I went to Atlantic City a couple Fridays ago for the 74th installment of the Bellator Fighting Championships, excited for whatever raucousness the sell-out crowd would summon forth in the confines of the Palladium Ballroom in Caesar’s Hotel & Casino and looking forward to seeing the athleticism and technical skill of a live fight. Mostly, though, I wanted to see Lyman Good kill someone.
If Ultimate Fighting Championship is the world’s premiere mixed martial arts promotion, Bellator—with its live weekly broadcasts on MTV2, multiple tournaments, and relative longevity in the industry—is the clear-cut number two. In Breaking Bad parlance, Bellator is Jesse Pinkman to the UFC’s Walter White, an illicit chemist fully capable of making precious blue meth, but not in charge of the whole operation. Could a Bellator champ beat a UFC champ? Probably not, but its champ would hold their own against a UFC also-ran, at least.
Lyman was crowned Bellator’s inaugural welterweight champ back in 2009. To get there, he entered an eight-man tournament and tore past three opponents, each bout separated by a month and each more violent and and intense. The meta-story was that Lyman was the product of a real-life Spanish Harlem version of Boyz n the Hood, that he’d have found himself eventually incarcerated but for martial arts and the sport, and that goddamn, is this kid a killer or what? But the press releases and media bites never really captured the intensity of it all, and anyway, who wants to hear about the post-workout sobbing in the dark, distractions at home, and walking the line of a physical and mental breakdown? Most just cared about the doom and destruction he wordlessly promised. When you watch a rage-filled 27-year-old fight, you aren't seeing someone do his best against adversity so much as you're seeing someone hold back from eating another human’s soul.
Photos by David Herbert
The Palladium Ballroom lies just beyond the endlessly chattering slot machines, and after picking up my credential I make my way inside. The center of the room is dominated by a cage—not an Octagon, like UFC’s, just a round cage—and a camera attached to a huge boom hangs above rows and rows of empty chairs. While a UFC in Las Vegas might see 13,000 fans, Bellator events top out around a couple thousand. Which is fine. Two thousand people in a ballroom makes for a hell of an intimate and energized setting.
Lyman is the main event, scheduled to face a tattooed Brit named “Judo” Jim Wallhead in what will be one of four welterweight tournament quarterfinal bouts. Lyman’s only been defeated twice in his 15-bout career—a pair of decision losses to an Olympic wrestler and judoka, respectively, with the former having taken his Bellator title. As his last bout back in April was all of 13 seconds of his fists smashing his poor opponent's face, expectations are high that Lyman will cruise through this tourney and get to rematch the Olympian who dry-humped him out of the belt.
A snafu with the scheduling has the first two fights going down a half-hour before anyone expects them to, so at 6 PM fighters are scrapping before only a handful of spectators. But the ballroom fills up, and by the time Phillipe Nover, a heavy-handed Brooklynite and runner-up on the eighth season of The Ultimate Fighter, gets into the cage and pounds his opponent’s face into jelly, the joint starts rocking. And the hits keep on coming. Munah Holland, Good’s teammate, finds herself flat on her back and unable to wield her fists to any great effect. A 155-pound Brazilian chews up and spits out an overmatched kid from Pennsylvania. A dude from Philadelphia walks through his foe like the Kool-Aid Man through a brick wall.
The live TV broadcast commences at eight, and with it, the welterweight tournament bouts. A Justin Beiber lookalike goes the distance with a Russian and loses the decision. A red-headed dude from Missouri gets choked out by yet another Russian. A Lithuanian kickboxer knocks a Canadian striker down with a spinning backfist (which inexplicably elicits chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” from the crowd) and earns the judges’ nods when the clock runs out. Then it’s time for Lyman, and the audience goes wild with anticipation.
Since Lyman came up in the local circuit, I’ve seen all of his fights. Once, he made an opponent puke mid-bout, a glob of undigested whatever right there on the canvas. He broke his hand another time, and used the other to knock his opponent out (and through the ropes). One dude threw a kick that Lyman blocked with his elbow, and the foot, which got fractured in the attempt, swelled up like a balloon.
Nothing as dramatic happens against Judo Jim. For three rounds, the New Yorker simply out-strikes and out-maneuvers the Brit, banging away almost conservatively. Aside from two errant kicks to the jewels that has referee “Big” Dan Miragliotta docking him a point, Lyman is large and in charge. To the audience’s clearly expressed glee, he takes the decision.
All that’s left is the post-fight press conference, which goes down in a conference room tucked away in a hallway upstairs. There, the fighters—the victors and the vanquished—sit on either side of Bellator frontman Bjorn Rebney. Questions are fielded, answers spoken into microphones. Rebney announces that Lyman’s semifinal matchup will be against one of the Russians. And then it’s over, and Lyman’s teammate Nissim is whispering to the former Bellator champ that his family is waiting to get something to eat and could he please hurry up.
On the way out, Lyman and Judo Jim talk shop, Lyman the epitome of friendly as he describes how the subtle placement of an elbow here and a hand there prevented the Brit from getting his moniker on. They trade smiles and handshakes and pats on the shoulder.
At Bellator 74, no one was killed, nor did anyone have their soul eaten. But that’s OK. At the end of the day, it’s about action—and we got plenty.