Bellator MMA has always been the “little sister” of mixed martial arts, sitting in the vast shadow cast by the gigantic UFC hype machine. And, honestly, that’s perfectly fine. Bellator is a place where future stars can get a start, or former main event stars can fight out the twilight of their career. It also has a bit of a reputation for succumbing to the odd “circus side show” type of fight, as evidenced by the late Kimbo Slice taking on Dada 5000 in a complete mockery of a fight back in 2016.
These days, Bellator is an interesting mix of legitimately tough fighters, and former UFC guys who were cast out for a variety of reasons (contract disputes, drug test failures, or a string of losses). With the recent news of Chuck Liddell announcing he is officially out of retirement at the age of 48, and the improbability that the UFC will let him fight under their banner, it got us thinking — what are the best fights that Bellator could make with their existing roster (and few extra fighters who could end up there soon enough).
For the sake of this article, we’re willing to blur the lines between weight classes and disregard some of the common sense that would normally make these fights outlandish. If Bellator can book Kimbo vs. Dada, Fedor Emelianenko vs. Matt Matrione, or let a 52-year-old Ken Shamrock fight a 49-year-old Royce Gracie, then to hell with common sense! Let’s make some exciting fights!
While we tried to come up with 12 fights that featured 24 different fighters, some guys were just too entertaining to only use once and therefore appear multiple times. We also tried to avoid fights that we’ve already seen (either in the UFC or elsewhere), but we’re kicking things off with the only rematch on our list, and it’s a big one!
12. Chuck Liddell vs. Tito Ortiz 3
Let’s start with the fight that first popped into our heads when Chuck Liddell told Ariel Helwani he was officially planning a comeback. In the early days of the Zuffa-owned UFC, as they were attempting to secure regulation and mainstream attention, Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz were two of their biggest stars. The Iceman and the Huntington Beach Bad Boy. Depending which story you believe, Ortiz ducked Liddell for years before they finally faced off in 2006 and then again in 2008.
Liddell won both fights, but the rivalry has always burned on in the background. Tito’s career was hampered by back injuries in his late 30s, but he returned to Bellator from 2014 to 2017 to go 3-1 in four fights. He even choked out Chael Sonnen in January 2017. Ortiz says he’s retired again, but we know how easily fighters change their minds when someone waves a fat payday in their face.
Liddell vs. Ortiz 3 could headline a huge Bellator event, and would likely be one of their most watched fights ever.
11. “King Mo” Lawal vs. Chael Sonnen
Muhammed Lawal aka “King Mo” is one of the best MMA fighters to never quite make it into the UFC. Instead he’s spent his career becoming the Strikeforce Light Heavyweight champ and winning the Rizin Heavyweight Grand Prix. He has fought some of the biggest names in the sport, and even had a brief foray into professional wrestling with TNA/Impact Wrestling from 2012 to 2015, and made sporadic appearances since then. But he’s never had the opportunity to fight Chael Sonnen, and frankly, that’a damn shame.
Sonnen and King Mo both competed in the Bellator Heavyweight Grand Prix in 2017 and 2018, but Lawal lost to Ryan Bader in the quarterfinals. Sonnen advanced past Quentin Jackson and has a date with Fedor in the semis, but we still think Sonnen vs. Lawal has to happen eventually. Both are excellent wrestlers and excel at promotional trash talk. The press conferences might be just as good as the fight itself. Maybe better!
10. Benson Henderson vs. Rory MacDonald
Many people thought Rory MacDonald would eventually be the UFC Welterweight champion. The tough Canadian even got a shot against Robbie Lawler in 2015, but was stopped via punches in the fifth round of a fight that is already considered an absolute classic. He shocked the MMA world by leaving the UFC when his contract expired, choosing to sign with Bellator instead. He won the Welterweight title in his second fight with his new promotion, beating Douglas Lima via decision.
Benson Henderson, on the other hand, is a bit confusing. He’s a former WEC and UFC Lightweight champion, and even defended the UFC title three times against really tough opponents (Frankie Edgar, Nate Diaz, and Gilbert Melendez). He jumped up to welterweight briefly after dropping the title, moved back down to lightweight, left the UFC for Bellator, and lost two championship fights in his first three Bellator bouts.
Henderson’s recent record may not be deserving of a shot at MacDonald’s gold, but we already said we’re ignoring logic. A former UFC champion against one of the toughest welterweights on the planet is a fight we definitely want to see.
9. CM Punk vs. Paul Daley
We know a lot of things have to happen for this to become a reality, but just let us dream for a minute. CM Punk, aka Phil Brooks, left a career in professional wrestling to try his hand at MMA. The UFC signed him on name-value alone, but his first first went poorly — he was choked out by Micky Gall in about two minutes. Punk is going to get another crack at getting a UFC win in June 2018, but there’s a good chance the promotion will release him if he losses that fight too.
