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Bellator MMA has a problem. A big one. Granted, it’s a problem about which only the sport’s most dedicated and fastidious fight watchers would ever possibly care, but it’s a gross problem nonetheless.
The promotion this week “bolstered” -- and I use quotation marks for a reason -- its lineup for Bellator 200 with a rematch between Roy Nelson and Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic. This in and of itself is a farce. In fact, given the aged and deteriorated state of a man who was once MMA’s most saintly striker, I will forgive you for not even realizing this is the second encounter between the two, as “Big Country” floored and punched out “Cro Cop” seven years ago. However, star power dies hard, and it dies the hardest in MMA. As I type these words, the company is actively finagling to have Chuck Liddell fight Tito Ortiz for a third time.
The sheer promotional desperation of using well-expired commodities is not what concerns me. It’s the glib, cavalier attitude the company takes towards anything resembling competitive performance enhancement.
It has already become a hardcore fan’s joke to watch Bellator weigh-ins and anticipate possibly double digits worth of slated competitors miss weight. This promotion has repeatedly booked the likes of Alexis Dufresne, for whom not making weight has become the expected norm. It even tried to push her into a 145-pound title fight, only to find that she is unreliable to the nth degree and that putting her into a championship bout only to have it incinerate on the scale would be an embarrassment. Bellator somehow never recognized the same trait in the wild, as she did it repeatedly under the auspices of the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
Now, it’s as if Bellator wants to tempt fate. Under the stewardship of Bellator CEO Scott Coker, who replaced founder Bjorn Rebney in June 2014, the promotion has become, as the late great and beautiful Charlie Murphy would term it, a habitual line-stepper. Three weeks ago, we just passed the ignominious anniversary of perhaps the most unconscionable major MMA card in history: Bellator 149. It was built on the back of Royce Gracie-Ken Shamrock 3 at a combined age of nearly 100 years old, and the battle of backyard brawlers Kevin “Kimbo Slice” Ferguson and Dhafir “DaDa 5000” Harris, one of whom died of a heart ailment less than four months later and the other having claimed to have a heart attack immediately following the contest. Naturally, the horror show delivered the biggest ratings -- a 1.96 million viewer average -- in the promotion’s history.
On Nov. 11, 2015, the aforementioned Filipovic accepted a two-year ban from the United States Anti-Doping Agency for his use of human growth hormone. The former K-1 star was expected to face Anthony Hamilton at UFC Fight Night 79, the card headlined by Benson Henderson-Jorge Masvidal, just over two weeks later. In July 2016, the UFC released Filipovic from his contract.
Now, it’s important to point out that USADA is the UFC’s third-party anti-doping testing agency and its sanctions are not legally or governmentally binding. That is to say, it is well within any fighter’s rights to accept a USADA sanction and then go compete somewhere that is not under the purview of USADA. To no one’s surprise, “Cro Cop” did so. He entered Rizin Fighting Federation’s open weight grand prix and positively trashed the field while quite visibly on the gas. On New Year’s Eve, he cropped up again and wrecked then-46-year-old and long-retired MMA pioneer turned commentator and trainer Tsuyoshi Kosaka. What a blessed sport, right?
The most troubling part of this is that is does actually dovetail with legitimate regulation. Bellator 200, despite taking place in London where there is no governmental oversight for MMA, will be “regulated” by the Mohegan Tribe Department of Athletic Regulation, which is overseen by Association of Boxing Commissions President Mike Mazzulli. He is an otherwise brilliant regulator and a voice for reason in the world of combat sports, which are otherwise dragged down by the laziness and graft of the vast majority of thieves that helm North America’s athletic commissions. For the Western world’s most important regulator to have little to no qualm with the Filipovic-Nelson pairing is frankly ridiculous.
MMAJunkie’s Ben Fowlkes wrote on this subject and reached out to Mazzulli for comment. Here is what he had to say: “Here at Mohegan, the minute a medical is provided to me, they’re considered to be in the process of being licensed, so I have the authority to test them. I’ve already reached out to [Cro Cop] and informed him that I want a test. I’m researching it right now.”
This simply doesn’t do the trick. Then again, Bellator typically brings two events a year to Uncasville, Connecticut, which falls under the Mohegan banner. Money talks, doping walks.
I say all of this as someone who doesn’t care about doping in the least. Anyone familiar with my writing and radio oeuvre over the last 11 years is aware that I have no quarrel with “performance-enhancing drugs” -- quotation marks of mine for a reason -- but only with the uneven and often idiotic enforcement of adjudication, oversight and penalty from those tasked with supposedly “regulating” combat sports.
The old maxim goes that “desperate times call for desperate measures,” and indeed, Bellator MMA is up against the wall. While the company may have peaked at over 1.3 million viewers for its recent and still questionable Bellator 193 main event between Chael Sonnen and Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, on the whole, the company is increasingly turning in sub-500,000 viewer averages. Three and four years ago, 750,000 was the standard. There is no doubt Coker’s feet are being put to the Paramount fire.
However, desperation in a sporting context is much different. Coker is not a character in a Tennessee Williams play. What is most absurd about all of this is almost an entirely separate issue about the current Bellator product: the fact that the card that houses the Cro Cop-Nelson rematch will be aired on tape delay despite the fact that it features a middleweight title fight between Rafael Carvalho and Gegard Mousasi -- an actually decent example of Bellator’s unquenchable desire to snap up recent UFC talent.
The circumstances that encircle Bellator 200 aren’t just lamentable; they’re positively stupid, a bridge to nowhere. The fact that this company is more concerned with finding brain-damaged ex-greats in their 40s to fight on television rather than promoting an actual elite fighter in his prime like bantamweight champion Darrion Caldwell or newly minted welterweight kingpin Rory MacDonald is a laughable indictment of its product. Bellator MMA made a big show of signing amateur wrestling standouts Aaron Pico, Joey Davis, Tyrell Fortune, Ed Ruth and Jarod Trice. Yet aside from Pico, the promotion has made no reasonable attempt to push any of them in any serious way, burying them on preliminary streams even as they show rapid and truly impressive development; and for otherwise decent regulators to be complicit in Coker’s uncreative and possibly calamitous scams only goes to expose the bad hands in which combat sports are actively held.
You’ll watch and I’ll watch, but “we all” won’t watch. Even the non-informed casual cable television viewer flipping channels isn’t going to see a pair of checkered shorts and feel some type of way, regardless of whether it’s live or on tape delay. Like I said, it’s a bridge to nowhere and a broken one at that.