Bellator 222: “Machida vs. Sonnen” airs tomorrow night (Fri., June 14, 2019) from Madison Square Garden in New York City, streaming exclusively online via DAZN. In the main event, Welterweight champion, Rory MacDonald, puts his title on the line in Bellator’s Grand Prix tournament.
Let’s break it down:
170 lbs.: Neiman Gracie (9-0) vs. Rory MacDonald (20-5-1)
Suddenly Rory MacDonald doesn’t want to hurt people any more. That bizarre post-fight interview from “The Red King” followed an equally bizarre match where MacDonald advanced in the Welterweight Grand Prix because of a majority draw, even though his opponent Jon Fitch was the only one declared the winner on a judge’s scorecard. Despite that result, MacDonald promised via press release that he would “boldly go forward” in the tournament, sounding for all the world like Jean-Luc Picard was going to step in the cage.
Picard would probably have a better plan for this fight than MacDonald does right now. If he doesn’t have “the spirit to put a man through pain” then he’s in big trouble with Gracie, who has absolutely no qualms about taking people down and cranking on their necks until they tap out or pass out. Two years ago this fight would have seemed like a no-brainer win for MacDonald given his well rounded game, more than 13 years of fight experience and his killer right hand. By advancing via draw he’s unintentionally made this match much more intriguing.
The good news for MacDonald is that outside of jiu-jitsu they stack up pretty evenly — he’s 29 and Gracie is 30, he’s 6’0” and so is Gracie, and he has a reach advantage of 76” to 73” over his opponent. In that one area, though, Gracie owns MacDonald in every way given he is a highly decorated multiple-time Brazilian jiu-jitsu tournament medalist. In preview after preview, I say the exact same thing — don’t let Gracie take you down and/or get your back. The fact he’s undefeated until now says nobody’s been able to stop him from doing it.
If (and this is a really huge if) MacDonald can be the best version of himself tomorrow night, then he will find a way to stop Gracie. We saw something close to that in his title fight with Douglas Lima, and during his UFC tenure he defeated jiu-jitsu black belts who are just as highly regarded as Gracie — B.J. Penn, Demian Maia and Nate Diaz. That reach advantage really helps MacDonald here because Gracie has to close the distance to get any form of takedown whether it’s a double, a clinch and a judo throw, or even catching a kick and sweeping the leg. MacDonald has the capacity to leave him a bloody mess long before that happens so long as he remembers exactly who he is.
Final prediction: Rory MacDonald win’s via doctor’s stoppage after round three
205 lbs.: Lyoto Machida (25-8) vs. Chael Sonnen (31-16-1)
If making money with your mouth also made you a world champion, “The American Gangster” Chael Sonnen would have held more titles than Conor McGregor. In amateur wrestling, Sonnen was as highly decorated as you could be, but as a professional mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter he’s been the DangerZone Light Heavyweight champion and the Gladiator Challenge Light Heavyweight champion. That’s it. If you’re scratching your head wondering why you don’t remember either of these things, it’s because they both occurred at the regional level before he even had his first World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC) fight ... in 2004. As I said, Sonnen is the champion of running his mouth to make money though, which got him two fights with Anderson Silva, one with Jon Jones, and to his credit he did beat both “Rampage” and long-time rival Wanderlei Silva.
It only makes sense to bring Sonnen back to Madison Square Garden, site of his battle with “The Axe Murderer,” and see if he can show the same drawing power with Lyoto Machida. “Power” is an interesting word here, though. Sonnen is 42 and Machida is 40, so they are both far closer to the end of their career than the beginning of it. Both are also a long distance away from any shot at current 205 champion Ryan Bader — Sonnen because he’s lost two of his last four, and Machida because his only Bellator win is over former Middleweight champion Rafael Carvalho. In addition, there were moments where Machida looked less than his dominant self, getting his nose well mashed in by Carvalho before regaining his form and outpointing him en route to a very close split decision win.
The essence of what we have here is two fighters with tremendous name value for a casual audience, which makes them perfect draws for MSG and for a live broadcast, who in practical terms don’t have their best days ahead of them. As Toby Keith once opined though, “I ain’t as good as I once was, but I’m as good once as I ever was.” That’s what we are looking for in this fight, and to the surprise of some, I’m going to edge the fight to Chael Sonnen in that category. As a life long grappler we know there are very few people he can’t take down, and despite the tremendous stopping power in their hands, neither Jackson nor Silva could drop him and stop him in Bellator. Machida’s best asset has always been his unorthodox striking, but it’s hard to land those strikes when you’re flat on your back.
