Three champions put their titles on the line at Bellator 300 on Saturday. Three champions dominated.
The event at Pechanga Arena in San Diego showed off some high-level command from two champs and a little workmanlike mastery from the third. Lightweight champ Usman Nurmagomedov did the improbable in the main event, outshining a legend, women’s featherweight titlist Cris Cyborg, who’d just put on a thrashing in the co-main. And Liz Carmouche, while not an entertainer in her women’s flyweight title defense, got an emotionally challenging job done with unemotional efficiency.
As for the “300” part attached to the fight card, that’s a nice, big number, showing Bellator has persevered since its founding 14 years ago. The promotion has delivered some big moments, as well as some bizarre ones. But was this a milestone for the company or a roadside marker indicating the end is right up ahead? Reports and rumors have been swirling that Bellator is on the verge of being bought by the PFL, putting the promotion’s future in doubt. At this point, the only event scheduled is next month’s Bellator 301. Is that the last we’ll see of Bellator?
Jeff Wagenheim and Brett Okamoto offer some thoughts on all things Bellator — what happened Saturday night at Bellator 300 and what it means for the fighters’ futures, as well as what might happen in Bellator’s near future and what it means for the fight promotion.
Nurmagomedov is a top-10 lightweight in all of MMA
Wagenheim: Let me begin by pointing out that my sorting of the top 10 is totally unofficial, ESPN-wise, since it’s Brett, not I, who decides on our divisional rankings. But I do have an opinion — surprise, surprise, longtime readers — and in my view Nurmagomedov has shown himself worthy of a spot.
Which spot, though? I’m leaning toward the lower end of the rankings, based on the 25-year-old’s lightweight title defense at Bellator 300 and other recent performances. Nurmagomedov is undefeated, just like his cousin Khabib was. Usman has been dominant, just like Khabib. But the level of competition matters. Whereas Khabib Nurmagomedov finished his career with whuppings of Justin Gaethje, Dustin Poirier and Conor McGregor, Usman Nurmagomedov’s last three wins have come against up-and-down Brent Primus, one-step-in-the-retirement-home Benson Henderson and Patricky “The Lesser Pitbull” Freire. This is not the most definitive measuring stick.
I’d love to see Nurmagomedov face a stiffer test, one that disrupts his flow state. Saturday’s fight against Primus seemed to be unfolding in slow motion for Nurmagomedov, who gracefully dodged practically everything thrown his way by maintaining a pace and a distance where he could strike and not get struck back. It was a safe, winning strategy, and the champ showed poise and command. But it felt like he was coasting. We need to see him pushed and see him push back.
Nurmagomedov is slated to next fight in the final of the Bellator Lightweight World Grand Prix against the winner of the Nov. 17 semifinal between Freire and Alexander Shabliy. We’ve already seen how the champ matches up with “Pitbull,” but Shabliy, winner of eight in a row and 15 of his last 16, might give his fellow Russian a run.
Perhaps down the road, we’ll see Nurmagomedov in with the other (and better) “Pitbull,” Patricio, or dynamic AJ McKee. Or maybe we can measure him against ESPN’s No. 1 lightweight and arguably the No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter in the world, UFC champ Islam Makhachev. They tussle all the time as training partners at American Kickboxing Academy in California. Oh, to be a fly on the wall at one of their sparring sessions. That might be all we need to form a more precise opinion of where Nurmagomedov belongs in the top 10.
How do Cyborg and Carmouche measure up as champs pushing 40?
Wagenheim: Cyborg and Carmouche scored finishes at Bellator 301. But that is where the comparison ends.
Actually, that’s where the comparison of their current state as fighters ends. In the big picture of women’s MMA history, both have been key participants in seminal moments. When Cyborg knocked out Gina Carano — the sport’s first crossover star — in a 2009 Strikeforce women’s featherweight title bout, it was the first time a women’s fight headlined a major MMA event. And in 2013, Carmouche fought in the first women’s bout in UFC history, falling to Ronda Rousey by — what else — armbar submission. But Carmouche nearly finished “Rowdy Ronda” early in that fight after gaining back control, and boy would that have changed the story of women’s MMA.
