After Chaos Reigns in NYC, Can Bellator MMA Make a Practice out of Pay-Per-View?

Chad DundasMMA Lead WriterJune 25, 2017

Fedor Emelianenko is tended to by the ref after being stopped by Matt Mitrione in a mixed martial arts bout at Bellator 180 on Saturday, June 24, 2017, in New York. Mitrione won via first-round stoppage. (AP Photo/Gregory Payan)
Gregory Payan/Associated Press

After a night when chaos was the only constant for Bellator MMA, company CEO Scott Coker remained predictably understated.

To look at him at the postfight press conference Saturday at Madison Square Garden, you would never know some of Coker's biggest stars had just coughed up a string of bizarre and baffling losses during Bellator's first pay-per-view event since 2014.

You'd never know a lot of his best promotional plans had likely just crumbled to dust when—after years of hype—super-prospect Aaron Pico lost his professional debut in 24 seconds.

Aaron Pico, stunned in defeat at Bellator: NYC.
Aaron Pico, stunned in defeat at Bellator: NYC.Gregory Payan/Associated Press

Or that two-time Bellator lightweight champion Michael Chandler had suffered a freak ankle injury and handed the title to virtual unknown Brent Primus just 2:22 into the first round.

Or that Matt Mitrione and Fedor Emelianenko had come millimeters from a wild double knockout in the opening moments of their featured heavyweight fight, only to have Mitrione regain his senses and pound the legendary Emelianenko into a TKO loss in 1:14.

At the very least, you'd never know whether Coker was bothered by any of it.

"That's the thing about the fight business, is that you don’t know what’s going to happen," he said, flashing the placid demeanor that has been his calling card since his days going head-to-head with the UFC from 2006-2011 at the helm of Strikeforce. "The people who were supposed to win tonight won. I think all of them will go back to training camp in a week or two and start calling me in a couple weeks saying, 'When am I going to fight again?'"

After nearly three decades promoting kickboxing and MMA bouts, Coker has earned a reputation as perhaps one of the fight game's least fiery personalities. Especially when juxtaposed with his closest industry counterpart—UFC President Dana White—the 54-year-old executive oozes professional calm.

Coker's critics—if there were such a thing—might say he's boring. In the days before the UFC bought Strikeforce and stripped it for parts in 2011, it became a running joke among MMA reporters that no matter what you asked Coker, his response would always be some version of: "I'll have to get back to you on that."

But on nights as weird as the one Bellator had Saturday, during the promotion's most crucial fight card since Coker took over the organization three years ago, maybe it's good to have a steady hand at the wheel.

Because make no mistake, when Coker says "the people who were supposed to win tonight won," he meant it only in a fatalistic kind of way.

This wasn't how Bellator drew it up in the dirt when it decided to make the jump back to PPV.

Matt Mitrione after escaping a double knockout and TKOing Emelianenko.
Matt Mitrione after escaping a double knockout and TKOing Emelianenko.Gregory Payan/Associated Press

The last time the organization tried to run a for-pay event was May 17, 2014, when Quinton Jackson and Muhammed Lawal headlined a card from Landers Center in Southaven, Mississippi. That show went down one month before Coker took over for deposed former Bellator boss Bjorn Rebney, and it garnered a paltry estimated buyrate of 100,000, per Steven Marrocco of MMAjunkie.

By comparison, Saturday's Bellator NYC seemed like a much bigger deal and a much bigger risk for North America's second-largest MMA promotion.

Bellator's complicated tangle of relationships—with its parent company, Viacom, and broadcast partners at SpikeTV—make it eternally difficult to gauge the organization's health or potential longevity.

Simply put, the fight company is likely only as sustainable as Viacom and Spike think it is.

Scott Coker has been Bellator boss since 2014.
Scott Coker has been Bellator boss since 2014.Gregory Payan/Associated Press

To that end, this card was an important litmus test for whether Coker and his band of misfit toys can begin transitioning its higher-profile tent-pole events off cable and on to the more lucrative pay-per-view. That means it will be impossible to get a good handle on how successful Bellator NYC was until industry insiders start estimating sales numbers.

