Bellator MMA creates spectacle of Zarathustra cage drop but Eduardo Dantas and Leandro Higo disappoint

Gareth A Davies
The Telegraph
The cage drops at the end of the kickboxing heralds the start of the MMA event in dramatic style
The cage drops at the end of the kickboxing heralds the start of the MMA event in dramatic style

A ceremony to behold in Budapest. A kickboxing ring dismantled and the fighting cage suspended above the action for the first half of the evening lowered to the combat arena to the strains of Sunrise from composer Richard Strauss's Also sprach Zarathustra .

Bellator MMA's switch in the Hungarian capital from hands and feet to mixed martial arts could not have been more dramatic. It was a moment of wonderment; as eye-catching a piece of choreography as anywhere in sport. 

The classical romantic horns and drums of Strauss's genius which reached popular culture through the opening sequences of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey was a fitting segue as mixed martial arts ploughs new furrows and pioneers in new fields of dreams. Such pomp should have heralded a thrilling finale to the night. But it wasn't to be: the headline fight was far from out of this world.

In fact, it crashed to earth. Almost exclusively the fault of Brazilian Leandro Higo who had failed to make weight 38 hours earlier. It was utterly unprofessional and it put a blight on the night for 5000 paying spectactors who showed respect and understanding for both codes of fighting.     

It was a pity, as overall, this was an entertaining event at the venue bearing the name of Lazlo Papp - the Hungarian boxer who won three consecutive Olympic titles at light-middleweight and middleweight between 1948 and 1956 - with two women fighters, kickboxer Jorina Baars and MMA fighter Lena Ovchynnikova outstanding, Germany's Daniel Weichel earning a shot at the featherweight title and Raymond Daniels showing, even at the mature age of 36, he has the kind of moves that would get the late Rudolf Nureyev standing to stare.   

As for the main event, the blame can be placed firmly at the door of Higo, who failed to make weight - by four pounds - for his title challenge against Bellator bantamweight champion Eduardo 'Dudu' Dantas. The title fight was scratched and the encounter switched to three rounds. Only rubble remained. It was like the blind date from hell. Promising thrills but delivering a hollow blow to the stomach. Fifteen minutes of feeling out between the two Brazilians. Nothing more than a sparring session. All sound and fury in the build-up; but signifying nothing in its enactment.        

The first round was passive, cagey. Ditto two, ditto three. They fought like it didn't matter. And you know what ? It didn't. Dantas (20-4) defeated Leandro Higo (17-3) via split decision (30-27, 30-27, 28-29). I thought Dantas won all three rounds.

Speaking to me afterwards, the bantamweight champion expressed his annoyance at Higo. But he failed to show it in the arena. Dantas admitted the motivation had been sucked out of him.

"It was tough to stay motivated for this fight once he missed weight. The least he should have done was made weight. There was nothing to gain whether I beat him fast or slow. It wasn’t for the belt, it wasn’t going to change my ranking in Bellator," Dantas said.

"When [Darrion] Caldwell got injured, I asked Scott Coker to bring in tough bantamweights and they brought in a tough fighter, but you have to make weight. I train hard for several months, I don’t go out, I train. It’s the very minimum you can do. You have to make weight. Be a professional. I don’t think Caldwell is injured. I think he just doesn’t want to fight out of America. I am looking forward to getting my hands on him."

Weichel (39-9) defeated John Macapa (21-2) via split decision (29-28, 29-28, 28-29). "Macapa is definitely a tough opponent. He was almost undefeated coming into this with only one loss and I took him as seriously as I can take an opponent. At this time I treat everyone I fight as if it's a championship fight. I think he is one of the top featherweight opponents that I could face so I’m pretty happy that I was able to beat him," Weichel said.

"I have to give a big shout out to all of my friends and family that drove 17-18 hours from Frankfurt and Cologne to be here and support me. They’ve been there for me and believed in me since day one and it's difficult for me to even put into words how much it means to have them in my corner. I’m hoping that Bellator brings me to Mohegan Sun next week and puts me cage side so I can see who I will get to beat up next when Daniel Straus and Patricio 'Pitbull' fight."

