Kicking off the Bellator light heavyweight grand prix on Friday was a pair of familiar foes. Having first met in 2012 under the UFC banner, Ryan Bader and Lyoto Machida were well acquainted with one another. But much had changed in the ensuing years, not the least of which was the pair both signing with Bellator MMA, allowing for a rematch atop the Bellator 256 card.
Bader had gone on to win not one, but two titles in Bellator, claiming first light heavyweight, then heavyweight gold, the latter by winning the promotion’s heavyweight grand prix. Machida, now 42, was in the twilight of his career, 2-2 in the promotion, but coming off a pair off losses.
Some early striking and feeling out in the fight gave way to a Bader takedown attempt in the opening frame. At the very least, the American showed he was more comfortable on his feet nine years after that first meeting. Machida, however, still had the edge there, and it was his kicks that made the difference early. As the round progressed, Bader seemed to settle in, closing the distance and threatening, at one point forcing Machida to create space with a superman punch. In the final minute of the frame, Bader landed clean with a punch that Machida simply ate. Machida would then land a high kick, which he followed up with a flying knee. Bader turned that into a guillotine, then fired a knee at Machida.
That head kick had a feeling of deja vu, given Vadim Nemkov ended Bader’s light heavyweight reign with a similar kick. But Bader survived to the second round, only to meet more hard kicks to the body from “The Dragon.” Machida, through the early going, was fighting one of his better fights of recent memory. Perhaps buoyed by an opponent who was there to be hit by those kicks. Bader fired his right, Machida landed another kick, and finally, Bader remembered that he had wrestling to fall back on. A blast double had the American quickly take Machida down. Machida got to his knees along the fence, but Bader was able to control him, trapping a leg.
With all that control time for Bader, the five round fight was very likely tied after two. Machida continued to fire his kicks, but Bader appeared to have renewed confidence early in the third. Bader’s jab landed; Machida appeared to be slowing. A black eye was forming on his left side. With three minutes remaining in the round, along came another big takedown for Bader. This time, he dropped a couple of elbows immediately, while Machida tried to scramble out. When he couldn’t, he threw a strike or two from bottom before trying to control the wrists. Machida, though, found no reprieve from the relentless pressure and wrestling of Ryan Bader. The best that could be said is that a bloodied Lyoto Machida survived, but a final minute brimming with nasty blows from Bader had left its mark on the judges — and Machida’s face.
Championship rounds tend to favor champions, and while both Machida and Bader had won gold in their careers, Bader was the more recent (and current, at heavyweight) title holder. Which arguably gave the wrestler the edge as the main event progressed. Machida, meanwhile, had a mouse — more of a rat, based on its size — forming by that black eye. Bader, perhaps sensing blood in the water, launched some heavy leather to start the fourth round, and quickly got the fight down. Machida, already bruised, spent the entire round on his back, eating elbow after elbow, but doing just enough to prevent the finish.
That led to a round five, which felt wholly unnecessary, but that Machida’s heart and toughness ensured. But once again, Machida was taken down early, and left with no escape. And, once again, “The Dragon” managed to do just enough to prevent the finish, and even went old school with heel strikes from the bottom. But there was zero question at the end of 25 minutes that the dragon had been slain.
Bader now moves on in the tournament, and will face the winner of Corey Anderson vs. Dovletdzhan Yagshimuradov.
Official Result: Ryan Bader def. Lyoto Machida by unanimous decision (49-46, 49-45, 49-45)