Bellator 222: Marquee matchup preview including Kyoji Horiguchi's Bellator debut

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Elias Cepeda
·Yahoo Sports Contributor
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Rory MacDonald (L) and Neiman Gracie shake hands after MacDonald defeated Jon Fitch (not pictured) at Bellator 220 on April 27 in San Jose, California. (Bellator)
Rory MacDonald (L) and Neiman Gracie shake hands after MacDonald fought Jon Fitch (not pictured) to a majority draw at Bellator 220 on April 27 in San Jose, California. (Bellator)

This Friday Bellator hits New York City with a solid card featuring champions, legends and top prospects. Below, we break down the three marquee matchups to help you get ready for fight night.

Rory MacDonald (20-5-1) vs. Neiman Gracie (9-0) – Bellator Welterweight Grand Prix semi-finals

The most fascinating part of this contest has little to do with the fighters’ skills. Just a short couple months ago, after fighting to a majority draw against fellow former UFC title challenger Jon Fitch, Rory MacDonald expressed doubts about his fitness – mentally and emotionally – to continue fighting.

MacDonald clearly stated doubts that he had the same interest in doing what it takes to win MMA fights, and framed it within his newfound faith. He wondered out loud what might be in store for him, next, because he said he didn’t feel the same about fighting anymore.

Then, just days later, MacDonald said he would indeed fight Neiman Gracie in the semi-finals of Bellator’s welterweight tournament. Still, that decision to fight on does not erase the questions his initial statements after the Fitch fight raised namely, does MacDonald really want to continue fighting after such a long and illustrious career?

The cage or ring is an especially dangerous place for anyone to be if they don’t really want to be there, no matter how skilled they are. Beyond that fundamental issue, MacDonald and Gracie differ an awful lot despite their similar chronological ages.

At 29 years of age, MacDonald is younger than Gracie, who is 30. Those ages don’t tell the story of their mileage in the least, however.

MacDonald has fought professionally for nearly 14 years, while Gracie has just been doing it for over five and a half. Gracie is slightly larger than MacDonald, who himself is no small welterweight.

Additionally, Gracie last fought in December which means he has had much more time to rest and prepare for this next round of the tournament than MacDonald has.

Lyoto Machida (25-8) vs. Chael Sonnen (30-16-1)

Both forty-something fighters have fought at or near a championship level for years, now. Machida is a former light heavyweight UFC champion and Sonnen has challenged for world titles at both middleweight and light heavyweight in years past.

Heading into this bout Machida has won three-straight. Sonnen is coming off of a loss last fall to Fedor Emelianenko at heavyweight, but won his previous two contests, against Quinton “Rampage” Jackson and Wanderlei Silva, in 2018 and 2017, respectively.

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - MAY 12: Lyoto Machida of Brazil celebrates victory over  Vitor Belfort of Brazil in their middleweight bout during the UFC 224 event at Jeunesse Arena on May 12, 2018 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Buda Mendes/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC)
Lyoto Machida celebrates victory over Vitor Belfort in their middleweight bout during the UFC 224 event at Jeunesse Arena on May 12, 2018 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Zuffa LLC)

Machida has a clear advantage on the feet in terms of striking, and is also quicker to the draw, with above average takedown defense and wins over some of the best wrestling-based MMA fighters in the sport’s history. Sonnen is great in the clinch but has had most of his career success at middleweight, and may struggle against Machida even in wrestling range.

If Sonnen can get through strikes to get inside, things still won’t be easy. On top on the ground Sonnen can be a smothering presence but is at risk for submissions the longer the fight goes on, even on top, against someone with Machida’s ground game.

SAITAMA, JAPAN - DECEMBER 31: Kyoji Horiguchi celebrates the win during the RIZIN. 14 at Saitama Super Arena on December 31, 2018 in Saitama, Japan. (Photo by Masashi Hara/Getty Images)
Kyoji Horiguchi celebrates the win during RIZIN 14 at Saitama Super Arena on Dec. 31, 2018 in Saitama, Japan. (Getty Images)

Darrion Caldwell (13-2) vs. Kyoji Horiguchi (27-2) – Bellator bantamweight title

Kyoji Horiguchi is, at once, one of the very best flyweights and bantamweights in the world. As such, the former world flyweight title challenger and current Rizin bantamweight champion is arguably the best fighter on the planet, pound-for-pound.

The American Top Team member is certainly one of the most active champions in the sport. Horiguchi fought five times in 2017, three times in 2018, and has already fought once in 2019 thus far. He beat Caldwell in December by guillotine choke for the Rizin bantamweight title, and fought again a few months later.

Horiguchi was the No. 1 UFC flyweight contender before leaving the organization and his only loss in the promotion was to the best flyweight in history – Demetrious Johnson – in the last second of their five-round fight back in 2015.

Horiguchi is good, everywhere, with powerful and quick punches and kicks. The Japanese fighter also has great ground strikes and is excellent off of his own back.

For his part, the Bellator bantamweight champ Caldwell won four-straight fights before losing to Horiguchi at Rizin 14 in December, including two finishes. He is also quite well-rounded and has a huge height advantage over Horiguchi.

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