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It was a magical weekend of MMA action that kicked off with Tachi Palace Fights from our friends in Lemoore, Calif., moved over to Houston for an “unforgettable” nights of “fights” from Bellator MMA, then shifted back to California for World Series of Fighting and wrapped up in Pittsburgh with UFC Fight Night.
All in all, it was a pretty eventful four nights of scraps with some, but nothing stood out more than the Bellator 149 card broadcast on Spike TV. Headlined by a couple of UFC originals -- as well as a bout that hinged on who was “street certified” -- the Scott Coker-led, Viacom-owned promotion pulled their biggest number yet with a peak of 2.5 million viewers during the Kimbo Slice versus “Dada 5000” travesty... er, fight.
The main event between UFC 1 champ Royce Gracie and Ken Shamrock didn’t do half bad either, pulling in 2.4 million viewers to round out the broadcast. The entire card averaged over 2 million viewers for the three-hour time slot. No matter which way you cut it, those are impressive numbers.
What wasn’t impressive were the fights people tuned in to watch. The Kimbo-Dada match was a complete disaster with both men visibly exhausted and in no shape to fight beyond the opening five minutes. The knockout sequence -- if you can even call it a knockout -- was comical in nature until we all heard about the calamitous and serious consequences Dhafir Harris suffered in the aftermath of the bout.
The Gracie-Shamrock fight wasn’t much better, but at least it was a match between a couple of guys who are true legends of the sport with knowledge of what it takes -- well, took -- to be a high-level mixed martial artist. The same couldn’t be said for Slice or Dada.
After watching the freak show that was Bellator and then comparing it with Sunday night’s UFC event, it wasn’t hard to see why Bellator pulled the big number. People want to see fighters they know and care about, even if they are 100 years old or really don’t belong in a top MMA promotion’s cage.
We’ve seen it with the UFC’s resurgence in the past 18 months or so. They have had the good fortune to have Ronda Rousey and Conor McGregor blossom under them and have fostered an environment that has helped them flourish into the massive stars they have become. They are fighters that move the proverbial needle, and those kinds of talents don’t come around all that often.
Enter Bellator, the second banana to the UFC’s industry-leading behemoth, who is looking for a niche in the MMA business. Much criticism has been tossed their way after this weekend, but, while I do find some of the moves they’ve made to be problematic, I have to say, I get it.
It’s the old “Trojan Horse” play we’ve seen from MMA promoters for years. They did it in Japan for years with Pride FC. We’ve even seen the UFC get a little freaky in the past by bringing in an out of shape James Toney to get clowned by Randy Couture. Hell, I’d throw the whole CM Punk experiment into the same carnival sideshow category as well.
King of the Cage did it with their bout between ex-NFL players Michael Westbrook and Jarrod Bunch. That card also featured another novelty act, Eric Esch, otherwise known as Butterbean. This strategy is as old as the sport.
I’m guessing a lot of the people who tuned in to watch Friday night were well aware of the crazy wake this sport has cut over the 22 years since Gracie and Shamrock first met. Most of them remember -- or have watched or read about in the interim -- the early UFC matches between Sumo wrestlers (R.I.P. Emmanuel Yarborough), barroom brawlers (I see you, Tank Abbott) or crazy posers (thank goodness, Joe Son is locked up for good).
I know some people want MMA to run away from the past. I’ve never been fond of the oddball side of the sport, but can we really expect promoters to forgo the ratings that come with a fight like Kimbo versus Dada? It’s been obvious for quite some time that MMA is more akin to professional wrestling than anything from the sporting side of the aisle.
Promoters are in the business of making money and putting asses in seats, be they in arenas or on couches in front of televisions. As long as athletic commissions allow these kinds of fights to happen, then promoters are going to put them on. I can deal with it if it’s a one off here or there, but if Bellator, or any other promoter for that matter, thinks they can run out the “Cadaver Crew” or the “Boatyard Brawlers” on a regular basis and maintain interest as well as a sense of dignity, then I don’t know what to tell them other than it’s been fun while it lasted.
So, in closing, save your indignation for something that deserves it. MMA has, and always will have, a degree of circus-like atmosphere. This weekend’s ratings should tell you everything you need to know about why.
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Greg Savage is the Executive Editor of Sherdog.com and can be reached by email or via Twitter @TheSavageTruth.