SAN JOSE — Sitting in a room with the likes of legendary fighters like Fedor Emelianenko and Randy Couture, Bellator light heavyweight champion Liam McGeary says he’s confident heading into his first title defense against another legend at the SAP Center in San Jose Saturday.
He looks every bit as confident, too.
Dressed to the nines, McGeary admits his mind didn’t always work this way. If even for a brief second, McGeary acknowledged the fact that he got caught up in the moment — and it had nothing to do with the fact that he wasn’t wearing a freshly pressed deep purple-maroon two-piece at the time that the information regarding his first title defense went public.
As the champion puts it, he was star-struck when he first met his Bellator Dynamite 1 title challenger Tito Ortiz. Only ever having seen him on television, McGeary knew Ortiz as the man who succeeded in ways few other MMA fighters ever did. UFC champion, UFC Hall of Famer and CEO of Punishment Athletics are just a few of the phrases placed before Ortiz’s name both in print and conversation.
But all of Ortiz’s decade-old accomplishments rest in the past, McGeary says — resting right next to that overawed gaze that took control when the two first shook hands.
“No, that faded away. I had the initial first-time reaction, you know,” McGeary told Today’s Knockout of first seeing Ortiz in person. “The first time I see anyone, all these UFC [fighters] or any of these MMA fighters, it’s, like, ‘wow, that’s so-and-so, that’s so-and-so.’ I know that Gilbert Melendez is in the house here and I was like, ‘woah, he’s here!’ But it passes — the first initial shock.
“I’ve spent the last 16 weeks training to punch [Ortiz] in the face, so I’m not star-struck. I know exactly what I need to do, and I’m going to do it.”
Even in facing a legendary fight in Ortiz, McGeary’s able to recognize an important factor: Ortiz is still using those skills that carried him to that status 10-15 years ago — skills that aren’t quite as effective as they were at the start of the millennium.
He said to Today’s Knockout:
“I have to be aware of what he’s going to do, but this is why I trained. He’s done the same thing he’s been doing for years. He wants to take me down and ground-and-pound me in the guard. That used to work back in the old days, but not anymore. This is a time when the game has evolved massively, and I’m a part of it that evolvement. I’ll take it wherever he wants to offer and I’ll throw back with exactly what I’m going to do.”
In nearly 20 years as a professional fighter, Ortiz has defeated the likes of Wanderlei Silva, Evan Tanner, Ken Shamrock, Vitor Belfort and Forrest Griffin — a stable of some of the best fighters competing in the early 2000s. Still, McGeary points out, those were the early 2000s; and beating somebody 10-15 years ago shouldn’t necessarily qualify you as a viable challenger to such a highly coveted title in 2015.
“No, definitely not,” McGeary said on whether he believed Ortiz’s title shot was warranted. “He’s only fought two people. The two people he fought was someone who was a lot lighter than him and Stephan Bonnar. There’s other guys in the light heavyweight division that deserve a title shot.
“But, saying that, this is not my problem. All I do is fight. I don’t care who the f–k is standing in front of me — Tito, Stephan Bonnar, it makes no difference who it is to me. I fight; I’m a champion and I defend my belt [against] whoever they put in front of me.”
But Ortiz isn’t the only fighter McGeary feels is resting on the laurels of past experience. Second on that list is former UFC light heavyweight competitor Phil Davis, who takes part in Saturday’s four-man, one-night light heavyweight tournament. A victory over Emmanuel Newton in the semifinal round and a win over either Muhammed Lawal or Linton Vassell in the finals earns the former top-five UFC contender a shot at what could be McGeary’s title.
Fighting and defeating a fighter with the sort of respect associated with Davis’ accomplishments is a bout that would likely boost McGeary’s ratings as a fighter competing in, what is widely considered, the second-most popular MMA promotion on the planet.
Still, McGeary says, a title shot shouldn’t come so easy for somebody who accomplished things in a different promotion.
“For him to come into Bellator and be like, ‘oh yeah, I want a title shot; I should get a title shot’ because he came from UFC — it doesn’t work like that,” he said. “You have to fight and earn your position and earn a chance to fight for a belt, prove yourself in this division. The three light heavyweights that he’s going against, they’re tough motherf—–s. I’ll let them take care of him, I’ll take care of Tito. When me and Phil Davis meet, we meet and I’ll take care of business then.”