It’s tent-pole event time for Bellator MMA as the promotion presents one of its quarterly super shows on Friday, this time in a return to New York’s Madison Square Garden.
Bellator 222 offers no shortage of big names and potential future stars on the rise. It also features plenty of storylines worth considering entering this weekend’s card (DAZN, 9 p.m. ET) from title bouts to a matchup between legends.
Let’s take a closer look at what to look out for entering Friday.
1. Will the real Rory MacDonald please stand up? The concern surrounding MacDonald’s psyche is very real entering this Welterweight World Grand Prix semifinal bout. The honesty he gave after a disappointing draw against Jon Fitch in which MacDonald questioned whether he still has the heart to inflict pain in light of his deepening Christian faith were as refreshingly honest as they were scary. Yes, MacDonald is still just 29 but the former UFC star has been through the wars in recent years and an MMA cage is the last place any fighter should be if they’re consumed by doubt or disinterest. Luckily for the “Red King,” he’s facing a submission specialist in the unbeaten Neiman Gracie who isn’t a knockout threat. Still, MacDonald has a lot to prove about whether he’s still in this game for the right reasons and if he has the right demeanor to finish an opponent in order to avoid the same thing happening to him. Considering how important his free-agent signing was to Bellator, one could only guess the promotion will be watching its reigning welterweight champion as closely as ever.
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2. How many more legend fights does Chael Sonnen have left? Say what you will about his 2-2 record since joining the promotion in 2017 (following a four-year retirement induced by a failed drug test), Sonnen will undoubtedly go down as one of Bellator’s most important signings. The former two-time UFC title challenger has been a valuable cog for Bellator thanks to his ability to put butts in seats as a headliner while being a media ambassador for the brand. But he’s also 42 and fresh off a first-round knockout loss to Fedor Emelianenko in the semifinals of the Heavyweight World Grand Prix tournament. No longer as much of a trash talker in his old age and certainly a shadow of his high-motor prime years ago, Sonnen enters a fight against 41-year-old Lyoto Machida that may be all kinds of wrong for him given the former UFC light heavyweight champion’s current state. Not only did Machida go 3-0 in 2018, he knocked out Vitor Belfort via front kick and won a split decision from Rafael Carvalho in his Bellator debut. Should Sonnen walk into something and meet a violent ending, making this the last time to put his face on an event poster in a feature role will make sense for the promotion.
3. Love it or hate it, the Dillon Danis show rolls on. As the jiu-jitsu coach and training teammate of Conor McGregor — and a key instigator in the infamous UFC 229 post-fight brawl — it’s hard to argue against the idea that Danis is more famous in the fight game than he necessarily deserves to be. Can the 25-year-old submission specialist actually fight at an elite level? It’s a question that can’t be answered through just one pro fight, even if the brash grappling prodigy tweets with a cocky disdain for others that would suggest he’s already an accomplished champion. But because of his quasi-celebrity status and constant beefing with big-name stars (including Ben Askren, of late), Danis has made the journey of finding out whether he really is all that a fun one. If you hate him, that means he has succeeded in creating vitriol as a calculated heel. Bellator gets that and isn’t shying away from featuring a 1-0 fighter in a prime spot on its main card when Danis faces Max Humphrey in a 175-pound catchweight bout on Friday.
4. Is Darrion Caldwell-Kyoji Horiguchi II simply a tease or a vision of MMA’s future? When Caldwell traveled to Japan on New Year’s Eve and was submitted by Horiguchi for the inaugural bantamweight championship under the Rizin banner, it was hailed as a creative co-promotion between two companies looking to make a fight that fans normally would be denied a chance to see. On Friday, the pair will enter a rematch, this time for Caldwell’s Bellator 135-pound title in stage two of their home-and-home series. The fight, on paper, is a great one between two of the top bantamweights in the world but the overall message it sends is as progressive as it comes in the promotional game today. But is it merely a tease, especially considering it has been 16 years since UFC let an under-contract Chuck Liddell test himself in Pride? Bellator CEO Scott Coker says no and told media members this week he would welcome such a collaboration with UFC anytime. While such a scenario is likely still a pipe dream, it would be refreshing to see the other major promotions — from PFL to Combate Americas and Invicta FC — to consider such an idea when it made sense for all parties.
5. It’s time to find out what Aaron Pico is really made of. Hailed in recent years as the most decorated prospect in the history of the sport, Pico’s rise to stardom hit its second roadblock in just six pro fights in January when he was knocked out cold by Henry Corrales. The 22-year-old returns against unbeaten Adam Borics in yet another gut-check moment for Pico to answer how well he deals with adversity. While he responded just fine in bouncing back from his shocking 24-second submission loss to Zach Freeman in his 2017 pro debut, this is an altogether different scenario. No one has ever questioned Pico’s almost scary talent and well-rounded game. But somewhere along the way the native of California seemed to fall more in love with his boxing skills than the bread-and-butter of his elite wrestling game. Sparring with Miguel Cotto in boxing trainer Freddie Roach’s gym certainly elicits confidence for the young slugger but Pico showed signs even before the Corrales knockout of being too aggressive for his own good. It finally caught up to him, which means Friday’s return offers both the intrigue of seeing how he reacts mentally to such a devastating loss and whether he makes the necessary adjustments to be certain it doesn’t happen again.