Beyond those breakthroughs, the two women’s paths diverge. Carmouche has had a few nice moments over the years, while Cyborg has authored a legendary career. And at Bellator 300, Cyborg showed she is not slowing down. Actually, she is slowing down — but in a good way. Instead of charging out of her corner on Saturday with the old Cyborg blitz, which won her some highlight-reel quick finishes earlier in her career, Cyborg showed poise in walking down Cat Zingano on the way to a TKO late in the first round. She took Zingano apart more methodically than explosively.
Cyborg is 38 years old, and speed is the first thing to go for a fighter. So, her newfound patience will serve her well. It might be the thing that keeps her near the top of the women’s game for years.
If the Bellator sale to the PFL goes through, Cyborg will work for the same company as Kayla Harrison and Larissa Pacheco. Fights against those would be two of the biggest in women’s MMA, true legacy enhancers for whoever gets her hand raised.
As for Carmouche, she is not on Cyborg’s level — now or ever — but she showed on Saturday that she remains strong and smart four months away from turning 40. Fighting longtime friend and former training partner Ilima-Lei Macfarlane, Carmouche didn’t let loose with anything resembling fury but gradually broke down the former champ with leg kicks. And while that low engagement annoyed the crowd, it ensured that the champ would not get caught by a desperate shot. It was a sustainable strategy for Carmouche.
But who knows what the future will hold for Carmouche? If the Bellator sale happens and fighters are assimilated into the PFL, would there be a home for the women who fight at flyweight? Stay tuned.
What are the most interesting fights at Bellator 301?
Okamoto: A couple of weeks ago, in a Five Rounds segment, I wrote that Bellator’s bantamweight title fight between Sergio Pettis and Patchy Mix is the most underrated fight for the rest of the year. I challenge anyone to argue any differently.
Pettis is on a six-fight win streak, with his last two coming against tough competition in Patricio “Pitbull” Freire and Kyoji Horiguchi. Before that, he faced Juan Archuleta, who is no easy task, either. Pettis is ESPN’s No. 7-ranked bantamweight, with a case to be in the top 5. And that’s the most stacked division in the sport right now, particularly at the top. Mix might be one of the most underrated fighters in the world right now. He’s a guy who finishes fights at 135 pounds and he is bringing a ton of momentum into this title fight. This is just a world-class matchup in a division that’s on fire right now — especially in the UFC. If you added these two to the UFC’s roster, on top of what’s already going, it would be the strongest division the UFC has had in years.
The rest of the Bellator 301 card is very good as well. AJ McKee will continue his new run at lightweight. Ukrainian welterweight champion Yaroslav Amosov is a worthy headliner. But for me, this card is mainly about the 135-pound title fight, which I consider one of the top fights on the MMA calendar.
Will there be a Bellator 302?
Okamoto: To be determined. Rumors of Bellator MMA’s demise (or its absorption by PFL) have been swirling for the better part of this year. Showtime’s long-term interest in combat sports, in general, would seem to be on its deathbed. If Bellator does hold another event past Bellator 301, it would likely occur in December, although no fights are officially booked at this time. One industry member probably put it best to me in a text message: “It’s up in the air.”
For the sport, it would be great to see Bellator continue to exist on its own, but from a business perspective, this move would probably be well overdue for Showtime — and its parent company, Viacom. Bellator has some world-class fighters under contract, but as a whole, the promotion has lacked direction and enthusiasm for quite some time now. There have been advanced talks of a PFL acquisition, and that is the outcome I anticipate at the moment.
Bellator president Scott Coker’s comment over the weekend that “these things take time” was probably the most accurate, insightful update he could provide. The interest and desire are there to combine companies, but all of the sorting out of details takes time. How much time, we’ll see. But Bellator’s days do seem numbered.