It's been a long time since two MMA promotions allowed their fighters to cross over and face each other, but that's exactly what was announced earlier this week, as Bellator bantamweight champion Darrion Caldwell will take on Rizin tournament champion Kyoji Horiguchi on New Year's Eve in Japan.
Could this become the new norm? We asked our group of MMA experts -- Brett Okamoto, Ariel Helwani, Phil Murphy, Chamatkar Sandhu, Jeff Wagenheim, Eric Tamiso and Max Bretos -- for their takes on what dream matchups they would like to see.
No shortage of answers on this one. Man. There are so many different ways you can take this, but ultimately I think the answer is almost not up for debate. It has to include Bellator MMA lightweight Chandler.
Chandler is one of the faces of Bellator for good reason. He is a homegrown talent, and solidified himself as one of the best 155-pounders in the world years ago. It's no secret that the UFC's lightweight division is stacked. It's arguably the deepest division in the sport. Most of the marquee matchups at lightweight, for someone of Chandler's caliber, are in the UFC.
If I get one night of fantasy cross-promotion? Give me Chandler vs. the UFC's undefeated champ, Nurmagomedov.
So with that in mind, I'll go with Bellator women's flyweight champion Ilima-Lei Macfarlane against the winner of Shevchenko vs. Jedrzejczyk. Macfarlane has emerged as one of the best female fighters in the world, is proud to be a Bellator fighter and, I believe, feels as though she's the best flyweight out there. Also, they're fighting a week apart, so the timing works out. I'd love to see it.
It might be a cop-out to include Johnson in this fantasy cross-promotional matchmaking, but I'm not above it. Mighty Mouse was arguably the world's best pound-for-pound mixed martial artist before his UFC departure. Now, he's the best fighter outside the UFC by a wide margin.
Calling for a Henry Cejudo trilogy was tempting. But a much bigger part of me wants the "one that got away." When DJ reigned as UFC flyweight king, a superfight against UFC bantamweight champ Dillashaw seemed inevitable.
"TJ vs. DJ" is a stylistic dream that even rolls off the tongue. It remained among the best fights to make while Johnson was employed by WME. Bringing him back to the Octagon to finally challenge Dillashaw adds wrinkles that completely amplify the storyline.
First off, kudos to Bellator for contributing Caldwell to this pop-the-corks New Year's Eve mash-up with Horiguchi. As No. 2 in the MMA sphere, Scott Coker's promotion has more to lose than Rizin does -- just like the UFC would have more to lose in a co-promotion with Bellator or anyone else. Which is one reason why we haven't seen Dana White & Co. get in the mixtape business since the "Chuck Liddell Plays Pride" album of 2003.
The other obstacle to Zuffa participation? The UFC's market share of top-10 assets is so massive, it limits the high-level crossover possibilities. There are enough novelty attractions, though, to fill three rings under the Big Top. You could turn back the clock in slow motion with Fedor vs. Brock. You could settle a grappler grudge with Khabib vs. Dillon Danis -- this time inside the cage. But is that really the direction we want to go?
Let's instead see how the best in Bellator stack up. Pit the "Pitbull," Patricio Freire, against someone, anyone in the UFC's featherweight top 10. Or feed Michael Chandler a top-of-the-food-chain lightweight. Better yet, how about a showdown of middleweight champs Robert Whittaker and Gegard Mousasi? Short of a Demetrious Johnson-Henry Cejudo re-do, this is the one championship matchup in which I'd make the non-UFC guy the favorite.
But if I have to pick just one crossover fight, I'm going to go with flair vs. flair. No, I'm not suggesting ol' Ric put the tights back on. I'm talking about Till vs. "Venom" Page. This clash of flashy British welterweights could be a mismatch -- Till (17-1-1) has run a far more rugged gauntlet than has Page (14-0) -- but maybe not. Who knows how good "Venom" is until he's in with someone who can challenge him? And "The Gorilla" surely would.
All right, this is always fun. Fantasy booking between any two fighters, regardless of promotion.
The one that jumps right off the page for me is Emelianenko vs. Lesnar. For quite some time, UFC president Dana White tried to acquire Emelianenko to make that fight with Lesnar a reality. When both men were at the peak of their powers, it would've been a blockbuster pay-per-view, there's no doubt about that. Although they're a little bit older and well past their prime now, I think there'd still be massive interest in two of the most recognizable heavyweight fighters in MMA history duking it out. At the very least, it would make for one awesome visual.
With Lesnar at 41 and Emelianenko 42, respectively, there's still time to make this happen, but the sand in the hourglass is almost gone. Oh, and there's still the small issue of the UFC being willing to co-promote with another organization, which let's face it, is never going to happen. Then again, perhaps the UFC could sign Emelianenko when his Bellator deal expires? Stranger things have happened in MMA.
Bretos: Patricio Pitbull (Bellator) vs. Jose Aldo (UFC)
I regularly gush over Darion Caldwell on these panels, and have always envisioned him coming to UFC to fight the bantamweight champ. He beat us all to the punch by taking the Horiguchi fight.
So let's move to Plan B. Pitbull is Mr. Bellator, logging a lot of time in the promotion and remaining at the top. He has carved out an even higher step on the Bellator plateau with two big wins in 2018. Well, it's time to see what he can do elsewhere. There is a huge featherweight title fight on Dec. 8 in the UFC, so why not have a little tournament? Let's have the Brazilian dream fight, Pitbull vs. Aldo. Shoot, let's have it at the World Cup Stadium in Manaus. The winner gets the winner of Max Holloway vs. Brian Ortega.
I may have gone a little too far down the rabbit hole, but hey, it's all hypothetical. However, in the changing world of MMA, you never know.
Tamiso: Fedor Emelianenko (Bellator) vs. Francis Ngannou (UFC)
I wouldn't expect a fight between Emelianenko and Ngannou to go to the cards, but it'd be enthralling while it lasted. All of Fedor's bouts with Bellator MMA have had a frantic energy to them, leaving fans glued to the screen waiting for someone to land the eventual punch that'll end the fight. Now imagine that against someone with the power of Ngannou. Matt Mitrione and Frank Mir hit hard. Ngannou hits about as hard as Ivan Drago on that machine in Rocky IV.
Can Fedor's speed and grappling ability, should he choose to use it, be enough to hold off that devastating one-punch power of Ngannou? Can Ngannou weather the offensive barrage that Fedor would most likely unload in the first 15 seconds of the fight? Have the UFC and Bellator come together and make this fight, but have it in Rizin. This fight reminds me of something Pride would've promoted in Japan over a decade ago, so it might as well be in the ring at the Saitama Super Arena.