It is a given in MMA: The UFC is the big leagues, and excelling in other promotions does not necessarily mean you’ll excel in the big promotion. The opposite was accepted as well, where excelling on the big stage and then moving somewhere else likely meant domination on whatever weight class one competed in. The heyday of PRIDE Fighting Championships served as an exception, and Strikeforce had more than a handful of genuine elite talent move forward and prosper, but Bellator was still considered B league.
The last year had done much to mix up the situation though. With Bellator now having the financial means to compete with the UFC’s fighter pay, leaving the biggest promotion in the world has become a viable option. In that time, some events stood as alarming examples that previous assumptions may not have been so accurate. But once again, even more recent events have flipped the script back.
April served as the most prominent example we have ever had of an elite UFC fighter leaving to the Bellator roster while still in the prime of his career. That man was “Smooth” Ben Henderson — the former WEC and UFC lightweight champion who managed to tie B.J. Penn’s record of title defenses.
Now a welterweight, his Bellator debut came against their champion, Andrey Koreshkov. The circumstances being as they were, surely Henderson was going to go in there and take over the division. Bellator may have some good fighters and maybe Henderson was a bit small for the weight class, but this is a former UFC champion who had wins over fighters like Donald Cerrone, Nate Diaz, and Frankie Edgar. And by the look and sound of Bellator’s own promotion leading up, it looked like the brand was ready to make Henderson its next big star.
Then the fight began.
Before our eyes, Henderson was dominated pillar to post. Koreshkov bullied Henderson around the cage and looked close to finishing him on several occasions. Koreshkov upset a lot of betting folks that night.
Maybe the talent gap was not so wide as we assumed. Maybe there had been enough time for that gap to close. Maybe we over or underestimated something. But we certainly saw one of the best fighters in the world take a beating by a fighter who was not supposed to be in the same league, by default.
Just when we thought we could put those assumptions to rest though, the same calendar year has managed to provide a sizable amount of contradicting evidence since.
In a 24-hour span, we saw Bellator 163 and UFC Fight Night 98 play out. Bellator featured ex-UFC light heavyweight Phil Davis vying for the promotion’s title. UFC featured ex-Bellator lightweight standout Marcin Held making his big league debut against a past-prime, popular veteran member of the roster.
Davis went in as the favorite, justifiably. He had been dominant in his three Bellator appearances prior; taking out three of the top names in the division including the former champion and a former Strikeforce champion. The current champion Liam McGeary was still seen as entirely capable of winning though. He was undefeated and had been dominant himself in all of his Bellator bouts.
Except Davis went in there and made it look easy. He did as he pleased with McGeary for five rounds, and McGeary never looked like he had a shot of making it competitive. Yet in the UFC, Davis was treading water, stuck in the top 10 mix, but never showing what it took to be a genuine title contender, let alone a UFC champion.
To many, Held was almost given a gift for his UFC debut, being matched against Diego Sanchez. The leglock submission specialist was not being matched against a top lightweight, but instead a worn down gatekeeper. As one-dimensional as Sanchez had looked the last few years, surely Held was going to be able to slip in one of his nasty submissions and look good beating a name everyone knew. And then he would be off to bigger, better things in the prestigious UFC lightweight division.
What happened then when Sanchez got the unanimous decision? No, not one of those controversial judging decisions like Sanchez has been involved in more than once. A real unanimous decision victory, where Sanchez shut down Held’s game. It produced so many questions about both fighters that you couldn’t know where to start.
You don’t have to look that much further back to see more examples. Like former Bellator lightweight champion Will Brooks — the guy who defeated Bellator’s poster boy Michael Chandler twice. Clearly he had shown the goods in Bellator with those notable wins, so once he transitioned to UFC, most expected him to do quite well for himself.
A debut against the good, but never great, Ross Pearson was a bit more competitive than it probably should have been. Octagon jitters, maybe? His next fight should have cleared that up, fighting Alex Oliveira, whose most impressive win to date was a submission over a past-his-prime K.J. Noons. But that one went wrong too (several factors can be considered) and Brooks got his first defeat in over three years.
How about “Meathead”? Ex-UFC heavyweight Matt Mitrione jumped ship and already has two vicious knockouts under his belt. In the UFC though, Mitrione was another case of always looking good, but never great, and treading water with mostly mid-card fighters.
Despite how high profile it was, perhaps Henderson’s Bellator debut loss was just an outlier in the situation. Maybe he just had an off night. Maybe a lightweight-sized welterweight should not have been fighting a middleweight-sized welterweight. Maybe Koreshkov was just a terrible matchup.
Henderson is now less than two weeks away from challenging Chandler for the lightweight title. The result of said bout will certainly play a major factor in the discussion at hand. Now fighting back at his normal weight class and taking on maybe Bellator’s best fighter of the last five years, the competitiveness or lack of will add a significant piece of data to the ongoing argument. For now though, just when the gap was looking smaller than ever, it did not take long for the gap to widen back up.