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Despite the absence of an Ultimate Fighting Championship card, the weekend had plenty of action to keep mixed martial arts fans occupied.
Over in San Jose, California, Bellator MMA put on a stacked card headlined by the promotion’s first-ever champion-versus-champion superfight and kicked off its highly anticipated welterweight grand prix. Meanwhile, Saitama, Japan, hosted Rizin Fighting Federation 13 -- an event that featured legendary heavyweight Mirko Filipovic, running joke Bob Sapp, Japanese flyweight standout Kyoji Horiguchi and a smattering of other familiar faces.
During the week, there was also no shortage of eyebrow-raising MMA headlines. This included the dismissal of Leslie Smith’s complaint to the National Labor Relations Board regarding the UFC in circumstances that might charitably be described as dubious and Mark Hunt’s UFC swan song being booked for the Adelaide, Australia, card in December.
In light of all that, I was utterly divided on what I wanted to write about for this column, so I figured I’d make this the second installment of Counterpunch -- a series where I pontificate on a litany of topics. To quote MMA’s most influential official in “Big” John McCarthy: Let’s get it on!
The ‘Red King’ Trampled by the Moose
It was with great anticipation that Bellator 206 rolled into the SAP Center on Saturday. The event, which marked the beginning of Bellator’s “nine-figure” distribution agreement with streaming platform DAZN, featured no fewer than four marquee bouts: a superfight between welterweight champion Rory MacDonald and middleweight titleholder Gegard Mousasi, a fourth pairing between former Pride Fighting Championships rivals and UFC mainstays Wanderlei Silva and Quinton Jackson, a rubber match between Douglas Lima and Andrey Koreshkov to kick off the promotion’s welterweight grand prix and a featherweight scrap between uber-prospect Aaron Pico and former title contender Leandro Higo.
With 100 percent of these bouts ending via stoppage, there’s no doubt the card delivered on the action metric; and vis-à-vis the promotion’s long-term interests, it’s arguable that, at least on paper, the outcomes were exactly what Bellator President Scott Coker and his team were hoping for.
Mousasi’s triumph ensures there’s divisional coherence between the 170-pound and 185-pound weight classes and avoids the logistical headache that would have resulted if MacDonald had won the middleweight strap right before entering the year-long welterweight tournament. Despite his bulbous appearance, “Rampage” probably has more mileage left in him than “The Axe Murderer,” and given the two veterans now have two wins apiece against each other, Bellator now has a fifth ‘deciding bout’ in its back pocket if it runs out of ideas. Pico’s annihilation of Higo proved once again that the hype behind the former wrestling, boxing and pankration standout is justified, and his ominous warning to featherweight champion Patricio Freire has already got many in the MMA community calling for a title shot in his near future.
The one major drawback from the event, if you exclude the “Peppa Pig” incident that afflicted fans in the United Kingdom, was the volume of abuse that MacDonald took at the hands of Mousasi. While the weight differential between the “Red King” and “The Dreamcatcher” was always going to be a factor -- many were quick to point out that the latter fought as high as heavyweight in earlier chapters of his career -- few predicted the bout would be quite so lopsided. Apart from an overhand right early in the first round, MacDonald mounted little in the way of offense, and after an ill-fated takedown allowed Mousasi to take top position and then full mount, he looked nothing short of helpless in the face of the Dutchman’s ground-and-pound. The optics of the incumbent champion entering the welterweight grand prix after such an abysmal showing a few months earlier are not great, but hey, that’s a risk Bellator must have considered before greenlighting the bout in the first place.
Project Spearhead Suffers Another Pair of Setbacks
When then UFC women’s bantamweight Leslie Smith announced the formation of Project Spearhead, a fighter-led group aiming to organize MMA athletes and eventually gain recognition as a certified union, earlier this year, there was optimism that “The Peacemaker” might succeed where others had not.
