Even before Eddie Alvarez came off the card with a concussion, fortunetellers were setting up booths all over the fight racket. Bellator’s venture into the world of pay-per-view this Saturday has inspired many of us to study the tea leaves and take our best crack at just how many buys we’re talking here. Will it be 20,000, making it just another anonymous enterprise? Will it be 50,000, which is believed to be the fall even line? Will it be 100,000 off the fumes of names past? Will it be more? Less?
Surely it won’t be in the four lonely digits…
Whatever the number ends up being, in advance of Bellator 120 this has become a media curiosity like no other PPV of its kind. Some are positively giddy at the idea of an epic fail, as if there’s a personal gratification riding sidecar to a low buy rate (to dumb it down, this is known as schadenfreude). Yet outside of Dave Meltzer, who can backstroke through the sea of numbers and blow water from his lips while doing so, this is mostly an amateur pursuit -- nobody knows what the value of Quinton Jackson vs. Muhammed Lawal is, even when it’s parlayed with Tito Ortiz against a Russian kamikaze like Alexander Shlemenko.
The problem seems to be that the second hand to reach for our disposable income is a shaky one. While the UFC’s hand is familiar thumbing through our wallets, Bellator's feels like a pickpocket.
But if the UFC can infuse subliminal messages through its promotional efforts to steer us towards purchasing UFC 173, then surely we can listen to Bjorn Rebney’s enthusiasm for Alvarez’s replacement, Will Brooks, whom the Bellator CEO casually calls a "young, unbelievable, athletic phenom." He'll fight for the interim belt against Michael Chandler.
"What you like to see about a guy like Will Brooks is, there was never a moment’s hesitation," Rebney says. "It was like that one kid that we all grew up with in grade school when you went to the high dive, when you went to the cliffs that oversaw where all the water was, there was always one kid who always just ran up and jumped off and everyone else was like, wow. Well, Will Brooks is that kid. We made the call, and the first thing he did was send back a text that said '30.’ And I was like, '30? What’s 30??’ And he writes back, ‘that’s my waist size, get my belt ready.’"
Saturday’s card in Memphis was supposed to be the trilogy between Chandler and Alvarez, a true Bellator rivalry who have put on two of the more memorable battles in MMA history. They are Bellator's identity. Alvarez fought at Bellator 1. Chandler is a product of the promotion’s tournament structure, having navigated the lightweight field en-route to upsetting Alvarez back in 2011. They have been using the 155-pound belt as the rope in a tug-of-war ever since.
When Alvarez suffered a concussion in training, he was replaced with the 27-year old Brooks (himself a Bellator guy who emerged from the Season 9 lightweight tourney). It was a bad break for everyone to not get that trilogy fight on Saturday night; even Bellator haters could agree that it’s one of the best trilogies in MMA’s nascent history (if not the best).
"Look, the reality is, I would have loved to have seen the trilogy fight, but given what we have on this card, and given the fights that are going to occur on Saturday night, I’m still thrilled about the card," Rebney says. "Bottom line is Rampage versus Mo is an epic fight. Will Brooks is a phenom, probably five to six months away from being at the Alvarez-Chandler level…unless he steps up and proves us wrong? Maybe he pulls off what Chandler pulled off against Alvarez the first time they fought. The kid has tons of tools. Then of course we’ve got Tito versus Shlemenko.
"Tito, game over if you lose to Shlemenko -- it’s over, it’s finished. You lose to a guy who you outweigh by 35 pounds, no matter how good Shlemenko is -- and I believe he’s one of the top four or five middleweights on the face of the earth -- but you lose to Shlemenko, where do you go from there? Shlemenko beats Tito, it’s got huge implications."
Rebney sees the drama in the planks that will be walked in Southaven, Miss. Lawal’s pendulous career will swing this way or that. Ortiz, who has had ACL surgery, back surgery, neck surgery, a meniscus tear, plus broader travails in the TMZ wheelhouse, remains a former champion giving it one last go. This could be it for Ortiz, the book could be closing on him. Rampage, who knocked out Joey Beltran and Christian M’Pumbu on his way to Memphis, is a bungalow away from a full-on revival.
And so on.
Then there’s Blagoi Ivanov, whose very existence on the card is a miracle in the unfolding. If you don’t know his back-story, here are the CliffNotes: The Bulgarian heavyweight was stabbed, was pierced in the heart, went into a coma for 90 days, was giving up for a lost cause, and now two years later is vying for a chance at Bellator’s heavyweight crown (see for yourself).
"This guy overcame the kind of stuff, if you did a movie on it, and sent the script in, studios would go, eh, it sounds too hokey," Rebney says. He’s exactly right. Ivanov’s story is remarkable. He fights Alexander Volkov.
But still, before it was announced this past weekend that the PPV would remain a PPV even without the third Chandler-Alvarez clash, people wondered if the thing were best suited for free Spike TV. Just like Bellator’s last PPV attempt in November, when Ortiz had to pull out of his fight with Jackson with a neck injury, and the card was then rerouted through Spike.
"This is a totally different scenario from last November," Rebney says. "Last November we looked at it and said, well, say what you will about the main event, whether it was warranted, whether it made sense for pay-per-view, but once that was gone, we were like, okay, this belongs on Spike TV.
"This show belongs on PPV -- this is locked and loaded. This has got huge value, and it remains a must see. ‘Rampage’ has got back-to-back first round knockouts. If Rampage can dominate ‘King Mo,’ questions are answered. Game over. Rampage is back to being Rampage. Mo’s got a must-win fight on his hands, and he’s got a crazy, driven, enthusiastic fighter in Rampage, who literally loves MMA again. So if Mo can win this, he’s reestablished his name."
Rebney says there was never a moment’s hesitation to keep the thing on PPV, and that it wasn’t out of necessity, fear or anything other than value.
"This has got meat on the bone all over the place in terms of PPV appeal, names, value, etc," he says. "I never looked at anybody and said, ‘what do you think?’ I was like, get the creative change, let’s rock and roll. This still remains a great, great show."
Rebney, Bellator and Viacom will charge forward with the maiden voyage into PPV on Saturday to find out how great. If there’s anything that Rebney has picked up over the five years he’s been in charge of Bellator, it’s that the fight game is unpredictable. While we try and place a number on how many people will shell out to watch his fighters duke it out this weekend, he’s just rolling with the punches.
"I would have loved to have seen that [trilogy] fight," he says. "It is still a fight that we can see, Ed’s still contracted to Bellator, but right now the concern’s got to be the main event. We’ve still go an amazing show, and I’m excited."
Read from these tea leaves what you will.