Friday’s Bellator 149 event showcased the worst of the circus that can be mixed martial arts, and given the massive amount of attention given to the event, it’s likely the route Bellator and Spike continue to take.
There’s no question that people were watching the top two fights on Spike Friday night. Social media was flooded with fans, fighters, media members, and more commenting on what was unfolding; no matter how much negativity came in towards the dumpster fire that was Kimbo Slice vs. DaDa 5000, or the ill-fated and appropriately brief Royce Gracie-Ken Shamrock trilogy bout, eyes were on the product. Whatever else can be said of Friday night’s card, Scott Coker’s goal for the night was accomplished.
But where does that leave Bellator for the rest of 2016 and beyond?
This is an organization continually struggling with its identity, and despite a change at the helm, and what has been a completely different direction under the Coker regime, it hasn’t really meant much for the brand and the network on the whole. Sure, they’ve had a few significant peaks thus far – 1.2 million viewers on average pre-DVR for Tito Ortiz vs. Stephan Bonnar, and a company high 1.58 million average viewers pre-DVR for the Slice-Shamrock event last June – but even with those spikes the numbers aren’t much different from where they where under Bjorn Rebney.
Looking back simply to the beginning of 2013, starting with Rebney’s eighth “season” of events with the organization, there isn’t a demonstrable difference between what Spike was drawing then and now. If you take out the freak peaks of the Ortiz-Bonnar bout, and especially Slice-Shamrock (and what is likely to be another large number from Friday’s event), the average under Coker is even less than Rebney’s final three seasons with Spike.
For Rebney’s final stretch with Bellator prior to being ousted by Viacom, Bellator averaged 702,000 viewers (pre-DVR). Now, one of the factors – certainly not the only one – leading to his ousting is the fact that the average viewership fell season to season, from 792,000 viewers in season eight down to just shy of 668,000 viewers in season ten, but things haven’t improved dramatically in the 20 months since.
The final “season” for Bellator to close out 2014, the first under Coker, averaged 667,000 viewers prior to the outlier in Bellator 131 and the Ortiz-Bonnar headliner. The entirety of 2015 averaged 746,000 viewers, but if you again take out the massive outlier that was Slice-Shamrock, and that number drops to just over 690,000. For the entirety of Coker’s run at the helm, Bellator has averaged just shy of 727,000 viewers, a number that again drops without the only two prior peaks to just under 674,000 viewers for all other events, including each of the other supposed “tent pole” cards.
With event’s like Friday’s, Coker is trying to put on the type of cards that he knows will bring a “curious” audience. It’s the type of circus that has been seen throughout MMA’s history, as he commented on again last week in the lead up to this latest event in an interview with ESPN:
At first I didn’t get it. I was asking [promoter] Kazuyoshi Ishii, ‘Why are you doing Bob Sapp against Akebono? And why are you trying to get Mike Tyson to fight Bob Sapp? And why do you have other sumo wrestlers fight?’ I’ll never forget this – he said, ‘You know, Scott, when Ernesto Hoost fights Peter Aerts or the Pride fighters face each other, the hard-core fans tune in. But I need the grandmothers and the grandfathers and the uncles and the aunts, and people that cross over to mainstream America and the water-cooler talk of the offices.’ That’s really where it hit me. He’s right. It’s really that crossover audience to get you to the massive numbers you need to be successful. It’s really simple if you think about it – you just need to have great ratings and put butts in seats. That’s really how you are measured in this business… [Critics] don’t understand that you can do it all. I call them fun fights and legend fights. You can have the hard-core fights. We are going to put something on air for every segment of our audience, and to me, it’s like why not? We have something for everybody.
This entire concept is built on the idea that they can bring in more viewers to the product who will then tune in for their other events, and that they can shine a light on some of the other talent they have. But what did Friday’s card highlight? Emmanuel Sanchez and Daniel Pineda had a solid, competitive fight, but Pineda’s a fighter who unfortunately washed out of the UFC with a 1-4 run through his final five appearances, while Sanchez, talented as he may be, has continued to put forth less convincing victories overall. Linton Vassell and Emmanuel Newton both seem on the downturn of their respective careers, and had a somewhat sloppy, dull matchup, especially in the final two rounds. And the final featured undercard bout before the two co-main events saw another veteran name in Melvin Guillard, who found himself taken out violently by Derek Campos. Fun highlight though it may have been, does all of that constitute “something for everybody”?
And just for whom, exactly, was Kimbo Slice vs. DaDa 5000 booked? A fight Coker once again referred to as a “fun” fight at the post-fight press conference. It’s become a source of comic fodder in the hours since it happened, yes, but it was every bit the embarrassment Bellator should have expected it to be. They hyped up a “street fight” between two “backyard brawlers” who instead – predictably – wound up gassed two minutes into the bout. Slice took the fight to the ground, and then they had to expend energy simply to stand up, and that was essentially that. What started as simply a bad fight became an example of the worst this supposed sporting entertainment product can produce, as the heavily hyped heavyweights couldn’t muster much energy. They were barely able to lift their hands high enough to reach the chin of one another.