Unlike some of her labor-agitating predecessors, Smith was an active, ranked fighter when she began her campaign to improve fighter pay and conditions, and fellow members of the UFC roster in lightweights Kajan Johnson and Al Iaquinta quickly signed up for the cause. The trio set about collecting authorization cards from at least 30 percent of the UFC’s roster, a prerequisite to approaching the National Labor Relations Board and petitioning for union elections; and for a while there, and for a while there, it looked like they were bound to reach that target.
Fast forward eight months, and that optimism has, to put it charitably, been tested. As it stands today, neither Smith nor Johnson are currently signed by the UFC, both having seen out their contracts without being offered a new deal by the promotion. In Smith’s case, the UFC essentially bought out her contract in May after her scheduled opponent for UFC Fight Night 128 failed to make weight, which led to Smith filing a charge with the NLRB alleging these actions constituted unlawful retaliation for her organizing efforts.
Lucas Middlebrook, Project Spearhead’s attorney, reported in late June that the NLRB’s regional office had found the charge meritorious and would file a complaint against the UFC, but soon after, the decision was revoked and the matter was taken over by the NLRB’s national office. The move caused many to speculate about whether the relationship between UFC President Dana White and President Donald Trump -- who were pictured together in the Oval Office in August -- was behind the politicking, and that chatter hasn’t abated after news emerged this week that the charge had been ultimately dismissed.
While Smith and Middlebrook have already committed to an appeal, and the NLRB’s decision does not place any legal obstacle on Project Spearhead’s original mandate, it remains the case that the two most committed agents of the cause are no longer part of the company they’re trying to reform. Given the general radio silence from their fellow fighters in the face of the UFC’s heavy-handed tactics, the chances the organization will rise like a phoenix before the Feb. 12, 2019 deadline for authorization cards seems unlikely at best.
Hunto’s (UFC) Swan Song
In another piece of less-than-heartening-news, last week it was announced that the final fight on Mark Hunt’s UFC contract had been booked opposite Justin Willis in “The Super Samoan’s” adopted home of Australia. The bout will mark the 18th time the New Zealand kickboxing specialist has made the walk to the Octagon, as he has gone 8-7-2 with one no-contest since he made his debut with the organization at UFC 119 in 2010.
As fans of the affable Kiwi like to recall, the UFC, which picked up Hunt’s contract after it bought out the Japanese Pride organization, originally offered to pay him not to fight -- a proposal he respectfully knocked back before putting together one of the most unlikely title campaigns in MMA’s short history. After dropping his maiden UFC fight to Sean McCorkle, Hunt went on an impressive 5-1-1 run before a late-notice fight for the interim heavyweight title presented itself at UFC 180 in November 2014.
Ultimately, Hunt came up short that night, scaring Fabricio Werdum in the first round with lethal striking before falling victim to a fight-ending flying knee in the second. Since then, he has managed to retain his place within the Top 10 of the UFC’s relatively thin heavyweight division, but disputes with management -- most significantly in relation to the scourge of performance-enhancing drugs -- have largely defined the second chapter of his UFC career. In 2016, he filed a RICO lawsuit against the company and Brock Lesnar in relation to the latter’s failed drug test at UFC 200, and the former K-1 World Grand Prix winner was nothing short of incandescent when he learned that Lesnar would be gifted a heavyweight title shot upon his return.
In light of that history, it shouldn’t be all that surprising that Hunt appears to have no interest in negotiating an extension with the promotion. After he gave an interview last year where he admitted to suffering memory loss and slurred speech, it might even be best if the 44-year-old hung up the gloves. Either way, what he has achieved in his 19-plus years in combat sports has been nothing short of spectacular. A win over Willis in his parting bout would make a nice cherry atop his decorated career, but the outcome will hardly define it.
Jacob Debets is a recent law graduate who lives in Melbourne, Australia. He has been an MMA fan for more than a decade and trains in muay Thai and boxing at DMDs MMA in Brunswick. He is currently writing a book analyzing the economics and politics of the MMA industry. You can view more of his writing at jacobdebets.com.