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The Best of Bellator’s Hawaiian Weekend

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Even though the UFC has plenty of fighters under contract from the island state of Hawaii, including one of the best P4P fighters on the planet, they have made every excuse not to hold an event in the obviously MMA crazed state.

They have cited everything from production costs, weather, and the lack of a suitable venue as to why — basically everything short of a dog eating Dana White’s homework. No matter how much UFC featherweight champion Max Holloway and other Hawaiian stars lobby, the idea of UFC Hawaii remains a pipe dream.

So before a punch was even thrown Friday night at Honolulu’s Blaisdell Arena, this weekend was a big victory for rival Bellator MMA, who put on not one, but TWO events this weekend from the arena. It was a shrewd move by MMA’s second biggest promotion, which has never been shy about hitting markets unserved by the MMA Leader, such as Italy and Israel. By holding two events instead of one, Bellator got more bang for the buck, given that it is legitimately expensive running events in the Fiftieth State.

By arriving early with a number of their fighters and personalities early, Bellator got a hell of a lot of good PR footage, especially considering Friday Night’s show was a “Salute to the Troops” special.

In addition to the moral and PR victories, Bellator was able to deliver with a plethora of entertaining fights featuring some of their most popular and noteworthy fighters. Bellator was giving to the Hawaiian crowd that had long been waiting for elite fights and given these were the last shows of the year for Bellator, they closed what has been a very successful year on a strong note.

Of the fights we saw in the circle cage this weekend, here are five of the most noteworthy.

AJ McKee (13-0, 13-0 Bellator) defeats Daniel Crawford (10-3, 0-2 Bellator) via submission at 3:19 of Round 1

For the last three years, AJ McKee has been Bellator’s most prized prospect, the rare star fighter who has fought all of his fights in the promotion. The past year has seen McKee move closer and closer to title contention and if there was any doubt that the second generation MMA star was ready for the opportunity, McKee erased all of those doubts Friday night. England’s Crawford was a former BAMMA featherweight champion who had never been dominated in the cage, but McKee changed that real quick.

After briefly out striking Crawford on the feet, McKee drove the Brit to the fence and worked his way to a big power double. Crawford defended well off of his back early on but when he went for a leglock, McKee spun his way out and went for a choke. He methodically rolled his way into a sick Anaconda Choke and Crawford was quick to tapout.

It was McKee’s fourth submission victory in his career and definitely his most impressive. Now seems to be right time for McKee to face Bellator 145 pound champ Patricio Pitbull, who is coming off a five round decision victory of Emmanuel Sanchez last month. The biggest question for McKee challenging for the title doesn’t really concern him but rather his teammate, Bellator’s other super prospect Aaron Pico, who also fights in this division! If Pico defeats Henry Corrales next month in Los Angeles, he is undoubtably pound to call out Patricio as well. Who gets the shot then? Will the teammates face each other. Does one move up? It’s all making 145 perhaps Bellator’s most interesting division.

Michael Chandler (19-4, 16-4 Bellator) defeats Brent Primus (8-1, 6-1 Bellator) by five round decision to regain the Bellator Lightweight Title

Eighteen months after Chandler was forced to surrender his lightweight title to Primus due to a leg injury in the first round of their title fight at Madison Square Garden, the franchise of Bellator restored things to their natural order, dominating the undefeated Primus to take back the lightweight title. It was a solid, but very conservative performance from a fighter who normally goes for the kill, but it was understandable given the history between these two fighters.

Chandler had Primus on his back early in Round 1, and soon was delivering short but devastating ground and pound with fists and elbows, something Chandler does as well as anyone in MMA right now. Primus’s best moment came early in the second round, when he caught Chandler with a big counter right hand and took his back. Primus nearly had his signature rear naked choke locked in, but the veteran former wrestler from Missouri was able to reverse the move and end up on top. It was a sign of things to come.

Chandler was content to take Primus down and keep him on his back, not looking to pass and go for submissions, but simply pound the Portland, Oregon based fighter out, and by the fifth round, the fans (and me as well) were pretty sick of it. Of course, Primus takes some of that blame, as he did little to try to initiate scrambles and get to his feet. Instead he was content to try triangles and omoplatas off his back, none which really came close to threatening Chandler.

It was almost an easy win for Bellator’s most winning fighter, who won the 155 pound title for the third time. He almost certainly has a date for another rematch, this time against Patricky Pitbull, who has four in a row since being knocked out by Chandler for the title in their first match in June 2016. Bring it on.

Neiman Gracie (9-0, 7-0 Bellator) defeats Ed Ruth (6-1) by submission at 2:17 of Round 4 in the first round of the Bellator Welterweight Grand Prix

When this matchup was first announced as part of the Bellator Welterweight Grand Prix, I hated it instantly. Whenever an elite wrestler like Ruth meets an elite jiu-jitsu player like Gracie, their ground skills often cancel each other out, and what we often get it is fifteen or twenty-five minutes of mostly striking, with the wrestler easily defending the jiu-jitsu player’s takedowns. As an admitted fan of all things Gracie, I wasn’t looking forward to the explosive Ruth outstrike Gracie for five rounds.

