It was perhaps the most pivotal and controversial season in Bellator's history. From an ill-fated moved to pay-per-view to a run-in with their former (and now current) champion to record ratings and one of the year's best fights, Bellator had quite a ride in season 9.
I've watched all the events. I even attended one of them. We've read all the interviews, seen all the sights, heard all the talk. In review of season 9, here's what worked, what didn't and an assessment of what's next.
1. Stacking the Deck. The attempt at pay-per-view on the backs of Tito Ortiz and Rampage Jackson was never going to work, but not all was lost in the effort. As the organization retreated back to free television, a funny thing happened: lots of people - in fact, an all-time record - watched the Bellator product. There, too, were problems, as outside of the main event, the fights didn't really deliver. Key promotional figures also failed to live up to the hype. The program ran past even extended recording times on DVRs.
But the main event between Eddie Alvarez and Michael Chandler was positively scintillating. It spoke to Bellator's strengths in finding diamonds in the rough and nurturing them to a point of fruition. The ratings themselves were an indication that despite a positively over crowded combat sports marketplace, an often skeptical MMA audience will make time when Bellator showcases enough of its product to capture their attention.
Bellator has the roster to put on strong, consistent main cards. They won't all be as stacked as Bellator 106, but they don't need to be. They need to be just enough to turn heads, which is something Bellator has now definitively proven they can do.
2. Rampage Jackson, Mo Lawal, Cheick Kongo. This might be premature to say. One never knows when the bottom could drop out on a 35-year old fighter. And after things didn't pan out for Mo Lawal the way all the parties involved had hoped, some might wonder what the real value is in signing an aging fighter, albeit one with still some capacity left to fight. Others are probably still crowing about Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney's claim that Bellator doesn't need to acquire UFC leftovers (technically, two of three listed above aren't UFC rejects).
What we can say from here is that while prospect finding and development will always be where Bellator excels, Bellator hasn't been making the wrong moves with acquisition. Again, the Lawal signing - with its promises of pro wrestling and light heavyweight dominance - didn't ultimately pan out as everyone would've expected, but signing the prodigious talent certainly made sense at the time. And which MMA promotion can boast every top matriculating talent they've acquired from another organization worked out just as expected?
As for Rampage and Kongo, both have already proven they can be television draws. Both still seem to have enough in the tank to at least be competitive in the Bellator cage. How long they can go is anyone's guess, but these sorts of strategic acquisitions are good both for short-term bursts of ratings as well as eventual prospect-to-contender moments for homegrown Bellator talent who need a big win over a known name to become something special.
The notable exception? Tito Ortiz. How anyone thought this was a good idea is something I simply cannot comprehend.
3. The Important Art of Prospect Building. Don't look now, but Bellator is starting to cook with gas in next season's tournaments...at light heavyweight and heavyweight. That might sound wild, but it's true. Kongo gets the next title shot at champion Vitaly Minakov, but there are an interesting cast of characters waiting in the wings if Bellator decides to do a tournament, namely, Blagoi Ivanov, Alexander Volkov, Ryan Martinez, Raphael Butler and others are in place. This is, of course, nowhere close to the UFC's heavyweight division, but it's also an order of magnitude superior to the days when Ron Sparks and Eric Prindle ruled the roost.
Then look at light heavyweight. There's Mo Lawal, Vladimir Matyushenko, Brandon Halsey, Mikhail Zayats, Liam McGeary, Linton Vassell, Christian M'Pumbu to name just a few. It seems unlikely Rampage Jackson or Tito Ortiz would work through a tournament system, but they are part of the larger 205-pound roster. Again, this isn't anywhere close to the UFC's light heavyweight division, but it's marked improvement over the days of M'Pumbu and Rich Hale battling at it out in nowhere, Louisiana.
We can repeat this with other weight classes in Bellator. This is where Bellator truly shines as an organization and something where they could be poised to capitalize on as these prospects mature, even in weight classes where doing so seems prohibitively difficult.
4. The Eddie Alvarez Gambit. Stated plainly, this wasn't a total loss, but it was one of the most bloody, grisly and Pyrrhic victories in the history of MMA promoters vs. fighters. I'll get to what went wrong with this effort later in the piece (answer: almost everything), but there were some gains to be had from this.
For starters, it informed them that going to war with a fighter to keep said fighter is probably not in their long-term interests. Bellator is still in the 'prove themselves' stage to MMA fans. Key portions of this audience simply aren't ready to accept them or their place in the game, which means Bellator has to go out of their way to do it. 'Holding a fighter hostage', which is precisely how many fans view that act, is the quickest way to burn good will. That's why it was a relief to see Ben Askren be released when both parties couldn't come to an agreement. Some will suggest it's telling that Bellator would release their own champion, but this is a terrible argument made mostly by people either ignorant of Bellator's reality or agenda driven.
Bellator is owned by Viacom, but does not have unlimited access to Viacom's wealth. They have to operate on a budget and signing Askren at a price beyond what is appropriately budgeted is foolish to the point of stupidity. Add to this equation Askren's desire to work elsewhere and you quickly reach a point that, champion or not, it's imprudent to attempt to re-sign him or forcibly retain his services.
Cutting him was the regrettable call, but the right one. If he wanted to be there, that'd be great. And if he was affordable, even better. When neither of those considerations are in play, it's best to let him walk. The Eddie Alvarez saga was a painful one for all parties, but it at least helped Bellator understand fighting their own talent is no way to keep them.
