Viewpoint: Beautiful Status Quo

By Tristen Critchfield Nov 4, 2013
Eddie Alvarez and Michael Chandler made their second encounter memorable. | Photo: Dave Mandel/

No matter how it was originally intended, Bellator MMA’s failed-pay-per-view-turned-Spike-TV-extravaganza turned out exactly as it should have.

When Tito Ortiz was introduced to a national television audience as the co-headliner of the promotion’s first pay-per-view card opposite Quinton Jackson back in July, it felt like sports entertainment tomfoolery had overtaken common sense. Were rational MMA fans really expected to pay a premium for a matchup between two faded talents who had made their names in a rival organization?

While “Rampage”-Ortiz was curiously marketed as the fight fans had wanted for years, there was another bout that sparked a more genuine sense of anticipation. Once Eddie Alvarez’s contractual issues were resolved and it was officially announced that he would face Michael Chandler in the pay-per-view’s co-main event, their rematch immediately became the card’s unofficial headliner. Chandler-Alvarez 1 was a diamond in the rough -- it was sort of an underground Forrest Griffin-Stephan Bonnar -- that could easily serve as the centerpiece for the company’s first four-plus years of existence.

It was the type of fight the promotion could proudly trumpet as the prime example of its ability to develop top-level, homegrown talent. By contrast, the signing of Jackson and Ortiz looked like the shameless pursuit of Zuffa’s sloppy seconds. Sure, everyone knew the former Ultimate Fighting Championship titlists, but most also knew that both had seen better days.

That Bellator would hitch its wagon to those two for its first venture outside the free-TV realm suggested a lack of confidence in its “own.” In reality, it was a reasonably intelligent bit of booking: casual fans unaware of the latest trends might be willing to plunk down $45 or so to watch a pair of household names go at it, while viewers with a more discerning eye could hopefully be convinced to do the same by offering a tantalizing sequel.

It was of little surprise, however, when Ortiz was forced to withdraw from his showdown with Jackson after suffering a serious neck injury in training. After all, the former “Huntington Beach Bad Boy” had been retired for more than a year, and the latter portion of his Octagon tenure was riddled with ailments. Shortly thereafter, Bellator pulled the plug on its pay-per-view aspirations. Instead, Bellator 106 on Saturday in Long Beach, Calif., would feature Chandler and Alvarez and it would air for free (relatively speaking) on Spike TV.

Instead of snark and mockery, suddenly Bellator 106 was surrounded by a legitimate feel-good vibe. With no age quips and no price-point gripes, the event practically radiated positivity. All that remained was for the fights, one in particular, to live up to the hype.

Oftentimes, rematches fail to follow in the footsteps of their acclaimed predecessors. In this case, if Chandler-Alvarez 2 did not match the original, it came pretty darn close. Another back-and-forth struggle culminated in Alvarez winning a hard-fought and somewhat controversial split decision in his first bout in more than a year.

File Photo

Ortiz’s injury forced Bellator’s hand.
“It takes two guys to put on a fight like that,” Alvarez said. “We did it together. Another ‘Fight of the Year,’ guys.”

Thankfully, Ortiz and Jackson did not have to follow that performance. Aging bands are not plucked off the casino circuit to headline stadiums over present-day chart toppers. Ortiz and Jackson would have been booed off the stage. As it was, Chandler and Alvarez salvaged a night largely bereft of thrills. The other two title bouts -- Emanuel Newton vs. Muhammed Lawal and Pat Curran vs. Daniel Straus -- did little to inject life into what seemed to be a lethargic crowd.

Had it been pay-per-view, with or without Jackson and Ortiz, it would been left to shine in relative obscurity, perhaps more so than their first bout, which aired on MTV2 and went against a UFC 139 card that included the epic Dan Henderson-Mauricio Rua clash. Instead, the promotion’s two best lightweights delivered a show memorable enough to make everyone forget about the rest of the night. As a result, there will almost assuredly be a Chandler-Alvarez 3.

Like the first two bouts, the trilogy belongs on free TV, as do all Bellator events for the foreseeable future. Despite what UFC President Dana White might think, karma was looking out for Bellator the past few weeks. Hopefully, recent circumstances have reminded the organization to stay true to its roots. It is hard to fault anyone for dreaming big, let alone a promotion that aired earlier events in the late night wasteland on Fox Sports Net. By moving up the ranks to MTV2 and finally in 2013 to Spike, the network that deserves at least partial credit for helping to keep the UFC afloat during its darkest days, Bellator succeeded where other organizations had floundered.

By adopting a unique tournament format and carefully procuring talented prospects instead of recognizable castoffs, Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney’s company slowly began to establish a brand. This year, the fruits of all that painstaking labor were truly beginning to show. Bellator 85 debuted on Spike in January to 938,000 viewers, an unprecedented number for the promotion. While ratings for subsequent events have not surpassed the Jan. 17 card, viewership has markedly improved from the MTV days.

Still, there was little evidence that moving to pay-per-view was the next logical step, and the decision to scrap the idea entirely once Ortiz-Jackson was off the bill seemed like a concession to that reality. Shortly after the change become official, Rebney seemed to indicate that another attempt might not come for some time.

“The great thing that we’ve got going is that we’re a free-TV model. We don’t need to do pay-per-view to make money,” Rebney told after Bellator 105. “The other organization consistently has to do pay-per-views. It’s part of their model. It’s been successful for them, but that’s not our model. We’re free-TV model. Our big partnership and our home is Spike TV.”

It may have taken a near disaster to realize it, but Bellator has a pretty good thing going. It does not need to emulate that “other organization,” as Rebney put it. Perhaps one day Bellator will be able to make the leap to pay-per-view, but at the moment, it still needs time to lay a more stable foundation before it can be legitimately successful in such an endeavor. It needs to be able to produce a top-flight card without banking on the ghosts of UFC past.

“If we have a great card and there’s some epic fight with ‘Rampage’ or Michael Chandler or someone else, yeah, we may do pay-per-view,” Rebney said, “but it’s nothing that we have to do in order to survive.”

It may have required some unfortunate events to come to that realization, but on Nov. 2, 2013, Bellator was right where it belonged.


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