Bellator 292: The Lightweight Grand Prix begins with a whimper, and a bang
Josh McNally

Alexandr Shabliy def. Tofiq Musayev by TKO

Alexandr Shabliy (R) lands a body kick on Tofiq Musayev. /Bellator MMA
Alexandr Shabliy (R) lands a body kick on Tofiq Musayev. /Bellator MMA

Alexandr Shabliy (R) lands a body kick on Tofiq Musayev. /Bellator MMA

The oldest cliché in combat sports is "styles make fights"; in fact, it's the basis for mixed martial arts as a sport and one of the only holdovers from the very early days is to never book two guys with the exact same fighting style against one another.

Which is exactly what Scott Coker did when he booked Alexandr Shabliy vs. Tofiq Musayev.

In appearance, the guys are borderline identical, with Shabliy's billed height of 173 cm compared to Musayev's 178 being the biggest difference: both made weight at 155 lbs, both sport the shaggy Caesar haircuts and chinstrap beards in the trademark looks of fighters from the former Soviet Union (Shabliy from Rostov-on-Don in Russia. Musayev fights out of Baku in Azerbaijan). Both work from a traditional boxing stance, with the left hand raised to guard and the right slightly lower for power shots, and they both bounce around on the balls of their feet.

Just as with a "mirror match" in a fighting video game, in which both players pick the same character, there was a lot of stalling as each guy looked for holes and mistakes in the fighting style of an opponent who was doing exactly as they were.

Quickly, the crowd turned on Shabliy and Musayev for the lack of action. In the second round, the crowd didn’t even give them a chance, booing from the opening bell, and only picking up when they eventually clinched up against the cage.

When the third round began, it felt as if this were already going to be a five round slog. But then, 29 seconds in, Shabliy threw a body kick and Musayev dropped to the floor. Referee Jason Herzog called time and, in the replay, it appeared that after making contact to the ribs, Shabliy dragged his foot downwards, inadvertently creating a low blow, thus explaining Musayev's winded position.

Herzog got Musayev's translator to explain that the kick was above the belt line and thus didn't count as a low blow so he would have to continue fighting. But Musayev stayed down and the fight was stopped.

After two whole rounds of stalling, this quick finish was both unsatisfying and confusing. Only once the event was over was an explanation given via social media. It wasn't a low blow at all; the kick had broken one of Musayev's ribs so he couldn't stand.

For just over 10 minutes, Alexandr Shabliy looked like the most boring fighter in the Lightweight Grand Prix. After just one tweet, he became the tournament's most clinical finisher.

Usman Nurmagoemdov def. Benson Henderson by submission

Usman Nurmagomedov locks Benson Henderson in a choke. /Bellator MMA
Usman Nurmagomedov locks Benson Henderson in a choke. /Bellator MMA

Usman Nurmagomedov locks Benson Henderson in a choke. /Bellator MMA

MMA has no idea what to do with its veterans.

Benson Henderson is a former UFC and WEC lightweight champion with a record of 30-11. He's still good enough to beat midlevel competition like Islam Mamedov and Peter Queally but, at 39, too old to handle the top level guys – and his opponent Usman Nurmagomedov is the top guy.

Undefeated with 16 wins, 13 stoppages, 24-year-old Nurmagomedov is the current reigning Bellator lightweight champion. As the name suggests, he's the cousin of the legendary UFC lightweight Khabib Nurmagomedov, and trains with that camp at AKA, meaning he came into Bellator 292 under the tutelage of UFC lightweight champion Islam Makhachev and Javier Mendez, arguably the best striking coach in the business.

In the pre-fight betting lines, Nurmagoemdov was such a heavy favorite that the best odds for Henderson were 20/1, a ratio only ever seen when champion boxers get a tune-up following a return from injury.

Instantly, it became clear those odds weren't long enough.

Nurmagomedov blasted Henderson with a question mark kick that was so hard and so fast it took the Russian off his feet when he threw it. Henderson went stiff as a board and Nurmagomedov had his back before he knew where he was.

From there, the former two-company champ went into survival mode as the Bellator champion rained down punches and elbows. A lesser fighter would have been finished. Henderson instead showed his veteran savvy by constantly moving rather than curling up in the fetal position, causing some of his opponent's attacks to miss. Nurmagoemdov responded by maintaining his body lock, and his attacks, and pulled Henderson against the cage where he mercifully ended things with a choke 2:37 into round 1.

Post-fight, Benson Henderson removed his gloves and left them in the centre of the cage, signaling his retirement from the sport. He'll be remembered as a legend of the 155lb division, though he'll surely hope that his send-off performance gets swiftly forgotten.

(Cover: Bellator lightweight champion Usman Nurmagomedov (R) poses with UFC lightweight champion Islam Makhachev (L) following his victory over Benson Henderson in the main event of Bellator 292 at the SAP Center in San Jose, California, U.S., March 10, 2023. /Bellator MMA)

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