Perhaps most importantly, it also gave them a chance to have a showcase main event on the most important card they'd ever put together, but not simply for excitement. This was a chance to claim it was an 'all Bellator' bout. Yes, both fighters had careers elsewhere before Bellator, but both spent considerable time there. These weren't high-prized acquisitions of questionable value being brought it to trick fans into watching. These were peak fighters, in house, adored by fans and ready to do business. Bellator can't buy better press than what Eddie Alvarez vs. Michael Chandler gives them. They probably can't produce a better product either. Fortunately, they don't need to. They just need to remember MMA fans tuning into Bellator don't want to see aging MMA carpetbaggers get preference over the best thing they have going. If Bellator can't recognize the strength of their own roster, why should MMA fans be expected to?
1. The Attempt at Pay-Per-View. This was a misbegotten push since the moment someone suggested it at a meeting. It was never going to work and should never have been seriously considered. It shouldn't even be thought of going forward unless the price point is going to drastically be reduced. Even then I'm not sure it makes sense.
Each time a 'number two' in MMA dies off, the subsequent number two is even further back from the dominant leader in the space. PRIDE and UFC were roughly equivalent, EliteXC (and to a lesser extent IFL, Affliction) had their moments where they threatened, Strikeforce as well posed some issues, but as each died off, the replacement organization moved a little further away than UFC. Bellator is the clear number two in market, but that does not mean they have moved into Strikeforce's exact position. In some ways, the Spike TV boost gives them greater exposure. On the other hand, Bellator doesn't share Strikeforce's roster star power. Note, Strikeforce didn't even try to go to pay-per-view with their heavyweight grand prix. If Fedor Emelianenko isn't enough to justify the leap behind a paywall, how on earth can a faded Tito Ortiz be?
As I once stated on The MMA Beat, Bellator itself is a 'cognitive paywall'. A significant portion of the MMA fanbase won't watch Bellator without what they perceive is very good cause' cause so great, it's enough to overcome their own biases and apprehensions. To then put a product in that precarious a position behind a financial paywall is premature to an alarming degree. The fans simply aren't there yet for that sort of endeavor. There's a lot more talent development and relationship building with MMA fans Bellator must do before such a move can even be discussed.
2. A Tale of Two Bellators. There are two Bellators in existence. The first is the one we conventionally know on Spike TV with its tournament format. The other is the one fans see in arenas. They are not the same thing.
Bellator's presumed value add is that their system of adjudication is fair and simple. Win a tournament, get a title shot. Yet, it's not clear anyone who attends any of their shows understands anything that's going on. This isn't merely from my one observation of one show, but discussions with dedicated media who routinely cover Bellator shows.
It's probably fair to say most UFC fans don't truly know who is third in line for a shot at lightweight or what the true significance of each bout means, but they also have the luxury of being the brand leader. They don't need to provide value add. They are the value from which Bellator is trying to give the 'add'.
I've discussed several problems with the Bellator tournament format, all of which I maintain are still in play. Bellator is best viewed on television because without the Spike TV programming and guide provided by the commentators, the nature of what makes Bellator different is completely absent. Perhaps that's the greatest flaw in the Bellator tournament model: Most fans don't even know it exists.
3. Robbing Peter to Pay Paul. When Bellator stacks a card, people watch. When they over stack a card, they drain the rest of the season. That might sound like I'm contradicting myself. How can I say they should stack a card and when they do, it's also a problem?
What I am proposing is fewer events. That would make some adjustment of their tournament format necessary, but that's a change that desperately needs to be made independently of this consideration here. Fewer events - and yes, fewer tournaments - means deeper cards generally. There were several events this season with inconsequential, uninteresting headliners. What is the point of having that sort of show? To have a show? To carry out a commitment to the tournament model? I'm not sure I understand the point.
Bellator shouldn't be a non-profit organization dedicated to the goal of proving tournaments are great. The point is to entertain fans, create stars and make a buck or two. Tournaments are fine when special or occasional. They're an impediment when the organization has to go out of its way to lobby on the system's behalf.
4. The Eddie Alvarez Gambit. If you wanted to burn a bridge, what's quicker than dousing it with gasoline and setting it on fire? The answer: go to war to keep Eddie Alvarez when he's received an offer from the UFC where he's likely to make a lot more money.
This was almost a complete disaster for Bellator. At a hugely important moment in their evolution when it needed to prove to MMA fans they were worth watching (they are), had a good roster of fighters (they do), put on great fights (they do), they instead went to war to keep a fighter who didn't want to be there, thereby telling fans they were worthy of their derision. Worse, they did it with a fighter who many wanted to see in the UFC and was being courted by them. Bellator's white knuckle approach nearly ruined their trust with fans, earned copious amounts of bad P.R. in the media and probably spooked other fighters in the marketplace about doing business with them.
Not all was lost, ultimately, and they demonstrated they learned their lesson with Askren. Fans and media are ever so slowly beginning to come back around. Yet, one cannot look back and suggest this wasn't remarkably bad for their brand. This is a business of putting on the fights fans want to pay money to see. Woe be unto those who get in the way of that.
What's next? Rebney has suggested the organization will still attempt to do pay-per-view with a rubber match between Alvarez and Chandler potentially serving as that event's headliner. That bout has only been discussed and as of the time of this writing, no firms plans are in place. Rebney also recently stated Bellator is considering a rubber match between Daniel Straus and Pat Curran before Patricio Freire, the season 9 featherweight tournament winner, is given his title shot.
Also, another season of 'Fight Master' could be on the horizon. Rebney tells MMA Fighting the rumors of Chandler, Alvarez, Ortiz and Jackson hosting aren't really true, but wouldn't say the show is cancelled either.
Tito Ortiz is also expected to make an eventual debut in the Bellator cage, but it may not be in season 10.
What's missing? 'Frodo' Khasbulaev, the season 8 featherweight tournament winner, is unable to receive his title shot due to visa issues that prevent him from traveling to the U.S. This is heart breaking as a) visa issues have a way of badly damaging fighter careers and b) Khasbulaev might be the best thing going in all of Bellator's roster.