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Bellator MMA staging two major cards on back-to-back nights isn’t particularly strange, especially by MMA standards. After all, this is a wacky sport. However, a shopworn 42-year-old Fedor Emelianenko is still racking up wins and Ryan Bader is now, at the very worst, a Top 20 heavyweight. Bader isn’t exactly what I would call an MMA scholar, but at the same time, he’s insightful enough hit upon some fundamental MMA philosophy, however weird it might be: “It’s kind of surreal, but it’s not.”
What could better explain this sport? What could better contextualize where we are and what informs it? I’m loathe to use the phrase “idiot savant,” but like I said, blind squirrels and nuts.
The fact of the matter is that even if it was poorly paced and put off folks who would have otherwise consumed the product, Bellator 207 and Bellator 208 were exciting events. Could they have been improved upon? Sure. Yet, at the end of the day, they exposed us to important realities about the sport we love, and from time to time, we need those reminders. So here are five lessons we learned from Bellator 207 and Bellator 208, even if maybe they weren’t the kind of lessons we wanted to confront and learn.
Bader Doesn’t Know ‘Star Wars,’ but He Knows a Hero
In a cringe-inducing fashion, Bader has admitted that when he was christened with the “Darth Bader” nickname, he did not know where it came from. For the internal nerd in all of us, that’s awful. At the same time, does it really matter?
At 35 years old, Bader is proof positive that age doesn’t really matter when it comes to being a legitimate or solid heavyweight. Year after year, the heavyweight division holds the oldest average age of an elite fighter, and it’s typically in the mid-30s. At the same time, there’s a reason that we look to the light heavyweight division and consistently wonder the extent to which any outstanding fighter could bump up to a 230-pound body and do harm. The Bellator 207 main event on Friday was this ideation come to life, as Bader -- he who scored a sweetheart deal from Bellator after years of being a UFC bridesmaid -- absolutely thumped Matt Mitrione for 15 minutes. While he didn’t get a stoppage, a pair of 30-25 scorecards and another registering 30-24 were good examples of exactly what MMA onlookers have suspected for years.
No, the heavyweight division isn’t a fraud. It’s not a joke. At the same time, elite fighters paring down their bodies to 205 pounds are likely to be imbued with athletic qualities that random 250-pound haymaker throwers don’t have. It’s why Daniel Cormier can kill the competition at heavyweight, yet his greatest foil is at 205 pounds in Jon Jones, another dude that could easily clinch, throw, foot sweep and elbow the bejesus out any heavyweight on the planet. In a quiet way, in a sport that all too often gets taken away with its own silliness, it’s brilliant that MMA fans have always prized the 205-pound division and installed it as the hallmark. It’s not just about star quality; it’s an understanding of which fighters can reign supreme and why Bader is staring down the barrel of being a two-division simultaneous champion for the second biggest MMA promotion in the world.
Did You Forget Who Chael Sonnen Was?
Admittedly, I was a little sheepish headed into the Emelianenko-Chael Sonnen fight at Bellator 208. Not because I was any believer in Sonnen, but rather I was nervous that a 42-year-old Emelianenko, who is so clearly removed from his physical and dominant prime, might gaffe and goof up. For the “Pride Never Die” crowd, disaster was averted, as “The Last Emperor” soundly whooped Sonnen senseless. Of course, things didn’t end there.
Maybe it’s a holdover effect from the Khabib Nurmagomedov-Conor McGregor fallout at UFC 229 or maybe it’s just the sensationalist nature of MMA fandom, but it was pathetic and bizarre to watch this sport’s adherents call out “Work!” in the wake of Sonnen getting swept and pounded before curling up and dying. In his fourth fight in five years, what did you think Sonnen was here for? Did you really think that outwrestling a spent Wanderlei Silva and aloof Quinton Jackson represented some sort of notion that Sonnen was here for anything other than a paycheck? Bellator President Scott Coker and Co. might be cynical matchmakers who are too given to a bygone era and therefore seek to glorify fighters who were on top a decade ago, but no evil machinations were necessary for arguably the greatest heavyweight ever to pound out a disinterested puppet who exists only to run his mouth and sell tickets.
