By Matt Saccaro
The ninth season of Bellator demonstrated what the Viacom-owned promotion is capable of when it’s given a platform on a stable, popular network—but can what season nine showed us elevate Bellator to the top while simultaneously revitalizing the stagnating MMA market in the United States?
It’s tough to tell, though we can glean a semblance of an answer when we look at an event that was simultaneously the high point and low point for Bellator during its ninth season: Bellator 106, the PPV that wasn’t. The card encapsulated everything that was right and wrong with Bellator.
What was wrong:
-Focusing on well-past-their-prime talent—Rampage Jackson and Tito Ortiz—and the “these guys used to be in the UFC” marketing line in order to sell a PPV. The cancellation of the PPV because Ortiz suffered yet another injury.
-The dubious interim title fight between King Mo and Emanuel Newton that defied the “title shots are earned and not given” mantra that made Bellator special.
What was right:
-Bellator’s homegrown talent like Michael Chandler, Daniel Straus, and Pat Curran being proudly put on display for the MMA world to see.
-Michael Chandler vs. Eddie Alvarez was one of the best fights of the year.
-The card being free on Spike TV meant it was the most-viewed in the promotion’s history with 1.1 million viewers.
These takeaways from Bellator 106 can be applied to the promotion’s efforts as a whole.
Bellator’s reliance on ex-UFC fighters in concerning. Rampage drew the second-highest ratings in Bellator history with 793,000 viewers in his fight against Joey Beltran, but banking on older, expensive fighters isn’t sustainable. At 35 years old, Rampage has a limited time left in the sport. The same goes for 38-year-old Tito Ortiz, who hasn’t even fought for Bellator yet since he can’t stay healthy. Placing the weight of a promotion’s future on surgically reconstructed knees and necks is a terrible idea.
Bellator apologists might argue that Rampage and Tito were brought in to garner the casual fan’s attention and in doing so promote the lesser-known, Bellator-made fighters. This logic sounds plausible but doesn’t hold up to snuff. As mentioned above, Alvarez vs. Chandler drew 1.1 million viewers. Rampage Jackson vs. Joey Beltran drew several hundred thousand less at 793,000. Two fighters that have never been in the UFC out-drew two fighters that had been in the UFC, one of whom was a “star.” Yes, casuals will watch Rampage if he’s on for free. But even more will watch if a fight is free and they perceive that it’s a contest of world-class talent and importance, like with Chandler and Alvarez.
If you’re still not getting the point: Two non-UFC guys earned Bellator’s highest ratings ever, proving that Bellator can build their popularity without people like Rampage and Tito if they wanted to. This isn’t to say that hiring any ex-UFC guy is bad. Bellator signed Paul Sass who made his debut for the promotion on the Bellator 104 prelims. Sass is a guy who’ll likely be a stud for Bellator and can be for a long time due to his young age. Instead of promoting that kind of UFC veteran, they chose to parade fighters like Vladimir Matyushenko, Houston Alexander, Joe Riggs, Cheick Kongo, Marcus Davis, Terry Etim, and Rich Clementi on Spike like it’s the previous era of MMA and they’re all still relevant.
This is to the detriment of the legitimately bright prospects that Bellator has on their roster—and they do have quite a few. If the undefeated, 6’6″ light heavyweight Liam McGeary were in the UFC rather than Bellator, people would be saying that he’d be one of the men who could be Jon Jones in 2014. 13-1 lightweight Will Brooks is a talented fighter who could go far in MMA and he’s only 27. Bellator also has Polish grappling phenom Marcin Held who’s 16-3 and is only 21. There’s also the resurgent NCAA Division I champ Bubba Jenkins who returned to the winning column on the Bellator 109 prelims and is now 5-1. At 25, he can go far in Bellator. As an MMA fan, I have more interest in seeing all of these fighters than I do in seeing the ex-UFC fighters mentioned earlier. I want to see athletes who compete for a better tomorrow, not ones who fight for fading glimpses of yesterday.
That’s the crossroads that Bellator finds itself at at the end of season nine. They can continue their focus on former UFC “stars” and adopt the money-fueled booking strategy for which they’ve lambasted the UFC, or they can be different. They can be the best Bellator they can be instead of being the best UFC impersonator.