MEDIA & BUSINESS: Bellator’s Sonnen signing doesn’t change their identity, Cyborg about to make history, what has MMA become in 2016

By Robert Vallejos, MMATorch contributor

Chael Sonnen (artist Grant Gould © MMATorch)

Bellator establishes identity, but fails at differentiation   

The signing of Chael Sonnen by Bellator MMA is a blatant example the brand’s identity; however, it is also a perfect illustration of the struggle of Bellator to separate itself from the UFC. While Bellator has rightly earned a reputation for their use of “gimmick” fights, they rarely present any “gimmick” fights that include fighters without a strong association to UFC.

Sonnen joins the ranks of Tito Ortiz, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Stephan Bonnar, and Royce Gracie as part of the cavalcade of stars who once shown bright in the UFC, but now use Bellator to live out their final moments of MMA glory. Nothing is inherently wrong with using popular entities from other companies; the problem lies in the fact that Bellator does very little to actually separate itself from the goliath that is UFC.

Admittedly, differentiation is difficult in a climate of unified rules, athletic commissions, and an overall push to mainstream MMA, but it has been done in the past. Prior to being absorbed by Zuffa, LLC, World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC) was the flag bearer for smaller fighters, while Stikeforce served as the initial platform for the phenomenon that became Ronda Rousey.

These promotions did not survive, but their distinct promotional tactics were successfully used by the UFC. Smaller fighters and women are now part of the overall MMA landscape in large part due to these innovative promotions. If Bellator was absorbed by the UFC in 2016, what would its legacy be?

The impending bout between Chael Sonnen and Tito Ortiz feels like the quintessential Bellator circus fight, but the fight would not be horribly out of place in the UFC.

Aside from the occasional embarrassing “freak show” like Kimbo Slice taking on Dada 5000, Bellator provides no actual alternative to the UFC machine. Surely loyal MMA fans know the promotional residence of major fighters, but to the casual sports fan MMA is UFC.

Bellator does very little to change this assessment, and signing Sonnen hasn’t changed that.

Sonnen has been busy!

While Bellator’s acquisition of Chael Sonnen may reflect the odd nature of the promotion, it is a shrewd business move. Sonnen has not fought since 2013, but has remained more visible than most active fighters.

Since being fired by Fox in 2014, Sonnen has launched a bi-weekly podcast, commentated for World Series of Fighting, appeared as an MMA analyst for ESPN, and even showcased his trash-talking skills by co-winning a “Smack-Off” title on the “Jim Rome Show.” (He won the title outright in 2012.)

Bellator has never had a fighter with such mainstream relevance while under contract. During his UFC tenure, Sonnen’s magnetism gave him opportunities he likely didn’t deserve. That same personality has helped Sonnen remain in the spotlight.

If Ken Shamrock helped create record television ratings for Bellator, Sonnen should be a hit.

What is MMA?

Only nine months in, 2016 may very well go down as the most newsworthy year in MMA history.

UFC was sold at an astonishing profit, records have been set, weight classes have been superseded, professional wrestlers have appeared in feature spots on UFC pay-per-views, and in November UFC will finally make its New York debut.

The UFC spent the past decade trying to separate itself from boxing and professional wrestling, aiming to align itself with mainstream American sports.

Yet the sport is now extremely healthy, while diverting from some of sports convention that they have built their brief legacy on.

Marc Raimondi of sorts out this new dichotomy in a piece titled: “Click Debate: Has 2016 shown us that MMA isn’t what we thought it was?”

The piece is a must-read for those trying to make sense of this year in MMA. Raimondi does a brilliant job of acting as a mediator between the ardent MMA fan and the charge of MMA officials trying to grow their audience.

Showcasing Cyborg

Next Saturday (Sept. 24), Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino and Lina Lansberg will subtlety make UFC history when they become the first females to headline a UFC Fight Night on cable television. While women have headlined massive pay-per-view cards, UFC on Fox and Fight Night cards exclusive to UFC Fight Pass, cable television has eluded a featured female contest.

The card will also be significant because it will include the second UFC fight of Cyborg’s career and the first UFC main event for the pioneering fighter.

If popular narratives are to be believed, women’s MMA began with Ronda Rousey. It is absolutely true that Rousey was the primary driving force of females being a mainstay in MMA, but the sport was anchored by Cyborg well before the Rousey explosion.

Fighting primarily at Featherweight, some issues with PEDs have kept Cyborg out of UFC’s glamorous Bantamweight Division. The promotion of Cyborg will very be a very interesting case study in the UFC’s tendency toward a recency bias.

During “UFC Fight Night: Poirier vs. Johnson,” Cyborg was casually referred to as “possibly” the greatest female UFC fighter ever.

Quite a contrast to the once touted, “The best ever ladies and gentlemen, Ronda Rousey!”

NOW CHECK OUT LAST WEEK’S “MEDIA & BUSINESS” COLUMN: An evaluation of the online coverage of C.M. Punk, should UFC refrain from interviewing knocked out fighters?

(Robert Vallejos writes a new Specialist column for MMATorch titled “Media & Business” focused on, you guessed it, the media coverage of MMA and the business side of MMA. He is fascinated by the presentation, business decisions, media strategy, and press coverage of both UFC and MMA as a whole, and will bring that curiosity to explore and delve into that side of MMA to his weekly Specialist column here at MMATorch. He explains his approach: “As a sport in its relative infancy, MMA does not receive the same level of scrutiny and informed analysis from the sports media as other more established entities. This is why it is vital for independent outlets such MMATorch to grow, while featuring a variety of voices. Unlike mainstream outlets, MMATorch is not beholden to any organization. Therefore I believe it is essential for individuals such as myself to explain not only the ‘what’ but also the ‘why’ of MMA.”)

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