(This story appears in Thursday’s print edition of USA TODAY.)
LOS ANGELES – Bellator MMA has employed its share of top talent over the course of the California-based promotion’s nearly nine years of live events. But never before could a Bellator fighter lay true claim to the title of being the world’s best fighter in a weight class.
That could change on Saturday night.
At Saturday’s Bellator 192 event, welterweight champ Douglas Lima (29-6 MMA, 11-2 BMMA) puts his belt on the line against 13-fight UFC veteran Rory MacDonald (19-4 MMA, 1-0 BMMA). The highly anticipated contest serves as the co-main event of the card, which takes place at The Forum in Inglewood, Calif., and airs on the newly rebranded Paramount Network (formerly Spike).
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“I’ve said all along that this is the toughest division in all of MMA, and the title fight this Saturday between Lima and MacDonald will determine the best welterweight in the world,” Bellator President Scott Coker told MMAjunkie. “When you look at who these guys have beaten and how long they’ve been at the top, there’s no question.”
Champ Lima enters the bout at No. 8 in the latest USA TODAY Sports/MMAjunkie MMA welterweight rankings, while MacDonald – who this past May made his Bellator debut following a six-year run in the UFC – sits at No. 3. Lima is the reigning Bellator title holder, but Canada’s MacDonald has defeated a few more high-profile opponents in his career, including a 2014 win over current UFC welterweight champion Tyron Woodley.
It’s that victory, in particular, that MacDonald believes favors his claim to the throne should he prove victorious over Lima.
“I mean, I already beat the other one, so I’ve just got to take this one,” MacDonald said. “I think that with the right performance, it will be a clear picture in people’s minds of who’s the best.”
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Meanwhile, the Brazilian-born Lima, who now lives and trains in Atlanta, stands at an impressive 9-1 in his past 10 appearances. While his past wins include recognizable names such as Paul Daley, Lorenz Larkin and Ben Saunders, MacDonald represents the highest-ranked opponent he’s ever faced, and Lima believes that will give him the opportunity he needs to display his abilities.
“Especially for the casual fans – I think he’s got a big following and is a lot more known, for sure,” Lima said. “This is going to be the chance to put a stamp on it that I belong at the top of this division and can beat anybody.
“Of course in this sport, there’s always going to be somebody else, but beating him is a no-brainer.”
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Woodley, the current UFC champ, would likely disagree with both Lima and MacDonald’s claims, but it’s an opinion that’s open for debate. While former Bellator champs Ben Askren and Eddie Alvarez were certainly considered elite-level fighters during their runs, neither had the type of definitive wins that would allow them to make a credible claim to the top spot.
Not since PRIDE’s Fedor Emelianenko was recognized as the best heavyweight on the planet has a non-UFC fighter enjoyed such status in their weight class, but both Lima and MacDonald will certainly look to solidify their case.
“Rory is so good, but Douglas is the champion,” Bellator 192 headliner and MMA analyst Chael Sonnen said. “He’s the most slighted champion I’ve ever seen. … I think it’s a big coming out party for him.”
For more on Bellator 192, check out the MMA Rumors section of the site.