January 24, 2017

Bellator 170: Brennan Ward -- Almost Famous

By Schwan Humes

On January 21, 2017 at Bellator 170, Brennan Ward was on the receiving end of the second worst flying knee knockout in Bellator history; under normal circumstances the focus would be on the devastation of the knee itself or the technical expertise and physical dominance of the opponent who used the knee, in this case Paul “Semtex” Daley. Instead the story is Ward once again coming up short in a spot set up for him to take the next step in his career and go from a very good and exciting fighter to a legitimate contender and (super)star. Today I want to discuss what has limited Ward from crossing over that barrier, and what that means for him moving forward.

Brennan Ward is a promoter’s dream; he is talkative, bold, brash, and has a natural swagger in both how he fights and how he interacts with the media and fans. Unlike many fighters who come into the big organizations of MMA, Ward has a fan base and the appeal to expand that among hardcore fans and some of the casual fans who support the sport. Organizations say they want the best fighters, and they do, but what they really want are stars they can get behind and build around, people who can carry cards and draw eyes (i.e., put butts in seats and drive TV ratings). Ward showed that sort of potential, and what helped strengthen this brand was the fact that he can fight.

Ward previously competed in a regional promotion (CES MMA), compiling a record of 5-1 before moving on to Bellator. And even when the competition improved and the amount of fights under his belt had doubled, Ward performed -- he showed very good athleticism, aggression, and activity. He won fights by submission and he won fights by knockout, showcasing ever improving (functional) striking and an effective if not particularly dynamic or technical grappling game. Ward looked like the real deal; even with a submission loss in his second fight, he looked, acted, and fought like he was the goods. After he won the Bellator Season 9 Middleweight Tournament and was announced to be a title challenger for then-champion Alexander Shlemenko, it seemed like Ward was going to be an example of how to develop a fighter from prospect to contender to challenger, and hopefully champion. It was all falling into place for Ward, and at Bellator 114 the coronation of a new star and a new king in MMA was to occur. Unfortunately, that was the day that we first began to see the trend that has now defined Brendan Ward as a fighter: good enough to beat the rest, not good enough to beat the best.

March 28, 2014 (Bellator 114), September 5, 2014 (Bellator 123), April 22, 2016 (Bellator 153), and now January 21, 2017 are four specific dates in Ward’s career; each one corresponds to a loss, and each loss did more harm to his career than any win or series of wins has done good for his career. The reason is that his wins have come against the fighters that guys of Brennan’s caliber are supposed to beat, the mediocre to good fighters used to pad records or keep guys busy as they rebuild themselves and get back on a winning track in regards to hopefully becoming a legitimate contender. His losses, however, were to Shlemenko, Tamdan McCrory, Evangelista Santos, and Daley; these guys are far and away the most accomplished, skilled, and physically talented fighters on his resume, and each guy beat him in spectacular and decisive fashion. Shlemenko, a noted striker, submitted Ward inside two rounds. McCrory KO'd Ward inside of a round. Santos, a noted striker, submitted Ward inside of a round. And on Saturday night, Daley also KO’d Ward inside of a round. Four fights against the best opposition, or the best in his career, and four losses that weren’t really competitive at any point at all. As stated before, Ward was a promoter’s dream: he had the look, physical talent, and functional skills, plus he could fight; however, he couldn’t fight well enough, and that is what limited Bellator’s ability to push him as the next best thing, which has put a hard ceiling on Ward’s future as a fighter moving forward.

Brennan Ward is still young and has time to turn his fight career around. He still is one of the better athletes and more experienced guys in the organization; he also has one of the better won/loss records. What Ward doesn’t have is wins when it matters the most -- once the level of opposition goes up, unfortunately so do his losses. And Ward is losing the same way in his most recent losses as he lost in his previous ones; that shows a lack of technical progression, strategic awareness, and cage IQ. It shows signs of a fighter with talent who has been figured out and hasn’t taken the steps necessary to ask, “why am I losing, and how can I stop losing in such a decisive manner?” These things may be glossed over by him or his camp because he wins more than he loses, but the fact of the matter is when the stakes are at their highest, he doesn’t perform, he hasn’t performed, and until he does, he can’t ever become the star or the fighter Bellator would like him to be.

Bellator 170: Ortiz vs. Sonnen took place January 21, 2017 at The Forum in Inglewood, California.

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