The germ of this article began by exploring the various ways in which Bellator, under Scott Coker, might be able to differentiate itself as an “even better” alternative to the UFC, that’d be entertaining to casual fans flipping through the channels, endearing to the “hardcore” MMA audience and hopefully, eventually be a profitable property for Viacom. Coming off the heels of the Bellator 123 fight card announcements, which will be going head-to-head with the UFC Fight Night on September 5th, (coincidently, both cards will be emanating from Connecticut), we’re starting to see the very beginnings of what might be called the “Scott Coker-era” taking shape.
To begin, I think it’d be more than fair to suggest that Coker and company are angling to reel in casual viewers with these more established fighters- a promotional technique similar to what Coker used to build Strikeforce, where Frank Shamrock was the “draw” but in the process, fans were treated to exciting fighters like Gilbert Melendez and Cung Le. Now, as snarky and as sarcastic as a “keyboard warrior” like myself may be regarding MMA matchmaking, fight cards and personalities, at the end of the day, I love watching MMA and really want to see Bellator to succeed. Just as I want World Series of Fighting and One FC to succeed and in the same light, want to see the UFC continue to thrive. So, without further adieu, I thought I’d throw out some personal suggestions for fights and formulas I’d like to see Bellator 2.0 explore. Whether you call it “armchair matchmaking” or “fantasy booking”, I thought it’d be fun to conjure up some ideas for the promotion going forward.
(Unanimous, audible groan)…. Okay, now that we’ve gotten that part out of our systems, let’s put all the cards on the table and acknowledge that, while this isn’t the MMA fight fans NEED TO SEE, it’d probably be the MMA fight that’d bring the most eyes onto the Bellator product at the moment, short of Lord Fedor returning (which pray as I might, has yet to happen). From a purely “business” perspective, Rampage Jackson is Bellator’s biggest draw and while he may be getting a little long in the tooth, he can still sell a fight. And while Seth Petruzelli derailed the “Kimbo Slice Experiement” a few years ago and his hype has dried up a bit, there’s no denying that Kimbo pulled some major numbers on those CBS broadcasts and still has some marquee value left to his name to the casual audience.
We all know Rampage Jackson doesn’t want to be wrestled for fifteen minutes, he isn’t the most committed at cutting down to 205 and doesn’t particularly enjoy checking leg kicks- so why not put him in there with a honest-to-god street fighter at a catchweight and just let them throw? I’ve heard “Kimbo Slice to Bellator” rumours bandied about for a few months now and think that the pre-fight hype and hoopla surrounding this potential matchup could do gangbusters for Bellator viewership and bring a ton of eyes to the product. Is it a “freak show” fight? Absolutely, without a doubt…. but I’m not certain that’s something to be ashamed of (at least, no more than Randy Couture/James Toney was since the money is still green no matter what). Rather, the truth of the matter is that if a Rampage/Kimbo matchup will draw viewers in, they’ll be simultaneously exposed to a slew of younger, dynamic fighters on the Bellator roster. If the fans like what they see, there’s a very good chance they’ll be repeat viewers. Hell, I think it’s worth the shot for a one-off Kimbo Slice fight, even if I catch flack for the suggestion. I don’t think a lot of fans could honestly say they wouldn’t have the slightest curiosity (even if it’s of the morbid nature), to tune in and see this fight go down. The pre-fight promo package alone would probably be worth the price of admission.
Tito Ortiz vs. Emmanuel Newton
Can Tito Ortiz even make it through another camp without pulling out due to injury? Is Tito really, finally, truly, utterly BACK, for realsies this time? Well, maybe not. But regardless, he’s a major name and a “legend” in MMA (even if his recent career skid has taken some of the luster off his drawing power) and is coming off a win over the Bellator Middleweight Champion, which should mean something.
At this point, I think the best use of Tito would be to have him fight somebody who he can help “make famous”. Meanwhile, Emmanuel Newton is the current Bellator Light Heavyweight Champion, riding a five fight win streak and has won eleven of his last twelve fights and at age 30, is somebody Bellator might want to invest further in. That said, there’s a strong argument to be made that Newton’s presently only the fourth or fifth most recognizable Light Heavyweight on the roster, behind Tito, Rampage, King Mo (although Newton’s beaten him twice) and possibly even Sokoudjou or Joey Beltran. A win over Tito Ortiz in 2014 doesn’t mean as much as it would’ve five or ten years ago, but still, Tito can sell fights better than almost anybody in MMA and putting some of that spotlight onto Newton will only help elevate his exposure.
Also, before anyone gripes about Tito Ortiz getting a title shot in 2014 with one win over an incredibly undersized opponent, I think this potential matchup should be viewed as part of a long-term investment into the Light Heavyweight Division, as a way to further entrench Newton as a “star” for the promotion. If there’s further issue with Tito getting a shot at a title, make it a non-title and just put Newton in the cage with a certified “UFC Hall of Famer” and let’s try to solidify another Bellator “homegrown star”. And if Tito happens to beat Emmanuel Newton, that’s fine too as it only bolsters a potential Tito/Rampage showdown, which again, while not Ward/Gatti exciting, would be a draw….
