(Run and tell *that*, homeboy. Props: YouTube.com/BellatorMMA)
By DL “Friday the ReX13th” Richardson
Look, you know me, and you know what I’m going to say about the Bellator Fighting Championships: when it comes to MMA, they’re doing it right. Bellator does away with traditional ranking and matchmaking for their main events; they instead sign an eight-person field and let the fighters decide amongst themselves. It’s a format that appeals to fans and fighters alike, and it’s produced some exciting fights and amazing finishes. When some promotions go after a high-visibility free agent, they try to feed them impressive victories and pave the way toward championships. Bellator just drops them in the quarterfinals like everyone else. Upsets happen (see: Huerta, Roger). Cinderella stories happen (see: Curran, Pat). But it feels much more legitimate seeing champions develop organically like this while some promotions throw title fights to guys coming off of losses.
Never mind if injuries throw things off (Curran out versus Eddie Alvarez due to shoulder injury), or if those high visibility free agents get a shot at the champ anyway (Huerta in versus Alvarez, albeit in a non-title bout) or speculations that Bellator is on the verge of financial insolvency — they’re putting on good shows and the fighters are hungry. There’s entertainment in them there FSN channels.
If you’ve missed Bellator like I’ve missed Bellator (or if you’ve just missed me, for whatever reason), come along and I’ll tell you about the first event of Bellator’s third season. We’ll talk about the minor leagues of heavyweights, and the elite picture of the women’s featherweight field. Plus we might talk about how catchy that Bed Intruder Song is…
It’s seriously damn catchy. I cannot stop listening to it. Now, fights!
Neil “Goliath” Grove vs Eddie “The Manic Hispanic” Sanchez
Standing at 6’6” and weighing in at 264 pounds, South African Neil Grove cuts an intimidating figure, and his record carries a scarifying 100% KO win rate. Sure, the accent may be attractive coming from Joanne Spracklen, but it just sounds menacing when Grove says “I finish all my fights with knockouts, and I intend to finish all my future fights with knockouts.” Side note on Grove: he lost his lone UFC fight to Mike Ciesnolevicz via getting his knee torn up, because tappin’ out is for bitches.
Meeting Grove is 12-3 Eddie Sanchez, a UFC vet with losses to CroCop, Antoni Hardonk, and Justin McCully. Sanchez earned his spot at Bellator XX in a back and forth scrap with Marcus Surza, in which he enjoyed a size advantage. Grove, though, is significantly bigger than Sanchez, plus he comes in with a rugby background, so he probably won’t Carwin himself the way Surza did.
Action starts right away, with Sanchez lunging forward with a jab aimed up at Grove’s grill, but he meets a jab himself before he connects and pitches forward on to his hands and knees. Grove swarms him, and he slings more hooks than Timbaland trying to put Sanchez out. To his credit, Sanchez again shows that he has no lack of heart, establishing guard and throwing up his legs for an armbar, but Grove stands up out of it and motions Sanchez to his feet. Sanchez stands and swings a wild overhand right that whiffs completely, and Grove answers with a leg kick. Sanchez backs away, and tries another looping hook with his whole ass behind it. Grove blocks the hook easily, and moves in for a Thai clinch. Grove connects with a Thai-style knee to the head, then a hockey-style hook, and he’s just rag-dolling Sanchez, throwing him around, pushing him down to the canvas. Grove backs away, again motioning for more fun on the feet, and Sanchez wearily pushes himself up. Both of his eyes are swollen ninety seconds into the fight, and when the referee asks Sanchez if he’s ready to continue, the Manic Hispanic holds up his hand in a “wait, wait” gesture, as if to say, “Hold on, ref, let’s think about this a moment. I don’t know if I want to attempt a comeback against these three huge men in the cage with me.” Combined with the wobble in his stance, it’s enough for the ref to call off the fight before Grove goes all Ivan Drago. Neil Grove defeats Eddie Sanchez via TKO (referee stoppage) at 1:32 of Round 1. Grove turns in a gracious interview after the fight, saying that he focused completely on Sanchez and hasn’t studied the rest of the fighters. We’ll see him in the semis next month, and I’m hoping he’s developed some kind of ground game, but at 39 years old, I’m not holding my breath.
Megumi “Mega Megu” Fujii vs Carla Esparza
Anyone who says that the women’s division is unskilled or boring to watch has never seen Megumi Fujii. Carrying the best record in the women’s or men’s division, the 20-0 Fujii has subbed 16 of her opponents, and she has the kind of flowing submission game that is a joy to watch and a nightmare to prepare for. What you won’t see her do, though, is the Aoki butt scoot; Fujii is comfortable and impressive wherever the fight takes place. She’s the consensus #1 women’s pound for pound fighter, and the heavy favorite to win the featherweight tourney.
