By Putting Fun First, Can Bellator Become a Carefree Alternative to the UFC?

Chad Dundas@@chaddundasMMA Lead WriterMarch 5, 2015

Gregory Payan/AP Images

A minute or two into last week’s Bellator 134, a guy strolled out from behind a retractable 20-foot video monitor and began noodling a version of "The Star-Spangled Banner" on electric guitar.

On stage behind him stood a lineup of the night’s fighters, some of them taking his performance very seriously, some of them absolutely not. The monitors streamed pure Americana—shots of the Statue of Liberty, Mount Rushmore, a clip of wheat stalks swaying gently in a breeze.

Gregory Payan/Associated Press

Just as the guitarist wailed past the line about the perilous fight, cameras cut to a statuesque blonde woman in the front row wearing a black evening gown, one hand tucked somberly over her heart. At her right elbow, a guy with a full sleeve of tattoos slurped a cocktail out of a plastic cup and gleefully nodded along to the music.

Ninety seconds later, a bunch of fireworks went off indoors.

So, yeah, if you were wondering what Bellator MMA would look like during 2015, you didn’t have to wait long to find out. Friday night’s “British Invasion” fight card was the company’s biggest event of the year so far, and it set an appropriately bombastic tone for Bellator’s new direction—one it hopes finally leads to its big break.

And, you know what? This time it feels like the promotion is actually onto something. Perhaps by giving up on trying to be a low-rent version of the UFC—and by bringing some of the pomp and circumstance back to MMA—it can position itself as a real alternative.

Maybe even a fun one.

This change has been percolating for a while now. In June 2014, the promotion ditched wickedly unpopular showrunner Bjorn Rebney and brought in universally well-liked former Strikeforce executive Scott Coker.

Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

Coker had a proven track record of making second-tier MMA companies work in an industry dominated by the UFC. He brought instant credibility, and his mere presence gave Bellator a fresh start. Almost immediately, he tossed out its restrictive, outdated tournament format and weekly TV time slot in favor of a more traditional (and more manageable) schedule.

Yet a few questions still lingered about exactly how a Coker-led Bellator would look and feel.

Now we know.

There will be fireworks.

There will be glitz, glamour and precious little intrusion from reality.

May 17, 2014; Southaven, MS, USA; Tito Ortiz before the fight against Shahbulat Shemhalaev during BFC 120 at Landers Center. Tito Ortiz defeats Shahbulat Shemhalaev via submission. Mandatory Credit: Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

We got a sample of this transformation late last year, when Tito Ortiz wrested a tepid split-decision victory from Stephan Bonnar in the main event of Bellator 131. Their old-timers bout didn’t nab any rave reviews, but it turned out to be a significant ratings success on SpikeTV.

We got our first look at the revamped production values and video stage set at that event too. It was clear change was in the air.

Still, we had no idea. Not really.

Bellator’s new crazy-like-a-fox vibe didn’t fully reveal itself until last week, when the company announced that Ken Shamrock vs. Kimbo Slice would headline an event in June. That was the matchmaking equivalent of telling the bartender you’ll go ahead and have that third drink after all—and suddenly we knew Bellator was playing for keeps.

Shamrock vs. Slice is a goofy, unexpected fight at least seven years past its expiration date. Shamrock is 51 years old, and prior to this booking, he announced on his website (h/t Bloody Elbow) that he would take on a man billed as the “king of the Irish travelers” in a bare-knuckle boxing match. Slice, who is 41, hasn’t fought in MMA since his ill-fated UFC run ended in 2010. He was last seen cobbling together a low-level boxing career circa 2013.

Rich Schultz/Associated Press

The two were originally supposed to fight in the now-defunct EliteXC organization in 2008, and even then it seemed like kind of a bad idea. Hours before showtime, Shamrock pulled out with a cut, and Slice went on to suffer a 14-second knockout at the hands of replacement fighter Seth Petruzelli.

Now, Bellator will book the do-over nobody saw coming.

It’s crazy. It’s indefensible. It’s totally perfect.

We’re all going to make fun of Shamrock-Slice, and then we’re all going to watch. If it goes off as scheduled, it promises to be an even bigger cable TV hit than Ortiz-Bonnar, perhaps fully realizing the blueprint established by that fight. Make no mistake, no matter how many jokes are cracked or criticisms are lobbed at this fight, it’s a brilliant gambit by Bellator.

After years of staid obligation to pure sport, the company’s new regime is finally letting its hair down. It’s becoming the rebellious kid brother to the stuffy old UFC that it should have been all along.

The B-list organization has never had the best fighters (and probably never will), so it didn’t make sense for Bellator to cast itself as the hard-nosed home of “the toughest tournament in sports.” The UFC is now and will likely always be the industry standard.

Gregory Payan/Associated Press

So, why not just let the guys at Zuffa LLC shoulder the burden of being the world’s top MMA promotion? Let the UFC hold the somber drug-testing press conferences. Let the UFC try to conquer the world with its 50 shows per year and its digital streaming service.

(Ed. Note: And hey, before we run the UFC too far up the flagpole as the goose that lays only golden eggs, let’s also remember we’re talking about a company that booked a main event, pay-per-view bout between Matt Hughes and Royce Gracie as recently as 2006. Maybe there never were any “rules” to this game.)

If nothing else, Bellator can make some mischief.

With a little a bit of Viacom money to spend and a reliable broadcast home on SpikeTV, Coker and Co. find themselves with a good opportunity to become MMA’s carefree option.

Gregory Payan/Associated Press

No, you don’t have to watch Bellator every week. No, you don’t have to obsessively follow its official fighter rankings and argue about its pound-for-pound list. No, you don’t have to commit your entire evening to the Internet-only prelim fights. Not if you don’t want to.

With Bellator, you just have to set aside one weekend night once or twice a month when—without paying $60 for pay-per-view—you might catch a fun fight.

The beauty of it is that Bellator really does have some fighters who are worth watching. A couple million people might tune in to see Ortiz, Shamrock or Slice, and some of them might get hooked on Will Brooks, Liam McGeary or Douglas Lima. Perhaps you’ll even come back for some of its more serious but less colorful events, like March 27’s bantamweight title bout between Joe Warren and Marcos Galvao.

Gregory Payan/Associated Press

Maybe by suckering people into the tent a few times a year to watch its cadre of 2005-era superstars, Bellator can even prove to Viacom it can be a ratings boon and a financial success. If the parent company ever gets the notion it should open the purse stings to help out, well, all bets will be off.

The best part is, it appears Bellator is going to play all of this with a straight face. When it announced Shamrock-Slice, Coker labeled it "unfinished business" on Twitter as though this was something we were all supposed to take very seriously. It only added to the delightful spectacle.

The bottom line is, it’s been awhile since we had an MMA promotion that didn’t sometimes feel like work to follow. It’s been awhile since we had one that didn’t continually demand more and more of its fans’ time and money. It’s been awhile since we had one that just wanted to have fun.

If Bellator can be that company, then it will have already won a major battle.