If Punk wants to continue his MMA dream, he may have to turn to Bellator. They probably won’t pay him $500,000 per fight like the UFC did, but they do have one thing to offer — a fight with Paul Daley. Punk’s glaring weakness in MMA is his lack of (real) wrestling experience and his novice submission game. The best way to counter that is to fight Daley, who is a pure stand-up fighter with no desire to get into a grappling match. He actually booed Jon Fitch in the middle of their fight, while talking trash to the Bellator broadcast team, in a recent bout that had turned into a pure wrestling match.
Punk vs. Daley is a bit of a novelty, as all things are when it comes to watching a former WWE champion take part in legitimate MMA events. But it would probably attract a bunch of attention, and cause a ratings spike. So it would be good for business.
8. Ryan Bader vs. Wanderlei Silva
If it seems like Ryan Bader has been around forever, it’s because he has. It’s been a decade since he won The Ultimate Fighter 8, and he’s fought some of the biggest names at light heavyweight in that time — Jon Jones, Rampage Jackson, Tito Ortiz, Lyoto Machida, Rashad Evans, Anthony Johnson, and others. He made the switch to Bellator in 2017 and immediately beat Phil Davis for the Light Heavyweight championship. He has defended the title twice already, but there’s one big name left on the Bellator roster for him to face.
Brazilian legend Wanderlei Silva has done pretty much everything in MMA, including dominating PRIDE Fighting throughout the 2000s and fighting a who’s who of the best in the world. He never managed to win UFC gold though, perhaps the only blemish on his legendary career. After a series of suspensions and injuries, Silva resurfaced with Bellator in early 2017 and fought for the first time in four years when he lost a decision to Chael Sonnen later that year. Silva certainly doesn’t deserve a title shot against Bader, but it’s still one of the most exciting fight Bellator could make, so they should book it sooner rather than later.
7. Fedor Emelianenko vs. Chuck Liddell
Okay, hear us out. We know that Liddell has never fought at heavyweight and that both fighters are well over 40 at this point. Hell, Chuck is pushing 50! None of that matters, because we would love to watch one of the earliest UFC stars take on the greatest fighter to never actually fight under the UFC banner. Best of all, they can throw down in Bellator!
The Last Emperor has already fought twice for Bellator, losing to Matt Mitrione in 2017 and then stopping Frank Mir in just 48 seconds in the first round of the 2018 Heavyweight Grand Prix. He’ll take on Chael Sonnen later this year, which should be an entertaining spectacle in itself. But whenever Fedor is finished with this Grand Prix business (either winning it or being eliminated), Bellator should convince him to take this big money fight. Can Liddell still throw haymakers? Does either guy still have enough of a chin to take shots? Recent history would suggest they don’t, so don’t expect this fictional (for now) fight to go the distance.
6. B.J. Penn vs. Brent Primus
B.J. Penn hasn’t fought outside of the UFC since 2005, but after losing his last five fights it’s very unlikely that Dana White will be in a rush to book the former champion again. At 39-years-old, it’s probably time for Penn to consider taking his career somewhere else, like plenty of other current UFC-turned-Bellator fighters have done. Assuming Penn wants to keep fighting, Bellator should snatch him up and book him directly into a Lightweight title fight against Brent Primus, their current champion.
Primus started his career later than most, and only have eight professional fights despite already being 33. However, he’s a perfect 8-0 in those fights after upsetting former champion Michael Chandler in June 2017. That fight was stopped when Chandler injured his league, awarding Primus a TKO victory and the Lightweight title along with it. Penn vs. Primus would be an interesting fight, considering their vastly different careers. But if Bellator does bring in the former UFC Lightweight and Welterweight champion like Penn, they might as well use him in a hyped up title fight. If he loses again, that could be the end of anyone being interested in watching the Hawaiian legend fight.
5. Rory MacDonald vs. Jon Fitch
Here’s another potential opponent for The Red King, and one that makes even more sense than the previously mentioned Benson Henderson. Jon Fitch is on a five fight win streak going back to his time in WSOF, and is the most deserving of a welterweight title shot of anyone currently on the Bellator roster. Between 2003 and 2010, he only lost a single fight (a 2008 title fight against Georges St-Pierre). He most recently dominated Paul Daley at Bellator 199. Fitch fights with a smothering, wrestling-based style that many detractors call “boring.” But it works, so don’t expect him to change it up now that’s north of 40-years-old.
The younger MacDonald would be a betting favorite in this fight, but we still feel it would be competitive enough to make it worth watching. Fitch relinquished the WSOF Welterweight title in order to come over to Bellator, so you have to think he wants more gold around his waist. Rory should be fighting the best that Bellator can offer, and right now that’s Jon Fitch.
