By Bellator standards, this is basically as big as it gets. They're putting their best foot forward even with a few stumbles, hiccups and miscalculations along the way. Still, it's highly commendable effort and evidence of a view I've long held about the organization: by relative standards and acknowledging their place as a distant number two to the UFC's one, Bellator has an excellent roster of high-level fighters. No card the organization has ever put together underscores this more.
But there's a lot of doubt and unrest about the promotion. The long, ugly saga with Eddie Alvarez (and now, to a lesser extent, Ben Askren) has badly damaged their relationship with hardcore fans. The promotion's attempt to make an utterly meaningless fight between the ho-hum Rampage Jackson and borderline toxic Tito Ortiz backfired in a misbegotten attempt to jump to pay-per-view before the organization was ready and long past the point the aforementioned UFC talent even belonged on pay-per-view at all.
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Bellator, stated plainly, has a chance and needs to prove they're an organization worth watching, worth following, worth mattering. To those who already dedicatedly follow them, this is all obvious. Of course they should, right? It's a highly-relevant promotion putting on largely world-class fights, right?
I'm not talking about that audience. I'm discussing the larger audience of MMA fans yet to be converted. I'm talking about the skeptics and holdouts who are, frankly, considerable in number. There is a key portion of fans who haven't yet given Bellator a chance. There are others who initially tried them out when they matriculated to Spike TV and haven't kept up. An event like tonight is part of the building, collecting and gathering process of bringing that audience back into the fold.
As good as Bellator is, they were never ready for pay-per-view. And when they tried prematurely to make the leap, the universe issued the ultimate correction back to the norm. In the end, though, it was an incalculably gracious favor to them. Bellator is still in the process of building its fan base, developing an audience, tweaking its product, gaining brand visibility and proving their worth to the mixed martial arts world, whether they want to accept that reality or not. By showcasing the best in their talent portfolio - talent they've largely discovered and groomed - and doing so on Spike TV, they can get back to those critical efforts necessary for their long-term success.
My message to Bellator: Worry about nights like tonight for what they are. Develop a loyal audience. Create more homegrown talent. Deliver ratings for Spike TV. Do that and down the road pay-per-view will take care of itself. Until then, there's still work to do.
Michael Chandler vs. Eddie Alvarez
At stake: about as much as possible. It's really hard to overstate just how much is on the line tonight for these two: money, status, the belt, redemption, evidence of greatness, you name it. I could go on about it ad nauseum, but we all basically get it. This is the big one. While Alvarez may deny it, Chandler not only took his belt, but took his position in the company. In some ways, he almost took his life. What appears evident from Alvarez in the run-up to this bout, however, is that Chandler didn't even come close to taking his soul. Alvarez nearly defeated Chandler in their first contest and there's plenty of reason to think he can do so again. And if he does, it will be one of the best stories of redemption after failure and semi-purgatory MMA has ever witnessed. Chandler, too, has quite a bit to gain. I'd specifically point to what this could do for his rankings given Alvarez is arguably his toughest available challenger. Whatever the case, the repercussions of this one will be felt for both men and the promotion for quite some time.
Muhammed Lawal vs. Emanuel Newton
At stake: major bragging rights. I know the interim title is up for grabs, so it goes without saying the winner automatically gets a unification bout with Attila Vegh. That aside, this bout is critical for both men. Lawal, who entered Bellator to great fanfare and heavy promotion, still needs to prove he was a worthy investment. Bellator is the place where underdogs go to thrive, so losing in the way he did is partly forgivable. 'Partly' is the key word there because it won't be forgivable twice. Lawal is an elite talent, but desperately needs to demonstrate that against a fighter who has historically been something of an elevated journeyman in his career.
As for Newton, beating Lawal is the signature achievement of his professional fighting life. Nothing else even comes close. To be able to repeat that would be not only one hell of an accomplishment, it might finally push him into territory he's consistently hovered just outside of: contender.
At stake: top ten rankings. Curran is generally considered to be in the top ten of featherweights across the MMA landscape. Straus is not, but by knocking off Curran, he can find himself there. Curran won't necessarily improve his position with a win, but just holding his spot is enough to generate further intrigue about where he really is and how far he can really go.
At stake: maybe a career. Bronzoulis has never fought on a stage or bout so important to his career. Riggs has, but if he loses to Bronzoulis, he may never again. After all they've done, it seems unfair to suggest the loser of this bout could fade into obscurity, but it's certainly possible. More likely, the winner gets a chance to write a critical chapter of their career. The loser has to start from scratch. Given the ages of both competitors (and the miles in Riggs' case), that's about as undesirable an outcome as you'll encounter.
Mike Richman vs. Akop Stepanyan
At stake: not much. Stepanyan is one for four in his Bellator foray, but has been very competitive in two of those losses. I'm not suggesting he is above being cut, but he at least is serviceable on a Bellator undercard. As for Richman, he's a very talented featherweight Bellator has spent time grooming. He'll be fine no matter what.