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Fortunes changed for five on busy night for MMA

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Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
It was only minutes into Saturday night's Bellator broadcast that it was clear this was a new company.

Late replacement, and relatively unknown fighter Joe "The Doctor" Vedepo, came out with a large video wall behind him, flanked by two models in nurses outfits. Not to be outdone, his opponent, "King" Mo Lawal, who is used to theatrics from his career roots in Japan, came out with women in skimpy bikini bottoms.

Bellator 2.0 is absolutely nothing like Bellator 1.0.

Whether this is good or bad depends upon your taste. Ultimately it depends on whether this new version of fighting entertainment can attract either fans from the MMA boom period who have dropped out, or create new fans.

Bellator, from its start, has always been about creating heated words between combatants and over-the-top grudges. The Tito Ortiz/Stephan Bonnar original confrontation in September wasn't all that much different from the Rampage Jackson vs. King Mo war of words and television special earlier this year under the Bjorn Rebney regime. But as Bellator officials noted with the Ortiz-Bonnar confrontation, while a lot of people didn't like it, on that night, everybody was talking about it.

Here's the reality. Bellator is a sports television product designed to get ratings on Spike TV. It is there to entertain the largest number of fans and get them to look forward to seeing it on television. There is no formula you can look up in a textbook that tells you how to do that. There is no right or wrong, past what causes consumers to be interested in seeing the fights.

Bellator 2.0 under Scott Coker starts out with some significant disadvantages. Most of the best fighters in the world work for UFC. The UFC has flooded the airwaves with product, leaving most everyone who doesn't live and breathe MMA to be unable to keep up with that promotion, let alone find the time to follow a secondary group. It also has an advantage that no company has ever had -- they are owned by Viacom. The phrase unlimited resources is thrown around at times with little meaning. Viacom has unlimited resources, so much cash that even billionaires like the Fertitta Brothers pale in comparison.

Still, company executives believe they have a base audience of about 700,000 people who they can count on to watch the fights, but that they do not connect to the masses. The goal is water cooler talk. They put on great fights fairly often, and that doesn't translate past their base audience, and increasing business has never been about fight quality. Perhaps there is a ceiling, based on the number of people who are interested in MMA, and being No. 2 in an oversaturated marketplace. Perhaps, by adding sizzle, they can make themselves a real alternative. The idea would be to be the "fun alternative," like the pizza you may get a craving for once a month even when you know there's food that is better for you, and maybe, even tastes better.

Tuesday we'll get the beginnings of an answer. It's when the ratings come out. The ratings won't tell you if the new direction will work, but they will tell you if the promotion of Tito Ortiz vs. Stephan Bonnar worked. Which will at least answer the question as to how effective that style of fight promotion was.

If Bellator hit levels that Bellator and UFC haven't been doing of late, on a night with three different major MMA alternates running head-to-head, then it worked. It is at least a direction with a hint of an answer to that elusive question of creating a bigger fan base. And if they don't, it's a lesson learned about what doesn't work in increasing the audience today. In the end, whether Bonnar vs. Ortiz was a good fight, which it wasn't, or if the two men were top tier fighters, which they aren't, is immaterial. It's all about a simple math equation. Did you turn on more people than you turn off?

Bonnar, overplaying his nickname of "The American Psycho," was heavily criticized for his acting during the confrontation when the match was announced. In shoulder programming this past week, designed to built anticipation for the fight, he was clearly a guy playing a character. Every longtime fan knows this. People learned who Stephan Bonnar was in 2005 on the first season of The Ultimate Fighter. He was a journeyman fighter who came across as a well-spoken and likeable guy. He was a bigger name than his 8-7 UFC record would indicate, and a Hall of Fame plaque largely because of his first official UFC fight, the business changing Bonnar vs. Forest Griffin brawl. He was never this guy when promoting his other UFC fights. This was a step beyond Chael Sonnen and Michael Bisping, who at least have had consistent characters since they became stars.

