Bellator Fighting Championship may have more than 100 shows under its belt, but the promotion took a landmark step on Saturday night at Bellator 120.
The event marked the organization's first jump into pay-per-view waters, and BFC put together a stacked lineup that featured talent from every corner of its roster. Nevertheless, the biggest showcase on Saturday night's card highlighted one of the most intense rivalries in mixed martial arts as Quinton "Rampage" Jackson and Muhammed "King Mo" Lawal stepped into the cage to settle their beef once and for all.
In the lead-up to the fight, the former UFC light heavyweight champion and former Oklahoma State University wrestling standout bumped heads and engaged in various scrapes, but Bellator 120 finally presented the opportunity for the two men to settle things with fisticuffs. In addition to bragging rights being on the line in their main event tilt, the winner of the tussle would earn the chance to face current light heavyweight champion Emanuel Newton for the 205-pound strap later in the year.
Both men had plenty to lose and everything to gain on Saturday night, and both men played to their strengths in the fight. Lawal worked his superior wrestling skills early, and Jackson implemented his boxing late. The bout would ultimately go to the judges' scorecards, where the seasoned veteran took the unanimous decision victory.
While the main event brought the ruckus, another bout on the card also held a fair amount of intrigue leading into Bellator 120.
Former long-reigning UFC light heavyweight champion and MMA legend Tito Ortiz emerged from a 22-month hiatus to make his promotional debut against current middleweight champion Alexander Shlemenko at the 205-pound weight limit.
The Russian "Storm" called out the 39-year-old to dance on the organization's first pay-per-view card, and it was a challenge "The Huntington Beach Bad Boy" gladly accepted. Despite going 1-8-1 since 2006, Ortiz was looking for a fresh start under the BFC banner. And that's exactly what he got.
The MMA pioneer used his massive size advantage to take Shlemenko to the ground, where he locked in a fight-ending head-and-arm choke. The middleweight champion chose to not tap and decided to go out on his shield as Ortiz made a successful Bellator debut and picked up his first win since 2011 in the process.
Let's take a look at the good, bad and strange from Bellator 120.
Jackson may have left his previous organization on a bad note, but he has been on a mission to make sure those steps aren't repeated at his new home in Bellator. Coming into his tilt on Saturday night against Lawal, the Tennessee native had won his first two showings under the Bellator banner and looked impressive doing so.
The main event bout with King Mo was the culmination of a long stretch of trash talk and promotional buildup as Jackson vowed to knock out the former Strikeforce champion in front of the his hometown crowd. While that particular ending wasn't to be, Jackson did do enough in the eyes of the judges to pick up the victory and claim bragging rights in the grudge match between the two fighters.
In addition to winning the feud and picking up his third consecutive victory, Jackson also earned the opportunity to face Newton later this year for the light heavyweight title. The 35-year-old is easily the biggest draw and name on the Bellator roster and has thus far made the organization's decision to sign him a positive one.
Big opportunities are few and far between in mixed martial arts, and Will Brooks made the most of his chance on Saturday night. After Eddie Alvarez was forced to withdraw from his bout with Michael Chandler due to injury, Bellator tapped the American Top Team product to step up and face the former champion for the interim lightweight title.
While the 27-year-old Chicago native took the bout on short notice, he looked in top form throughout the 25-minute affair. Chandler had the edge early. He used his pressure and wrestling to keep Brooks on his back as he took the first two rounds and jumped out to an early lead on the judges' scorecards.
Nevertheless, Brooks stormed back in the third and dominated the former titleholder as he battered Chandler on the feet and pounded when the action hit the canvas. He did more of the same in the fourth round and had solid momentum going into the final round. Both fighters had their moments in the fifth, and it was anyone's fight when the final bell sounded and the decision went to the judges at cageside.
When the final decision was announced, it was Brooks who took the split decision and became the interim lightweight title. Now, Brooks will be looking to face Alvarez in a unification bout later in the year and continue his impressive run up the 155-pound ranks.
There are few figures in MMA history more polarizing than Ortiz.
The longtime UFC light heavyweight champion was one of the first true stars in the sport and reigned atop the mountain for quite some time. That said, The Huntington Beach Bad Boy's luck hasn't been of the good variety for the better part of the past decade as losses, injuries and corrective surgeries have piled up.
When Ortiz signed with Bellator last year, he vowed to make a fresh start. The pressure to deliver on that promise came front and center on Saturday night against Shlemenko. While Ortiz was going to have a tremendous size advantage in the matchup with the middleweight champion, his nearly two-year layoff created a cloud of doubt that hung over his promotional debut.
While elements of doubt lingered, it didn't take Ortiz long to silence his critics as he submitted "The Storm" in the opening round with a powerful head-and-arm choke. The victory over Shlemenko ensured Ortiz's first step under the Bellator banner would be a successful one, and it will be interesting to see what his next stop on the comeback trail will be.
