfectly timed knee in the second, forcing the referee to halt an onslaught of punches and hammerfists on the ground just a few ticks shy of seven-and-a-half minutes into the fight.

Hunt dominated the pre-fight narratives, but it was really Werdum who saved UFC 180 after Cain Velasquez dropped out with an injury. He spent the last two months living in Mexico City to get acclimated to the altitude and along the way was adopted as the favorite of local fans. He showed off his Spanish skills on the mic, danced and laughed during pre-fight festivities and kept the party going right up to the moment UFC President Dana White wrapped the title belt around his waist.

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Justin Ford/USA Today

While there were plenty of serious battles in the cage, titles won and legacies secured, the real fight Saturday night was taking place on television sets across the world. 

In one corner was the defending champion and Kleenex of MMA—the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Practically synonymous with the sport since its debut in 1993, the promotion is the home to most of the world's best fighters, the best television deal and an infrastructure that puts most to shame.

In the other corner is the upstart Bellator promotion. Now headed by former Strikeforce boss Scott Coker, the promotion has taken UFC's place on Spike TV and, after biding its time for years, is finally ready to compete with the big dogs.

Normally, it wouldn't be fair to compare these competing cards. The UFC, after all, was on pay-per-view. Bellator was free on cable. Surely you'd expect more from the card that cost $54.95?

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USA Today

SAN DIEGO — It was a night filled with a sparkling new sheen for North America's second-largest mixed martial arts promotion.

When Viacom ousted former Bellator founder and CEO Bjorn Rebney earlier this year, the company promised a new direction. By installing former Strikeforce founder Scott Coker, it brought in a man with more than two decades of promoting experience.

And on Saturday night—in the first true Bellator event with Coker's fingerprints on it—the promotion showed that bringing in Coker was perhaps the smartest decision it has made since the Ultimate Fighting Championship left Spike TV for Fox Sports.

The first place you noticed the new upgrades for Bellator? The new stage and massive screens for fighter entrances. The screens, accompanied by loud, thumping music, were used to signal the arrival of all main card fighters, and the graphics packages were perfectly tailored to each fighter. They reminded you a little bit of PRIDE and a whole lot of World Wrestling Entertainment's live-television product.

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David Becker/Associated Press

Fight fans will have their fingers on the remote control on Saturday night, as MMA's top three promotions will go head-to-head on live television for the first time. World Series of Fighting and Bellator will both start at 9 p.m. ET with stacked cards, joining the UFC prelims on Fox Sports 1 already in progress at 8 p.m.

It's an absurdity of riches including some of the sport's most exciting fighters and compelling figures. While Tito Ortiz vs. Stephan Bonnar and Mark Hunt vs. Fabricio Werdum have gotten the bulk of the attention, plenty of excellent fights lurk on the undercards.

Choice can be a good thing—but it can also leave fans looking a bit like a deer in the headlights. Which fights are worth watching, and which are fine to click right past? Deciding might be a bit overwhelming.

Luckily, we are here to help. We break down all three cards and then pick our favorite fights of the night. 

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Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images

Mark Hunt couldn’t wait to get out of there.

That’s the impression you got on Wednesday if you sat through all of Hunt’s long, uncomfortable interview with MMAFighting.com’s Ariel Helwani. Just a few days prior to taking on 4-1 favorite—via Odds Shark—Fabricio Werdum for the interim heavyweight championship at UFC 180, Hunt appeared distracted, displeased with his situation and deeply ambivalent about this weekend’s outcome.

In other words, he didn’t sound like he was about to pull off the upset.

Hunt began the interview by stoically stating he had “other things” on his mind, and after 21 minutes of questioning admitted he “doesn’t care” what happens when he meets Werdum in the cage. In between, he confessed he had to lose more weight than he anticipated for this bout, didn’t know that Mexico City’s altitude would affect him so much and dropped hints that there might be trouble at home.

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Jeremy Botter

It is 1:10 p.m. in a banquet room of this San Diego Dave & Busters. Outside, throngs of fans play Skeeball and shoot hoops and play video games that are far larger and brighter than the arcade games of my youth.

At the front of the room, Tito Ortiz sits, alone, at a long table that will soon play host to most of the main card competitors for Saturday's Bellator 131 event. Ortiz is wearing sunglasses indoors. He has headphones jammed deep in his ear canals, and I imagine he is playing Angry Birds or perhaps Star Wars Commander. Perhaps he is thinking about Stephan Bonnar, his opponent for Saturday night.

Or perhaps he is thinking of nothing at all.

Ortiz has arrived an hour early for the press conference. This, especially the part where it is taking place in a Dave & Busters, has a distinct Strikeforce feel. Because this is where Strikeforce used to run its events. And now that Scott Coker is in charge of the Bellator traveling circus, it is back to the D&B, where good times are had by all.

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USA Today

One thing we can say in UFC 180’s favor: There is no shortage of intrigue.

As the UFC prepares to make its first trek to Mexico City on Saturday, the future of injured heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez casts a large shadow. If all goes smoothly, either Mark Hunt or Fabricio Werdum will emerge from that gloom with an interim title and a date with Velasquez some time in 2015.

We just don’t know who it will be. Or when Velasquez will return. Or where they’ll fight, though the early plan is for the Octagon to return to Mexico. Best laid plans, as they say.

In addition to that, Kelvin Gastelum tries to make his case as a top-10 welterweight, and Dennis Bermudez attempts to keep his eight-fight win streak alive at featherweight.