Turns out I was wrong on all counts. This turned out to be a highly entertaining fight, and Ruth, the former three-time All American wrestler from Penn State turned out to be the perfect fighter to showcase the skill set of Neiman, the nephew of Renzo Gracie and great-grandson of Carlos Gracie. When Ruth tripped Neiman one round into the fight, Gracie automatically started attacking from his guard, nearly finishing Ruth with a triangle. When Ruth managed pass to half guard, Gracie started rolling for kneebars. Gracie shockingly took Ruth down in both the second and the third rounds and when the fight was on the fight, Gracie actually won most of the striking exchanges! (Ruth did hit Gracie with a few nice right hands, however.)

Ruth had a strong second round, but it ended with Gracie threatening with an armbar from the bottom. Gracie came out and clearly outstruck Ruth to start the third, even hurting him with an overhand right. Ruth managed to take him down with single and end up on top, only for Gracie to again get the armbar from the bottom, yet Ruth managed to step over and counter. In the end, it was Ruth’s gas tank that gave out. All fights in the Bellator WW Grand Prix are five rounds and the fourth, Gracie took over.

Thirty five seconds into Round 4, Gracie easily took Ruth down with a power double and quickly passed to half guard, and then easily to mount. When Ruth exploded and gave his back, Gracie was all over him, taking it and going quickly to the body triangle. Ruth managed to stay off of his belly, but Gracie slowly worked his way to the rear naked choke and Ruth tapped out.

The upset victory puts Gracie is a crazy position, as next up he will fight the winner of Rory McDonald versus Jon Fitch, and no matter who he fights, it will be for the Bellator welterweight title! No one would have called that a year ago, but after this victory, who can deny Gracie has earned the right.

Lyoto Machida (25-8, 1-0 Bellator) defeats Rafael Carvalho (15-3, 6-2 Bellator) by three round decision

Elite UFC fighters have often had trouble in their first Bellator bouts, and things were no different from the Dragon, as he was given massive former Bellator middleweight champion Carvalho as his first opponent, and who spent huge chunks of this recklessly attacking the former UFC light heavyweight champion, but the Karate Master managed to work his way into the fight and come through with a well deserved split decision.

Machida, who talked a lot about going to the basics of his karate style before this fight, began showing this late in the first round, as he started catching Carvalho with right hand counters, as well as counter bodykicks. Carvalho was even more aggressive to start the second, even drooping the Brazilian veteran with a right hand,but his gas tank started to fade towards the end of the round, and Machida was landing more and more.But with the fight close going into the third, Machida made a smart veteran move and started going to his wrestling game, repeatedly taking Carvalho down. Carvalho had shown his vulnerability to good wrestling against Gegard Mousasi and Machida took advantage of it and iced the third round.

With this win, Machida is all but guaranteed to face the winner of next month’s bout between Mousasi and undefeated challenger Rafael Lovato Jr, which is no easy fight for the champion. Mousasi is desperate to avenge his 2014 loss to Machida and if he can beat the American Jiu Jitsu master next month, let’s do it.

Ilima Lei-Macfarlane (9-0, 8-0 Bellator) defeats Valerie Letourneau (10-7, 2-1 Bellator) by third round submission to retain the Bellator flyweight title

While the UFC would have a plethora of star Hawaiian fighters to promote if they ran the market, Bellator had one-Ilima-Lei, the women who famously won a state title in the very arena she would now be defending her title. She carried a whole lot of the promotion, especially locally, and in addition to all that pressure, she would be dealing with a very capable veteran in Letourneau, who once went five competitive rounds with Joanna Jedrzejczyk in a strawweight title fight and was coming off two straight wins in her proper weight class, It would be a huge test to overcome in the second defense of her title.

After making one of the cooler entrances you will ever see, Ilima-Lei saw just how capable Letourneau was. The French Canadian seemed to outstrike the champion in a slow first round, and she did a great job in the second defending the champion’s takedowns and making her pay with ground and pound. Her feints and reach kept Macfarlane largely at bay at distance and she showed good takedown defense as well. But the champ started to up her pressure in the third, and after Letourneau defended several takedowns along the fence, Ilima Lei managed to find her space and take the challenger down and she immediately took her back.

Macfarlane then put together a kind of chain submissions we rarely see in MMA, going from an RNC to an armbar to a triangle. Letourneau was defending well until Ilima Lei started cranking out vicious elbows while she still had the triangle on. Ilima Lei then rolled the triangle over into the mount and Letourneau tapped out, capping off what was a star making performance for Ilima-Lei Macfarlane.

So this weekend was definitely a win for Bellator, maybe not quite a home run, but definitely a base clearing double, which is pretty accurate description for a lot of the hits that Bellator has this year. Hopefully, if the promotion keeps swinging well enough, they might one day generate enough runs to the challenge the MMA leader. Only time will tell.

"Frank has been a wrestling fan since he was two years old. (Don't worry, he's got proof.) He's also a huge boxing and UFC fan and has a long standing love affair with Popeyes Chicken. He still owns a VHS copy of the first Ring of Honor show ever and was watching NXT before it was cool (or good). Bret Hart > Shawn Michaels. You can follow him on Twitter at @FightFanaticPod and on Tumblr at FrankTheFightFanatic." He's also starting his own podcast soon!

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