They continued to comically fall to the ground on numerous occasions, with Slice even winding up in dominant positions more than once. Of course, once there, he’d either stand up out of the spot, or do nothing until even renowned referee “Big” John McCarthy had to stand up a fight from the mount position. The falling played into the finish as well, with Dhafir Harris so completely gone that he couldn’t stay upright moving forward at the man born as Kevin Ferguson. Instead, he stumbled over to the side, then around the cage for several steps before face planting. It was a sight meant to be laughed at, and it was by most on social media in its immediate aftermath.
Then the stretcher came in.
Harris had been so physically drained in such a relatively short amount of time that he needed to be wheeled out. The extent of his activity was a combination of getting taken down, being forced to stand up, and plodding forward, taking punches on a few limited occasions. With a few punches and odd front kicks of his own thrown in. He then needed to be stretchered out, given oxygen, and taken to the hospital for “precautionary reasons.”
Now, say what you will about the grueling nature of MMA, about how much it takes to be in those clinches, to have someone the size of Slice on top of you, or to get in that cage in general, the average amateur fighter isn’t given a position like Slice and Harris were given on Friday night. This fight is what Bellator deemed worthy of promoting, and they’re responsible for giving two fighters clearly unable to produce in that spot that position. They’re also responsible for putting something like that on television in 2016.
Again, it seems that’s precisely what Coker thinks this sport should be, and the amount of viewers who likely tuned in last night – and the very fact that this column is being penned – is evidence that it works to get people in the door. But does something like that Slice-DaDa 5000 fight do anything to make any intrigued viewer who happened to tune in out of curiosity then want anything to do with this promotion – hell, the sport – again? For the crowd in attendance who did nothing but boo for 15 straight minutes (given the between-round breaks), are they going to want to purchase a ticket to a Bellator event again? That the main event ended the way it did, with a low blow allowing 49-year-old Royce Gracie to score the first and only TKO victory of his MMA career just shy of nine years after his most recent fight, only adds to the ridiculousness that was Friday night on Spike TV. What’s even sadder about that result is it leaves Bellator the opening to try to book that fight again, and to once again go through this inanity about “legend fights” in MMA.
If these types of fights and events are Bellator’s future, is it a viable one? How much can the curiosity factor sustain them when these types of fights are still only occasionally drawing what used to be UFC averages on Spike? Especially if that curiosity to tune in results in sitting through something the likes of Friday’s co-main event?
All of this is without even discussing the continued pacing issues these cards find themselves plagued with time and again. Those undercard fights – three in total – made up for more than two hours of the broadcast, dragging things out to get to one of the worst televised MMA fights ever before a truncated, foul-assisted finish in the main event.
Again we get to the question of just how this is supposed to either build a fan base or keep fans interested in Bellator MMA as the alternative product to the UFC. It was an absolutely jarring shift to go from what we saw in those final two fights to Bellator heavily hyping Benson Henderson and his signing immediately after. Henderson, along with fighters like Phil Davis, Michael Chandler, event “King Mo” Lawal, are recognizable names who at least have talent worthy of their respective spots on Bellator events. Beyond that, Bellator promotion seems reserved for the unworthy.
Only two current Bellator Champions have fights scheduled right now; Marcos Galvao fights next week, and Andrey Koreshkov welcomes Benson Henderson in April. Vitaly Minakov is busy fighting in Russia on UFC Fight Pass, Liam McGeary’s out injured and will fight the winner of Davis-Lawal from May, Rafael Carvalho’s nowhere on the horizon, Will Brooks wants out, and Daniel Straus awaits his next booking as well. All of these names are among a roster filled with talent, and though most of it remains below the truly “elite” level, that’s also in Coker’s philosophy.
To hear Coker tell it, Bellator passed on free agents Aljamain Sterling and Alistair Overeem this month; as far as Overeem, it’s sensible enough given the likely price tag and Bellator’s lack of a heavyweight field (outside of the esteemed Messrs. Ferguson and Harris), but Sterling represented a young elite talent who could have immediately taken Bellator’s bantamweight field by storm. Instead, elite talent goes back to the UFC so that Coker and Bellator could pick up Chris Leben instead. Signings like Benson Henderson and Phil Davis seem like complete anomalies to everything else being done by Bellator at the moment, and still keeps them from building anything from within.
Maybe there’s a much longer game at play, some type of master plan not yet noticeable. Maybe Scott Coker’s vision will win out, and the viewing public will be clamoring for 2016/2017 fights from Dan Severn, Tank Abbott, Oleg Taktarov, or Keith Hackney; hell maybe they’ll convince Bas Rutten to step back out from behind the desk. What’s Frank Shamrock doing these days after Fight Master? Has enough time passed for Randy Couture to fight outside the UFC? He might still want that Fedor Emelianenko bout.
They’ve lowered the bar so significantly with Friday’s event that nothing could be put past them.
Of course, there’s another path here. Perhaps the fact that the Ferguson-Harris fight was so completely abhorrent – and the reaction online so clearly negative, mocking in tone, both, or worse – could lead to some type of shift in mentality. Perhaps Coker and company can shift their focus to slightly more balance than the full on circus Friday’s top two fights were. Perhaps some of the more talented fighters on the roster can get the same type of promotional muscle behind them than Friday’s top four received. And perhaps Bellator can start building an audience on legitimate competitors and putting together fight cards more fans want to see on a consistent basis, rather than just the occasional, and unreliable, “tent pole” spike in viewership.
Perhaps remains a possibility, until the numbers come in on Saturday.
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