In the same timeframe that UFC 208 presented an uninspiring lineup that ultimately resulted in an underwhelming card, Bellator MMA is riding a wave of positive momentum. The question remains: Can Bellator capitalize?
While it is hard to imagine a time in the near future where Bellator supersedes the UFC as the biggest mixed martial arts promotion in the world, a window is open to seize on the UFC’s lackluster period.
Perhaps the biggest positive indicator the Bellator can hang their hat on is the fact that current Spike TV executives have told trade media that Bellator will remain priority programming for the newly re-branded Paramount Network.
On the surface, the dissolution of Spike TV is troublesome for Bellator. Without Spike TV it is very possible that MMA would still be nothing more than an underground niche sport. However, in the current media landscape where linear television is fighting for survival, the regular live programming that Bellator can provide differentiates the promotion from other properties. Recently new Viacom (Bellator’s parent company) CEO Bob Bakish made it clear that the company would be scaling back its streaming options for its premier programming.
It remains to be seen how much Viacom views Bellator as a flagship property, but if they do keep the support that they seem to currently have, a refocused cable network could be the machinery that Bellator has always needed.
The second component to Bellator’s potential rise is the actual product that they are churning out. Arguably Bellator 170 has had more resonance with the casual fight fan than any other MMA card in 2017. ESPN gave a plethora of coverage to the Chael Sonnen-Tito Ortiz main even, while Paul Daley’s flying knee knockout of Brennan Ward went viral.
The future also appears to be bright for Bellator. Bellator 172 will be unopposed by any UFC competition, while also featuring the debut of iconic heavyweight Fedor Emelianenko.
Further down the line in May, Bellator 179 will feature a much anticipated bout between Paul Daley and a debuting Rory MacDonald. While Daley-MacDonald fits the derided description of two former UFC fighters throwing hands in a Bellator cage, the fight is devoid of the “freak show” label that is usually ascribed to Bellator.
This wave of intriguing Bellator fights comes during a period of ho-hum UFC cards. As I wrote in January, the UFC does not need to panic over their current situation, but that does not mean that their competition should not try to pounce during this period.
Despite all of their recent momentum, Bellator still cannot compete in the pay-per-view market with the UFC, but vanilla events such as UFC 208 make free Bellator events look more appealing.
The UFC does not need to be the monopoly of MMA, and with the exception of the rare weeks when they are in direct competition, Bellator and the UFC can coexist for the MMA fan. Bellator might never ascend to the top of the MMA mountain, but they currently have a rare opportunity to grab and ideally hold your attention.
A new era in UFC commentary
The controversial officiating of UFC 208 has greatly overshadowed the also-newsworthy story that the UFC debuted a new pay-per-view commentary team consisting of Joe Rogan, Jon Anik , and UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Daniel Cormier.
The trio did not seem to ruffle many feathers of the viewing audience, but did not garner praise from MMA pundits. While all three men are familiar voices in the UFC commentary booth, a three person commentary team can be difficult for the viewer. Despite this structural disadvantage, the commentary was not a big story because it was largely inoffensive to viewers.
The team also deserves credit for being critical of the officiating during the Germaine de Randamie-Hollly Holm fight. This specific team obviously cannot be replicated on every UFC pay-per-view given that one of announcers is an active fighter.
Perhaps the next phase of UFC commentary should include a woman in the booth.
(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.”)