Every now and then, it’s more important to be interesting than good.
Bellator MMA may have pulled off one of those nights Saturday, as the unexpected plot twists of the company’s first pay-per-view broadcast ultimately outweighed its flaws.
Bellator 120 was paced like a Russian novel (an obscure one), and in a couple of its biggest spots, the organization appeared snakebit by unenviable outcomes. It felt like a slickly produced but patently small-time MMA event—none of the UFC’s usual production wizardry could be found here—but maybe, in the strangest possible way, it left its audience wanting more.
The evening started with British welterweight Michael Page dancing and prancing his way through a bout against Ricky Rainey before finishing things with one of the more anticlimactic one-punch knockouts you’ll ever see. It ended with Muhammed Lawal yelling obscenities at Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney and asking to be cut after he was jobbed on a decision to hometown guy Quinton “Rampage” Jackson.
In between it was rarely pretty, and its relative success or failure won’t actually be known until the buyrate becomes public, but this particular lineup of fights delivered as best they could. If you ordered this show, chances are you came away feeling like you’d buy another Bellator PPV.
Maybe with, like, five percent less filler between bouts.
Oddly enough, Rebney and Co. could have Tito Ortiz to thank for finally urging their first for-pay effort out of the doldrums and into the world of the living. Ortiz certainly got the broadcast’s strange momentum rolling when he grounded middleweight champion Alexander Shlemenko midway through the first round of their “superfight” and then rendered him unconscious with a shockingly easy arm triangle.
By choking out a middleweight, Ortiz scored his first win since 2011. Afterward, he launched into a terrible Hulk Hogan impression during a post-fight interview that strayed from unintelligible to unrepentant and back again. As nearly a 4-1 underdog, he’d just made one of Bellator’s most recognizable champions look like a rank amateur.
In that way, it may not have been the outcome that matchmakers would have liked, but at least it caused the event’s paying customers to snap out of their hype-induced stupors and take notice.
Dear @BellatorMMA : Slept on it. No buyer's remorse. The show was worth every penny. Congratulations.— Jonathan Snowden (@mmaencyclopedia) May 18, 2014
"Hey UFC, take me off your list," Ortiz told color commentator Jimmy Smith inside the cage. "Take me off your Hall of Fame, each and every one of these people will remember this for the rest of their MMA life. ... People who counted me out, people who told me to get out of this sport—b------t! I'm here for a long time."
Casting Ortiz as Bellator’s savior obviously requires an irony so thick you could write your name in it with your finger. But prior to his win, Bellator 120 had been badly bogged down by tepid action and long delays between fights. Even when producers had a good story to tell—as they did with Blagoi Ivanov’s return from a near-fatal stabbing—they told it in triplicate.
At times it seemed as if Bellator was unaware that the people still watching had already bought the PPV. The endless promotional vignettes and interminable backstage interviews piled up, making an already borderline fight card seem as though it was happening in slow motion.
After Ortiz’s victory, however, things unexpectedly segued from monotonous to monumentally weird.
In its immediate wake, 8-1 favorite Michael Chandler came out and laid an egg against Will Brooks in what was nonetheless the evening’s best fight. Chandler—who was supposed to main-event this show against Eddie Alvarez—conceded too many advantageous positions to Brooks, eventually handing him the interim lightweight championship.
Again, it was not what Bellator wanted. Again, it was far from boring. It scuttled plans for Chandler vs. Alvarez III (setting the stage for, uh, Alvarez vs. Brooks I?) but also put Brooks solidly in the mix in Bellator’s best division. Maybe it even set up something interesting for Chandler to do after Alvarez departs for the UFC, as it is widely assumed he will.
Perhaps most importantly, Chandler and Brooks went the distance in a five-round bout, which meant Bellator didn’t have a ton of time for filler before Jackson and Lawal’s main event. That fight played out about as onlookers expected, with Lawal trying everything he could to take Jackson down, while Rampage attempted to load up on big punches.
Neither guy did it terribly effectively, but it seemed as though Lawal was likely heading for a decision win before the ringside judges conspired to give this night one last, delicious swerve.
Earlier in the evening, Lawal had voiced his displeasure with what he saw as Bellator’s favoritism toward Jackson. After the decision against him was rendered, he again launched into an attack on his opponent, as well as the Bellator power structure.
“Bjorn, you know what’s up, man,” Lawal said. “You know you didn’t win that fight, all smiling and s--t. Rampage, nothing against you, I beat you, though. You know it, and your corner knows it. I won that fight, and Bjorn, cut me if you don’t like me. You know I won that fight.”
None of it was exactly right. None of it went as Bellator probably would have liked. None of it made you think this fight promotion could ever challenge the UFC for PPV dominance.
But really, that was most of the fun.
It was interesting—at times enthralling, even—and on this night, that’s all Bellator needed.