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Bellator 131 shows Scott Coker's back-to-the-future vision for MMA in 2015

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Mark J. Rebilas-US PRESSWIRE

SAN DIEGO - The fans at the Valley View Casino Center on Saturday night apparently forgot that they were supposed to hate the Tito Ortiz vs. Stephan Bonnar fight.

While commenters on Twitter went out of the way to one-up one another in trash-talking the main event of Bellator 131 - and they may have had a point with Bonnar's performance - in Southern California, the assembled had a party, turning the clock back to the days when their corner of the world reigned supreme.

From the moment Ortiz staged a vintage walkout down the new stage-and-ramp layout (more on that later), a crowd full of Punishment Athletics-clad fans treated the evening like a homecoming for the Huntington Beach native, a recognition of one of their own.

Was it MMA competition at its finest? Hell no. Ortiz doesn't have much left to give as a fighter, but to his credit, he took his training seriously, and whatever he still has, he left in the cage. As for Bonnar, well, he looked like someone who not only wrote a check his ass couldn't cash, but perhaps also one he intended on bouncing from the get-go.

But that's beside the point. Bellator 131 was Scott Coker's big rollout show, his chance to finally put a stamp on the company he was hired over the summer to run. While I can't judge how it came off on television, at cageside, it felt like we we took a time-machine ride back to something that's been missing since about 2010.

The evening wasn't a straight clone of early Strikeforce days. But the card felt like an event. The people in the arena were emotionally invested in the fights. The marked increase in the quality of the arena presentation made fighters from Ortiz down to Joe Vedepo seem like a big deal. There were well-written vignettes shown on the big screen to explain the story behind the fights.

It was part Strikeforce, part PRIDE, part Affliction, and maybe even a dash of Elite XC. But it was most notable for what it wasn't: The old Bellator. The Latin warrior on the logo was a joyless soul. Bellator's machine went through the motions week to week, cranking out an endless assembly line of tournaments. Even fans who desperately wanted to rally around an alternative to the UFC couldn't bring themselves to get emotionally invested in the old Bellator.

Saturday, it became clear Bellator is finally free of the constraints which kept the company from building fighters in a manner fans cared about. There was a little bit of everything last night. The hardcore fan had the rematch between Will Brooks and Michael Chandler, which went four grueling rounds before a bizarre finish. Fans who like fireworks for their own sake got them in the form of Joe Schilling's thrilling rally and brutal knockout of Melvin Manhoef. "King Mo" Lawal and Mike Richman both had solid showcase victories which push them forward in their respective divisions.

There was something for everyone. In other words, it was a well-booked Scott Coker show.

Under the old system, well, let's use Brooks, now the undisputed Bellator lightweight champion, as an example. Brooks would have needed to sit out an extended period while the next lightweight tournament played out. Assuming whomever won that tournament emerged unscathed, you're looking at long period of time before Brooks would return to the spotlight, and by the time he returned, not only would he have lost the momentum from last night, but fans likely wouldn't know much about his challenger, either, since the tourneys became such a blur. While it's still going to take time to build contenders, at least a fighter like Brooks will no longer be stymied by the self-imposed limitations of the old system.

On the flipside, there's Chandler, who has been on the wrong end of three consecutive grueling championship fights, the sort which take years off fighters' careers. Under the old system, Chandler would be casually tossed back into the meat grinder. Under Coker's watch, Chandler will likely get the opportunity to take a step back and rebuild.

Which brings us back to Ortiz and Bonnar. Current revisionist history has it that Strikeforce was nothing but outstanding, serious fights, top to bottom. It's certainly true that Strikeforce had more than it's share of great fights, and their best competitors are only now getting their just due.

But Coker was also never afraid to use sizzle to lure customers into buying the steak. Go down the list: Frank Shamrock vs. Cesar Gracie. Shamrock vs. Phil Baroni, which was straight out of pro wrestling. Tank Abbott vs. Paul Buentello as a main event. Bob Sapp headlining and drawing a big crowd in his home state of Washington. Fight cards at the Playboy Mansion. Herschel Walker, a very serious athlete who happened to make his MMA debut at age 47.

Add Tito Ortiz and Stephan Bonnar to that list. Long after the fighters had returned to the locker room, the house lights went up, and the Twitter mockers turned turn their attention elsewhere, a chorus of "Tito! Tito!" ripped through the Valley View Casino Center.

That matters a whole lot more than whether the fight was a masterpiece. If Bellator keeps putting on total-package shows like the one which went down in San Diego, then fans will once again have a legitimate choice of MMA brands to choose from, offering distinct products. And that's a good thing.