Bellator, Bellator...What are you doing?
I, like many fight fans, watched in confusion as the lineup for Friday night’s Bellator 129 card was announced. It raised serious questions about the organization’s strategy. I’ll elaborate.
The main event was a matchup between Josh Neer (a UFC exile who had lost his only previous fight in Bellator), and Paul Bradley (a UFC exile who split wins and losses in his two previous Bellator fights). Now—I know—Bellator puts on a show every weekend, so not all of their main events will be stellar, but could they not have showcased one of their homegrown stars against a UFC vet rather than pitting two UFC vets against one another?
Things were no better in the co-main event. It was a clash between UFC outcast Houston Alexander and late-replacement Virgil Zwicker. Alexander, one of the sport’s smallest light heavyweights, was originally slated to take on 260-pound veteran James Thompson in a heavyweight bout. I don’t know why. Then, an injury to Thompson led to Zwicker’s late entry onto the card. Given the time constraints, the bout was held at a catchweight (a pre-established midpoint between two weight classes, usually reserved for special occasions and super fights) of 215 pounds. Which anomaly do I mention next—the fact that there were six other catchweight bouts on the 11-fight card (why bother with weight classes at all?), or that Alexander vs. Zwicker ended in a bizarre majority draw after Alexander received a point-deduction for two blatant and illegal head butts.
What a strange night it was.
Yes, Bellator 129 might be remembered, but if it is, it will be for all the wrong reasons. It was a bad night for fighting. It was ugly. And the weak points of the card are part of a larger, troubling-trend for MMA’s second biggest organization.
When Scott Coker took the reins from jettisoned former-president Bjorn Rebney back in June, it was supposed to kick-off a period of positive change for Bellator. The days of matchups between tired UFC veterans, we all hoped, were coming to a close. Exciting matchups starring bona fide Bellator talent like Michael Chandler, Will Brooks, Emmanuel Newton, Vitaly Minakov and Douglas Lima would take center-stage. Terms like “star-development” were thrown around. Coker would build Bellator’s existing talent into the kind of sough-after fighters we saw in Strikeforce a few years back—big names like “Bigfoot” Silva, Gilbert Melendez and Daniel Cormier.
But this, at least so far, has not been the case. Really, the opposite has been true. With Coker at the helm, we’ve seen bizarre matchups like Alexander vs. Thompson announced. We’ve nearly overdosed on catchweight bouts. And soon, we’ll watch as Tito Ortiz and Stephan Bonnar—two recently-retired (then un-retired) fighters on significant slides—take center-stage over a relevant and exciting rematch between Bellator interim champ Will Brooks and former champ, Michael Chandler. What in the name of “Babalu” Sobral trying to strike with Chuck-Liddell is the strategy here?
If you were paying attention to Bellator 129 and it’s proceedings last weekend, you may have heard Scott Coker touch on his plans for the organization’s future. He talked about the “big changes” that were coming in 2015. That’s all well and good, Mr. Coker, but what about the “big changes” that were supposed to follow your presidential inauguration? I know, these things take time, but it’s been almost six months, and we’re still getting matchups between geriatrics (sorry, Tito and Stephan) like Ortiz vs. Bonnar.
Maybe I’m just impatient. I love the UFC, but like many people, I think some real competition for the sport’s top dog is healthy. A worthy adversary will keep Zuffa honest. Enter Bellator. So, I had high hopes for Coker’s big debut as the Bellator boss. And so far, it doesn’t feel like we’ve seen much change. As Bellator fans, we’re riding a deficit of definitive action, and a surplus of promises that have yet to come to fruition.
It’s stressful and it’s confusing, but perhaps it’s smarter, in the case of Bellator, for fight fans to practice optimism. Instead of lingering on lows like Neer vs. Bradley and Alexander vs. Zwicker, and questioning fights like Ortiz vs. Bonnar, we’d be better off looking forward to the future Scott Coker is promising us.
Let’s think about that. The new Bellator president has already told us the organization’s long-time tournament format is in the trash. It was a cool angle for Bellator, but it probably didn’t make much sense from a business and match-making standpoint. Not with all the injuries in this sport. So really, that’s some good news.
Then there’s Coker’s recent claim that come the New Year, Bellator would dispose of its current fights-every-week schedule. That’s probably for the best too. After all, we know how fight fans feel about the UFC’s ever thickening schedule. The consensus seems to be that the UFC is holding too many events, which spreads the talent too thin, resulting in weaker cards. If that strategy isn’t paying off for the sport’s strongest league, why would it work for Bellator, who has less talent to work with? Fewer Bellator cards will mean stronger Bellator cards; cards that may include matchups between less-than-relevant former UFC employees, but will also showcase the efforts of homegrown savages like Alexander Volkov, Rick Hawn, Andrey Koreshkov, Alexander Shlemenko, and Brandon Halsey. The result will be Bellator fight cards we can really look forward to. That’s definitely a good thing for the organization.
Yes, if Coker can keep his promises in the face of Viacom’s demands, the fans’ ravenous appetites, and the UFC’s iron-fisted monopoly, Bellator might just be able to erase the memory of low nights like last Friday. If he can continue to build the organization’s existing stars, over fewer, stronger cards, as well as use UFC has-beens as supporting stars—not leading men—then Bellator might just realize its ever-elusive potential.
As a fight fan, I hope this will be the case. I don’t tune into a fight night to watch bizarre, unorganized catchweight matchups. I don’t tune into a Bellator card to watch fighters that couldn’t cut it in the UFC duke it out for another month of relevance. I watch Bellator fight nights to remind myself that there are still damned good fighters (and as a result, spectacular fights), outside the UFC. I don’t think I’m alone in that. I think, in an alternative to the UFC, that’s what we’re all after. I only hope Bellator’s decision-makers know that’s the case.
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