4. Kevin “Baby Slice” Ferguson Jr. vs. Josh Koscheck
Kevin “Baby Slice” Ferguson Jr, as you probably guessed (or were already aware), is the son of the late Kimbo Slice. Still just 26-years-old, he’s just starting his MMA career with the promotion his father last fought for before he passed away. Ferguson Jr. is 3-1 so far in Bellator, rattling off three straight wins (two via submission and one via TKO) since losing his professional debut in 2016. As you expect from a young fighter, he is getting better each time he steps foot in the cage.
On the other side of this hypothetical fight is Josh Koscheck, a 40-year-old veteran who actually appeared on the very first season The Ultimate Fighter in 2005. He has a reasonable successful career in the UFC, even earning himself a Welterweight title shot against GSP at one point (like most people who fight GSP, he lost that one). Shortly after that, though, he went on a five fight losing skid. After leaving the UFC, he signed with Bellator. He’s only fought once for his new employer — a February 2017 TKO loss to Mauricio Alonso — but we think Baby Slice could be the perfect opponent for him.
This fight will accomplish (at least) two things: it will tell us whether Koscheck should retire for good, and also whether Baby Slice can hold his own against an MMA veteran.
3. Quinton “Rampage” Jackson vs. Matt Matrione
Here we have another pair of former UFC fighters who haven’t managed to cross paths yet in their careers. Matt Mitrone is a former NFL player who transitioned into MMA via a spot on The Ultimate Fighter. He never quite git into the heavyweight title discussion in the UFC, although he did pick up wins over tough opponents like Derrick Lewis and Gabriel Gonzaga while there. Once his UFC contract expired, he signed with Bellator and has gone 4-0 since arriving in his new promotion — including recent wins over Fedor Emelianenko and Roy Nelson.
Rampage is a former UFC Light Heavyweight champion and was a PRIDE legend before that. As he approached 40-years-old, Jackson decided he was sick of cutting weight and made the move to heavyweight. He’s had limited success against the larger fighters, and was bounced from the Heavyweight Grand Prix in the first round by Chael Sonnen.
Both fighters turn 40 in 2018, and their careers probably won’t last too much longer. Hopefully Bellator can match them up before one of them retires, because it would definitely be a banger of a fight.
2. Roy Nelson vs. Chael Sonnen
During his run in the UFC, Roy “Big County” Nelson became a fan favorite. He didn’t look like an elite athlete, with his “good ol’ boy” mullet and his massive beer belly. But Nelson sure could fight, as he packed excellent submission skills and surprising power into otherwise unimpressive frame. He won The Ultimate Fighter 10, and proceed to have an inconsistent, although entertaining, UFC career. He beat the likes of Mirko Cro Cop, Cheick Kongo, and Antonio “Big Nog” Nogueira, but lost to guys like Stipe Miocic (before he was champion), Fabricio Werdum, Daniel Cormier, Mark Hunt, and Alistair Overeem. He never quite cracked the top tier of fighters in the UFC, and switched to Bellator in 2017 when his contract expired.
We’ve already talked about Sonnen, so we won’t rehash his accomplishments in MMA. This fight is purely for the fun of it all. We want the whole promotional tour too, where Sonnen makes fun of Nelson’s weight and then Nelson jabs back about Sonnen’s history of failed drug tests. Go ahead and make it nasty, fellas! Sonnen would be giving up plenty of weight in this bout, but still has the better wrestling skills. We honestly have no idea who would come out on top, which is why we want to see Big Country vs. The American Gangster so badly!
1. Fedor Emelianenko vs. Cheick Kongo
For so long, Fedor Emelianenko was this gigantic MMA myth. A legend in PRIDE, he was often considered the best heavyweight in the world without ever taking on UFC fighters — at least, not in their prime. Dana White tried desperately to sign him on multiple occasions, but could never come to terms (especially with Fedor’s handlers, who wanted every one of his fights to be co-promoted under the M-1 Global brand).
In 2010 and 2011, the shine was finally knocked of Fedor when he lost three straight fights to Fabricio Werdum, Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva, and Dan Henderson. He bounced back, though, and has won six of his last seven fights. Most recently, he beat Frank Mir in the first round of the Bellator Heavyweight Grand Prix.
On the other side of this fictional fight is Cheick Kongo. The large Frenchman had a lengthy run in the UFC, but failed to make his way into title contention. He’s now one of Bellator’s longest tenured fighters, joining the organization in 2013. He even had a crack at their Heavyweight title in 2014, but lost a decision to Vitaly Minakov. He’s gone 8-1 since that fight, and deserves a marquee fight against a tough opponent. And they don’t come much tougher than Fedor.