Bellator's best shine bright in spotlight

IRVINE, Calif. -- Because sport always trends this way, it won't be long before a discussion brews around which mixed martial artist is Bellator's best.

If Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney is to be believed, and thus far there's no reason to doubt him, the promotion featured its top two talents Thursday night at Bellator 85. Michael Chandler dominated Rick Hawn by second-round submission, and Pat Curran slugged his way to a split decision over Patricio Freire.

Following the post-event news conference, the champions sat alongside one another, posing for photos behind their respective belts. Given the chance, I wondered aloud who was Bellator's top dog.

Chandler, 26, uncharacteristically demurred, smiled, pointed to Curran, 25, and turned his attention elsewhere.

"It's hard to say. You can't ask that question," Curran said.

But when Rebney says stuff like "I think we'd be hard-pressed to get anybody who would rank higher than Pat Curran and Michael Chandler right now in this organization" and "I think you're looking at two of the best mixed martial artists in their respective weights here tonight," it's reasonable to wonder, no?

Part of this, of course, is Rebney doing what a promoter is supposed to do, but more to the point there will be questions about the quality of the fights and fighters as Bellator MMA moves week to week across North America.

How good are these guys, really? How much of our time are they worth?

Should they be included among denizens of Zuffa fighters who have for so long populated MMA rankings?

ESPN.com ranks Chandler No. 8 at 155 pounds. Curran, rather remarkably, is third at 145. The promotion's welterweight titleholder, Ben Askren, resides in ESPN's "others receiving votes" trough.

Curran's opponent, "Pitbull" Freire, came in tied for ninth in ESPN.com's last featherweight poll. Eduardo Dantas, the promotion's champion at 135, remains ranked at No. 9 at bantamweight despite a shocking upset in August against Tyson Nam.

Eric Del Fierro helped groom UFC champion Dominick Cruz and contenders like Phil Davis and Alexander Gustafsson, along with a crew of respected Octagon-bound fighters across multiple weight divisions. He worked Chandler's corner in Irvine. Asked point-blank if the former University of Missouri wrestler could compete with UFC lightweight champion Benson Henderson, Del Fierro, usually honest even in the face of an obvious bias, quickly answered "yes."

"[Chandler's] intense," Del Fierro said. "All the similarities are there between him, Dominick Cruz, Ronda Rousey, Jon Jones. They're intense people. He's intense in training. He's a great kid. I love his enthusiasm for fighting and training.

"He's a monster."

Superlatives make for easy copy. Credit Chandler, though, for expressing a deep desire to prove his supporters right. This is not someone who wants to be handed his spot in life.

"I don't know where my style is going to continue to go and grow," Chandler said. "All I know is I want to be the best lightweight in the world, and however I get there that's how it's going to be."

Chandler is always talking about improving, and it was the first thing that came out of his mouth after beating Hawn. He must be "more conscious and cognizant" of what's going on in the cage, Chandler said, and that should happen as he spends more time in there.

"I want to keep that pressure, style, hard-nosed mentality and literally break people," he said.

Such was Hawn's fate. An Olympic judoka for the U.S. and a quality source when it comes to talking about guys who just beat him up, Hawn complimented Chandler's strength and ground-and-pound ability.

"We all knew he was a great collegiate wrestler," Hawn said. "When I was at the Olympic training center we had a lot of wrestlers in there, and they're tough bastards. I know what I was going to face and I got outwrestled."

Curran is less a wrestler than a well-rounded fighter, with a penchant for clean defense and counter-striking.

"I'm only 25 now and don't plan on peaking until my late 20s, into my 30s, so I got a few more years to really jump levels," Curran said.

Is that possible -- perceptually and in reality -- via Bellator's tournament format? Only time will tell.