On Saturday night and for its biggest show to date, , Bellator pushed the idea fans would be getting a pay-per-view show on free television.
A loaded show, headlined by a rematch of the biggest fight in company history and the single most attractive non-freak-show fight the company could put on, looked like the company's best-foot-forward. And as far as a night of fights, the Eddie Alvarez title win over Michael Chandler was more than exciting enough to make the night a strong positive inside the walls of the cage.
The company pushed this show with the endless TV commercials of King Kong sized fighters towering over bridges and expensive ads in major magazines. It was pushed harder than any event in Bellator history. Regular Bellator viewers, or those who watched for the first time based on all the promotion of the show, likely expected a different type of show than they had ever seen before.
Whether there were a lot of new viewers, and if those new viewers were impressed enough past the main event, is the more important story to the company than the title changes.
The idea of presenting something bigger and different from the usual Friday night show in the long run, is to try and expose as many top stars as possible and get fans to see the promotion as something cool, different from UFC, and about to grow. The goal should have been to prove that this free sample was to make you a fan to where sometime down the line, you'll be interested in seeing another show loaded like this on pay-per-view.
And it that category, it fell short.
Part of that was out of the hands of the promotion. Whatever features and ideas between fights that were planned for the show had to be thrown out after one fight after another went to the decision. The Alvarez vs. Chandler main event didn't start until after 12:10 a.m., and this wasn't the fault of so much filler and losing track of time. When it was over, with four straight fights that went the distance, three of them being five-rounders, it resulted in a television show that clocked in at just shy of four hours.
For those who went out and DVR'd the show, even with adding an additional 30 minutes, their version would end midway through the main event, thus missing the most exciting and important part of the show.
And for those viewers, missing the end, they saw little of excitement past Mike Richman's first round stoppage win over Akop Stepanyan, which was all you could ask for when it comes to a major show opener.
Going into the main event, this had a far-too-familiar vibe of Strikeforce's second and final show on CBS in 2010, the night where the can't-miss lineup of three title matches wound up as three straight boring fights. That was the night of the post-show brawl disaster with the friends of Jake Shields and Jason "Mayhem" Miller that led to CBS giving thumbs down to any future shows, and damage that the company never fully recovered from.
The main event, and lack of a negative talking point when it was over, saved them from any kind of comparison. The main event had a high standard to live up to, and this was a completely different fight from the first, but a classic that showcased the wills of two exhausted battlers who never broke.
To a small percentage of the audience, a good show and future interest depends on fight quality. But when it comes to television ratings and expanding the audience, that's a very small part of the equation. The world of MMA is filled with example after example of great fights, like Alvarez vs. Chandler, who, when brought back, one would think word-of-mouth and media reaction would lead to big business for a rematch. And in almost every case, those who think that way end up disappointed when the numbers come back.
MMA is far more a star-driven business than an excitement-driven business, although in the long run you need both. That's the reason the heavily-criticized Rampage Jackson vs. Tito Ortiz fight got the most hype and promotion going in. Whatever chance Bellator had to expand the audience had to come with already well known stars, and hope the expanded fan base sees the show as cool, and sees the fighters underneath as new stars they want to see again.
Where the show fell short on television is that it didn't feel at all like a big show. Until the main event, there was nothing that differentiated this, the so-called pay-per-view for free, from every other Friday night Bellator show.
The format was identical. The announcers were identical. The graphics were identical. They were in Southern California, and Spike should have pulled strings to get celebrities at ringside. At no point did this have the feel of a big event. The announcers should have worn tux's and there should have been more in the way of special effects and elaborate ring entrances to where it felt like something other than just another weekly show, only with multiple belts at stake .
Pride in many ways set a model for presentation of a show. Granted, they also set a model for how to lose money like crazy on presentation of a show. But borrowing even a few of the Pride tricks that didn't break the bank would have given this event a different look.
Even things like mic'ing the crowd differently would have helped. Features through the show building the main event, such as showing fighters and celebrities all night predicting a winner would have given the show, the main event fighters and the fight itself more of a sense of something big. Granted, time constraints may have knocked these types of ideas out of the box.
Bellator as a business is in a tough situation. In the public's eye, they are the No. 2 promotion in a world where No. 1 puts out so much product that all but the hardest of the hardcore fan base can fully keep up with it. To break through, they have to come up with a unique way to present the product and the fighters, and that would be to give people a different type of a show.
Nobody, not even Chandler and Alvarez, when they came out, had the pomp and circumstance surrounding them to give a casual viewer the idea they were watching fighting royalty. It felt like you were watching very good fighters, but very good fighters without something special aren't going to break through today. They aren't Mayweather, but the goal should be to present them to the public like they are.
Daniel Straus' title win over Pat Curran was a grinding five-rounds that saw the featherweight title change, but did nothing to break either man out of the pack. Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney's talking point that Curran was the second best featherweight in the world, behind Jose Aldo, disintegrated as the fight went on.
Joe Riggs has a great story of overcoming serious drug problems and a career tailspin after at one time being one of the top prospects in the game. It was a compelling theme for him during a Fight Master show that never gained traction. But unless you knew his story going in, all you saw was a guy winning a decision and getting emotional and dropping f-bombs in his post-match interview.
"King" Mo Lawal, the first Spike signee to be a big-time celebrity fighter, ended up being a disappointment for the second time against Emanuel Newton. After losing again to a fighter who was a complete unknown, his stock dropped considerably. The onetime Strikeforce champion with world-class wrestling credentials lacked the explosiveness necessary to dominate with his wrestling in the late rounds. And Lawal wasn't active enough standing to win any round past the first.
This loss was far more damaging to Lawal than the first. And that loss stopped a lot of the hype and momentum around him. The first Newton fight earlier this year, a first round spinning backfist knockout, could be written off as a fluke in a sport where things like that happen. Losing four out of five rounds to someone who isn't a world beater is anything but.
The difference between this Lawal and the one of a few years back asks the question about the hellacious year he went through in 2012. Lawal had multiple knee surgeries after a staph infection. That nearly resulted in one of his legs being amputated. And that may have robbed him of the explosiveness in the wrestling game that made him such a strong prospect when he came into the sport.
Until the closing rounds of the main event, at no point did it feel special, or like a pay-per-view show you were getting for free.
When it was over, the bright spot of what was a controversial decision for Alvarez is that it seems to guarantee a third fight in what could give Bellator MMA's first three-for-three classic trilogy.
The previous best in-ring trilogies, Josh Thomson vs. Gilbert Melendez in Strikeforce, Wanderlei Silva vs. Rampage Jackson in Pride and UFC, and Frankie Edgar vs. Gray.Maynard in UFC, all hit the jackpot twice. Thomson vs. Melendez II and III were both classic, and the first was very good, but fell shy of great. Silva vs. Jackson I and II were incredible, but the third fight was a one punch knockout. Edgar vs. Maynard II and III were two of the best bouts in recent years, but their first battle was just another fight.
Alvarez vs. Chandler II, with each man having won once, gave viewers something to look forward to when it was over. But the atmosphere overall would make it to where the whole show didn't feel major league enough to where it felt like something the average fan would buy on pay-per-view.