Carla Esparza comes in at the last minute to replace an injured Betty Page Angela Magana, and she’s walking into a tough Bellator debut. Esparza is a 2-time All American wrestler with a 3-0 record, and no one really expects much from her in the fight. She’s confident in her pre-fight interviews, but she looks a bit overwhelmed during the introductions and referee instructions.
Coming out for the first round, Fujii looks every bit the fighter. She’s got chiseled abs and delts, and her arms are probably bigger than yours. (Seriously, stop playing Modern Warfare 2 and go do some curls or something. This message brought to you by Phil Baroni.) Jimmy Smith and Sean Wheelock note that Fujii has been training intensely in boxing, and it shows: her striking is crisp and her movement is outstanding. Esparza looks every bit the sacrificial lamb for the first few moments we see her: tentative and intimidated as much by the crowd as by the 5’3” destroyer of connective tissue across the cage from her.
Happily, contact changes that. Once Fujii opens up with a leg kick, Esparza remembers her boxing lessons. When Fujii catches one of Esparza’s kicks and tries to trip her to the ground, Esparza remembers her wrestling. Rather than spilling to the mat, Esparza gets an underhook and digs some knees toward Fujiis guts, then fires off a quick combo as she backs out. Fujii shoots in under a jab, but Esparza sprawls and pops her hips to break Fujii’s grip around her waist, and I start to believe that maybe this won’t be a one-sided affair. Fujji tries to roll from North-South defense to guard, but Esparza slides easily to her her feet out of range. They circle on the feet, and Fujii again shoots underneath Esparza’s offense and tries to pull guard, then pushes her opponent into the cage. Esparza is game, muscling Fujii’s back into the cage and generally doing a good job staying on her feet. Fujii tries a sweeping hip throw, and briefly gets Esparza down, but they’re instantly vertical again, and Esparza is charging in throwing punches. Damn, this chick aint’ scurred at all.
They clinch up again, and this time Fujii tries an inside leg trip, and both fighters wind up on their knees. Fujii rolls forward, trying to straighten Esparza’s leg for a kneebar, then begins to tuck Esparza’s foot for a heel hook. Esparza pulls her foot out of danger, basically muscling out of Fujii’s sub, and Fujii flows like quicksilver, turning and mounting Esparza before she has a chance to wiggle off the canvas. The wrestler may be out of her depth, but she shows no lack of heart battling back to her feet. The fighters circle one another briefly, and with ten seconds left, viewers are treated to some truly beautiful mixed martial arts. Esparza shoots, because she’s a wrestler and they like to do that, and Fujii counters beautifully. In slow motion, it is possible to appreciate Fujii’s skill. Esparza shoots low, probably for an ankle pick takedown to finish out the round. Fujii feels her opponent’s momentum, and judo takes over as she begins to fall backward. She simultaneously establishes a grip on Esparza’s wrist, and grapevines her hands. Fujii rolls onto her back, now actually pulling Esparza along instead of resisting her kinetic energy, and lifts her effortlessly, now using BJJ to sweep Esparza to the mat with her legs, and transition to mount with a kimura. This combination of techniques and disciplines takes place in the blink of an eye, and it looks as effortless and immediately perfect as Japanese calligraphy. The commentators immediately shut up, the round ends, and the bell sounds. I think there were commercials next, but I was busy rewatching the last five seconds of the first. And again. And again.
Round two starts with some grappling and clinching on the feet, and Fujii takes over the fight. She pushes Esparza to the fence, and again dives for one of her patented takedown/submission combinations. Fujii rolls for another kneebar, but she doesn’t get it. Thing is, Fujii never tries just one sub—there’s a line of them like a murderers’ row and rarely does an opponent see the next one coming—and this time is no different. Fujji seizes Esparza’s wrist and wraps around it like a ninja python, and Esparza immediately taps. She’s put up a damn good fight against one of the most skilled fighters on the planet, but it’s Megumi Fujii via submission (armbar) at 0:57 of Round 2.
Jimmy Smith interviews Fujii after the fight, and she does it again without benefit of a translator, with predictably endearing results. When Smith asks her to watch the end of the fight and talk about the armbar, Fujii’s commentary was to the point: “I got the armbar.” She thanks the fans and says she will do her best in the next fight. And if you have any damn sense, you’re looking forward to it.
