Now that Bellator's first pay-per-view show is in the books, the key questions are was it a success? And do we get another?
The answers are difficult. The part we know looks to have been successful. Saturday's show in Southhaven, Miss., just outside of Memphis, was entertaining, for things both good and bad, and at times frustrating. But it got more people talking about the company than ever before.
But the part we don't know is what drives the business. What did the public decide, based not on the quality of the show, but the interest? Did enough people buy the show to make future shows on pay-per-view a reasonable hope to have a shot at making money, or would doing another one be a bad financial decision?
If the show did reasonably well financially, even if it lost money, if that number isn't too large, there are a number of reasons to try again. The first is the reaction. Bellator is still only in its first 17 months on Spike TV. Sure, it's been around a few years before that, but not at anywhere near its current level of exposure and interest. They are still in the brand building game. Shows like this build the brand more than a dozen Friday nights on Spike, even if television shows will have more viewers.
Case in point, on Sunday, the third most reached item on the Internet in the U.S. was Rampage Jackson, behind only Lorde, for her performance at the American Billboard Awards, and the Miami Heat. Bellator has never had anything poke into the mainstream even close to that level. It was an interest level on par with one of the weaker UFC pay-per-view shows.
But in brand building, the key is widening the audience of the brand is to heavily promote the brand. A key point is that for the most part, on the day after a UFC show, people are searching for UFC, unless it's something like Anderson Silva breaking a leg or Ronda Rousey fighting. In this case, they were searching for Jackson, not Bellator. Some will praise that and say it shows Bellator builds the fighter, not the organization. And maybe, if they were searching for Michael Chandler or Will Brooks, I'd agree.
The reason for using high dollar stars like Jackson and Tito Ortiz is that their notoriety may get people watching. But the building phase for the company is not promoting Jackson and Ortiz as the focal point, because both of their times are limited. The idea should be that you then present a show, and showcase fighters fans don't know, and hype them and hope they can become future stars.
Jackson and Ortiz are not the long-term future of Bellator. The idea is that Jackson gets a larger audience to check out the promotion. But when the talk the day after is the star from the past and not the Bellator brand or a star of the future, it somewhat mitigates the success.
Still, there is a huge psychological difference with fans between what they watch for free and what they pay to see. People were talking about this show at a level that probably no Bellator show previously reached. For someone like Michael Page, a British fighter who debuted with a one-punch knockout, his win was far more valuable to his career than a few wins on free television, even if more people were watching.
With the exception of a glitch during the Spike prelim show where announcer Jimmy Smith was interviewing "King" Mo Lawal, and couldn't hear Lawal's answers, the technical aspects of the show were good. Spike was used well to promote the big fights coming up. In between fights, they hit you hard that Lawal and Jackson was the biggest grudge match in MMA history. Whether it was or wasn't, when it comes to getting people to make the decision to buy or not at the last minute, nothing is more effective than convincing people that the two headliners hate each other. And few in MMA are better than Jackson at playing the role of the somewhat likeable but dangerous guy, who is going to come out with vengeance to lay to an opponent.
He's got the million dollar scowl, and the no-nonsense rap when he's mentally into fight building. The most successful non-championship fight in UFC history was Jackson vs. Rashad Evans. Far too often in watching the two go at it, it looked like an attempt to simply copy a formula that worked. Lawal, at times, even used the same phrases as Evans did to Jackson, mocking him for being slow in particular.
As for the live gate, Bjorn Rebney's lack of answer when directly asked the question about it spoke volumes. From a visual standpoint, it looked like a professional show. Most Bellator events are in smaller venues, and with all the spotlights in the background, it had a different look and feel. There was a strong opening video, even if it felt too similar to how UFC opened the show.
If anything, from the look and how it was shot, it felt almost too much like UFC. They should try and give the show a very distinct look in some form, whether it's more creative entrances or a different type of presentation. But in saying it looked or felt like a UFC with different announcers and fighters, that right there tells you it looked like a professional pay-per-view event and not like a cheap imitation.
The fights are still the main course. It wasn't boring and they gave you something to talk about.
Just like the early UFC's were there to show that size doesn't matter, Tito Ortiz vs. Alexander Shlemenko was living proof of how much it does .
But more than anything else, it felt like most of the post-show talked revolved around the judging of the final two fights. It was a lesson that no point scoring system can overcome bad judging. The weaknesses of ten-point must can lead to the wrong winners even with the best of judges. But the system had nothing to do with the head-scratching wins by Jackson and Will Brooks.
There's not even any consistency in the questionable calls.
