Posted by The Naked Gambler @NakedGambling
MMA hierophant. Follow me on Twitter at @NakedGambling for mostly nonsense with some analysis mixed in.
The Naked Gambler

At Bellator 165, one of the sports' most exciting prospects, welterweight Michael “Venom” Page, participated in one of the most universally reviled fights of the year en route to a split decision win over Fernando Gonzalez.

Following his brutal KO win over Evangelista "Cyborg" Santos in July, it may seem surprising to see the now 12-0 “#MVP” struggle to mount any offense of significance against the unheralded Gonzalez, a career journeyman with fourteen losses to his name. Page is a fighter with a remarkable gift for high-impact, unorthodox offense.

Spinning kicks, flying knees, jumping elbows; his dynamism has always been remarkable. A dynamic prospect is the most enticing to fans, but the most dangerous for a promoter. These sorts of talents require careful matchmaking, and pitting them against quality opposition too soon or too late can adversely affect their development.

Despite recording several high profile finishes, Page is a relatively inexperienced fighter, still far removed from his technical prime. Approaching his fifth year as a professional in the sport, Page boasts a mere twelve fights, lacking both the time in the sport and the volume of bouts necessary to reach his peak.

Despite this, many have called for Page to face Bellator’s elite welterweights, such as Douglas Lima and Andrey Koreshkov. In reality, “MVP” is nowhere near ready for this level of competition. Acknowledging this, the voices calling for a step up in competition for the brash young talent may still have a point.

Ideally, developing a fighter would mean carefully matching them with opponents of suitable skill who will provide tests of varying difficulty for certain areas of a prospect’s game. In the case of Page, a striking specialist, a healthy development should include fights with mid-tier regional wrestlers, physically durable journeymen, and opponents who throw strikes at a high volume. Whether to test his takedown defense, ability to deal with an opponent whom will not fold early against his power, or how his low-volume style will handle aggressive opposition, each fight should offer at least a slight glimpse into a prospect’s current level.

While calls for Page to face Bellator’s welterweight elites may be premature, they stem from these questions, and the distinct lack of answers accompanying them. No one really knows how good “MVP” is. He is not fighting opponents with the ability to test him. We know that he is a dynamic and inventive striker who can score a finish from unusual positions. Yet, his fights continued to be showcases of exactly this quality, and this quality only.

Despite his numerous losses, Gonzalez has been finished with strikes only twice in his career. He is a durable, consistent regional veteran with a great deal of experience. In fighting him, Page danced around the cage, throwing little of consequence, showboating in front of the crowd while awaiting his opponent’s inevitable self-destruction.

Gonzalez did not self-destruct. He did not march forward onto a counter strike or stand bewildered as Page battered him at range, like so many have before him. Instead, he fired back, stayed defensively responsible, and tried to win with consistent application of his skills. Page appeared to be unready for such an opponent.

Even deep into the third round, Page continued to ineffectually taunt, showboat and dance around Gonzalez. Despite spending more than ten minutes doing exactly this to no effect, he was not yet convinced that abandoning that approach would be beneficial to him, and this can be traced directly back to his matchmaking history.

The reality is, that if a fighter is faced with a slew of opponents who will freeze up, walk onto counters, and become bewildered by a flashy foe, then that fighter is not being taught how to deal with opposition who will refuse to crumble at the first sign of adversity.

Before Gonzalez, Page’s first real test was his seventh opponent, UFC veteran Nah-Shon Burrell, in October of 2014. Burrell is a skilled fighter, and one of his greatest virtues is his ability to make opponents look bad; a less experienced Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson, a man who just forced a draw against Tyron Woodley, the current UFC welterweight champion, struggled heavily with Burrell, picking up a unanimous decision in a fight which many scored against him.

Page struggled similarly with Burrell, being pinned repeatedly against the fence and unable to offer much in the way of offense, before eventually earning a decision. The fight, like Thompson’s, was uneventful, and considered a step back for Page. In reality, it was an important learning experience, and should have represented a move towards consistent, quality opposition for the high-level prospect.

Instead, Bellator took fewer risks with their rising star, matching Page with a string of stylistically favorable opponents. A series of spectacular finishes followed, and Page’s public perception was restored.

While MVP's marketability may have been at an all-time high as a direct result of its matchmaking, Bellator seems to have negatively impacted the long-term potential of one of its finest home grown talents in order to maximize his short-term marketability. In doing so, they all but ensured that Page would have another lackluster contest against a regional-level journeyman, unequipped to deal with a foe who is too experienced to stumble at the first hurdle. Finding himself in the same position now as after the Burrell fight, whether Page will continue to face appropriate opposition, or whether he will be fed a series of hand-picked opponents to rebuild his star, could forever determine his ceiling as an elite fighter.

Michael "Venom" Page's Bellator Opponents

  • Fernando Gonazlez (Page wins via split decision)
  • Evangelista Santos (Page wins via KO, flying knee)
  • Jeremie Holloway (Page wins via submission, achilles lock)
  • Charlie Ontiveros (Page wins via TKO, elbows)
  • Rudy Bears (Page wins wins via KO, punch)
  • Nah-Shon Burrell (Page wins via unanimous decision)
  • Ricky Rainey (Page wins via TKO, punch)
  • Ryan Sanders (Page wins via KO, punch)