After Tito Ortiz’s notoriously cantankerous neck reduced its pay-per-view plans to chicken scat last week, Bellator MMA was forced to take a page out of the Brock Lesnar handbook on crisis management.
In the end, I bet even the big fella himself would be impressed by the fight company’s ability to make chicken salad.
While the exact timeline of Ortiz’s injury is still a bit murky, Bellator responded in unexpectedly resolute fashion—doing the only thing it could do, really. It cancelled the former UFC champion’s planned bout against Quinton “Rampage” Jackson and shifted the remaining fight card to SpikeTV, where it will air for free on Saturday at 9 p.m. ET.
OK, we all seemed to say, that’ll work.
Given that Bellator 106 was on the verge of dying the slow, painful death of the unwatched on PPV, the fight promotion may actually have pulled off a modest coup here. Far more people will tune in to watch the show on Spike than would have shelled out to order the pay-to-play version.
As a free event, it’s a shoo-in to garner the largest audience in Bellator’s history, and with the specter of Ortiz vs. Jackson out of the way, the company has the opportunity to finally put the focus on its real stars—guys like Michael Chandler, Eddie Alvarez, Pat Curran and Muhammed Lawal.
The initial advertising strategy for this card did nothing to establish Bellator’s best fighters as interesting PPV draws. Instead, it heaped attention on two guys with a combined age of 73 and a combined record of 5-11 since 2008. Now, Bjorn Rebney and Co. have been awarded a rare do-over in an industry where smaller promotions seldom get a second chance to make a good impression.
Will you watch Bellator 106 now that it's free?
If Bellator manages to hook a few new fans this weekend, it could bring some much-needed momentum to an organization that has recently been battered on the fields of public opinion.
2013 was supposed to be a breakout campaign for Bellator.
With its broadcast deal on Spike finally fully operational and Viacom watching its back, this was meant to be the year when America’s second largest MMA purveyor would leave the rest of the B-list in the dust. Unfortunately, it hasn’t worked out that way, as any marginal gains it made through its new TV platform were overshadowed by a series of bizarre PR gaffes and questionable free-agent signings.
Rather than being the year when Bellator found its stride, 2013 may be remembered as the year Bellator told Alvarez it would see him in court, shrugged impotently at War Machine’s rape jokes and went back on its edict not to become a safe harbor for UFC washouts.
Ortiz vs. Jackson was the cherry on top of all that weirdness.
Seemingly nobody wanted to see the fight, and the fact that Bellator tried to promote it by having Ortiz hit Jackson in the head with a ball-peen hammer on a professional wrestling show turned it into one of the more cringe-worthy undertakings in recent memory.
Crossing over into the scripted word of Impact Wrestling—where one night Jackson appeared wearing a camouflage dinner jacket, while Ortiz sported a sleeveless “Wrestling is Real” T-shirt—was a major turnoff for a lot of MMA people. It blurred lines we didn't want to see blurred, and their appearances managed to make both guys (already damaged goods) look stilted and awkward, even when all they had to do was just stand there.
In short, it did nothing but stoke the general fear that the most important single event in Bellator’s life was about to be DOA.
Now all that has changed, and the company has managed to spin the Ortiz injury news into exactly the kind of last-minute publicity blast it badly needed.
That fight you weren’t interested in? It’s off.
That thing Bellator wanted you to pay for? It’s free now.
Hard to argue with that.