Early on in the history of mixed martial arts, almost every country and jurisdiction fought fiercely to keep the new sport at a distance. But, over time, they fell like dominoes. In 2020, the sport once called "human cockfighting" is legal all over the world—even in the spiritual home of Western culture.
On Saturday afternoon, Paris, home of the Mona Lisa, the Louvre and the statues of Rodin, hosted its first legal major MMA event. Bellator promoter Scott Coker, who once broke ground with the first regulated MMA event in California with his Strikeforce promotion back in 2006, gave Parisians quite a show, displaying in one night all the techniques and the visceral violence that has made this the fastest growing sport in the world.
From the hyper-stylized striking of Michael "Venom" Page (18-1) to the grueling grind-you-down brutality of Cheick Kongo, new French fans at the Accor Arena got a taste of the sport at its best and worst. There were good bouts and slogs, moments of transcendent brilliance and profound courage mixed with plenty of plodding, circling and cage-clinching.
In short, the French got an MMA show. As always in such things, there were winners and losers in the literal sense, one corner returning to the locker room with a relieved smile, the other with heads held low. But fighting is about more than just marks in either the "W" or "L" column. Careers have been made in valiant defeat, and a boring victory can be costly.
Let's take a deeper look at the Bellator experience and pinpoint the true winners and losers from the sport's debut in the City of Lights.
Loser: Michael Page
"MVP" Michael "Venom" Page doesn't have multiple nicknames for nothing. He earned them in the cage, mostly by styling on overmatched, overwhelmed foes.
When Page is on a card, fans have come to expect fast-twitch excitement. We want him to drop his hands, bait his victim into attacking and then unleash karate hell with devastating counters.
Instead, in Paris, we got a regular old MMA fight. And fans weren't pleased at all, with boos actually greeting both Page and his opponent Ross Houston as the fight went to an uneventful decision.
Sure, Page was the winner on paper. But his reputation for delivering exciting fights took a big "L" in the process. The audience wants MVP. Plain old Michael Page, it turns out, isn't nearly so interesting.
Loser: The Idea of Kismet
Bellator's debut in France was built around Cheick Kongo's triumphant return home. Sometimes, however, fairy tales don't always have happy endings. Timothy Johnson canceled all the victory parties scheduled around Paris with a surprise split-decision win in the main event.
The last time the two men met, Johnson wasn't able to survive the first five minutes. But, his confidence renewed after training extensively with UFC contender Francis Ngannou, Johnson looked like a different man. He smothered and outfought Kongo both standing and on the ground and eked out a tough decision in front of a partisan crowd.
Winner: The Lost Art of the Spinaroonie
Yves Landu hit Terry Brazier so hard with a flying switch knee on the temple that the poor Brit woke up completely unaware of what had happened. While the French kickboxer celebrated with an impromptu breakdancing show, Brazier argued with officials about the outcome.
Joy and pain live together in the same cage—the twin spirts of the sport.
Landu looked remarkable in the bout. But his real future may be in the world of dance, as his post-fight moves truly stole the show. He challenged gravity with his fight winning knee—but it was his physics-defying spinaroonie that will become meme material. Booker T himself couldn't have done it any better.
Winner: French MMA
Despite getting a late start on the world stage, French mixed martial artists established themselves immediately here as competitive on the regional level. Most impressive was 23-year-old welterweight Fabacary Diatta, who bested Dominique Wooding, a talented British fighter many expected to walk away with the win.
Wanting it more is a cliche throughout sports—but it's entered the lexicon for a reason. Diatta's continuous effort and refusal to be denied was the story of this fight. While Wooding faded as the bout went on, Diatta's spirits never sagged. His joyous energy was infectious, and his home-country fans were ecstatic to see a Frenchman with his hand raised at the end of 15 tough minutes.
Winner: Killer Instinct
The first three fights of the night didn't feature any fooling around. The favorites came out and demolished the competition, showing French fans how exciting the martial arts can be in the hands (and feet) of a master.
Following Mads Burnell's Brazilian jiu-jitsu seminar, Alan Omer demonstrated the power of a good old fashioned whupping. Punching someone in the face, it turns out, doesn't require much in the way of a learning curve for the audience.
But most impressive was Oliver Enkamp's Japanese necktie submission. The babyfaced 29-year-old never seemed to break a sweat en route to his third straight first-round finish. His nickname is "The Future," but the time is now for a fighter who seems on the precipice of title contention.
Loser: Bellator and History
For all the hype about history being made, Bellator missed out on being first to the market by two days. On Thursday, a smaller promotion hosted the first regulated event in French MMA history in Vitry-sur-Seine, a suburb of Paris.
The UFC, famously, launched with announcer Bill "Superfoot" Wallace's burp heard around the world. In France, a groin strike was the inaugural blow. When the potential for ridiculous shenanigans exists, you can always count on MMA to deliver.
Winner: The Gracie Family and the Art of Jiu-Jitsu
Royce Gracie revolutionized the martial arts back in 1993, showing the world that you couldn't be an elite fighter without the ability to compete on the mat. It's only fitting, then, that Paris was introduced to a similar concept 27 years later in the first fight at Bellator 248.
UFC veteran Mads Burnell took his opponent Darko Banovic gently to the mat, secured the rear mount and proceeded to pound him out. It was Brazilian jiu-jitsu 101—and the perfect way to showcase the sport in its major league debut.
Timothy Johnson defeated Cheick Kongo via split decision
Saul Rogers defeated Arbi Mezhidov via submission (rear-naked choke), 4:38 of Round 1
Yves Landu defeated Terry Brazier via KO (flying knee), 2:18 of Round 1
Fabacary Diatta defeated Dominique Wooding via unanimous decision
Lucie Bertaud defeated Maguy Berchel via unanimous decision
Ciaran Clarke defeated Jean N'Doye via unanimous decision
Michael Page defeated Ross Houston via unanimous decision
Oliver Enkamp defeated Emmanuel Dawa via submission (Japanese necktie), 4:10 of Round 1
Alan Omer defeated Ryan Scope via TKO (strikes), 1:46 of Round 1
Mads Burnell defeated Darko Banovic via TKO (strikes), 3:13 of Round 1