There was a feeling that, should Muhammed Lawal get by Mikhail Zayats (a big "if") and Quinton Jackson somehow muster the enthusiasm to show up against Christian M’Pumbu (whom he knew as none other than Christian Oom-Boom-Boom) that Bellator could really be onto something in this four-man light heavyweight tournament.
The fact is that King Mo and Rampage have chirped at each other for a long time. They both have "champion" on their resumes. They can articulate their bad blood, which has always gone down as a fight game boon. And the feeling heading into Friday night’s discount version of the toughest tournament in sports was, hey, if all plays out as it should, might as well see them fight.
They did, and we will. Hallelujah. No evil Emanuel Newtons showed up to crash the party.
Things got fantastic the moment Jackson knocked M’Pumbu out and was barking strange delights over his prone, non-comprehending figure. That’s when they brought Lawal back in the cage to confront Jackson and pose for pictures.
The endorphins got the better of moment, and soon there was a sea of tussling as Lawal and Jackson were trying to get at each other with them bungalows. These situations are always fun, because the men in suits are caught in the line of fire and their civility, by contrast, looks absurd.
What was even more fantastic was the skeptic’s sense of showmanship that swept over the Mohegan Sun, the general feeling of cinema. Even the security guy, who watched the controlled chaos with zero apprehension that he might be asked to restore order, said, "they sure know how to sell a fight, that should be a good one." Most were chuckling and egging the thing along. Not too many were overly concerned that a riot was afoot, but the appearance of one cheered everybody up.
And so we have Lawal and Jackson in the finals. The immediate sentiment was simple: Here we are now. Entertain us.
Not that it was a dupe. Not from Lawal’s perspective. Before the post-fight press conference, he was steaming about the situation as he spoke to his manager Mike Kogan and the bon vivant Greg Savage off to the side of the dais. His lip was busted open, courtesy of that immovable Russian, and he was angry at the boos he heard for his efforts. He was angry at Jackson, and only too happy to settle the thing right then and there, if everyone was willing. He was pissed at the slippery surface of the cage canvas, which he made known moments later during the presser.
Then it continued.
As the fighters took their spots on either side of Bjorn Rebney, we were made to stand on ceremony as the CEO made warm comments about all the main card fighters. By the time we got to Lawal and Rampage, the rub started back up. It was a battle of duel microphones; if a beat had emerged from the back of the mix here’s guessing they’d have fallen into song. Kudos to anybody who attempts to transcribe the exchange, because it was majestically unhinged.
There were inquiries from Rampage as to whether or not the cage were still assembled, as he was willing to head back in with Lawal (it was not; Bellator’s circus moves fast). Lawal and Jackson stood up and began removing their jackets and headphones, those good rituals for a fight (leaving plenty of time to be restrained). Lawal said some things about "f--- the fans" who booed, which colored Rebney’s cheeks a little bit, and Rampage said some stuff about "winner takes it all," meaning fight purse.
In any case, it was on.
And all the while the spectators -- press, corner factions, managers, fellow fighters, ring girls, ushers -- half reached for the popcorn. It was slightly unnerving theater. The conversation afterwards was as much about the fight, perhaps happening in Memphis as part of Bellator’s inaugural pay-per-view in May, as it was in gauging the authenticity of the conflict. How real was that thing we just witnessed? How much do these guys hate each other, and how much of it was manufactured? Is it a work? Is it TNA spilling over into this more literal realm? Does it matter one way or another?
Here’s guessing it doesn’t, ultimately. The thing is, they are going to fight, and they will make the most of the conflict. Both Lawal and Jackson are at peace in a cacophony, so who really cares. The difference being, best everyone could tell, Lawal was coming off a subpar performance and looked at Jackson as his chance to redeem things. For Lawal this thing with Jackson was deadly serious.
And for Jackson, that sly old fox, the world is a stage.