But character remakes are part of all entertainment. Would this fight have had the same level of interest if the Stephan Bonnar who came across like the guy who played against-all-odds underdog against Anderson Silva?
Most likely, due to Ortiz, that fight would have done, under normal circumstances, an above average number. But with the UFC competition, it wouldn't have done much above that level.

But even if it was a hit business-wise, Bonnar's role probably is limited to a one-and-done, and the one is done. Fighting is a double-pronged business. In the end, fighters have to somehow become stars or they can't build the company. Yet, if guys who have the ability to move numbers can't fight at a certain level, their shelf life is very limited. In the cage, Bonnar fought like a fighter who is nowhere close to that he once was.

Did all this revitalize interest in Ortiz, a onetime huge draw, who is also very limited as a fighter? Ortiz has won two in a row. Is it too late for him to be in the role of the older star in his nostalgia comeback career phase, to where he can face Rampage Jackson or Lawal as Bellator uses his name in its quest to bring a new audience to the table?

Early returns were not impressive. Internet searches related to Bellator's show, as well as UFC's, were less than 20,000 each, and didn't even make Google's listings for Saturday or Sunday. That's unheard of for a UFC pay-per-view show, although making that list for Bellator is usually limited to its biggest events. Still, its last major show in May, the company's lone pay-per-view, with the Rampage vs. Lawal main event, did five times that amount.
It did feel that people were talking about the show, more than the UFC pay-per-view event, which is good if that translates into new viewers. Bellator has now also differentiated itself from UFC and the previous incarnation of Bellator. At times it looked like a throwback to the glory days of the Pride Fighting Championships, albeit without the top tier fighters and packed Saitama Super Arena.

Is early 2000s Japanese theatrics with the idea of appealing to a television viewer who may not be all that big of a fight fan something that translates into American culture? Can they create interest in secondary-level fighters based on nicknames, ring entrances, and personality videos? Or do fights simply appeal to a niche Male 18-49 demographic and all those things UFC doesn't do are superfluous, just lengthening the show, when the fight audience wants just want to see fights?

The fights seemed there for different purposes. Lawal was there to get a win so he can move to a more important fight. Mike Richman brutalized Nam Phan, and then went back-and-forth on the mic with Joe Warren with title challenges. It wasn't quite perfect, since Warren was just announced as defending his title against Andre Galvao, and not Richman, and there's no guarantee he wins that one to get to the fight being built.

Joe Schilling and Melvin Manhoef was everything it was hoped to be. Explosive action with a violent finish.

If the Ortiz vs. Bonnar promotion worked, that would mean more eyeballs were on Will Brooks and Michael Chandler, the kind of fighters who Bellator has to be able to make as stars if they hope to add to their base audience. With the win, Brooks has established himself as arguably the company's best fighter. The value of Ortiz on the show is that if far more people than usual saw this show, then more saw Brooks score his most impressive career win.

Here's the deal. We already know the pat hand was limited. To shake things up, Coker is going to do what he did to build Strikeforce. Their process will include finding, creating and protecting the drawing power of money stars. There will be building matches based on personal conflict, whether fully real, exaggerated for the cameras, or even at times contrived. He's also going to do what he learned with his own combat sports education under K-1 promoter Kazuyoshi Ishii, who built K-1 in Japan to a mainstream phenomenon that, as far as television viewers went, blew away even the biggest period of UFC. But it also collapsed in time.

Only a small percentage of the television viewers in Japan were fight fans who could recite win-loss records. That business was built on creating larger-than-life stars through careful matchmaking, putting on matches with a variety of personalities and styles. It was also using mainstream personalities, whether sumos, 7-foot-giants, baseball players, pro wrestlers, boxers, actors or quirky comedians in fights.

The ironic thing is that while everyone was talking Bellator, the UFC put on one of its best shows of the year. But it felt like the great fights didn't translate into much impact. Part of that was because the best fights mostly involved fighters from the cast of TUF Latin America, a show few Americans saw. You will see few fights better than the Guido Cannetti vs. Henry Briones prelim fight in Mexico City. Both TUF finals also delivered non-stop action. The main event was a dramatic heavyweight fight with a come-from-behind finish. Another key was Bellator was free. Unless you were someone who just had to see Hunt vs. Werdum, it was very easy to make a choice to watch Bellator for free rather than spend money to see UFC fighters who mostly had less name value.

