Last night, Bellator 119 was held at Casino Rama in Orillia, a sleepy town about two hours north of Toronto. By some standards, the show was a success—it featured performances by a talented, well-matched card punctuated with Daniel Weichel (33-8) finishing Desmond Green (11-2) via rear naked choke in the second round of the featherweight tournament finale. It was the type of mid-level show that has proved financially sustainable in the gritty dog-eat-dog world of MMA promotions. Regardless of sweeping reports from Sherdog.com and MMAFighting.com that Eddie Alvarez is pulling out of the inaugural Bellator pay-per-view show next week (reports that Bjorn Rebney denied at the post-fight presser), the promotion’s overall prospects for expansion are limited.
On the undercard of Bellator 119, Brazilian featherweight Marlon Sandro faced London, Ontario native Chris Horodecki. Sandro controlled the pace, committing to his strikes and dominating Horodecki to earn the judge’s decision (29-28, 30-27, 30-27). At the post-fight presser, Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney explained reasons why the bout was intentionally hidden among the untelevised preliminary bouts:
“Ran into some difficult contract situations that came to light in the last 24-48 hours before the fight…we all felt it was a better decision to keep the [Sandro-Horodecki] fight off TV and not exacerbate a bad situation,” said Rebney. “We got a lot of claims coming in from other camps that were claiming an interest in Chris Horodecki. We didn’t want to put him in a horrible spot of receiving a big lawsuit.”
Chris Horodecki has fought in three separate promotions since his last three-fight Bellator stint. If he is still under contract to another promotion, Horodecki needs to question his management for placing him in the precarious lose-lose position of limited exposure and shortchanging Bellator’s TV product.
Heavyweights Raphael Butler and Nick Rossborough started with a bang and finished with both men out of gas. Butler intentionally fouled Rossborough with a head butt in the first round when Rossborough had Butler’s back. The ref took a point and restarted them on the feet; Butler took control from there onwards, clearly winning the final two rounds. After the fight, Rossborough claimed to have no memory of what transpired after the head butt; the judges scored the fight 28-27, 28-28 and 28-28 making it a majority draw.
In the other televised bouts, Marius Zaromskis low-kicked Canadian Vaughn Anderson’s leg into hamburger en route to a decision win; Canadian John Alessio used his veteran experience to outwrestle Eric Wisely and grind out a decision win.
For all the skill on display, Bellator has a ceiling in terms of how successful the promotion can become as its homegrown talent is handicapped in terms of perception and marketability. For instance, the May 17 pay per view relies heavily on UFC veterans Quinton Jackson and Tito Ortiz. If Eddie Alvarez fulfills the final fight on his Bellator contract when he recovers from his concussion and is signed to the UFC, he may prove himself equally skilled or superior to UFC lightweights; Bellator would win a moral victory but that wouldn’t necessarily translate into higher viewership for Bellator lightweights like Michael Chandler.
To become a player in the pay per view market, Bellator needs to sign UFC stars at the zenith of their popularity like Jon Jones, Ronda Rousey or Nick Diaz. Assuming Viacom would pony up the scratch, standard contractual language like the 12-month matching clause poses a tremendous problem. When Bellator attempted to acquire Gilbert Melendez, all the UFC had to do was outbid Bellator once and Melendez became UFC property once again.
“God bless Gilbert Melendez, we made him a very rich man,” claimed Rebney. “We made him an offer. The matching clause is in place, he is now the highest paid lightweight the UFC has—[and] one of the highest paid fighters the UFC has fighting in any division.”
Strategically, the UFC will continue to sign its marquee fighters to long-term contracts and match any offers made to their most marketable fighters in order to retain the dominant market position.
Still, Rebney is optimistic about Bellator’s offerings for its first pay per view show, “I think people need to look at it in the context of a fighting event, and not think about branding.”
In fact, the strength of the UFC brand is part of why the promotion remains content to offer an increasingly watered-down product with an escalating frequency of shows. However, some fans are getting wise to the game and are becoming increasingly critical; the UFC has no reason to change unless said fans vote with their pocketbooks.
If Bellator gets its first PPV card off the ground despite Alvarez’s injury and somehow manages to land near the break-even point, future shows will have to be cobbled together using a mix of former UFC fighters and homegrown talent. Throughout this, Bellator will need to stop the UFC from poaching their brightest stars, as was the strategy when Eddie Alvarez attempted to sign with the UFC and Bellator invoked their right to match the offer.
All in all, there’s a lot to be considered for the long-term health of the sport. Having a second major promotion would benefit the industry in every way imaginable, but whether Bellator can survive business forces long enough to be a contender remains a topic for debate.
Brian J. D’Souza is the author of the critically acclaimed book Pound for Pound: The Modern Gladiators of Mixed Martial Arts. You can check out an excerpt right here.