My usual thought is that in a close fight, you have to accept that either fighter can win. Michael Chandler did not blow Brooks out of the water, nor did Lawal do the same with Jackson. Yet, when the show was over, my feeling is that I'd be more comfortable with these judges picking a winner on a rock, paper, scissors standard than ten-point must.
With Jackson vs. Lawal, I wasn't shocked Jackson won. When it was over, I thought that Lawal was the clear winner of rounds one and three. But in a judged fight, it is never good to be on the bicycle looking like you are dancing away and avoiding contact in the last minute, the one the judges usually put more weight on. Plus, it's doubly bad when you are in the other guy's home market in front of his fans. More often than not, a star can get a slight edge in any judged sport. And Jackson was the star. Lawal's loss was almost assuredly him giving away the fight because he figured he had it in the bag, and he should have.
Fans really hating a fighter can be good for business. Lawal was out there antagonizing the crowd. He appeared to have the pro wrestler mentality in building the fight. But everyone hating you for what is perceived as stalling against a guy they want to see knock your head off may feel like music to your ears, it can work against you in a judged fight.
That crowd reaction shouldn't affect the outcome with professional judges, but it often does.
Still, my thought after the fight is that we had something equivalent to a football game tied in the fourth quarter. The visiting team kicked two field goals while the home team never scored. The visiting team quarterback ran out the clock in the last minute by taking a knee, rather than tried to pass and risk losing a game seconds from being won. In this case, the judges all voted for the team that never scored, forgetting most of the quarter, and only remembering one team was stalling out the clock.
It's not a disaster. Jackson is the bigger and more marketable star. Whether they do a rematch or not, he's now won three in a row and lives to headline a few more shows.
With Chandler vs. Brooks, this is far harder to explain, particularly since I had the fight 47-47, as a draw. In theory that would mean that either fighter could win. To me, the only question in scoring is if you would give round three a 10-9 or 10-8 for Brooks, and I had the latter. While I had a draw, Chandler clearly won rounds one, two and five. There was, in my mind, no mathematical way this could go to Brooks. Yet it did by scores of 48-47, 47-48 and 48-46, when two judges gave Brooks round five.
All the reasons Jackson could have unjustly won didn't apply here. In round five, Chandler was the one who finished strong, including a late knockdown, followed by serious ground and pound, and nearly finished Brooks with an arm triangle as the fight was coming to a close. Brooks had offense earlier in the round, including a German suplex and getting Chandler's back, but his offense wasn't nearly as effective as Chandler's.
Plus, not that this should matter, Chandler was both the crowd favorite and bigger star.
It's the second straight fight that Chandler lost that he probably shouldn't have. This bad judging makes a huge difference in careers, and Chandler is the prime example. Instead of being 14-0, lightweight champion and would be argued as possibly the best lightweight in the world, Chandler is 12-2 and viewed very differently.
The wins also lead to a number of questions. Jackson's win gives him the four-man light heavyweight tournament crown. That means he gets the next title shot at champion Emanuel Newton. But Jackson had made it clear that's a fight he doesn't want, since both train under Antonio McKee in the same gym. Even before the decision was read, Jackson was screaming that he wanted a rematch, which seemed to indicate he wasn't very positive about his chances of getting the decision.
You could do a rematch, but the fight itself wasn't all that exciting. If anything, as strange as this seems, Jackson vs. Ortiz is suddenly the most marketable light heavyweight fight in the company.
While Brooks garnered the interim championship, meaning the logical next step is a fight with real champion Eddie Alvarez to create a single champion, there are several mitigating factors in play.
The key, as Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney stated after the fight, is the unique contract Alvarez signed called for one more fight with Chandler specifically. So the ball is in his court..
The unique circumstances make the logical fight also the stupid one for the promotion.
Alvarez is obligated for one more fight with Bellator before he becomes an unrestricted free agent, and can sign with UFC.
If he fights and beats Brooks, he's the clear-cut champion, has beaten Bellator's two best lightweights and his value to UFC is even stronger. Keep in mind he was guaranteed a title shot in his first UFC fight even though he was no longer Bellator champion, having lost to Chandler. There would be nothing worse for the company than Alvarez beating both Chandler and Brooks and leaving for UFC, as both two will be battling for a title that would mean far less.
If he were to fight Chandler, and beat him again, at least Bellator can crown Brooks as champion if Alvarez leaves, and Alvarez won't have beaten him.
The Brooks win weakens a potential Chandler vs. Alvarez III fight somewhat, which would have likely been the main event of the second pay-per-view. But should Bellator go with the trilogy fight, in the big picture, Brooks having beaten Chandler and being a title claimant is better for the organization in the long run.
Of course, if either Brooks or Chandler beats Alvarez, the situation is completely different.