Within an atmosphere not dissimilar to Japan where you can hear both corners and cell phones ringing, punctuated by a respectful silence, Baars looked amazing, defeating Irene Martens (20-10-2) via unanimous decision (30-25, 30-25, 30-25), revealing to me afterwards that she feels the presence of her late father every time she fights. Competing with a visible awareness, the Dutch woman is one to watch. Indeed, she has beaten Cyborg Santos at kickboxing which perhaps underlines her skills.  

Baars, meanwhile,  at 41-0-3, remains undefeated. "It was a good fight, I thought that Irene [Martens] was very tough. I had control from the very beginning of the fight and I kept it for all three of the rounds. I was a little disappointed in the first round but the second and third round I performed much better."

"It was amazing to finally fight for Bellator. The organization is so professional. I’m looking forward to my future fights here and I hope to win the Bellator title."

In the women's MMA fight, Ukrainian Lena Ovchynnikova (12-4) defeated Helen Harper, of the UK (4-2), via doctor stoppage at 5:00 of round two. Harper's nose was broken and she landed heavily on her head at the end of the second. Ovchynnikova, photogenic and an intriguing character who grew up in poverty and supports her family - who care deeply for her severely disabled younger brother - will get better and better.

"Before the fight I was a little bit nervous, and I felt that my first round wasn’t quite as good as I would have liked," she explained, having come somewhere near to being submitted by Harper.

"But when the second round started she was going to feel my power and I knew that I would win. When the judges stopped the fight I couldn’t believe it. I was ready for a third round and I wanted to win with a knockout but we have what we have."

Raymond Daniels did get the knockout over Csaba Gyorfi in the third round. "I’ve been training for many years in sport karate and the martial arts and you know it’s a lot like training to be a sniper. There’s holes and there's windows and when your opponent gives you those holes you have to seize that opportunity. I saw that hole, I exposed it, and it happened to be with my spin kick which is one of my most powerful and devastating techniques. If I hit that mark with that kick it’s a home run, grand slam, I’m hitting it out of the park every time."

"I’ve been able to spar recently with several great MMA veterans like Rory MacDonald, Georges St. Pierre and Tyron Woodley and I’ve had a lot of fun training with those guys so I’m definitely interested in doing MMA again. It’s a lot of fun to go at it with small gloves because people can't use the big gloves as a shield to block my shots. I want to seize this Bellator Kickboxing title and continue to help build this kickboxing brand because I know they’re investing a lot of time into it. So yeah, I’m definitely interested in crossing that bridge and getting some MMA fights, but my main focus is to take home that kickboxing gold."

Irishman Brian Moore (10-5) defeated Michal Horejsi (5-3) via TKO at 3:57 of round two, and urged Bellator MMA CEO Scott Coker afterwards to include him on the New York, Madison Square Garden card on June 17. Moore, who fights out of the same SBG gym in Dublin as Conor McGregor, said afterwards: "I want to be a household name. I really believe I’m one of the better featherweights in this division. I was given a guy who is very unpredictable. I was patient in my approach but I cut him down and was able to finish him. Tonight I wanted to make a statement with a knockout because my dream is to fight at Madison Square Garden. I want to open up the show."

"My team-mate James [Gallagher] is already on the card and we’d put on a super camp together and we’d tear that place apart," Moore said. "My hero, Sugar Ray Robinson used to own the Garden. I’ve watched every bit of footage I can get my hands on of Sugar Ray, he’s my idol. So to fight in the same arena as he has – and obviously my teammate Conor [McGregor] has fought there too - it would be a dream come true. But I want to open up the card and set the tone for the night because when you see a fighter that is as exciting as I am that’ll set the tone. Give me anyone, I don’t give a f---."

Chael Sonnen, who was at the event as a co-commentator, and is in training for his New York headline grudge match against Wanderlei Silva, told me: "You know, I thought MMA was developed all over the world already, but coming here it is great to be a pioneer and help move the sport on. I can't wait to finish Silva in that smelly old building in June."

MMA pioneer Royce Gracie was also at the event, explaining that he had been giving tutorials during the week to Hungarian Anti-Terrorist and law enforcement officers. "I do it all over the world, from Israel to the United States, and I love working with these guys." And as ever, the fans loved him.

There was a minute's silence as the hall paid their respects to the Hungarian karate trainer Antal Janos, who died aged 77 in February. There was more than a minute's silence when Dantas and Higo fought. For completely different reasons. Janos will never be forgotten. But the headline fight live long in the memory only for its lack of action.  

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