(Bellator 74 video highlights, via YouTube.com/BellatorMMA)
By Sean Cunningham
Pride Fighting Championships. International Fight League. Affliction. M-1 Global. As each rival organization has been gobbled up or at least driven from American shores, the Ultimate Fighting Championship has inched closer to ensuring that in this land, “MMA” means “UFC.” The only thing standing between them and total North American domination is Bellator Fighting Championships. Bellator currently airs fights on MTV2 and in 2013 will shift to Spike TV, the cable network where the UFC dwelled before leaving for plush new Fox Network accommodations. With the UFC going through some growing pains — witness the cancellation of UFC 151 and UFC President Dana White calling his most promising star’s trainer a “sport killer” — it seems a perfect time to check in on the competition.
My girlfriend Maggie and I attended Bellator 74 at Caesars in Atlantic City. In general, Bellator treads a less-glamorous path than their rival, with upcoming events at Hammond, Indiana; Windsor, Ontario; Reading, Pennsylvania; Dayton, Ohio; and Rama, Ontario, while the UFC journeys to Minneapolis, Seattle, and Montreal and leaves the continent entirely for Rio de Janeiro and Macau. Atlantic City is common ground for both promotions, with Bellator holding multiple events there yearly and the UFC having returned in June after a seven-year absence. (Incidentally, with the rise of gambling in neighboring states causing local gaming revenue to plummet from $5.2 billion in 2006 to $3.3 billion in 2011, A.C. needs every MMA event possible.)
Growing up in Nevada and New Jersey, I attended a good number of casino fights. (It was a deeply wholesome childhood, filled with apple picking, fireflies, and demanding that the cocktail waitress bring me a Long Island iced tea while the dice were still hot.) The fights were divided into two categories: mega-bouts and ballroom events. Bellator 74 was a ballroom event, meaning a ring was assembled in the middle of a ballroom, chairs were put around the ring, and there you are.
The downside to a ballroom fight is that you lose the buzz created when a headliner is announced and walks through the arena to the ring, since in a ballroom the distance between the entrance and the fighter is maybe 15 feet, so as soon as he appears, he’s there. (Also, it’s disorienting to see video of the fighters waiting in the “locker room” and realize it’s basically a meeting room with some towels.) The draw of the ballroom event is the intimacy: You feel like you can reach out and touch the fighters because in a good percentage of the seats, you can.
Bellator is a classic ballroom event in the sense it’s about a system, not star power. (General casino fight rule: the Tysons of the world ain’t in ballrooms.) Bellator 74 hosted the Welterweight Tournament Quarterfinals, meaning you saw eight top fighters in action for a shot at the title. Even if you didn’t know their names — and yes, there may be a few people unfamiliar with the career of Nordine Taleb — you still get to experience the crème de la crème of a weight class in an evening.
How was this crème? Here are my notes after watching Andrey Koreshkov vs. Jordan Smith, Michail Tsarev vs. Tim Welch, Marius Zaromskis vs. Nordine Taleb, and Lyman Good vs. Jim Wallhead:
-Upon looking at the card, Maggie immediately said: “They’re all Rocky IV!” Indeed, each fight followed the pattern of the American Rocky vs. the foreign Drago: two against Russians, one against a Brit, and, most provocatively of all, one versus a French-Canadian.
-Turns out one of the fights was a little more complicated than Rocky IV. While listed out of San Jose, Marius Zaromskis was actually born in Lithuania in the former Soviet Union, meaning it’s like if Drago emigrated to the United States, then fought…himself?
-Three of the four fights went the distance, with Koreshkov, Zaromskis, and Good each winning their fights on points. Tsarev submitted Welch in the second. Yes, this does mean the semis could potentially feature two additional IVs.
-Bellator’s big challenge from having so many Russian fighters? Americans will gladly embrace athletes from other lands, but we like them to speak our language. (Witness Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic in tennis.) Based on the pre-fight videos and post-fight interviews, Koreshkov and Tsarev don’t yet even attempt English. Chuck Liddell‘s ability to schmooze on ESPN prior to bouts helped bring the UFC attention at a point when they still needed it; these laid-back promotional moments are infinitely trickier when a translator’s involved.
-Speaking of Liddell, he would have been proud to see Lyman Good vs. Jim Wallhead, in which each fighter boasted a mohawk. (Technically, Wallhead may have had a fauxhawk; regardless, I think the Iceman would be touched.)
-Of the four winners, Michail Tsarev struck me as the most impressive fighter, entering the ring with a career record of 23-2 and nearly submitting Tim Welch in the first before finishing it in round two.
-Sticking with that submission, Tim Welch is a proudly Irish fighter, complete with shamrock tattoo. Watching him, I was reminded that we Irishmen need to avoid being brutally choked, because when denied oxygen we turn comically red. Also, eventually, we die.
-Michail Tsarev has one of the most unusual nicknames ever for a fighter: the Lonely Wolf. While “Lone Wolf” is hardly original and undeniably bad-ass, somehow adding that “ly” makes it take on a unique, morose quality. When he learns English, I hope he follows every victory by taking the mic and announcing, “I’m so lonely”, then silently weeping for a few minutes.
-Biggest Potential Crowd-Pleaser: Marius Zaromskis. He speaks English fluently, makes a point of going for knockouts (in his pre-fight video he discussed the joys of kicking people in the head), and after a win does backflips. He does a lot of backflips, performing one for every side of room and repeating them until he sticks the landing to his satisfaction. Seriously, he may have used more energy on this than the actual fight.
-Most Helpful Heckle: During the Marius Zaromskis-Nordine Taleb fight, one attendee who was not pulling for Montreal’s Nordine yelled, “Hit the Frenchman!” (Sure enough, almost immediately grasping the wisdom in this strategy, Zaromskis did so.)
-Biggest Crowd Favorite: Lyman Good. To the surprise of no one, the former titleholder who fights out of New York and likes to mix it up drew the most fan support.
-Worst Evening: Many a fighter can find consolation after a tough loss by telling himself, “I didn’t win tonight, but at least no one crushed my testicles.” Not the U.K.’s Jim Wallhead. With just seconds left, Lyman Good charged in to close the night with a bang. Unfortunately, for the second time in the fight, he connected with Wallhead’s bangers and mash. Good had a point deducted but was so far ahead on the scorecards it didn’t matter, meaning all that was left was for Wallhead to recover enough for them to run out the clock. So everyone patiently waited as an obviously suffering Wallhead hobbled around the ring on his hands and feet, hoping at some point he would again be capable of standing upright. At last he rose, the clock ran out, and Wallhead left the ballroom, presumably to find the gypsy and ask her to remove the curse.
And that was my night of Bellator. Will it challenge the UFC for American supremacy any time soon? Seems unlikely, but it should stick around longer than the I.F.L. As noted, Bellator appears on basic cable and plays cities often neglected by the UFC — in the case of Rama, Ontario, they reached a place I wasn’t aware existed — so if you enjoy the tournament approach and feel there haven’t been enough back-flipping emigres and punched Frenchmen in your life recently, you know where to go.