Preview by Josh Nason
Bellator MMA returns to Madison Square Garden Friday night on DAZN for one of the bigger shows in their history with even several prelim fights piquing interest among fight fans.
In the main event, welterweight champion Rory MacDonald returns on relatively short notice to face Neiman Gracie in the Welterweight Grand Prix semifinals. MacDonald recently advanced after a draw with Jon Fitch after which he questioned he had the instinct to fight anymore given a newfound focus on religion.
In the co-main event, Chael Sonnen battles former UFC light heavyweight champion Lyoto Machida for what is expected to be a shot at Ryan Bader's light heavyweight title.
In what is expected to be a great fight, bantamweight champion Darrion Caldwell rematches with RIZIN bantamweight champion Kyoji Horiguchi for Caldwell's title. The two clashed at RIZIN's New Year's Eve show with Horiguchi picking up the third round submission win. If the Japanese MMA force wins Friday, he is contractually obligated to defend the belt once a year.
The show also features super prospect Aaron Pico on the prelims trying to rebound after a brutal knockout loss and a change of camps to Jackson-Winkeljohn, the return of BJJ ace and Conor McGregor teammate Dillion Danis for the first time after the post-fight McGregor vs. Khabib Nurmagomedov brawl, and several female fights on the prelims that have garnered interest for several reasons.
In the early prelims:
"Queen" Rena Kubota was submitted in the first round of her US debut, losing to Lindsey Van Zandt, who moved to 6-1 with the win.
"Master" Valerie Lloureda beat Hooters waitress Larkyn Dasch by unanimous decision to move to 2-0
Robson Gracie Jr moved to 2-0 with a slick submission win over Oscar Vera. His cousin fights for the welterweight belt later tonight.
Featherweights Aaron Pico (4-2) vs Adam Borics (12-0)
Much more measured first round by Pico, who is usually either finished or finishes his opponent in quick fashion. He was patient and took his unbeaten opponent down several times but didn't do a ton of damage on the feet or the ground but enough to win the round easily. 10-9 Pico
Pico just kept taking down Borics over and and over but then got caught with a flying knee and finished.
Official result - Adam Borics (13-0) by KO at 3:55 of Round 2
There was talk of having Pico fight for the featherweight title with champion Patricio Pitbull also holding the 155 lb belt. Now you'd have to think he may be hard pressed to get a spot in the upcoming Grand Prxi tourney in that weight class. Devastating loss for Bellator's top prospect.
More prelim action with world boxing champion Heather Hardy dropping to 2-2 after being stopped in the first round by Taylor Turner, who came in with a 3-5 record and dominated Hardy on her way to a TKO win.
Bellator Bantamweight title fight -
Champion Darrion Caldwell (12-2) vs Kyoji Horiguchi (27-2)
Both guys threw kicks from distance before Caldwell got a takedown less than a minute in. Caldwell rocks Horiguchi with a an elbow to the head. Caldwell lands a couple more hard elbows as Horiguchi tries to get to his feet. Horiguchi landing light punches from a sitting position while Caldwell maintains top control. Caldwell gets him to his back again and lans some hard punches to the head and then more elbows. Ref stands them up, claiming that Caldwell was holding Horiguchi's glove. 10-9 Caldwell
Horiguchi advancing to start round 2 but Caldwell doing his best to keep at distance early. Caldwell gets a takedown 2 minutes in. Horiguchi landing punches to the body from a sitting position on the ground. These shots seem harder than the ones he was landing in the first. Horiguchi briefly to his feet but Caldwell drags him right down. No ground work from Caldwell. Horiguchi continuing to land punches from sitting but the ref stands them up with 20 seconds left. Horiguchi advancing and landing punches from distance on the standup. Tough round to score. 10-9 Horiguchi, 19-19
Horiguchi lands a knee to the body and then stuffs a takedown attempt with a guillotine. Horiguchi landing punches to the body and head and then ends up in top position. Horiguchi continuing to land enough to avoid a standup while maintaining top position. Horiguchi stands up with 2 minutes left and Caldwell follows. Caldwell with another takedown attempt but Horiguchi sprawls out and ends up on top again. Horiguchi takes the back and lands hard punches but Caldwell to his feet with a minute left. Both guys trading hard shots. Horiguchi sprawls out of another takedown attempt but this time Caldwell ends up on top. Horiguchi landing punches from a sitting position again. Horiguchi to his feet but eats a hard knee to the head at the bell. 10-9 Horiguchi, 29-28