Like many, I had some nervousness headed into Emelianenko-Sonnen. I thought there was a fleeting chance that the Russian was a spent force, might get taken down and simply die on his back. However, at the end of the day, greatness shows through. There’s a reason Sonnen’s crowning achievement in his entire MMA career is that he once dominated 23 minutes against Anderson Silva and then promptly got ensnared in a white belt triangle choke. The greatest guffaw of it all is that Sonnen has known his limitations all along, hence why he developed his ridiculous, trash-talking persona. The fact that so many would take him seriously and not realize what he was up to is the real joke. Emelianenko might be faded, but greatness is still greatness, especially when put alongside a never-was. When Sonnen turned fetal and just ate punches for 10 seconds, it shouldn’t be a moment for MMA fans to be on alert for something nefarious, but rather, they should just think twice and wonder why someone like Sonnen has been given so much purchase in the first place.
What Does ‘Top 10’ Mean, Anyway?
Combining our two previous lessons, we’re in the very real “surreal but not” situation where we’re looking at still arguably the best heavyweight ever taking on a 205-pounder who could never quite get over the hump in the UFC, yet is now the odds-on favorite to become simultaneously Bellator’s light heavyweight and heavyweight champion. It’s a weird world we inhabit, to say the least.
I stand by what I just wrote: Heavyweight is just not that good. Much to the chagrin of readers and radio listeners, I’ve stood by this for years. Like I said, there’s a reason that Cormier, the sport’s ultimate ambassador, has been able to soundly whoop every heavyweight he has ever faced despite standing less than six-feet tall, yet get owned round over round by an athletic freak like Jones. When you look back through history, do you really think that the light heavyweight elite wouldn’t have made Mark Kerr quit? Do you think Mark Coleman’s stamina would’ve held up? Do you think they wouldn’t have been able to hit a double on Tim Sylvia’s popsicle-stick legs? Give me a break.
It seems obscene; it seems heretical. A “Top 10” list may be a fleeting offer to which you don’t subscribe, but at the same time, we all tacitly acknowledge there’s a reason that we vote on these things. They are historical documents; they are a snapshot of where this sport is at any given moment of time. We can debate who deserves to be ranked higher than another, but at the same time, no matter how much we bicker and qualm, we all generally agree. In a beautiful way, MMA rankings, heavyweight especially, hold a microscope up to our fandom. We quibble about the details -- who deserves to be No. 5 instead of No. 7? -- but we are generally agreeable. If I asked you right now to compose a list of the “Top 10 Best Heavyweights in MMA History,” we would probably have all the same names, just maybe a few choices in different order. We’d fight about it -- that’s passion and perception -- but MMA folks aren’t idiots.
That’s why it’s strange and begrudging to consider someone like Bader as one of the best heavyweights in the world. Our fathers and grandfathers, the people who sat at their knee and learned about prizefighting, taught us that the “heavyweight champion” was the baddest dude in the world. The fact of the matter is that’s a lie. The baddest dude in the world isn’t contingent on weight, and the more we explore martial arts, what makes an effective fighter and what athletic traits consecrate that, we realize we have been fed a cotton candy diet of garbage for most of our sporting life. We hold on fast to that kind of wisdom, so it somehow feels “wrong” if you say “Ryan Bader is a Top-10 heavyweight.” It’s an assault on your senses, and it challenges the things you think you know about the sport.
You know what, though? This isn’t your dad’s sport. You don’t need to “protect” MMA from anything; things are what they are. If Bader is a Top-10 heavyweight, then Bader is a Top-10 heavyweight. It’s up to you to make peace with that.
What’s the Deal with Cheick Kongo?
Admittedly, I goofed on this one. I thought Timothy Johnson could just barrel into the clinch with haymakers, score some takedowns and win a contentious decision. No dice. Cheick Kongo knocked his face off in 68 seconds. Oops.
