It's March 25, 2015, and I'm attending a SPIKE UK/Bellator launch event in London. It's part of the promotions plan to kick things up a gear and grow their brand in a market that has a strong and passionate MMA fan base.
Among those in attendance is Paul "Semtex" Daley, the former UFC, Strikeforce and BAMMA fighter who had recently been signed by Bellator. There is also Michael "Venom" Page, who at 7-0 is off to a solid start in his MMA career and is beginning to make a name for himself. Bellator has high hopes for the two British fighters whom president Scott Coker says will play a key role in the organization's plans moving forward. The two welterweights are friendly and cordial with each other, laughing and joking, and even embrace, posing together for the photographers in attendance.
Fast-forward to Feb. 6, 2019, and both Daley and Page are involved in a heated exchange at a London press conference, using every expletive under the sun. Things are so tense that the typical prefight face-off doesn't occur as they both walk away still verbally jawing at each other. They are set to clash at Bellator 216, which goes down in Uncasville, Connecticut, on Saturday. It's a quarterfinal match in the Bellator Welterweight Grand Prix, but it's much bigger than that. This has now become the biggest fight in UK MMA history. How did we get here?
Mutual respect, competing in the same weight class and knowing that their paths would eventually cross was something both Daley and Page had always accepted, but then something changed. Over the course of the past four years, compliments turned into friendly banter, which then turned into vicious insults, at times perhaps crossing the line, even if all is fair in love and fight promotion.
We're now in a position where Daley just recently re-signed with Bellator, and it will most likely be his final run in the sport. A veteran of almost 60 professional MMA fights and just weeks away from his 36th birthday, he doesn't have too much time left. Page, on the other hand, is on the rise, big time. The Londoner has accumulated a human knockout highlight reel second to none in addition to constantly keeping his finger on the pulse when it comes to pop culture, incorporating whatever happens to be the flavor of the month into his postfight celebrations.
He's as entertaining outside the cage as he is on the inside and is very much en route to becoming the face of the promotion. Can he compete with the absolute best 170-pounders on the roster? This tournament is set up perfectly for him to answer that question, and it all starts with Daley on Saturday.
In turn, Bellator has something on its hands that the UFC has never had. Two British fighters in the same weight class, very much in the prime of their careers, bitter enemies, a rivalry that has been growing for years and which has now reached fever pitch. Michael Bisping -- still the lone Briton ever to win a UFC title -- never had another British middleweight to challenge his position as the face of the organization in the UK, let alone someone he could feud with or build a rivalry with over the course of several years.
Why does that matter? The United Kingdom might be a tiny island, but it's very territorial in its various regions. Just look at the number of football teams among the countless leagues, representing every city, town and borough up and down the nation. There are 90 teams in the four professional English divisions, plus tier upon tier of semiprofessional feeder leagues below that. Contrast that with 32 NFL teams in all of the U.S., or 30 NBA franchises.
So in the case of Daley vs. Page, it's not just a couple of fighters from two eras coming together; it's Nottingham vs. London. Should this fight have taken place in the UK? Absolutely. And while that isn't the case, on this occasion at least, it will be the first fight of a new television deal for Bellator in the UK with Sky Sports.
So, what are the stakes?
For Daley, a loss here would be devastating and not only counts out any hopes he has of gaining a championship belt before he calls time on his career, but it probably accelerates his path toward retirement.
For Page, a first professional defeat will give all his doubters the fuel to pile on the rhetoric that he can't hang with the upper echelon of talent in the sport. And then there's the bragging rights. Both men have said so much to each other over the past few years that, simply put, it's a fight neither man can afford to lose.
All indications are that Daley is coming in laser-focused, and, if you've been following him on social media, appears to be in the best shape of his career. There's a hunger there that has not been seen in quite some time, and perhaps the emotions generated from this rivalry with Page have given him all the motivation he's needed in camp.
Meanwhile, there are some big unknowns about where Page is at both mentally and emotionally, and it's something he himself has admitted. His father, who was his inspiration, mentor and teacher, passed away on Boxing Day, and it's something he's still dealing with. At the press conference, he confessed to reporters that he wasn't sure how it will affect his performance come fight night.
Fights like Page vs. Daley, which build for years are emotionally charged and come with a true sense of being genuinely adversarial, don't come along often. One thing is certain: Both men have been on a collision course for what feels like forever, and it's finally going to come to a head inside the Bellator cage.