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It’s telling that, as an MMA writer, I was far more attentive to a rap battle event than Bellator 149. I regret nothing. Judging by the Twitter reaction, the only thing I seemed to miss by having the fights peripheral and muted was Mike Tyson’s spurts of hilarious commentary. Other than that, the best punches of the day were in a verbal, rhymed form.
This isn’t to say the card was completely devoid of meaning on Friday at the Toyota Center in Houston. However, solid showings from Emmanuel Sanchez and Justin Wren -- who was inexplicably buried on the lineup -- did little to reconcile an event that was otherwise the cheapest, lowest of low-browed MMA shows in recent memory. What were the selling points, again? Was it watching “Dada 5000” in his toughest matchup since he fought “Dude” in his backyard, or was it the trilogy match 20 years in the making between fighters who have not been relevant since they fought each other 20 years ago?
I get the freak-show angle and even enjoy it in some ways. I’ll take Genki Sudo versus “Butterbean”-style fights all day. I also get that a large portion of the MMA audience has its toes dipped in professional wrestling, and I would imagine that demographic to be more enthused about these so-called “spectacle” fights than the average viewer. No judgment on my end; if anything, I find a strange sort of pride and comfort in the fact that this sport still tips its hat to its own absurd and bizarre beginnings. Still, what we got this weekend was not a charming homage, and it was definitely not something in which fans could take comfort. It was a viral YouTube video on a bigger, more legitimate-looking stage. It was an indulgence of our id’s fetishized curiosity. It was the second biggest MMA promotion on the planet falling down and ripping its pants in order to get people to look at it. It was embarrassing.
The problem is that these fights served no larger purpose. Compare this to when Shamrock fought “Kimbo Slice” at Bellator 138 in June. That card sucked people in with the gimmick of freak-show familiarity in its headliner, but it used the opportunity to showcase some of the promotion’s premiere talent: Patricio Freire, Bobby Lashley, Daniel Straus and Michael Chandler. That wasn’t simply a spectacle; it was an investment. No such foresight was built-in to Bellator 149. Plus, the promotion wasted two gimmick fights on the same card. It’s puzzling to me why the headlining and co-headlining bouts were not separated, and it’s even more confounding why they weren’t used as opportunities to showcase the actual talent on the roster. They took two smoke bombs that could have directed attention toward the nice shiny things Bellator MMA has to offer and instead threw both of them in a back-alley dumpster to see if crowds would gather to watch.
Adding insult to injury: One of the event’s lone bright spots, the aforementioned Wren -- whose story of bringing hope to the Pygmy people in the Congolese jungles is one of the most interesting and compelling the sport has to offer -- may end up getting matched with former “Ultimate Fighter” castmate Slice for his next bout. That’s a risky move. If Wren wins, and he should, then it may dent Slice’s future drawing power, which is already leaping and bounding toward its expiration date. If Slice manages to pull off the upset, it halts the progress of Wren’s march to the forefront of the organization. The only silver lining is that it may help “The Big Pygmy” build more wells in the Congo, if enough people tune in.
Since Karma had Her say in the matter, both the Slice-Dada 5000 and Ken Shamrock-Royce Gracie fights were worse than anyone could have predicted. Harris suffered from exhaustion and kidney failure after dragging himself through the fight, and Shamrock may never be able to listen to “Jock Jams” again without wincing. In the winner’s bracket, it doesn’t get much better. Gracie looks as awkward and feeble as any other 49-year-old trying to fight, and Slice has become a poor man’s Bob Sapp who could very well be the betting underdog in rematches against “Afro Puff” and “Big Mac.”
I like Bellator. I want to like Bellator. In theory, I think MMA needs Bellator. It may never really compete with the Ultimate Fighting Championship, but it doesn’t need to. The importance of Bellator -- and to a lesser extent World Series of Fighting, One Championship and maybe one day Rizin Fighting Federation -- is to create a viable free agency market. It’s supposed to be a free-enterprise counterbalance to the UFC’s totalitarian treatment of its independent contractors until something more permanent and meaningful happens. Like a fighter’s union.
It may never be better than second place, but it’s there to keep the No. 1 honest. As the Reebok sponsorship continues to fumble and more fighters are testing free agency, Bellator’s success has a lot riding on it for the rest of the sport and the good of the fighters. It’s worrisome to see such a gaudy, shortsighted and hollow event like this last one go down without sowing any seeds along with it. I can’t imagine that any casual fans who watched it will be tuning in to the next Bellator event. This is a marathon, not a sprint, and there’s definitely such a thing as bad publicity.
Hailing from Kailua, Hawai’i, Eric Stinton has been contributing to Sherdog since 2014. He received his BFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University and graduate degree in Special Education from University of Hawai’i. He is an occasional columnist for Honolulu Civil Beat, and his work has also appeared in The Classical. You can find his writing at ericstinton.com. He currently lives in Seoul with his fiancé and dachshund.