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Across the MMA Universe: How WNBA Star Kelsey Plum Became a UFC Matchmaker

Scott Harris@ScottHarrisMMAMMA Lead WriterFebruary 5, 2021

Las Vegas Aces' Kelsey Plum plays against the Washington Mystics during the first half of Game 3 of a WNBA playoff basketball series Sunday, Sept. 22, 2019, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
John Locher/Associated Press

Welcome back to Across the MMA Universe. Publishing every Friday morning, this column will scour the sport's landscape, preview upcoming cards, tell interesting stories and put some shine on the fighters and topics we think may have it coming. Let's get it on.

           

Kelsey Plum: WNBA Guard to UFC Matchmaker

If Kelsey Plum needs a nickname, she might want to go with "Lemonade."

Serious injuries are a dark chapter in any athlete's journey, so it was a bleak moment for Plum, a guard with the WNBA's Las Vegas Aces, when she ruptured her Achilles tendon last spring, causing her to miss the 2020 season. Adding insult to injury, COVID-19 travel restrictions severely limited her rehab options.

That's when Plum, a self-described jokester who clearly understands the sillier sides of life, set to work turning lemons into something sweet. She underwent rehab at the UFC Performance Institute, conveniently located in her adoptive hometown.

One thing led to another, and now she's served as a bona fide UFC matchmaker on not one but two occasions: Max Holloway's January 16 win over Calvin Katter on ABC, and the upcoming bout between standout women's flyweights Alexa Grasso and Maycee Barber that will take place February 13 at UFC 258.

"I was rehabbing here, and I got thrown into this world," Plum recently told me by phone. "I'd watched [the UFC] before but wasn't educated. These were the best of the best, and I got to see how they train and work, see how explosive they are."

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Las Vegas Aces @LVAces

Add @UFC Matchmaker to @kelseyplum10’s resume! 👏 Talk about speaking things into existence. A huge shoutout to @danawhite for making this happen! Check out how KP became a matchmaker for #UFC258 and #UFCFightNight https://t.co/DgBfi9YwP8

The more time she spent at the institute, the more she learned, the more fights she watched and the more friends she made. With no specific goal in mind, Plum peppered her gym-mates with questions about her new obsession. 

"I like to ask a lot of questions," she said. "What makes a good matchup? What's a good fight and what's a bad fight and why? I was a sponge, just soaking up info."

It was probably inevitable that all this new knowledge would mix with her penchant for trash talk. The unwitting participants? Lightweights Kevin Lee and Michael Johnson, who were both getting work in at the institute. 

"I like to stir the pot," Plum observed. "Kevin was a friend, and I went to him and pointed out Michael, and I said, 'Can you take him?' And Kevin said, 'I'd kill him.' So then I went to Michael and said, 'Word on the street is that you'd be easy money.' Twenty minutes later they're eyeing each other across the weight room."

That one never came to be, but fighters and UFC brass—notably company president Dana White—were impressed with her gumption. With her input, they put together the two bouts and made her new role official.

Can we expect more Plum matchmakig? Probably not. But it may not be the last time fight fans hear her name.

"It was just a one-time thing," she said. "It was a cool collaboration. I think any time you have a crossover between sports, people tune in and appreciate it. I gave Dana a jersey, and I expect a lot of them to be courtside."

         

Bellator Trending Up vs. UFC—And Not Just Because of Michael Chandler

I'm a fan of Bellator MMA, and frankly, it gets shortchanged on the sport's national landscape. Yet, I see the other side. It would be tough to cobble together an exhaustive list, but a high number of fighters jumped from Bellator to the UFC and stumbled (or face-planted) on that massive step up in competition. 

It's not that Bellator fighters are uniformly inferior to UFC fighters. But the fact is that Bellator can't equal the UFC's roster depth or, generally speaking, its contender stable.

But the school of thought that Bellator is inarguably a second-class organization is eroding by the day. That's thanks to two fighters.

The first is Michael Chandler, who announced his UFC presence with blistering authority Jan. 23 when he laid waste to a very good fighter in Dan Hooker in his company debut at UFC 257. Most people know about him.

The other, who has a lower profile but a compelling UFC resume, is Alexander Volkov, the Russian who headlines Saturday's UFC Fight Night 184 card along with fellow heavyweight Alistair Overeem. Volkov is 32-8 overall and 6-2 in the UFC behind arguably the division's best technical striking (until Jon Jones gets there, that is).

After those two, the top Bellator transplants have often met with inconsistency or downright disappointment. Here are a handful of the better-known fighters who jumped from Bellator to the UFC and how they fared. It's a mixed bag, but with Volkov holding steady and Chandler on a rampage to the title shot, Bellator's side of the ledger is looking that much brighter.

Lightweight Eddie Alvarez, 30-7 (1 NC): The Philadelphia product has a well-documented championship pedigree. He held the Bellator strap on two occasions and then captured the UFC title in just his fourth fight with the promotion. He faded a bit thanks in part to a hellacious schedule, racking up a UFC record of 4-3 (1 NC) before moving to Asia's ONE Championship in March 2019.

Welterweight Ben Askren, 19-2 (1): The stifling wrestler found plenty of success in Bellator, winning the 170-pound belt and defending it four times before leaving the promotion. His UFC career didn't go so well, with a 1-2 record preceding an abrupt retirement. Luckily for us all, he's coming out of retirement to box Jake Paul.

Middleweight Hector Lombard, 34-10-1 (2): The judo master with the mean streak went a perfect 8-0 in Bellator, but after leaping to the UFC in 2012 amid much fanfare, he only went 3-8 (1). Despite his chiseled physique, Lombard was 34 years old and shopworn by the time he made the switch.

Welterweight Ben Saunders (22-13-2): A fan-favorite action fighter, Saunders surprised onlookers when he rode his rugged muay thai (and one record-breaking omoplata) to a respectable 6-7 UFC record, including two post-fight performance bonuses.

Lightweight Will Brooks (20-5-1): Brooks held and defended the Bellator lightweight title but never reached similar heights in the UFC, going 1-3 before switching agencies again, this time joining the Professional Fighters League.

Did I forget an obvious example? Probably. If you have another name (good or bad), feel free to drop it in the comments.

         

Walkout Song of the Week: 'The Boss'

As always, these are real walkout songs used by real fighters.

This week's selection: "The Boss" by James Brown, used by Dustin Poirier.

This song was ice cold well before Poirier used it to prelude his recent knockout of Conor McGregor. There's only one way to be the boss, and Poirier, who has scratched and clawed for everything he's gotten in the UFC, has earned the right to rock this classic.

       

Movie Fighter of the Week: Donatello, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Everyone wants Michelangelo because he's the cool one, or Leonardo because he's the leader and the most well-rounded fighter, thanks to his double-fisted katana blades.

Reed Saxon/Associated Press

But give me Donatello. Why? Because you always pick the nerd. Always. His kendo stick may not be flashy, but I guarantee you that if that thing hits you, you're down for the count.

        

Final thought

Welcome back, Francisco Rivera! It wasn't long ago that Rivera was a rare bird: a bantamweight who could knock people out. But a four-year—four years!—USADA suspension put his career on ice after he tested positive for a banned substance, clenbuterol.

He never quite reached contender status, but he knocked out Alex Caceres and waged solid wars with the likes of Urijah Faber and John Lineker. 

On January 30, he returned and fought for the XMMA regional show, in which he fittingly notched a first-round knockout (check out the above video). Now that he's 39, we'll see how far the comeback goes. It would truly be an accomplishment for him to return to the sport's highest levels.

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