Herbert “Whisper” Goodman vs Hector “Shango” Lombard
Hector Lombard is the current middleweight champ of Bellator, and completely a badass. He’s the only man on the planet to actually beat Jared Hess, and Hess is tougher than a woodpecker’s lips. A world-class judoka, he represented Cuba at the 2000 games, but he has a nasty habit of putting dudes to sleep with his fists. Last time we saw Lombard, he starched Jay Silva in 6 seconds, apparently because he didn’t appreciate some of Silva’s smack talk leading up to the bout. (Reportedly, Lombard told Silva to “be nice, bro,” after he slept him.)
“Whisper” (look, it’s better than Herbert, ok?) Goodman is a 16-9 scrub journeyman fighter who first tried to make his fortunes in the NFL. He lasted two seasons with the Packers of Green Bay, but he had problems holding on to the oblong ball made of pigskin, and transitioned into the MMA. He holds victories over nobody impressive, and when he says in the pre-fight interview that he’s a better athlete and better striker than Shango, you just have to laugh and assume he has brain damage.
By the time the first round starts, the commentators have compared Lombard to Mike Tyson at least three times, which kind of seems like hyperbole. While the average viewer furrows their brow dubiously at the idea of Lombard as a world beating striking machine, he goes to work. Lombard doesn’t bother with range finding leg kicks or jabs, he just springs forward swinging hooks like they’re baseball bats. It doesn’t take long for a right hook to find Goodman’s chin and put him down (and Lombard lands a few more to end his evening). Hector Lombard defeats Whisper Goodman via KO (punches), 0:38 of Round 1. Lombard uses his post-fight interview to call out Joss Bordeaux, whoever that is, and Lombard doesn’t care how big he is. Oh wait, no, he meant Josh Barnett. Hector Lombard, a 5’9” middleweight, just called out the Babyface Assassin. Barnett is in the venue as Megumi Fujii’s coach, too, so Lombard is definitely feeling froggy. I’d watch that fight, but then, I’d watch Bob Sapp versus Muriusz Pudzianowski, so maybe I’m not a good barometer.
Lynn “Lights Out” Alvarez vs Jessica “Jag” Aguilar
Lynn Alvarez is ranked in the top ten in the women’s featherweight division, but she still works a full time job as a registered nurse. She shares this in her pre-fight, and laughs nervously as she explains that she can fight and then go to the hospital and tend her own wounds. She’s bringing a game that’s primarily striking, and she wants to put her opponent to sleep. Jessica Aguilar is an American Top Team product who has faced top competition since her pro debut against Lisa Ward, whom she may meet again later in the brackets. But first, she has to get through Alvarez. Aguilar brings a solid ground game, and she wants to put her opponent to sleep.
All MMA matches start standing up, they remind us, but this one is headed to the ground quickly. Aguilar latches on around Alvarez’s waist, takes her down to the mat, quickly establishes top position, and begins working out of Alvarez’s half guard and isolating her right side for an arm triangle. Aguilar gets side control, but it’s on Alvarez’s left side, opposite the arm triangle. She attempts to slide into mount and then to the other side, but winds up back in the guard. Aguilar just starts over: secure the head and arm hold, work toward mount. She starts to sink the arm triangle, but her grip snaps and Alvarez gets a free moment. Aguilar wrestles her down, and again starts from square one inside Alvarez’s guard. She postures up and throws a right, and wraps up the arm triangle again. It looks tight, but Alvarez is defending and keeping Aguilar in half guard so she can’t finish. Aguilar uses her free leg to press out of half guard, and she achieves side control handily, this time on the same side as the trapped arm. Alvarez has no way out, and taps quickly. Jessica Aguilar defeats Lynn Alvarez via submission (arm triangle) at 4:01 of Round 1.
Perhaps more impressive than her submission win is Aguilar’s poise and eloquence in her post fight interview; she comes off as likable and extremely well-spoken. Aguilar explains that her goal tonight was to win without injury, and she’s “honored” to be in the same tournament field with Megumi Fujii. Well done for Jag, but whoever she faces next is going to be stiff competition.
In case you’re curious, some other guys fought, and two fights were scratched due to injury.
Some good stuff tonight, kids. Grove may not be top-tier, but he was active enough to be entertaining and he’s big enough to be a problem for the other entrants. Megumi Fujii demonstrated that she can handle American wrestling (unlike Aoki) and she doesn’t cry after she wins (unlike Aoki). Also, she’s pretty buff and is completely deserving of the pound for pound talk with her exciting submission game (unlike Aoki). Lombard showed up for a fireworks show, and we’ll see him again in October for his title fight against Alexander Shlemenko. Jessica Aguilar cruises on to the next round of the women’s 115, and we’ll wait until next week to see how the semis shake out. See you there; until then, you bastards, I’m digging the triumphant return.