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Did Bellator give us an irredeemable squash match by pitting former WWE wrestler Jake Hager against beef plant worker T.J. Jones, or is this just par for the course in MMA? Retired UFC and WEC fighter Danny Downes joins MMA Junkie columnist Ben Fowlkes to discuss in this week’s Trading Shots.
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Downes: Ben, if you thought working at the beef plant was hard, you should see how the employees spend their weekends.
Saturday night at Bellator 221, T.J. Jones survived two minutes and 36 seconds against Jake Hager before tapping out to an arm-triangle submission. No disrespect to his first-round win over Erik Braly at RCWC: Halloween Brawl on Boot Hill, but we all know Jones was sent there to lose.
Do squash matches have a point in high-level MMA promotions? I mean, we all know their purpose, but aren’t they just a waste of time? Do you think Bellator did anything especially egregious in this matchmaking? The UFC is out there just looking for any heavyweights with a pulse to throw against Greg Hardy.
We often complain about fighters with potential getting thrown to the wolves too early. Isn’t the squash match just a “slow and steady” way of promoting a fighter?
Fowlkes: What goal did Bellator set out to accomplish here? That’s my question. Was it just to add to Hager’s win totals (which now sit comfortably at two)? Was it to show him off to fans and get us all excited about his potential? Was it purely for short-term ticket sales and DAZN subscriptions?
I ask because, at least athletically, we learned nothing from this. Bellator knew who was going to win. Everybody did. So when the former All-American wrestler and WWE star took down and submitted the beef plant worker who hadn’t fought in a year and a half, it’s not like we could interpret it as an early test passed. It was a set-up, and it went exactly the way it was supposed to go, which can’t help but feel a little disappointing.
The only interesting thing that happened here was Hager going into full pro wrestling heel mode when the crowd booed him for holding the choke too long in a fight that already felt more like sanctioned bullying than any sort of athletic contest.
I’d like to give Bellator credit and entertain the idea that maybe this was the plan all along. As if, instead of trying to engineer a squash match that at least looked potentially legit according to the eye test, the way the UFC has been doing with Hardy, Bellator matchmakers intentionally chose a guy who was so clearly out of his depth so that his obvious unsuitability would get people on his side and make them hate Hager, whose time in pro wrestling taught him exactly what to do with that heat.
Honestly? If that was the plan, I might even have to call it genius. You know, if I believed it.
Occam’s razor tells us that the thinking here was probably nowhere near that complicated. You’ve got this pro wrestler with legit skills. He’s a little long in the tooth and still finding his feet in MMA. He’s also a heavyweight, which is the shallowest pool in the sport. But you need him to fight and win, so you just keep asking a series of regional fat guys until somebody agrees to fight him.
That was clearly the plan all along. How you wake up on Sunday morning feeling good about yourself for having seen it through it to its inevitable conclusion is what I don’t understand.
Downes: Are you telling me the Hager fight didn’t get you “rock hard” with emotion? We make the mistake of assuming that promoters always have some intricate, well-thought-out plan for stars. The fact of the matter is most of the time they’re just trying to get through the next fight card. Also, we’ve seen how the MMA gods react to intricate, well-thought-out plans for fighters.
I will say that Bellator is in a tough spot. Every fighter coming through the ranks has fought some journeyman or beef plant worker-type to add to his stats on the way up. The only difference is that most fighters are doing it in a Harley-Davidson dealership in the Milwaukee suburbs (like yours truly), instead of being on the same card as a champ-vs.-champ fight with the second largest MMA promotion.
We also tend to think that athletes from other sports will easily make the transition to MMA. Hardy is the most accomplished NFL player to compete in MMA (all respect to Matt Mitrione’s four career tackles). But have you seen him fight? He’s sloppy. He looks like a guy with only five career fights and less than seven minutes of total cage time.
Remember when we thought Gokhan Saki was going to steamroll his MMA opponents? Hager may have a good pedigree, but there’s no guarantee a 37-year-old former professional wrestler should jump to the front of the line.
Speaking of professional wrestlers, look at Brock Lesnar. Would you rather Hager get a shot at the Bellator heavyweight title? Lesnar’s last win was in 2010 and he’s only fought once in the last eight years. There were a whole lot of people really excited to see him fight Daniel Cormier, though.
Does Ryan Bader have to be an affable dad to get the squash match hookup? Isn’t our outrage only dependent on certain circumstances? Up until last night, the Bellator matchmaking seemed to be working well for Michael Page. Can’t the same work for Hager?
Fowlkes: There has to be some middle ground between being propelled straight into a title fight and being spoon-fed a series of hapless victims. But then, maybe in Bellator’s heavyweight division there really, truly isn’t.
Page is an interesting counter-example. While he definitely got some friendly matchmaking on his way up the ranks, he got the MMA world’s attention because of what he was doing in the cage. He has an unconventional style and a talent for creating highlights, so the people who saw him kept wanting to see more. He became a genuine MMA thing because of what he did inside the cage.
But Hager’s time as a pro wrestler ensures that he starts as a thing rather than having to become one. Bellator sees that, wants his thing-ness to continue, and it’s taking no chances with opponents in the cultivation stage of that process.
What does it prove for him to beat a guy like Jones, though? What, that he’s not absolutely awful? That the guy with a legitimately impressive athletic pedigree is actually a good athlete capable of easily beating a part-time fighter?
Because I don’t feel like I needed this demonstration in order to be convinced of that. If you purposely make a fight that one guy can’t possibly lose, don’t expect me to be impressed when he wins.
Ben Fowlkes is MMA Junkie and USA TODAY’s MMA columnist. Danny Downes, a retired UFC and WEC fighter, is an MMA Junkie contributor who has also written for UFC.com and UFC 360. Follow them on twitter at @benfowlkesMMA and @dannyboydownes.
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