Amid all the chaos surrounding Bellator 120, there has been precious little time to consider Emanuel Newton.
Odd, considering Newton is ostensibly the prize at the end of the fight company’s long, strange second try at pay-per-view. The winner of Saturday night’s revamped main event between Quinton “Rampage” Jackson and Muhammed Lawal will be crowned the Bellator Season 10 light heavyweight tournament winner and earn a shot at his 205-pound title.
At least, that’s what’s supposed to happen, in theory.
In practice, the aftermath of Jackson vs. Lawal might only present more vexing questions for an organization that so often seems short on answers.
For starters, Lawal already lost twice to Newton during the last 15 months; first, by a knockout-of-the-year quality spinning backfist in February of 2013 and then by fairly tepid unanimous decision in November. The tournament automatically provides a mechanism to engineer a third fight between the two, but good luck getting anyone aside from the promotion’s baseline 500,000 viewers to care.
Under normal circumstances that alone could be enough to prompt Bellator execs to secretly hope for a Jackson victory. He comes into this bout as more than a 2-1 favorite, according to BestFightOdds.com, and has proved himself to be one of the fight company’s only real ratings draws since jumping ship from the UFC last year.
Except for one minor detail—and this should give everybody a good laugh.
Jackson hinted this week to MMA Junkie.com’s Steven Marrocco that he might not agree to fight Newton.
“Why not let the young cats be the champion and have their belt?” the 35-year-old former UFC titlist said. “Emanuel and I have the same coach. That’s going to divide our gym. I really don’t care for the belt … I’d rather not fight him.”
Only Rampage Jackson could enter a four-man tournament obviously designed to give him a good chance to win and a few days before the final round announce, you know what, forget it. He’s not going to do that thing he’s supposed to do. He really doesn’t "care” about the whole reason they had the tournament in the first place.
This should surprise exactly zero onlookers. Jackson, after all, has been making life difficult for MMA promoters since Lawal was still sporting black and orange and walking the quad back at Oklahoma State. When his relationship with the UFC short-circuited and he signed with Bellator, we all knew there could be trouble.
So, to recap: If Lawal wins, Bellator has a fight it probably can’t sell. If Jackson wins, it has one it might not be able to make at all.
What to do?
If Jackson emerges victorious, try to convince him to fight his teammate? That might work, but it might also put Bellator at odds with one of the most cantankerous fighters in the business. Once Jackson gets crosswise with an employer, it rarely ends well.
If Lawal takes it, suck it up and book a third fight with Newton? That might work, but it would feel fairly anticlimactic. Not sure it would lead to any more of the “big, significant pay-per-view events” Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney pined for on this week’s MMA Junkie Radio.
Perhaps there is another option. Perhaps neither Jackson nor Lawal ends up fighting Newton at all.
With the specter of Tito Ortiz still lurking around, would anybody really be surprised if Ortiz manages to sneak past middleweight Alexander Shlemenko and then winds up in the cage to challenge the Lawal/Jackson winner?
It wouldn’t be a perfect—or even advisable—plot twist, but if Ortiz is going to hang around attempting to fight in your MMA company, you have to do something with him, right?
The tournament has always been king in Bellator, but from the beginning this one has seemed a bit different. With just two rounds and two recognizable faces, it appeared tailor-made to produce a bout between Jackson and Lawal, rather than identify the next challenger for the title.
In that sense, Bellator may have already gotten what it wanted.
It would be a sad turn for Newton if either Lawal or Jackson gets booked elsewhere. It already feels like the 30-year-old champion is being summarily overshadowed in his own division, despite a 6-1 organizational record and two wins over one of this weekend’s main eventers.
But this is the fight game, where feelings and even the rules often finish second to the bottom line.
Perhaps the biggest question for Bellator coming out of this show will be to stick closely to its tournament format and move forward with an underwhelming title bout, or to chase a bigger matchup and leave Newton dancing by himself.
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