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Over the past few weeks, I’ve heard many people call Bellator 149 “a joke” and do so without controversy. I don’t categorically disagree, but more important than that, if it’s a joke, then what kind of joke is it, anyway?
Some humor is rooted in the banality of day-to-day life, while some is disassociative and surreal. You might think the second largest MMA company in the world booking Royce Gracie-Ken Shamrock 3 and Kevin “Kimbo Slice” Ferguson-Dhafir “Dada 5000” Harris falls into the latter category, but I assure you, it’s the former. After all, Shamrock and Slice just had an ignominious fight for the ages in June for beaucoup TV ratings; Bellator 149 is the absurd-but-very-earthly extension of that matchmaking ethos.
If Bellator 149 is a joke, what’s its subject matter and how does it approach the topic? You can cleverly create humor around something or bluntly make it about something. Both tactics can be appropriate and effective, but we’re not in a comedy club; we’re talking about prizefighting in a cage. If you’re going to yuk it up in some form and fashion as a promoter, subtlety is required.
Consider this Sunday’s injury-riddled Ultimate Fighting Championship card on Fox Sports 1. Do you really think Alex “Cowboy” Oliveira getting a late call to replace Tim Means against Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone in the main event is just coincidence? We’re talking about UFC matchmaker Joe Silva, the unapologetic nerd who once booked Dennis Hallman-John Howard because it was “Superman” fighting “Doomsday.” He has been slipping in these gags for years.
With that said, in 2016, the Clash of the Cowboys is at the same time a passable cable TV main event in the face of Means’ potential USADA test failure and a witty crack around the UFC’s climate. The company’s got a bloated roster, yet it’s still stretched thin by its schedule, drug test failures -- both potential and official -- and injuries. The ease with which Silva can entertain himself by tinkering with a Fox Sports 1 main event is the punchline, not the fight itself.
In the case of Bellator 149, unfortunately, the joke is very much about its headliners. The punchline is that, despite what miserable affronts to high-level MMA competition Gracie-Shamrock 3 and Ferguson-Harris are, they will still be successful. This double headliner could easily surpass the 2.1 million viewers who saw Shamrock-Slice and the 1.6 million for the show overall. The joke is that people will watch a dumpster fire and some won’t even realize how toxic it is; I’m as guilty as the next morbidly curious gawker, but it doesn’t make it funny, per se.
If you think I’m being extreme here, consider that Kimbo is Kimbo and that Dada 5000’s two real MMA wins range on the credibility scale somewhere between “LOL” and “complete bulls---.” His debut against Cedric James also featured the worst stand-up from full mount I’ve ever seen in my life. This was before he pulled off the most pathetic heavy bag routine in the history of notable MMA earlier this week.
As far as Gracie-Shamrock goes, I don’t need to tell you they’re old and feeble at a combined 101 years of age. However, you probably don’t even appreciate how deep the irrelevancy rabbit hole goes. Shamrock embarked on a pro wrestling career with World Wrestling Entertainment in early 1997 and then returned to Pride Fighting Championships in May 2000. Since that return almost 16 years ago, he’s 5-11, with wins over miserable opposition. He has two wins in nearly 12 years, both of them over obese fighters, one of whom died of a heart attack at the age of 32 -- miss you, Ross Clifton. This August will be the 16-year anniversary of Shamrock thinking he was having a heart attack against Kazuyuki Fujita. Yes, “Petey, my heart” is old enough to drive this year.
As for Gracie, we just passed the 10-year anniversary of his getting beaten up in K-1 by Hideo Tokoro, a defensively careless bantamweight, on New Year’s Eve. The last time he fought, almost nine years ago, he pinned the corpse of Kazushi Sakuraba, held together with Kinesio tape, into the corner of the ring for 15 minutes, won a lame decision and then tested positive for steroids. He is fighting largely because he’s facing serious tax evasion charges. Yeehaw.
If there’s a saving grace, it’s that Kimbo and Dada 5000 should be able to resolve things quickly and properly, if sloppily. The best-case scenario for a quick finish in Gracie-Shamrock 3 is the rickety Shamrock getting injured; the more likely outcome is 15 minutes of next to nothing.
If anything, this is all cynical-but-artless observational humor. It’s bad on its own, but what’s worse is that, historically, Scott Coker and his crew have had much better material. At Strikeforce’s finest, Coker was able to deftly bait and switch for the better, selling tickets outside of the San Jose, California, home base by filling undercards with local nobodies and using the likes of Frank Shamrock or Herschel Walker as devices to drum up larger interest. Embedded within that gossamer was usually a real prize, where casual TV flickers would be sucked in and then treated to and possibly converted by a Nick Diaz, Gilbert Melendez or Luke Rockhold. Fight fans are smart enough to appreciate the bait-and-switch payoff, if there’s a payoff. With Bellator 149, there is none.
The Bellator 149 construction outside the two freak-show attractions is tepid at best. Coker’s old formula of getting started with a sure-fire banger is watered down by Melvin Guillard, struggling to make 156 pounds, taking on Derek Campos, both of them recent victims of Brandon Girtz. It would have been nice to see Girtz on this card. Emmanuel Sanchez-Daniel Pineda and Emanuel Newton-Linton Vassell 2 do not recall Coker’s past sleight-of-hand promotional successes, nor are they legitimate, relevant bedrock for a modern Bellator tent-pole event. In fact, World Series of Fighting 28 on Saturday, which features showcase bouts for bantamweight champ Marlon Moraes and potential challenger Timur Valiev, speaks more to the heart of high-level MMA competition than anything at Bellator 149.
Still, in fighting, like humor, not all bad jokes bomb. There is always an audience oblivious to how poor their taste is, and there are always those aforementioned rubbernecking weirdos like me, who, for whatever self-destructive reasons, love to watch MMA devolve and deteriorate into the worst little sideshow on Earth, at least for a second.
Bellator’s recent reconciliation with Quinton Jackson, its re-signing of Michael Chandler and the acquisition of Benson Henderson are signs that better marquee material may be around the corner; and honestly, no one minds if Coker tells a bad joke every once in a while. Lots of great comedians have bad jokes -- some which are even a part of their regular routines. However, people who tell mostly bad jokes are just bad comedians, even if well over 2.1 million people wind up laughing, whatever their reasons might be.