If you’re Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney, you really do have every reason in the world to be smiling a big ol’ grin right about now.
Your upstart MMA promotion—which most experts predicted would be dead within a year—is continuing forward into year four of operations.
Among a veritable graveyard of MMA promotions that have tried to co-exist with the UFC, Bellator is the only one Dana White hasn’t added to his tombstone yet. You have survived some shaky TV deals (to say the least) to finally land in the loving arms of Viacom. You have survived constant rumors of imminent financial doom. You have survived some downright scary live gate numbers.
And, like that old Sinatra song, you did it your way—and brought tournaments back into the discussion in “mainstream” MMA.
So congratulations to you. Unfortunately, Bellator still has a few things on its plate to deal with. It might not be 99 problems, but there are still some serious obstacles facing the not-so-upstart promotion.
Here, in no particular order, are the five biggest problems that have Rebney reaching for the Advil (and the Jack Daniels to wash it down), starting with…
For about an hour on the night of the 19th, Bellator had one hell of an upside to long-time lightweight champ Eddie Alvarez’s crushing loss. Namely, said crushing loss was a surefire contender for “Fight of the Year”.
Then Hendo vs. Shogun happened, and the MMA world pretty much forgot that Bellator even existed.
Talk about bad timing.
The loss of Eddie Alvarez as champion, especially to an (almost) unknown like Mike Chandler was a blow to Bellator. Alvarez was the only guy in Bellator with a legitimate argument for a top-five ranking in his weight class. He was Bellator’s longest reigning champion. He was a pillar of their promotional strategy. He walked on water, healed lepers, and eat pollution and crapped Corn Flakes. You know the drill.
A solidly-run promotion should be able to survive the loss of a high-profile champion – and I think Bellator will – but it is a blow not to be underestimated. The UFC’s light-heavyweight division, considered the marquee division of the UFC, still hasn’t recovered from losing Chuck Liddell as champion. Time to start pushing the hell out of Mike Chandler – and find a way to get Eddie Alvarez an immediate rematch without breaking your “no gifted title shots” rule.
Forgive the crude language, which I unfortunately intended all too literally. Anyone who says Bellator’s season finale heavyweight clash knows what I’m talking about.
In said final, Team DeathClutch fighter Eric Prindle took on Thiago Santos (who only needed to add “Silva” to his name to be the most stereotypical Brazilian name ever). The fight lasted a scant minute and a half – just long enough for Santos to get Prindle down, create space, and toe kick him in the berries so hard it literally stopped the fight.
Who’s getting the next crack at champ Cole Konrad? As of now, nobody is.
Yet again, we have a layer cake of frustrations for Bjorn Rebney. Now his HW champ has to sit on the shelf even longer, while Prindle and Santos rematch each other in a (hopefully) less-damaging encounter for Prindle’s future children.
What’s worse, though, is the sour note it ended an otherwise awesome season on. Only days removed from the epic Alvarez/Chandler war, and the last impression we leave viewers with is Eric Prindle holding his junk and trying not to throw up.
The best news to come to Bellator this year might have been their partnership with/acquisition by Viacom, the media giant behind MTV2, Spike TV, and just about everything else you see, hear, read about or watch explode on TV. This meant that Bellator was headed from television purgatory (otherwise known as Fox Sportsnet) to relative stability.
But let’s be real here – MTV2 isn’t exactly television utopia. It’s great, don’t get me wrong, but in terms of general viewership and profile, it’s not exactly lighting the ratings charts on fire. “Niche” is the word that comes to mind when I think MTV2.
So really, it works fine for Bellator, at least for now. But we all know the plan is for Bellator to move onto Spike TV now that the UFC is headed to Fox. There’s just one problem: by the terms of the UFC/Spike TV deal, the channel can’t air other MMA programming until 2013.
This could really end up knee-capping Bellator. While the UFC explodes onto network TV next year, Bellator will be forced to grind out another year on MTV2, while the network they aspire to be on is forced to play UFC reruns as counter-programming. Not exactly an ideal situation for Bellator.
Oh yeah, and speaking of the world’s biggest MMA promotion, they seem to be causing another headache for Bellator. Namely by suing the holy crap out of them.
As for what the suit is really about—who knows, outside the lawyers? We heard it has something to do with agent Ken Pavia leaking “confident materiel,” likely legal documents of some kind, to Bellator. When the UFC got wind of it, they hit both Pavia and Bellator with a suit.
So who’s going to win? It doesn’t matter. For every day this suit drags on, the UFC wins. They’re a huge, multi-million dollar company with tremendous legal and financial resources. Bellator has nowhere near that kind of muscle at its disposal.
This strikes me as just a business tactic from the UFC, and a smart one at that. Forcing Bellator to contend with a damaging suit distracts time and money from other areas – like fighter payroll, event production, etc.—where the fledgling promotion could really use it. In a long war of attrition, there’s no doubt that Bellator will come out worse for wear, assuming of course the UFC’s case isn’t paper thin.
The UFC has worn down many an enemy with their army of lawyers (looking at you, Randy). Bellator may end up being no different.
Ok, so you have a promotion where title shots are given to tournament winners only—no gifted shots, no arbitrary matchmaking. “Where title shots are earned, not given” is what it says on the poster, after all.
Still, you need something for your champions to do while this tournament is going on. Hey, I have an idea: let’s put them in main event fights, only the belt isn’t on the line. Then these “superfights” can stand in until our tournaments are done and we can have another title fight. Hurrah! Pop the champagne!
Only one problem with that theory – if your champion loses in the weight class he’s supposed to be champion of, well, let’s say it seriously degrades you in the “credibility” department.
Look at Christian M’Pumbu, the Bellator Light-Heavyweight champion. He recently lost a non-title “superfight”to Travis Wiuff, a man making his Bellator debut. So now what? What does that shin strap of metal and leather over his shoulder even mean? Can anyone, even inside Bellator, seriously claim that man is the best at 205 lbs?
Super fights like this damage the credibility of your world titles, which are the focal point of any MMA promotion. But again, the only way around it is to throw out (just every once in awhile) the “no gifted title shots” rule, and let the belt be decided if the champ is stepping into the cage.
Besides, the tournament winner still gets a huge cheque and a title shot, so it’s not like they’re chopped liver.