***Since he lost the heavyweight strap last November, Alexander Volkov has been on a mission to regain the title. The rangy Russian put together two impressive showings that included a starching head-kick knockout over Mighty Mo to earn a spot in the tournament finals against Blagoy Ivanov at Bellator 120. Despite the Bulgarian having a deeper resume in the ground game, Volkov used a slick transition to set up and secure a rear-naked choke that ended the fight. He will now rematch Vitaly Minakov and have the opportunity to once again become the Bellator heavyweight champion.
***Michael Page is hands down the hottest young prospect on the Bellator roster, and he put on another show on Saturday night. The British striker used his time on the big stage to put on an entertaining performance as he clowned, then knocked out Ricky Rainey with a clean right hand in the first round of their tilt on the pay-per-view portion of the card. With the victory, the multitime kickboxing champion picked up his sixth consecutive victory and kept his undefeated record intact.
***There is not an arm, leg or neck that is safe when Marcin Held is inside the cage, and Nate Jolly became the latest victim to be added to the Polish lightweight's list on Saturday night. While the 22-year-old ate a few big shots during the setup, he latched onto Jolly's arm and locked in a fight-ending armbar to secure the first-round victory. Held will now go on to fight in the lightweight tournament final and carry the momentum of a four-fight winning streak—all by way of finish—into his next showing.
***While he wasn't able to win the season nine featherweight tournament, Fabricio Guerreiro got himself back into the win column in a big way at Bellator 120. The Brazilian made short work of Shahbulat Shamhalaev as he submitted the Dagestan-born fighter with a rear-naked choke in the first round of their tilt on the preliminary portion of the card. With the victory, Guerreiro has now won three of his last four bouts, with his only loss during that stretch coming to Patricio Freire last October.
***Goiti Yamauchi has been one of the most talented young Japanese prospects to emerge in quite some time, and the 21-year-old took a strong step toward legitimacy by defeating Mike Richman on Saturday night. The scrappy featherweight outworked "The Marine" to secure the unanimous decision victory and send a message to the rest of the 145-pound division. With the win, Yamauchi has now found success in 12 of his last 13 showings since 2011.
With the UFC owning the lion's share of attention in the MMA sphere, Bellator has to make sure it takes calculated steps when grooming the stars under its banner. In that regard, middleweight champion Shlemenko is one of the top names on the promotion's roster and has been building a solid amount of buzz in comparison to the rest of the 185-pound fighters in the world.
That was until he showed up at Bellator 120 and entered the cage with Ortiz.
While MMA is a hectic realm filled with curious happenings, the matchup between these two particular fighters made absolutely zero sense. For starters, Ortiz is big for his weight class at 205 and Shlemenko is a small middleweight, so the physical pairing was staggering from the jump. When the Russian striker's impressive run in his division is taken into account, pitting him against a 39-year-old veteran hoping to forge a comeback makes even less sense.
The best possible scenario for Bellator would have been for Shlemenko to pick up a dominant victory over a name like Ortiz, but the furthest thing from that happened on Saturday night.
As soon as the cage door closed, the size difference between the two men was jarring, and the moment Ortiz put Shlemenko on his back spelled the beginning of the end. A few moments later, Ortiz locked in the head-and-arm choke, Storm went to sleep and every bit of buzz surrounding him exited with his consciousness.
Staying in the realm of "worst possible scenarios," the lightweight interim title fight between Chandler and Brooks couldn't have turned out worse for Bellator.
The former University of Missouri wrestling standout is a walking example of the positives that can come out of the organization's tournament format. Chandler entered the lightweight tournament as an unknown, stormed through, earned a fight with top-ranked Alvarez, beat the champion and became Bellator's poster boy in one fell swoop. The Team Alliance fighter was so impressive in that run that CEO Bjorn Rebney declared him the "best 155 pound fighter on the planet."
While Alvarez winning the rematch was a setback for Bellator's Chandler push, it was flipped into a positive when the promotion set up their highly anticipated trilogy bout at Bellator 120. Things in this lane took a huge hit when Alvarez pulled out with an injury as one of the biggest fights on the card fell by the wayside.
Bellator could have pulled Chandler off the card and saved him for when Alvarez was healthy, but the event being its first pay-per-view led it to keep the former strap holder in the lineup and pitted him against American Top Team product Brooks. That decision proved to be the wrong one, as the talented young upstart battled back from a rough first round to take the split-decision victory on the judges' scorecards and become the lightweight interim champion.
While there is certainly no knock on Brooks taking the title, Bellator couldn't afford to lose a fighter recognized as one of the elite in the world.
After getting off to a smoking hot start where he won his first 12 showings, Chandler has now been handed defeats in back-to-back outings. Those losses were no doubt controversial, but losses nonetheless. And furthermore to the point, Chandler losing to Brooks puts the proverbial knife in the Chandler vs. Alvarez trilogy fight.
While it typically takes a loss to end up in this category, there was nothing good about Cheick Kongo's fight at Bellator 120. For starters, the promotion's heavyweight collective is notorious for its lack of depth, and when the Frenchman came over from the UFC he was figured to make an easy run to the title in the heavyweight fold.
