Last year, Bellator made Joe Soto and Toby Imada stars. Who will the next stars be at the end of this season? And despite consistently producing entertaining cards, why is the promotion having a difficult time packing the house?
Check out our roundtable below.
1. Which tournament final are you looking forward to the most?
Ray Hui: For me, the must-see fight is undefeated Brazilian Patricio Pitbull taking on world-class Greco-Roman wrestler Joe Warren in the featherweight finals. I think Bellator has a star in its hands with Pitbull and regardless of who wins, the promotion will have a respectable challenger vying for Joe Soto's title. I might be in minority, but I enjoy Warren's fights. Yes, his fights are as predictable as they come, but I enjoy watching Warren, especially when against a BJJ black belt like in this case, where he'll push the pace, dictate the fight and overwhelm his opponent, get caught in a submission and then find a way to escape. Rinse, repeat. And I think the difference in this fight is whether Pitbull will be able to finish Warren off his back, like Bibiano Fernandes or fall short like Georgi Karakhanyan.
2. Who will be the new star coming out of season two?
MDS: Bryan Baker has a chance to generate strong buzz coming out of Season 2 if he beats Alexander Shlemenko in impressive fashion. He's already won his first two tournament fights via first-round stoppage, and he has an impressive record (13-1, only loss was to Chael Sonnen). If he beats Shlemenko the way he's won so far in Season 2, he'll at least be able to present a credible case that he's a threat to Hector Lombard, even though he'd obviously be the underdog going into that fight.
RH: I've already mentioned Patricio Pitbull and I would have to pick him. I like Baker too and I'd like to see more of him. Also, I'd pick Pitbull if he wins as the new Joe Soto over Baker since Baker has had exposure during his stint with the WEC.
3. What's on your Bellator wish list?
RH: I'd like to see Bellator find top tier opponents for Eddie Alvarez and Hector Lombard. Not just for the fans, but also the fighters. They are Bellator's two that could arguably be top guys in the world and perhaps title contenders in the UFC, but we won't know where they stand until there's opposition that we can measure them with. Roger Huerta would have been a great super fight for Alvarez, but Bellator took the risk of slotting Huerta in the tournament and it backfired. With all due respect to Pat Curran and Toby Imada, neither will generate anywhere close to the amount of buzz that a Huerta-Alvarez would have. Paulo Filho, despite his ever-falling stock, would have been a nice test for Lombard, but Filho found his way out of yet another card. So it's not like Bellator hasn't tried, cause the have, but hopefully they have better luck the rest of the year. Recently, Bellator has tried to get some hype going for a Alvarez vs. Strikeforce champion Gilbert Melendez fight; now if a deal could be reached, that fight would be tremendous.
MDS: I certainly agree with you that high-level opponents for Lombard and Alvarez would be great, but the thing I most want Bellator to do is find an exciting crop of heavyweights for its Season 3 tournament. An exciting heavyweight tournament in Season 3 would go a long way toward building the kind of fan base that would assure Bellator of having a Season 4, but I'm concerned that we're going to see a lot of heavyweights with bad gas tanks giving the fans dull fights. I hope Bellator acquires the kinds of heavyweights who can make the heavyweight tournament something that MMA fans will relish.
4. Bjorn Rebney says that Huerta losing shows how effective the tournament format is, in that the fighters are the ones dictating who moves on. Is that really a good thing for Bellator?
RH: For the most part, it's a good thing and you're right, it's what separates Bellator from any other organization. But it also limits their matchmaking ability. And in my opinion the Huerta loss killed a lot of excitement that Bellator had going for them when they signed him. Huerta's marketable and a proven talent and in retrospect they probably should have made the fight immediately. Bellator needs every draw they can and Huerta's loss essentially knocked him out of the scene. If Huerta had to lose it should be to build up Alvarez, and if Huerta won, Bellator would have a marketable champ on its hands. But I'm starting to get myself into armchair pro wrestling booking territory here, so I digress. At the same time, I don't think anyone called Huerta not winning the tournament let alone not making the finals. Still, who knows? Maybe Curran can be star down the line.
5. Why is Bellator faring so poorly when it comes to ticket sales?
RH: That's one of the problems and that's a shame because Bellator is a good product. Another problem is how oversaturated the MMA market is. Bellator, along with Strikeforce, is trying to prove that an MMA promotion can be successful outside of the UFC. That's a question we don't know the answer to yet. And with more and more local shows, more and more pay-per-views being offered, it's getting harder to compete. It also doesn't help that it's difficult to market a show on a weekly basis. The UFC has Primetime and Countdown specials and tons of buzz months ahead to get fans excited to buy tickets. That's not something Bellator can do running shows on a weekly basis.