Your more hardcore MMA fans and longtime viewers of Bellator will recognize the name Marcin Held, or “The Polish Prodigy,” but beyond them, Held does not register much on the Richter scale.
After becoming a free agent earlier this year, the UFC was quick to sign Held and welcome him to the prestigious UFC lightweight roster. Now, he is set to make his promotional debut this weekend at UFC Fight Night 98 against Ultimate Fighter original and Fight of the Night machine, “The Nightmare” Diego Sanchez.
As a UFC newcomer, Held does not hold the name power of other top lightweights to reach MMA’s top stage in recent years. Fighters like Gilbert Melendez and Eddie Alvarez came in with a bang and a lot of momentum behind them. Both left their respective promotions as the reigning champion — Melendez from Strikeforce and Alvarez from Bellator — and had long been considered among the best 155-pound fighters in the world.
Even Will Brooks, who made his UFC debut earlier this year, came in with a decent amount to step off from, also coming in as the Bellator lightweight champion who never lost the belt and held two wins over top Bellator star Michael Chandler.
Held, though, doesn’t have such advantages. Yes, he spent the last five years under the Bellator banner and remained as a top lightweight his whole tenure, becoming better and better with each passing year. But he never managed to capture the title, though he challenged Brooks after winning one of Bellator’s incredibly tough single elimination tournaments to become No. 1 contender.
He served as one of Brooks’ toughest career opponents to date and almost locked the champ into his dangerous submissions (more on that later) on multiple occasions throughout the fight. Furthermore, to my knowledge, Held speaks little to no English and is a quiet, reserved fighter.
Make no mistake about it, though, Held is one to keep an eye on. His addition to the lightweight roster makes an already dynamic division just that much sweeter. Obviously he must be something special, otherwise Joe Silva would not have been so quick to jump on the opportunity to bring him over once Bellator, for some reason, released him. But to the average viewer, aside from what UFC decides to put together for the pre-fight package and how they hype him up on commentary, Held will just be a guy going in there to take on “The Nightmare.”
But that is the best part. Held’s first UFC opponent is one of the most veteran fighters on the roster as well as one of its most popular. MMA fans know Sanchez. And when Sanchez fights, people tune in. His eccentric, over-the-top personality is mixed with a fighting spirit that often leads to great, and sometimes absolutely incredible, fights.
Who could ever forget the all-out wars with the likes of Karo Parisyan, Martin Kampmann, Clay Guida or Gilbert Melendez? In fights like those, it was not even so much whether Sanchez won or lost, but the sheer amazement and admiration for the toughness he exuded and the entertainment he provided. People remember that just as much as they remember how talented a fighter was, and maybe even more so.
Perhaps a lot of people will simply be watching for that very reason. They feel the need to watch because Sanchez is fighting. It does not matter who he’s up against; they just have to tune in because you never know what is going to happen when “The Nightmare” is inside the Octagon. Well, Held gets the benefit of that rub as the man standing opposite the nastiest pre-fight mean-mug stare in the business.
Sanchez is, by no means, the best lightweight out there. In fact, some would argue his style has devolved over the years. Either way, he is very beatable. It’s a double-whammy for Held. Not only does he get to face one of the more popular fighters in the sport, but someone with a name that is also not a top fighter. If you believe in “Octagon jitters,” you certainly don’t want your first UFC fight to come against a top fighter and lessen your chances of winning even further.
Even stylistically, Sanchez serves as a good opponent for Held. Sanchez is aggressive, to say the least, but he is not that technical in his approach. That’s good news for Held, who is a submission specialist, but more specifically a leglock specialist.
Held wants his opponent to come to him. He wants to be close, whether on the feet or on the ground, so he can scramble around to lock up any loose limb in his reach. It has been the fate of 12 of Held’s 22 career victories for a reason — he’s good at catching those limbs. And the rest of those victories either came when the opponent fell to Held’s surprising power or in decision wins that Held can manage by simply dominating position on the ground.
“The Polish Prodigy” may not be entering the UFC as a big name to most onlookers. But he has been granted a great opportunity to leave a lasting impression if he can pick up the win over Sanchez. It is just how the combat sports formula works — unknown fighter beats name fighter, and then unknown fighter suddenly garners new attention and becomes a name to pay attention to.