Matt Mitrione pummeled 40-year-old MMA heavyweight great Fedor Emelianenko in just 74 seconds to win the co-main event of Bellator’s Madison Square Garden debut.
Mitrione (12-5) and Emelianenko both connected on right hands and hit the canvas late Saturday night. But Mitrione, who played one season for the New York Giants in 2002, pounced and smashed Emelianenko (36-5) with uppercuts and busted open the Russian great.
Emelianenko, maybe be the greatest fighter to never sign with UFC, had won his last five fights, but the days when he ruled in Japan as one of MMA’s most dynamic fighters and top heavyweights are well behind him.
Emelianenko, in his Bellator debut, might not have his career recover from this finish.
Bellator made its Madison Square Garden debut seven months after UFC christened the arena in the MMA genre with a record $17.7 million gate. Bellator was going to fall well shy of that massive box office bank, but for the No. 2 MMA promotion in the United States, just snagging a spot at MSG was a needed credibility boost.
Bellator will wait to find out if the pay-per-view buys (at $49.95 a clip) hit 200,000, the total the company aimed for to count as a major success. Bellator broadcast on pay-per-view for only the second time in promotional history, signaling another step in its growth as a rival for the industry-leading UFC. Bellator staged its only previous pay-per-view event in May 2014, shortly before CEO Scott Coker took over the promotion.
Bellator loaded the card with some of the biggest names in MMA to make a splash in New York.
Wanderlei Silva takes on Chael Sonnen in the main event grudge match; a fight first scheduled for a UFC pay-per-view in 2014. The 40-year-old Silva, who made his name fighting for Pride in Japan, was set for his Bellator debut following a six-year run in UFC. Sonnen, also 40, was choked out by Tito Ortiz in his Bellator debut in January. Ortiz was on hand at the Garden.
In a sign Bellator craves star power over super bouts, neither of the two main events were for a championship.
But there were title fights on the card, highlighted by Brent Primus defeating Michael Chandler in a gruesome fight to win the 155-pounds title. Chandler, one of the Bellator stalwarts, broke his left ankle and the fight was stopped in the first round.
"Cut it off! Cut this thing off! I’ll keep going!" he barked in the cage.
If the loss wasn’t tough enough, like a bad practical joke, the injured Chandler had his stool pulled away in the corner as he tried to sit and the fighter fell on his bottom.
Ryan Bader defeated Phil Davis by split decision in his Bellator debut to win the promotion’s light heavyweight championship. Bader (23-5) defeated Davis (17-4) in an MMA bout for the second time in his career and his win capped the undercard in Bellator’s New York debut. Bader won a lackluster bout filled with more boos than blows. Referee Dan Miragliotta stepped between the fighters in the fourth round and warned them about inactivity — one of the few times the crowd cheered in a TV bout designed in part to get fans hooked on ordering Bellator’s second pay-per-view card. Bader had edged out a split decision victory over Davis when the former Division I All-American wrestlers fought for the first time on a UFC card in January 2015.
Coker wore a headset as he sat cage side and watched a bank of monitors, former NFL great Herschel Walker in the first row behind him. Coker might have listened to the revamped broadcast lineup. Bellator signed Mike Goldberg, unceremoniously dumped last year by UFC after 20 years as the voice of the company, and veteran combat sports announcer Mauro Ranallo to bolster the broadcast booth.
Bellator, founded only in 2008 and named for the Latin word for warrior, has failed to build that mainstream star that UFC has in the mold of Ronda Rousey and Conor McGregor. Bellator has eschewed the PPV model and built its fan base on the strength of live TV cards on Spike (broadcast home of Saturday’s undercard) and by signing past-their-primetime MMA players to main event their biggest cards. Kimbo Slice, Ken Shamrock, Royce Gracie and Rampage Jackson all took their turn in main event bouts more spectacle than sport that delivered record ratings for Bellator.
Bellator did sign more than just a few 40-something fighters for its New York debut. Aaron Pico, 20, was widely considered the top MMA prospect around and had advanced to the U.S. Olympic Team Trials in wrestling last year. His breakthrough will have to wait. Zach Freeman made Pico quit in just 24 seconds and stunned the crowd that had fallen for the hype.
Heather Hardy, a boxer signed under promoter Lou Dibella, won her professional MMA debut with a bloody TKO over Alice Yauger. Hardy, of Brooklyn, New York, had the crowd going wild when she dropped Yauger with a vicious right. Hardy suffered a deep cut over her left eye following an accidental head-butt. Even the New York crowd gasped when blood gushed down Hardy’s face. Hardy wiped it off, then wiped out Yauger while the crowd roared.
"I think I just fell in love. I’m hooked," she said. "I can’t feel it, but I have stitches in my face."