One of my major takeaways from the Bellator PPV was, “Wow, that Michael Page has some swagger, can talk smack and has an extremely fan-friendly style, I really want to see more from him”. We all know Scott Coker is a Paul Daley fan and given Daley’s current promotional options, I think a reunion with Coker could produce some exciting fights (WRITER’S NOTE: Since writing this Daley has signed with Bellator). “Semtex” Daley has provided some of the most violent finishes over the last decade and carries around that “loose cannon” aura stemming from that infamous time he took a shot at Josh Koscheck after the bell. Both of these welterweights are excellent British strikers(not from the same camp though), can talk up a storm in building the fight and if matched-up, could really tear the house down (while the fight lasts, that is). This is the one fight I really, REALLY want to see and think has all the makings of a classic and is a truly “buzz worthy” match-up that will really get fans talking. For me, it’d be a win/win for all involved. A win over a legit name like Daley in impressive fashion could really turn Michael Page into a homegrown Bellator star, while a Paul Daley win(which probably makes the highlight reel as so many others of his) provides Bellator with a great “heel” welterweight to challenge for the title down the line, who can really go out of his way to make the division a lot more interesting in the post-Askren division headed by Douglas Lima….
Marcin Held vs. Paul Sass and Fabrício Guerreiro vs. Goiti Yamauchi
I bunched these two potential match-ups together out of the sheer fact that combined, these four fighters have FIFTY CAREER SUBMISSIONS! I personally love watching great grappling in MMA and while sometimes two great BJJ/submission fighters can make for one helluva dull kickboxing bout, these particular fighters are very dynamic, highly transitional fighters and there’s great potential for these bouts being “scramble-fests”, which is fun for all. These match-ups would offer the viewers with a change-up from the more “stand and bang” oriented bouts that are often much more paletable to the casual fan, while still providing some breathtaking, top notch entertainment.
Some Other Novel Ideas for Bellator 2.0
Have Good Ole’ Jim Ross Call The Main Events
Again, much like the Kimbo Slice idea, a lot of MMA loyalists will decry this idea as being too carny and pro wrestling for their liking and I respect that. And I’m not saying Jim Ross should come in screaming “As gawd as my witness, he’s broken in half!” and “slobberknocker’ every other minute. But Jim Ross “gets” the nuances of MMA and that goes all the way back to his days as commentator for the greatest professional wrestling product in history, Bill Watts’s Mid-South Wrestling. Jim Ross is second to none when it comes to narrating violence with passion, evoking sincere emotional reactions from viewers and really getting them to invest in what they’re watching. This is not to take anything away from Sean Wheelock and Jimmy Smith, but having Jim Ross show up to help call the main event would add something special to the overall presentation of the show. Ross has expressed interest in calling MMA and since the WWE is too stupid to utilize him and the UFC is too tentative to bring on someone with such a strong connection to pro wrestling. Therefore, I think Jim Ross could be a steal for Bellator.
Also, aside from doing some special commentary, Bellator could really utilize Jim Ross in producing fighter interviews- not to make them “more pro wrestling”, but to really harness the individual characters and better sell each individual fighters’ personal story, which is something Ross is a genius at.
Market the Russians! Market the Russians!
Follow along with me here: Alexander Shlemenko, Vitaly Minakov, Alexander Sarnavskiy, Shamil Zavurov, Andrey Koreshkov, Alexander Volkov, Frodo Khasbulaev and Shahbulat Shamhalaev. Phew! Now what you might ask, do all of these serious badasses, with a combined 186 documented career wins have in common? They’re all part of the current surge of MMA fighters from Russian (several Dagestanian) origins, who are for the most part, completely shredding their competition. The challenge with having so many non-English speaking fighters on SPIKE TV in North America, is that the language barrier hinders these fighters from maximizing their exposure and ability to sell fights. It’s also a severe disservice to sell all of these fighters as Ivan Drago stereotypes or Fedor-like Terminators from Cyberdyne and moving forward, I think it would be EXTREMELY beneficial for Bellator to develop new methods of promoting and marketing these fighters beyond the standard, “that’s one scary Russian” cliché and helping bring across these fighters’ individual personalities.
Endgame, I think there’s a lot of room for Bellator to grow under Scott Coker and as a fan, there are many different routes they can go to further the brand and still appease the hardcore MMA audience, while not coming across as “UFC-Lite”. Also, I specifically omitted any mention of the Michael Chandler and Eddie Alvarez trilogy fight, as it’s obviously the best match they’ve got going, but with Will Brooks throwing that major wrench into the mix by taking the decision over Chandler, I don’t know where they’re going next with the Lightweight title. Given how well the Rampage/Mo PPV drew without Chandler/Alvarez III, I think sharing a main event PPV spot with Rampage and Kimbo could wind up doing the best business of any Bellator card to date.
Thank you all very much for your time, I really appreciate all feedback(especially the nice kind) and can be found at @JeffPParker to further continue this discussion. Please let me know what you think!