When the event was announced back in March, Coker promised it would be the first in a new series of PPVs for Bellator, though he kept the schedule conveniently loose.

"We're not going to do monthly pay-per-view just to do pay-per-views," Coker said, per MMA Fighting's Dave Doyle. "We're going to build up to big fights more like the boxing model, and when the time is right, we'll do the big, big fights. So when we put the big events together, like we have on June 24, then we'll do it on a PPV event."

With three title fights split between the SpikeTV prelims and the PPV main card, Emelianenko vs. Mitrione and a headliner pitting Chael Sonnen against longtime archenemy Wanderlei Silva, many observers predicted Bellator NYC would get a solid promotional lead-up.

Coker made a batch of personnel moves designed to add to the big-fight feel to the event, bringing in former UFC play-by-play announcer Mike Goldberg to work the desk and combat sports stalwart Mauro Ranallo to call the action.

This was in keeping with Bellator's recent policy of adding fading UFC stars like Sonnen, Silva and Tito Ortiz and snapping up high-profile free agents like light heavyweight Ryan Bader and welterweight Rory MacDonald.

The new hires mostly had the desired effect. People like MacDonald and Bader crossing the aisle have raised eyebrows. Bringing in Goldberg and Ranallo and switching up the format from Bellator's normal broadcasts did indeed give Bellator NYC a special feel.

In the bigger picture, if there were ever an opportune moment for Bellator to begin chipping away at the UFC's dominance, it is likely now. With White and the larger fight company scuffling and lacking a clear direction under new owners WME-IMG, there was room for Bellator to at least try to get itself some high-profile wins.

In the weeks preceding Bellator NYC, however, the expected hype largely failed to materialize. Silva skipped several of the pre-fight press events, and while Sonnen did his best to run his normal shtick on his own, it largely felt like he was just going through the motions.

Chael Sonnen beat Wanderlei Silva, but it wasn't a great fight.
Chael Sonnen beat Wanderlei Silva, but it wasn't a great fight.Gregory Payan/Associated Press

Pico's coming-out party and the promotional debut of boxer Heather Hardy made some waves. A feature on Pico by Brett Okamoto held down the top spot on the ESPN.com homepage as the PPV kicked off, and a story about Emelianenko's return to the United States was the lead story on Bleacher Report.

Hardy won her women's flyweight fight against Alice Yauger via hard-fought third-round TKO on the prelims, but on the main PPV card, the 20-year-old Pico laid an unthinkably big egg.

Will any of these bad-luck calamities and missteps matter for Bellator?

Will it matter that Chandler—whom the broadcast lauded as "the face of Bellator"—lost his title and slipped to 4-4, dating back to his landmark clash with Eddie Alvarez in 2013?

Will it matter that the once-great Emelianenko continued the slow, painful slide into mortality that began during Coker's time running Strikeforce? Or that Silva and Sonnen didn't take the cage until after midnight in New York and then spent 15 minutes looking like a couple of 40-year-old men who were just there to get their paychecks?

Will Heather Hardy be remembered as one of the stars of Bellator: NYC?
Will Heather Hardy be remembered as one of the stars of Bellator: NYC?Gregory Payan/Associated Press

Maybe. Maybe not.

If nothing else, the bedlam of Saturday night gave the company some storylines moving forward.

Pico will have to regroup and return to try to prove he was worthy of the protracted period the MMA world spent salivating over the day he'd finally start fighting.

Chandler will have to have a rematch with Primus once his ankle recovers.

Sonnen got on the mic and challenged Emelianenko following his unanimous-decision win over Silva.

Mitrione is now 3-0 in Bellator and looks as worthy as anyone of taking over the company's vacant heavyweight title.

Any one of those bouts could make a better-than-average cable main event on SpikeTV.

But will any of them wind up on future pay-per-views?

After the chaos of Bellator NYC, will the buyrate numbers come back strong enough that Coker can make good on his promise of a new era for the organization, wherein its "big, big fights" hold their own alongside the UFC on PPV?

We'll have to get back to you on that.