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

What separates the UFC’s top fighters from the top fighters of other promotions? Historically speaking, quite a bit, but Bellator is slowly attempting to build a roster which can break the UFC’s stranglehold on elite martial arts.

Previously, the promotion’s key divisions had always been lightweight and featherweight; champions such as Patricio Freire and have long been seen as among the world’s best. However, after some noteworthy acquisitions at welterweight, Bellator’s 170-pound division now appears to be their most talent-rich.

Recent signings such as Rory MacDonald and have given the division real strength at the top end, complimenting a roster which already bolstered names like Douglas Lima, Paul Daley, and Andrey Koreshkov.

The UFC lists its top-five welterweights in the following order, per their official rankings:

  • Tyron Woodley
  • Demian Maia
  • Stephen Thompson
  • Robbie Lawler
  • Jorge Masvidal

While these five men are all undoubtedly elite, it could be argued that the division is in need of turnaround. Welterweight has always been seen as a particularly deep division for its plethora of talented up-and-comers, but few of those fighters have proven able to displace a member of the last generation of welterweight contenders.

Conversely, Bellator's Paul Daley is a known quantity with an established ceiling, but Champions contributor Larkin, who challenges for Lima's title at , and MacDonald are proven top-flight fighters, with MacDonald holding wins over both of the UFC’s top two welterweights, and Larkin exiting the UFC fresh off wins over Neil Magny and Masvidal, who Maia narrowly edged in a recent title eliminator.

Lima and Koreshkov, meanwhile, are two of Bellator’s best home-grown talents, incredibly dangerous strikers who fight with ruthless precision, and a distinct sense of viscerality.

They have competed against each other twice, splitting their series, with Lima currently in possession of the Bellator welterweight title which he previously ceded to Koreshkov.

The Russian’s stock had already soared spectacularly high, having successfully defended the championship he once held in a dominant beatdown of former UFC lightweight champion , and Lima’s victory bolstered his own case as an elite welterweight while doing little to harm Koreshkov’s.

To shake the perception that Bellator fighters are of an inherently lower quality to UFC fighters, at all levels, signings such as MacDonald are essential for them, but this is not a zero-risk acquisition.

Fans are fickle, and the Canadian has never once firmly established himself as the world’s best welterweight.

The idea of a top-five welterweight exiting the UFC on a two-fight losing streak, only to quickly climb Bellator’s ranks and win a championship, would seem to be the worst case scenario for them.

MacDonald as a champion, in itself, would carry great prestige, as he is undoubtedly one of the world’s best, but such an occurrence only feeds into the narrative of UFC supremacy.

Where the immediate future is truly brightest for Bellator is in the possibility of MacDonald’s defeat. Where Daley was able to accomplish little, fighters such as Koreshkov and Lima offer legitimate stylistic challenges for “The Red King”. Even Larkin, an undervalued talent during his time on the UFC roster, could serve to legitimize the merit of the division in the eyes of many, simply by overcoming MacDonald.

Larkin is set to challenge Lima on June 24, and MacDonald has publicly campaigned for a bout opposite the winner.

With talent such as Michael “Venom” Page slowly developing, the future of welterweight appears bright in the Bellator cage, but its present is electrifying.

While the UFC’s title picture is held up by stagnation and talk of “money fights,” Douglas Lima, Lorenz Larkin, Rory MacDonald and Andrey Koreshkov all strive towards the Bellator championship.

When the dust clears, any of those four men could be holding the strap, and this uncertainty works to Bellator's advantage; it creates an image of a thriving field of competitors, closely matched and intensely skilled.

To truly compete with the UFC, Bellator must continue to expand its talent pool, but with their top welterweights, at this moment, they have assembled a lineup which compares more favorably to the UFC’s elites than perhaps any division in the promotion’s history.

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