Horiguchi with a knockdown early in the 4th and goes for a front choke but Caldwell pops out and ends up in top position. Again, Horiguchi in a sitting position against the cage and landing light punches to the head and body. Caldwell doing absolutely nothing in top position. Crowd booing heavily. Caldwell briefly postures up to improve position but ends up back in the same spot and still eating the light punches from Horiguchi. Ref has warned them to work a couple times and finally stands them up with 90 seconds left. Caldwell misses a takedown attempt badly with 45 seconds left. Caldwell takes it to a cage clinch with 15 seconds left but Horiguchi gets control before the bell and takes him down. 10-9 Horiguchi, 39-37 overall
Caldwell gets a takedown 45 seconds in and they end up in the exact same position with Horiguchi sitting with his back to the cage. Crowd boos this instantly. Horiguchi again landing light punches to the head and body. Caldwell just laying on top of him. Horiguchi appears to be setting up a guillotine. Ref not even warning them to work even though their is almost no action besides the punches from Horiguchi, which have no power behind them. Horiguchi to his feet and eats a hard knee. Caldwell with a takedown but Horiguchi landing elbows to the head and ends up reversing position. They end up back in the same position with Horiguchi sitting with his back to the cage. More elbows from Horiguchi and punches to the body. Caldwell did open a cut under Horiguchi's right eye with an elbow. 10-9Horiguchi, 49-46 overall
Official result - Kyoji Horiguchi (28-2) by unanimous decision (48-47; 49-46 x 2)
Horiguchi is the first Japanese fighter to win a US-based world title in MMA. He apologized to the fans for the lack of action in the fight. This was his 13th straight MMA win since losing a UFC flyweight title fight against Demetrious Johnson.
Featherweights Eduardo Dantas (21-6) vs Juan Archuleta (22-1)
Both guys staying very far apart early. Ref warning one of them for extending fingers but hard to tell which one. Archuleta seems more willing to engage but they barely touch in the first 90 seconds. Archuleta lands some jabs as he moves in. Dantas lands a nice spinning back fist. Archuleta tries to clinch up and then gets a takedown but Dantas right up. Archuleta controlling his back standing. Archuleta landing knees to the back of the legs. Archuleta lands some foot stomps. Dantas blatantly grabbing the cage but the ref not noticiing. Dantas works him around to front position but Archuleta still controlling the clinch. Ref warns them to work with 45 seconds left. They separate on their own with 30 seconds left. Archuleta lands a couple high kicks before the bell. 10-9 Archuleta
Nice punch exchange to open the round as Dantas is a little more aggressive. He's pushed back by a flurry from Archuleta, though. Dantas starting to control the pace. Archuleta with a nice punch combo at 1:15 and then a takedown attempt stuffed by Dantas. Archuleta ends up in control of a cage clinch. Dantas with cuts around both eyes but takes control of the clinch. They separate at 2:00. Dantas gets off a nice punch combo. Archuleta rocks Dantas with a punch combo at 3:30. Dantas misses a spinning back fist and almost falls over. Archuleta with another punch combo with 15 seconds left and then knocks Dantas out with a hard right just before the bell. One punch KO.
Official result - Juan Archuleta (23-1) by KO (punch) at 4:59 of the 2nd round
They brought out a stretcher for Dantas but he managed to leave the cage on his own power. It was a vicious KO with Dantas doing a flat back bump and his head bouncing off the canvas. This was Archuleta's 18th straight win and he asked for a world title shot at either 135 or 145 and specifically called out Horiguchi, sayiing he won't leave the States with the belt over and over again. He claims he's the #1 contender in 3 division, including 155 and said he wants all 3 belts. The promo was very reminiscent of Henry Cejudo and not necessarily in a good way.
Bantamweights Ricky Bandejas (11-2) vs Patrick Mix (10-0)
Mix takes the back standing and secures a body triangle. Mix with elbows to the head as he sets up a choke. Mix secures the rear naked choke and drags him to the mat, getting the tap.
Official result - Patrick Mix (11-0) by submission (rear naked choke) at 1:06
He said it meant everything to him to win in his home state and he called out James Gallagher, who Ricky Bandejas had beaten in a previous fight.
Catchweight (175 lbs) Dillon Dannis (1-0) vs Max Humphrey (3-2)
Dannis goes for a leg seconds in but Humphrey shakes him off. Dannis gets him down at 30 seconds and lands some punches. Dannis continues to land punches as he takes the back. Dannis with full back mount and landing hard punches. Ref warns Humphreys to fight back. Humphrey to his knees and Dillon now setting up a choke. Dannis secures the body lock and briefly locks on the choke but Humphrey fights it off. Dannis into mount at 3:00 but then takes the back again. Humphrey breaks the body lock briefly but Dannis secures it again and now going for a Kimura. Dannis landing hammer fists to the head and then transitions to the belly down armbar for a quick tap.
