What mattered most at Bellator 277 in San Jose, Calif., and UFC on ESPN 34 in Las Vegas? Here are a few post-fight musings …
1. Belal Muhammad makes his mark
It’s not just time to “Remember the Name.” It’s time to respect the name of Belal Muhammad after his unanimous decision win over Vicente Luque in their main event rematch.
Muhammad (21-3 MMA, 12-3 UFC) is now on an eight-fight unbeaten streak and has lost just once in his past 13 fights overall. His style might not be the flashiest, but Muhammad has developed a game reliant on pace, pressure, timely offense, and fight IQ to leave no doubt he’s one of the very best welterweights.
The fact that Muhammad was knocked out cold by Luque in 79 seconds nearly six years ago allows us to use the rematch as a gauge of how far he’s come. The answer is very far. Because while it wasn’t a blowout, Muhammad was never in any real danger of being finished and seemed comfortable on the feet and the ground.
This is a signature win on the resume of Muhammad, and now he enters the next tier at 170 pounds that’s occupied by Kamaru Usman, Leon Edwards, Colby Covington, Gilbert Burns, and Khamzat Chimaev. He might not be a betting favorite in any of those potential matchups, but we can’t sit here and say he’s incapable. At the very least, Muhammad belongs firmly in the conversation.
2. Vicente Luque stumbles again
The amount of praise I’ve heaped on Vicente Luque in this very post-fight column over the years borders on nauseating. It’s always been warranted, though, because Luque (21-7-1 MMA, 14-4 UFC) is genuinely one of the most violent men on the UFC roster when things are clicking, and his highlight reel of vicious knockouts and slick submissions is matched by few.
We’re starting to see an unfortunate pattern for “The Silent Assassin,” though, and that’s his inability to win the big fight that could push him over the hump at welterweight. He stumbled against Edwards in 2017, fell short against Stephen Thompson in 2019, and now failed to deliver a win in his first UFC main event here in 2022.
There’s no shame in losing to any of those opponents, but for a 30-year-old like Luque, who is hungry as can be to one day become UFC champion, it’s a slightly troubling trend. It’s just a trend at the moment, however, and not a definitive indictment on his ceiling as a fighter.
Luque is still young, and continuing to train at the shark tank that is Sanford MMA is only going to help him flourish. It felt like he could’ve done a little bit more in the fight against Muhammad, and perhaps the experience of fighting five rounds for the first time, giving up timely takedowns and all the other little things that came from this fight, will allow him to reach the next gear.
Time will tell.
3. Patricio Freire is Bellator’s greatest product
Whether you agree with the unanimous decision result that allowed Patricio Freire to regain the Bellator featherweight title from A.J. McKee, there is absolutely no denying that “Pitbull” is a truly special fighter who deserves the respect of the entire MMA community.
For Freire (33-5 MMA, 21-5 BMMA) to get dominated like he did in the first fight with McKee and come back with a strong, well executed game plan over five rounds in the rematch is truly impressive. The fact that his effort was rewarded with getting the title back is a symbol of what this man represents, and that’s a fighter to his deepest core.
Freire is now just the second fighter in MMA history to have four title reigns in a single organization, joining UFC Hall of Famer Randy Couture. He’s now on his third stint with the 145-pound belt, then also at one point carried around the lightweight title, too.
Additionally, Freire holds pretty much every major record in Bellator history. He’s the most successful fighter the company has ever seen, and although most of his best fights are probably in the rear-view mirror, we need to appreciate this man for every moment he’s here.
4. A.J. McKee’s surprising setback
It’s going to be interesting to see the continued reaction of A.J. McKee to his first career loss and dropping his featherweight title to Freire in the rematch. Right now, the signs don’t seem ideal, but we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and see how he carries himself as time goes on.
The ego check for McKee (18-1 MMA, 18-1 BMMA) has to be a challenge after claiming for years he was going to be the “Floyd Mayweather of MMA” and go his entire career without suffering a loss. He clearly thought he earned the decision over Freire in the rematch, and as much as he might think his hand should’ve been raised, he needs to be realistic, too.
McKee immediately stating in the aftermath of his fight that it’s his plan to move up to the lightweight division seems a little bit illogical. He tried to bait Freire to follow him a move up in weight to do the trilogy fight, but there’s zero incentive for the Brazilian to do that.
Unless McKee’s weight cuts are becoming just that difficult for him – which is entirely reasonable as he keeps growing at 27 years old – then he needs to stay put and try to put this rivalry to rest.
As much as McKee might want to point to the dominance of the first fight, and feel he won the second, the rematch was very close and there’s a valid argument he deserved to lose, just as he did. The most recent result is the one a lot of people are going to point to, and unless McKee wants that hanging over his head for the longterm, his next move is pretty obvious.
5. The grand prix finale debacle
Bellator’s light heavyweight grand prix has been one of its most troublesome tournament attempts to date. From Anthony Johnson’s withdrawal from the opening round to Yoel Romero’s exit due to medical issues, this thing was never what the promotion originally intended it to be.
As it progressed, however, a more than worthwhile final of champion Vadim Nemkov against former UFC standout Corey Anderson took shape. It was a phenomenal matchup on paper, and the fight in practice was quite compelling up until the final five seconds of Round 3 when everything went haywire.
Anderson’s (16-4 MMA, 3-0 BMMA) accidental headbutt split Nemkov (14-2 MMA, 7-0 BMMA) open to the point it was instantly waved off, and therefore no grand prix winner was declared. Nemkov left as reigning 205-pound champion, which probably wouldn’t have been the case had it reached an organic conclusion. It was just a mess of a situation.
Ultimately, the right call was made. The rules indicate a no contest was the correct result, but it was just an unfortunate situation for everyone involved. Hopefully Nemkov’s cut can heal in a relatively speedy fashion, and we can get the rematch booked before the end of the year, because this has to be run back.
Nemkov is going to need to make some dramatic changes in order to emerge from the rematch victorious, and hopefully Anderson can keep his composure. Because if he finds the same success in the second fight, it’s almost certain he goes home with an undisputed divisional belt, a grand prix and an extra $1 million in his bank.