Donning his trademarked flaming Punishment Athletics skull cap while waving his half-Mexican, half-American flag, it was a bit surreal watching former UFC light-heavyweight champion Tito Ortiz stroll into the Bellator MMA cage on Wednesday night.
Set to headline the promotion's first pay-per-view card opposite fellow former champ Quinton "Rampage" Jackson in November, the spectacle that occurred at last night's Bellator 97 looked like a scene ripped from a UFC Fight Night event circa 2007—complete with the Spike TV broadcast and a knock-off version of Joe Rogan in Jimmy Smith.
As "The Huntington Beach Bad Boy" stared a chain-clad Jackson down, all I could think was, "Is this the 'Twilight Zone'?"
For years, Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney has tried to separate his property from the world's largest MMA promotion through a variety of ways, from implementing the tournament structure to determine its champions to refusing to sign ex-UFC stars like Jon Fitch.
The corporate face of Bellator even reiterated earlier this year that he was mainly focused on creating and building new talent, telling MMA Weekly:
One of my focuses when I built up the business plan was to build from within, to create our own superstars and to not be like the EliteXCs and the IFLs and the Bodogs and the Afflictions and all of these different groups who tried to grab the fighters that had been released by the UFC and ultimately try to re-ignite a fire that had once existed under those guys. I think that’s one of the things that set us apart.
Of course, Rebney never fully closed out the possibilities of signing certain Zuffa veterans, telling MMA Fighting in March that "there’s not a hard and fast rule" to which free agents Bellator will pursue, but signing Rampage and Ortiz seems like a far cry from creating homegrown superstars.
What really makes me scratch my head is that Bellator isn't just adding former UFC champs to its ranks, but also a ton of veterans who are pretty much on the downturn of their careers.
I understand that guys like Jackson and Ortiz will bring in views—and thus bring in some eyeballs for Bellator's budding stars—but names like Vladimir Matyushenko, Marcus Davis and War Machine make even less sense for the promotion.
This trend towards picking up more and more established UFC vets is, in my opinion, the wrong strategy for Bellator.
It's true that the promotion was struggling to reach a mass audience solely off the back of its homegrown stars, especially during the MTV 2 broadcast days, but by filling its cards with over-the-hill ex-title holders and aging Zuffa veterans, Bellator is alienating its in-company talent while basically becoming "UFC lite".
Even worse, this new strategy is taking away the focus from all the exciting, lesser-known fights that the company constantly makes.
Rather than putting guys like Rampage or Muhammed "King Mo" Lawal front and center, the promotion should return to spotlighting its cadre of budding stars.
Bellator continues to add amazing fighters from around the world to its roster—from karate-kicking Brits such as Michael Page to the invasion of vicious Russian imports headed by middleweight champ Alexander Shlemenko—so it's clear that the promotion has the talent available.
These fighters just need to be marketed in a better way.
Taking that into consideration, using established stars to help gain attention for Bellator's lesser-known fighters is, on paper, a great move. However, when the big names are put front and center and the rising talent is put on the back burner, that's when there's a problem.
Other than former champ and Fight Master's coach Joe Warren, Bellator's homegrown stars have been pushed by the wayside to make marketing room for the King Mos and Rampages.
Champs like Michael Chandler and Pat Curran are starting to get a little more attention, but not nearly as much air time as they should.
No wonder guys like Eddie Alvarez want to leave for better pastures or, in the case of welterweight champ Ben Askren, are weary of re-signing with the promotion.
It's not that Bellator doesn't have the talent to challenge them, the company just isn't investing in the fighters that will sustain the promotion past a single pay-per-view event.