Let's look at how Fortunes Changed for Five of Saturday night's stars.

FABRICIO WERDUM - Werdum was in trouble. He was looking worried when feeling Hunt's power. He couldn't finish Hunt when he got him in his guard late in the first round. But he won a fight he was losing. As interim champion, he will be the opponent when Cain Velasquez returns. But Velasquez is as different from Hunt as possible. Velasquez is quicker, and in better shape. He's technically better in almost every aspect of the game, but lacks Hunt's power and Hunt's chin. Unlike with Hunt, Werdum is going to have to constantly defend aggressive offense at a pace no other heavyweight can keep up. He may not have the time and space to set up the fake takedown into flying knee combo that won him the Hunt fight.

But so much of Velasquez's game is about constant takedown attempts, and few want to spend much time on the ground with Werdum. Age is also a factor. Werdum will be close to 38 by the time this fight takes place. But Velasquez will have been off about nearly a year-and-a-half, possibly more, and ring rust is real. And this is a legacy fight, because should Werdum beat Velasquez, he'll have beaten Velasquez, Fedor Emelianenko and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and will belong in the conversation as one of the all-time greats.

KELVIN GASTELUM - Gastelum came to Mexico City as a fighter just below the top ten, but left as a legitimate title contender. Gastelum (11-0), is less than two years removed from Ultimate Fighter win. He handed No. 7-ranked Jake Ellenberger his second TKO loss and his first loss of any kind in round one in a 38-fight career. Mexico is being talked of as one of UFC's new growth markets, and Gastelum , the son of Mexican immigrants, couldn't have looked better before that audience. At 23, he's likely years from his prime.

RICARDO LAMAS - There's good news and bad news regarding Lamas' decisive first round submission win over Dennis Bermudez. The bad news is the worst thing for a promotion is to have a contender who didn't look competitive against champion knock off a solid contender. The good news is with Conor McGregor (16-2), Frankie Edgar (17-4-1) and Cub Swanson (21-5) all in line for featherweight champion Jose Aldo, the division has enough depth to where contenders today aren't an issue. Lamas talked McGregor, a fight that makes less sense than almost any match possible. Nik Lentz challenged Lamas, which is good for Lentz but not Lamas. The fight to go with is Chad Mendes (16-2). It's a high-quality fight and a big win for whoever takes it. But it doesn't risk eliminating someone who can viably challenge for the title.

WILL BROOKS - Brooks did not gain as much traction from his win over Michael Chandler in May because many disagreed with the decision. But Brooks (15-1) took Chandler out of his game before finishing him. As far as contenders, Bellator is out of the tournament business, but Marcin Held (20-3), a leglock specialist, had earned a shot in the final eight-man affair. Other contenders include Dave Jansen (20-2) and Alexander "Tiger" Sarnavskiy (30-2). UFC has so many quality lightweights that there could be very good fights lost in the shuffle as far as title opportunities are concerned, and Bellator could offer one of them an immediate shot at Brooks.

TITO ORTIZ - Ortiz, who turns 40 in two months, with a body ravaged by injuries, is clearly on borrowed time. But, should ratings be strong this week, it would behoove the company to book him wisely. Jackson, who is working on other projects, would be the right direction. They built up a fight that never materialized. At this point it looks like the fight with the most appeal that the company could make. Lawal is a tough one because Lawal is a superior wrestler, and is younger, quicker and a better striker. There is a story that could be done with Ortiz going after the light heavyweight title. It's a way to put the championship and champion in the spotlight.

Emanuel Newton (25-7-1) defends against Liam McGeary (9-0) on Feb. 27. If Ortiz had a solid shot of winning, you'd want to rush the shot to him since he's not going any younger. If McGeary wins, an Ortiz fight does put him in a situation to be in a fight that would generate more interest.