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5 potentially big UFC fights that happened in Bellator

Chael Sonnen
Chael Sonnen's long-awaited UFC fight with Wanderlei Silva happened in Bellator.
Scott Newman
SENIOR ANALYST
Modified 04 Apr 2021
Top 5 / Top 10

The UFC is undoubtedly the big dog in the yard when it comes to MMA. And with most of the best fighters in the world on its roster, it’s understandable that most of the biggest fights happen there too.

The UFC doesn’t always put on the biggest fights, though – for various reasons, some fall through and end up happening in other promotions, namely Bellator.

Over the years, we’ve seen a number of big fights built up or hinted at by the UFC, only for them to happen in the Bellator cage instead.

Here are five potentially big UFC fights that ended up happening in Bellator.


#1 Chael Sonnen vs. Wanderlei Silva - Bellator 180

Chael Sonnen used his wrestling to grind out a win over Wanderlei Silva.
Chael Sonnen used his wrestling to grind out a win over Wanderlei Silva.

The culmination of one of MMA’s all-time great feuds, the fight between Chael Sonnen and Wanderlei Silva really should’ve been a marquee fight for the UFC.

Instead, it happened inside Bellator’s cage, some three years after it probably should’ve taken place.

Hostilities between the two began when Sonnen began to bad-mouth Brazil as part of his feud with then-UFC Middleweight champ Anderson Silva. When he’d lost to Silva twice, he turned his attentions to Wanderlei, and the PRIDE legend took the bait.

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The UFC dedicated a whole season of TUF Brazil to the feud, with the two men becoming the first TUF coaches to actually come to blows.

But the planned fight between the two at UFC 175 was scrapped when Silva refused to undergo a random drug test – something that landed him in hot water with the Nevada State Athletic Commission, resulting in a lifetime ban.

Sonnen also failed a drug test for the fight and then announced his retirement shortly after.

But by 2016, both men were allowed to return by the NSAC, and both ended up signing with Bellator.

And so, three years after the UFC laid the groundwork for the fight, Bellator had Sonnen vs. Silva main event their first show in New York City in June 2017.

Sonnen ended up winning a unanimous decision in what was a pretty solid fight, but away from the UFC banner, it didn’t feel the same.


#2 Fedor Emelianenko vs. Frank Mir - Bellator 198

Fedor Emelianenko
Fedor Emelianenko's fight with Frank Mir could've been huge in the UFC.
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Fedor Emelianenko remains the greatest fighter to never fight in the UFC, and although the Russian Heavyweight legend’s time has now been and gone, it’s still a pity.

Had he joined the UFC at any time after 2007, he could’ve put on some seriously fun fights, even when he was past his prime.

And one such potential fight actually happened in Bellator in 2018, as the Russian faced off with former UFC Heavyweight champ Frank Mir.

The fight was Mir’s first after departing the UFC in 2017 and stood as Fedor’s first fight against a former UFC champion since his 2008 win over Andrei Arlovski.

In fact, it felt very much like the kind of fight the UFC would’ve pushed Fedor into had they been able to sign him at any point in his career.

Despite both men being past their best, this was a wildly entertaining fight. Both men suffered knockdowns in the early going of the fight, but in the end, Fedor’s power was stronger than Mir’s chin, and he finished the former UFC champ in just 48 seconds.


#3 Tito Ortiz vs. Stephan Bonnar - Bellator 131

It
It's surprising that Tito Ortiz and Stephan Bonnar never faced off in the UFC.
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Given that he was the UFC’s poster-boy for the best part of a decade, it always felt a little wrong to see Tito Ortiz fighting anywhere but the Octagon.

But that’s just what happened in 2013. Ortiz, who had apparently retired from the UFC in 2012, signed with Bellator for a planned fight with former training partner and UFC star Quinton Rampage Jackson.

That fight would almost certainly have made this list - but Rampage withdrew via injury.

And so after he beat Alexander Shlemenko in his Bellator debut, Ortiz found himself matched with another former UFC star.

That star was Stephan Bonnar, who had fought Forrest Griffin in arguably the most famous UFC fight of them all. Bonnar, though hadn’t gone onto the same success as Griffin and washed out of the promotion in 2013 with an 8-7 record.

Given Bonnar’s links with Griffin – and Ortiz’s famous feud with Griffin in the UFC – it was surprising that the UFC never matched these two during their tenure with the promotion.

But in the end – after a pro-wrestling style build – the two faced off in Bellator, with Ortiz using his wrestling and ground game to grind out a decision win.


#4 Ryan Bader vs. Cheick Kongo - Bellator 226

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Ryan Bader
Ryan Bader's fight with Cheick Kongo could easily have headlined a lesser UFC show.

Okay, so a fight between Ryan Bader and Cheick Kongo would never have main evented a major UFC pay-per-view during any period.

It certainly could’ve headlined one of the UFC’s free-TV cards, though, as the two men had a total of five main events with the promotion under their belts.

But both men ended up in Bellator following the expiration of their UFC contracts.

Kongo jumped first back in 2013 after a loss to Roy Nelson ended his UFC career. And Bader didn’t take much longer to follow him, moving over in 2016 after his UFC contract ended with a win over Antonio Rogerio Nogueira.

The two men stayed apart in their initial Bellator runs, but once Bader surprisingly won the Bellator Heavyweight title in January 2019, Kongo made sense as his first title defense.

The Frenchman had at that stage won eight in a row, including a win over former Bellator champ Vitaly Minakov.

Unfortunately for Bellator, the fight between Bader and Kongo didn’t go as planned. Bader appeared to be in control when Kongo suffered an accidental eye poke, and so the fight was called off in the first round and declared a No Contest.


#5 Rampage Jackson vs. Chael Sonnen - Bellator 192

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Quinton Jackson and Chael Sonnen were largely past their prime when they fought in Bellator.
Quinton Jackson and Chael Sonnen were largely past their prime when they fought in Bellator.

Both Quinton Rampage Jackson and Chael Sonnen were amongst the biggest stars of their era in the UFC and fought there at the same time.

And with their skills on the mic to go along with their skills in the Octagon, it’s actually surprising in hindsight that the UFC never tried to put this fight together.

The likely explanation is that Sonnen only moved to 205lbs in 2013, right at the time when Rampage was about to depart the UFC for Bellator.

But when Sonnen failed a drug test in 2014 and ended up leaving the UFC in his own right, Bellator decided to bring him in.

Chael fought in two fights that could’ve been big in the UFC – against Wanderlei Silva and Tito Ortiz – before throwing down with Rampage in January 2018 as part of Bellator’s Light Heavyweight Grand Prix.

The fight actually turned out to be a damp squib, as Sonnen ended up grinding out a close victory thanks to his takedowns and clinch work.

However, if the UFC had put this one together in, say, 2011, with both men at their trash-talking peak? It could definitely have been something special.

Published 04 Apr 2021, 13:57 IST
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