NEW YORK (AP) – Chael Sonnen won a unanimous decision over Wanderlei Silva in a much-delayed grudge match to take the light heavyweight bout Saturday night in Bellator’s debut at Madison Square Garden.
Sonnen and Silva had feuded – and even brawled in street clothes during a taping of an MMA reality show – for years and had an anticipated bout for a UFC pay-per-view scrapped in 2014. Sonnen (29-15-1) pressured Silva and stayed on top of the MMA great for most of the three rounds. The 40-year-old Sonnen, who can self-promote with his mouth as well as anyone in the game, was dropped once but never in any serious trouble.
Silva, also 40, made his name fighting for Pride in Japan, and made his Bellator debut following a six-year run in UFC. Sonnen was choked out by Tito Ortiz in his Bellator debut in January. Ortiz was on hand at the Garden and egged on fans who cursed him out during the main event.
Sonnen had some choice words of his own:
“I hate New York!” he bellowed in the cage.
Silva (35-13-1) and fellow MMA legend Fedor Emelianenko both had rough nights inside the cage.
Matt Mitrione knocked out Emelianenko in just 74 seconds to win the co-main event in a heavyweight bout. Mitrione (12-5) and Emelianenko both connected on right hands and hit the canvas for a double knockdown. But Mitrione, who briefly played in the NFL, pounced and smashed Emelianenko (36-5) with uppercuts to finish off the Russian great.
“He’s the greatest to ever do it and just having the opportunity to step in there and trade blows with him is crazy,” Mitrione said. “I’m very fortunate, but at the same time I think I made the most of that opportunity. I’m just still in awe of Fedor’s cage intelligence.”
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.
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. Bader won a lackluster bout filled with more boos than blows. 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.
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.
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 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.”