This is a fighter who had solid success against Cain Velasquez, fought Travis Browne to a draw and picked up solid wins during his seven years under the UFC banner. That said, after picking up two easy wins inside the Bellator cage, he was defeated by Minakov back in April and pulled up short of becoming the heavyweight champion and looked to be a shell of the dangerous fighter he was for a very long time.
On Saturday night, he faced an unknown in Eric Smith and was figured to roll over his bulky opponent in the final bout on the preliminary portion of the card.
Yet, Smith dotted the seasoned veteran with a right hand that made Kongo's legs wobble before putting the 39-year-old on his back. Kongo would eventually get to his feet, finish the round strong, then put Smith away in the second round, but there is little to celebrate about where the Wolfslair-trained fighter is concerned.
In the lead-up to Bellator's first pay-per-view event there was a lot of talk about the venture being a case of the organization getting in over its head. The UFC's PPV numbers have been on a down trend over the past two years, and Bellator putting such a large amount of focus on one single card was going to draw a large amount of scrutiny.
The realm of MMA is a ravenous environment and social media was lively in the lead-up to Bellator 120 with talk of how likely the event was to be a failure. That chorus jumped up a few dozen notches last weekend when Sherdog MMA broke the news that Alvarez—one half of the most anticipated bout on the card—was forced to withdraw from his trilogy bout with Chandler due to an injury suffered in training.
Following news of Alvarez dropping out, talk of Bellator pulling the PPV status began to circulate. The promotion was forced to make that exact move when Ortiz was forced out of his fight with Jackson in the organization's first attempt last year, but Rebney held a phone conference the day after the Alvarez news hit the wire and assured the masses the show would go on as planned.
In addition to low numbers being projected, there was also talk of poor ticket sales in the week leading up to the event. Nevertheless, there appeared to be a solid turnout on fight night, and the media on hand confirmed there was a much stronger fan presence than previously figured.
Live events have the potential to be a minefield with snags waiting around every corner. On Saturday night, Bellator took a bit of egg on its face during a pre-fight interview between Jimmy Smith and headliner Lawal. These interviews are typically stale by nature and are used as a last effort to hitch a few extra pay-per-view buys, but Lawal turned the spot into something else entirely.
The first question Smith volleyed across the wire to the light heavyweight contender was returned with some snap as Lawal accused Rebney of jumping on the bandwagon of his opponent, Jackson, in the lead-up to the fight.
Immediately following Lawal's comments, there were technical issues that brought the interview and the discomfort to an end. After a commercial break they would take another crack at the interview, and Lawal reiterated the sentiment that Rebney and Bellator want Jackson to win the fight.
When the former UFC light heavyweight champion eventually did win a unanimous decision, Lawal continued to go at Rebney with ferocity.
While the Lawal interview and post-fight incident were the most notable stumbles during the broadcast, Bellator's inaugural journey into the PPV format seemed to affect play-by-play man Smith the most. The veteran commentator is certainly one of the best in the game in the booth, but he had some trouble Saturday night keeping his typically smooth delivery.
Where Smith is usually solid and composed, he stuttered, stumbled and misspoke on several occasions during Bellator 120. That said, not having commercial breaks between rounds and fights to chop up the microphone time can present some interesting challenges, and Smith had a few issues on Saturday.
Smith even attempted to launch a few ill-fated jokes and comparisons that went over like a lead balloon on social media. The Twitter crowd is certainly a tough room, but Smith's comedic offerings were painful.
Staying in the realm of filling up down time, Bellator pulling in bantamweight champion Joe Warren for an interview proved to be an interesting choice. The self-proclaimed "Baddest Man on the Planet" is as outspoken as they come in the fight game and he used the platform to launch some barbed shots at fellow champion Eduardo Dantas.
The Olympian and the Brazilian were supposed to collide at Bellator 118, but Dantas suffered a head injury and was forced out of the fight. Warren used some choice words to suggest Dantas is running from him and vowed to take it out on him when they do finally meet down the road.
One element that needs to be noted in this category was Bellator putting an interim title into play in the lightweight tilt between Chandler and Brooks. The lightweight title was originally slated to be on the line when the Team Alliance fighter met champion Alvarez, but a injury suffered by the Philadelphia native put that matchup on the burn pile. Bellator tapped Brooks to step in on short notice and a new fight was made.
While there is nothing curious about that turn of events, there was no reason to put an interim title in play other than to have a "title fight" on the pay-per-view. In most situations where an interim strap is introduced, the divisional champion has been out of action for more than a year and the promotion is looking to move things along.
That was hardly the case heading into Bellator 120, and it seemed a suspect move for the organization to throw in that detail at the last moment.
Another detail worth pointing out in this category is the location of the event itself. While it was billed as taking place in Jackson's hometown of Memphis, the event was actually held at Landers Center, which is located in Southaven, Mississippi. If that isn't a qualifier for strange, then I just don't know what is.
Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report.