Final prediction: Chael Sonnen dominates a unanimous decision
135 lbs.: Darrion Caldwell (13-2) vs. Kyoji Horiguchi (27-2)
The last time these two met Horiguchi submitted Caldwell in what would be an upset to anybody other than those who know Horiguchi and Caldwell. While 14 of Kyoji’s 27 wins have come by knockout (51 percent), Caldwell’s only other loss to date was ALSO via a guillotine choke. Even though Caldwell is as good a wrestler as they come in this weight class, his overconfidence in getting takedowns has left his neck exposed on many occasions, and two of his opponents were able to capitalize on that mistake.
One would have thought Caldwell learned from his mistake the first time it happened, but the fact Horiguchi caught him proved otherwise, and now Caldwell wants this match so he can prove it won’t happen a third time. Last time though, Caldwell had nothing to lose since his Bantamweight title wasn’t on the line at Rizin 14, but this time Horiguchi can take his belt away and become a “champ champ” in two different promotions at the same time. That’s incredibly motivating for a man who was let go by UFC despite having only one loss during his whole tenure, and his 12 fight win streak includes the end of his Zuffa run.
The best thing for Caldwell about this bout is that he can no longer afford to be cocky or overconfident about his chances. When Caldwell combines his wrestling game with a disciplined training camp and serious attitude toward his foes, he rolls on them hard — a fact Joe Warren, Shawn Bunch, Eduardo Dantas and Noad Lahat can all attest to. At 5’10” with a 74” reach he’s also got a huge size advantage over Horiguchi at 5’5” and a 66” reach. It’s easy to see how that made him overconfident before, but this reporter will be absolutely stunned if he makes that mistake a third time. Unless the bright lights of MSG and the pressure to perform break him mentally, his size advantage will work this time.
Final prediction: Darrion Caldwell wins via unanimous decision
175 lbs.: Dillon Danis (1-0) vs. Max Humphrey (3-2)
There’s no denying it — Dillon Danis is a troublemaker and a loudmouth. We can debate whether or not that’s “good for the sport” on another day. Today, we’re only discussing whether the man good enough at jiu-jitsu to be Conor McGregor’s training partner has any reasonable chance of losing to Max Humphrey. And the short answer is, “no.” He’s lost two out of his last three fights and considering he’s got a mediocre record on the minor league circuit at 30 years old you already know the reason he was picked to face the young (25) Danis.
Final prediction: Dillon Danis wins via round one armbar
145 lbs.: Eduardo Dantas (21-6) vs. Juan Archuleta (22-1)
Former Bantamweight champion Eduardo “Dudu” Dantas looks to move up to Featherweight for this fight after a successful if somewhat boring return to form at Bellator 215. “The Spaniard” Juan Archuleta is unlikely to let Dantas have a boring fight. With a 17-fight win streak spanning back to 2015, Archuleta is both active and successful in his yearly MMA travails. In fact, 45 percent of his victories come by form of knockout and Dantas won’t want to be the man to edge that closer to 50 percent. Despite spending most of his career at 135 pounds, Dantas will actually be the bigger man here (5’10” to 5’8,” with both men having a 69” reach) and if he brings the speed and footwork of his championship days he’ll be fine. Despite that there’s something to be said for the intangible mental fortitude that comes from winning again and again and again year after year, fight after fight. In short you can make an argument for either man, which has to be the biggest headache imaginable for bookmakers.
Final prediction: Juan Archuleta via split decision
135 lbs.: Ricky Bandejas (11-2) vs. Patrick Mix (10-0)
This one is a very tough call. On paper, Bandejas was brought in to make James Gallagher look good against a more experienced opponent, but Bandejas beat the odds and handed Gallagher his first loss. Against fellow main card fighter Juan Archuleta he looked far more human but it was still a very close fight. Much like his fight with Gallagher though, all the hype is on Mix, who made a name for himself in King of the Cage and was considered a UFC can’t miss. UFC whiffed on signing him, so Bellator gets a chance to showcase Mix on one of its “tent pole” events. Mix has finished 60 percent of his fights via submission and uses excellent takedown skills to put his opponents in danger, but Bandejas and the team at Nick Catone MMA are already well aware that’s what he’ll go for. If Bandejas can stuff them and keep it standing he’s got the striking technique to capture lightning in a bottle twice ... if.
Final prediction: Patrick Mix via second round rear-naked choke
That’s a wrap!
MMAmania.com will deliver coverage of Bellator 222 tomorrow with a main card at 9 p.m. ET and “Prelims”undercard bouts starting at 7 p.m. ET, both exclusively on DAZN. To check out the latest Bellator MMA-related news and notes be sure to hit up our comprehensive news archive right here.