Official result - Dillon Dannis (2-0) by submission (armbar) at 4:28
Dannis basically toyed with Humphrey, clearly wanting a TKO win but then "settling" for the submission. He claimed to the best in the world and called out Rory McDonald and Jon Jones.
Light heavyweights Chael Sonnen (30-16-1) vs Lyoto Machida (25-8)
Sonnen goes for a takedown to open and ends up in control of a cage clinch. They separate on their own at 1:00. Nice punch exchange and then Sonnen takes hiim down. Sonnen takes the back. Machida to his feet but Sonnen still controlling the back. Machida shakes him off and Sonnen controlling the cage clinch. Sonnen connecting with foot stomps. Separation at 2:45. Machida lands a couple hard body kicks and a flying knee knocks Sonnen down. Machida on top landing punches to the head. Machida landing hammer fists and elbows to the head and Sonnen not fighting back. Machida with hard elbows to the body. Sonnen turtling as Machida lays in more punches with 30 seconds left. Sonnen to his feet and in control of a clinch at 4:45. 10-8 Machida
Machida knocks Sonnen down with a knee to open round 2 and again all over him with punches on the ground and the ref stops it.
Official result - Lyoto Machida (26-8) by TKO (punches) at 22 seconds of the 2nd round
Sonnen had his gloves in his hands and motioned to Big John that he wanted to talk after Machida. Machida thanked Sonnen for taking the fight and put him over as a tough competitor and asked the fans to cheer for him, which they did.
Sonnen said he probably lost the first round. He said he's had a lot of fun and he's walking out, he appreciates the memories and goodbye. He then laid his gloves in the centre of the cage.
Main event for the Bellator Welterweight title and the semi-finals of the Bellator World Welterweight Grand Prix -
Champion Rory MacDonald (20-5-1) vs Neiman Gracie (9-0)
Gracie throwing kicks and punches from distance early. Rory lands a nice head kick 1:00 in. Gracie shoots for a takedown but stuffed. Gracie with leg kicks and jabs from distance. They trade hard punches to the head at 3:15. MacDonald starting to find his range late in the round. MacDonald catches a kick and pushes Gracie back to the fence but doesn't go for the kill. MacDonald showing damage from the leg kicks late iin the round. Close round, 10-9 Gracie
Gracie with a trip takedown to start round 2. MacDonald with a leg lock attempt and briefly gets to his feet. Gracie with a kneebar attempt but MacDonald escapes. Both to their feet at 1:15. They clinch in the center and MacDonald lands knees to the body. Gracie takes it to the cage and then takes the back standing. Gracie gets him down but MacDonald sweeps into top position. Gracie secures a body lock from his back. MacDonald landing punches to the head while Gracie seems to be setting up a triangle from his back. MacDonald with elbows to the head in the last minute. MacDonald postures up to improve position and drops a couple of hammer fists. 10-9 MacDonald, 19-19
MacDonald landing punches from distance early in the 3rd. Gracie with some swelling around his left eye. Gracie moves in for a takedown at 2:00 but MacDonald stuffs it. MacDonald with a takedown and moves right into side control. Gracie works hiim back to half guard. MacDonald stands up to improve position but then goes back into guard at 2;45. Gracie ties him up with a body lock. MacDonald landing punches to the body and head fom the top. Gracie sweeps into top position and secures an armbar. MacDonald fights it off and regains top position. 10-9 MacDonald, 29-28 overall
Gracie pressing the action to start round 4. Gracie landing jabs from distance. Gracie with a takedown attempt blocked but ends up taking the back standing at 2:00. Gracie manages to drag him to the mat while maintaining back control. MacDonald sweeps into top position at 3:00. Gracie maintains the body lock from his back. MacDonald landing hard punches to the head with 30 seconds left and breaks the body lock. MacDonald stands up but Gracie stays on his back as the round ends. 10-9 MacDonald, 39-37
Gracie attempts a takedown and ends up in control of a cage clinch 30 seconds in. Gracie gets him down at 1:00. Gracie moves into mount at 1:15. MacDonald works him back to half guard at 2:45 and didn't take any damage while he was being mounted. MacDonald works him back to full guard at 3:45. Crowd starting to boo. Gracie with a heel hook attempt with 15 seconds left. MacDonald escapes at the bell. 10-9 Gracie, 48-47 MacDonald overall
Official result - Rory MacDonald (21-5-1) by unanimous decision (49-46; 48-47 x 2)
MacDonald advances to the tournament final where he'll face former 2-time champion Douglas Lima later this year for the title and the $1 million grand prize.