When Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney opened Friday's press call and said he had both good news and bad news, that was a unique choice of words.
With Tito Ortiz injured, his bout with Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, the biggest fight the company had ever promoted, was off.
And even bigger, the company's first pay-per-view was canceled.
The good news was that the rest of the show remains in tact and will be airing on Spike TV in a three-hour window on Nov. 2 from the Long Beach Arena.
But the announcement ended up leaving far more questions than answers.
Going in, a lot of people were skeptical of Bellator making the move to pay-per-view. UFC's pay-per-view business is up so far this year as compared to 2011 and 2012. But that's because of success on a few high-end shows. UFC is believed tohave fallen under 200,000 buys twice since June, showing MMA consumers are far more selective regarding what content to pay for than ever before.
The UFC fight that mostly closely resembled the Bellator main event was Dan Henderson vs. Rashad Evans at UFC 161. That show was estimated at doing less than 150,000 buys, UFC's lowest number of the year. That's with the UFC built-in fan base and promotion. Henderson and Evans were major names who were coming off losses, Henderson to Lyoto Machida in a somewhat close fight, and Evans to Antonio Rogerio Nogueira in what was perhaps his most disappointing career performance.
Jackson and Ortiz were, at least in their primes, were bigger drawing cards than Henderson and Evans. But that was a long time ago. Both were coming off far more losses, and interest in both had declined greatly in recent years. Jackson hadn't had a spectacular performance since a 2008 one-punch knockout of Wanderlei Silva.
Ortiz was retired, and due to years of losses and well-known injuries, there was no clamor for him to make a comeback. His record-breaking title run ended on Sept. 26, 2003, two lifetimes ago in MMA years. The last time he drew a big pay-per-view number was 2006.
Bellator was banking on the idea that because the two had strong track records of drawing years ago, that switching companies would be a coat of fresh paint and it would spell a success today.
With eight days until fight time, there was no sign of the kind of momentum one usually starts seeing with a promotion that is going to hit. The first Rampage 4 Real show on Spike, showing Jackson blowing off training, partying, eating what he wanted and having fun gave one the impression he was not taking the fight seriously. Granted, this was part of a three-week story where he would end up in focus and pushed as being in the greatest shape since his youth. But week one felt like it only further emphasized that in an era of fans being more selective, this was a show that could be easily missed given the high profile pay-per-view events already on the docket in November and December.
So with Ortiz's fractured neck, the decision was announced to move the show to free television. Most likely, the bulk of the expenses for the show were paying Jackson and Ortiz, so that's a savings, at least one the night. It goes from being a pay-per-view card that all but the most ardent of fans were likely to skip, to as strong a television product that Bellator has ever put on.
Rebney said they still want to do pay-per-view, without even hinting of when. But the landscape is seemingly more precarious than it was, even a year ago.
When inking both fighters, the expense was probably significant. Jackson had been unhappy in UFC even though he had been averaging seven digits a fight. Given all his smiles when he came to Bellator, it's not likely they got him cheap. Ortiz's deal obviously included advertising for his Punishment clothing line.
But at the press call, Rebney noted Jackson would still be fighting within the next few weeks. He said Jackson had a great training camp and Rebney said he wanted to get the fight on before Thanksgiving. So Jackson will be fighting on Spike TV, no doubt blowing away the usual Friday night fight budget. And they'll be waiting to see if Ortiz heals well, and they can put the fight back together.
What's notable is that in the Eddie Alvarez court case earlier this year, Bellator had argued that they were planning on doing Alvarez vs. Michael Chandler on pay-per-view, at a time before they had either Ortiz or Jackson under contract. They still have Alvarez vs. Chandler, but evidently felt it wasn't strong enough or they would have made a different decision. But the decision they did make seems to contradict what they were arguing in court when trying to prevent Alvarez from taking a potentially lucrative UFC offer.
The press call, instead of answering questions, seemed to create new ones.
Things were vague on how exactly Ortiz got his fractured neck. The injury was said to have occurred in training on Oct. 19, but on Oct. 24, Ortiz was on TSN's "Off the Record," still promoting his fight.
Rebney noted that they were paying Atilla Vegh, the company's light heavyweight champion, to train and stay on weight as a backup. But when they needed a backup, and had one there and in shape, they opted not to go with him because it was so late in the game.
Even stranger is the initial reaction most people would have had if Ortiz was injured, would figure to go with Jackson vs. King Mo Lawal. And it was something talked about, but never really broached.
"I found out everything today," said Lawal in an e-mail message about the goings on. "I told em I'd fight Quinton, too. I think this whole thing is weird."
If Vegh was healthy and training, he could have defended against Emanuel Newton, who was and still is, facing Lawal. Somehow the champion was on a standby basis in case of two guys fighting for an interim title. That's strange on the surface, except for a pay-per-view show when you want a loaded lineup. Lawal vs. Newton, a grudge return match from Newton's Feb. 21 win, is stronger than Vegh against either of them.
Another unexplained situation is why would you have Vegh as a backup for the third match from the top, a match that could have fallen off the show and really not hurt it that badly, but not have Vegh or someone else ready as a main event backup?
It was Jackson vs. Ortiz and Chandler vs. Alvarez that were the key fights. Yet, nobody was there to backup the main event, featuring two older fighters who have both been seriously hampered by injuries in recent years.