There is no fighter who is a better example of what Coker offers as a promoter than Kongo. The Coker lore is that he has a hard-on for Pride Fighting Championships stars of yesteryear and seeks to draw ratings with UFC retreads. However, Kongo is the bee in the bonnet, the enigma wrapped in a mystery. Even if he has won his last two fights in under four minutes combined, both via knockout, he’s an outlier. He has spent his last five years under Bellator employ, transitioning from the Bjorn Rebney era to the Coker regime. He is given the platform to routinely headline smaller shows. He absolutely, positively, sucks to watch for the most part. Yet here we are.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m as thrilled as any person could be that the last two Kongo fights lasted less than four minutes and I didn’t have to watch him grab the fence and land knees to the cup of his poor opponent. Yet at the same time, I see brilliance in his business savvy. It’s clever enough that he convinced the world for more than a decade that he was a hotshot kickboxer when all he wants to do is grab his opponent’s shorts and drill him in the groin along the fence. However, he has taken that resume and made it a cottage industry. Would you like to hazard a guess at Kongo’s Bellator MMA record? He’s 11-2. He has won seven in a row. He’s 43 years old and routinely has awful, borderline unwatchable fights. This dude is the ultimate salesman.
Credit to the man for actually firing his hands for a change and getting two clobbering knockouts in his last two fights, which actually might land him a title shot against the winner of Bader-Emelianenko. This is what happens when you have a disparate MMA world where competitors are so desperate to compete with the UFC that they will snap up anyone that has some name recognition, especially if they look like they’re carved out of granite, even if they almost never fight to that expectation. Years from now, when we look back and wonder who benefited most from the Scott Coker era of MMA promotion, it would be hard to find a larger one than Kongo, as he dives into his Scrooge McDuck pool of dollars.
Does This Really Need to be Three Hours?
Bellator MMA seems to be doubling down on the concept of running back-to-back shows. Fine. I like fights. I won’t cry or scream about it too much, but for the love of God, does the main card need to be three hours?
Watcher’s fatigue is a real thing. Baseball games went from being two and a half hours in the 1970s to four hours as a rote matter by the late 1990s. We’re in the playoffs now, so folks are less likely to complain, but we all have lives. We have friends, loved ones, wives, husbands, children. Who on Earth has time to watch a 10-minute infomercial about Jay Glazer’s latest charity that purports to support the troops?
“Know your audience” is a time and tested truism when it comes to figuring out how to broadcast a product. The fact of the matter is you’re not the UFC. The UFC can glue people to Fight Pass and Fox Sports 1 and then induce them to order a pay-per-view because it has cornered the market and turned itself into the Coca-Cola or Kleenex of cagefighting. People know if there’s a fight, it’s the UFC, and you have to buy it, even if it is $70 in high-definition. That might be lamentable, but that’s business. Bellator? You don’t enjoy this luxury. Your greatest successes will come from getting casual cable TV folks flicking through channels, landing on your fights and putting down the remote. Whether or not Rebney or Coker was the smarter leader for the Bellator brand is a deep debate for another day, but when it comes to understanding and capturing television viewers, the debate is over. A four-fight, two-hour main card versus a five-fight, sprawling and miserable broadcast over three hours? Keep in mind that Bellator is putting Kimbo Slice’s kid on cable TV to waste your time. You’ve likely already watched two to three hours of undercard prelims. No sane person has time for this. This is not how you grow your business.
Rest assured, there are anti-UFC dissidents who are complaining in the comments section as I write. You know what? What UFC President Dana White said is true: Every promotion Coker has ever helmed has failed. Part of that is not understanding how people want to digest and enjoy a sport they love. The UFC model right now is hellacious and makes hardcore fans second guess why they love MMA in the first place, but it’s the UFC; it paid the cost to be the boss. In seeking to compete, Bellator thinking that it can rot an erstwhile fan’s brain with 180 minutes of filler is ludicrous. If you want to be the scrappy underdog, you innovate and exceed; you create new ways of engagement that thrill your audience; you don’t take your grassroots fans and torture them with garbage. If you’re truly the second-best MMA promotion on the planet, why would you give anyone watching every incentive to tune into the Professional Fighters League?