On June 19, Bellator will try to get itself back into the consciousness of MMA fans by presenting a match that isn't likely to make purists happy, and for very good reason. That's when 51-year-old Ken Shamrock faces 41-year-old Kimbo Slice, seven years after CBS tried putting on the exact same fight. Slice's last MMA competition was in 2010. Shamrock's was the same year.
But when the goal is ratings, that's often what you're left with. For arguments to the contrary, just refer back to November, when far more people were talking about (and watching) Bellator than ever before, or since. That talk was based on a purported grudge match with Tito Ortiz and Stephan Bonnar, two fighters who had retired from UFC but were recruited back on name value from a previous era of the sport.
Another fight on June 19 pits pro wrestling star Bobby Lashley against late replacement Dan Charles -- Charles, a heavyweight with a 9-2 record. He only has one name fighter on his resume, a Sept. 20, 2013 third-round TKO loss to former kickboxing star Mighty Mo.
Charles has won his last two Bellator fights.
Lashley, a onetime WrestleMania headliner, is now 39, ten years older than Charles. But unlike most normal folks of that age -- let alone those who have gone through the pounding of careers in amateur wrestling, pro wrestling and MMA -- he claims not to feel the effects of that number. Lashley has fought twice for Strikeforce since Scott Coker took over a year ago, and in both cases hundreds of thousands of new viewers showed up when his fight started. On Sept. 5, viewership rose from 470,000 for a Cheick Kongo fight to 885,000 for his battle with Josh Burns.
Lashley is also doing what virtually everyone who has done both pro wrestling and MMA doesn't recommend, doing both on a nationally-televised basis at the time same. Part of that explains his drawing power, as he was, and still is, one of the major stars of TNA Wrestling. But last year, TNA wrestling was on Spike TV, drawing more viewers than Bellator. His fights were promoted on the wrestling show. They weren't promoted that hard, but it was enough for him to bring some of that audience with him.
Things are different now. TNA wrestling was canceled by Spike at the end of last year, and moved to Destination America, a far smaller channel, and its fan base has greatly diminished. No longer on the same station, TNA doesn't even mention Lashley's fights anymore. So there's no lock he'll move numbers like he once did.
On the flip side, TNA has run a greatly reduced schedule, meaning the hardships of doing both pro wrestling and MMA simultaneously haven't been nearly so difficult. Lashley admits that if he was working for another wrestling company, such as WWE, it would be impossible to do MMA. But for him right now, pro wrestling works out well.
Instead of touring the country, TNA tapes in Orlando, Fla. four days every six to eight weeks, meaning he doesn't have to worry about the travel, the punishment or the schedule.
"A lot of people in MMA do part-time jobs," Lashley says. "The only full-time job I have right now is my kids. TNA is phenomenal. We do six, seven, eight shows at a time and then we're off a month-and-half to two months. Our next shows start the Wednesday after my fight, and then we're off again. This enables me to pay my bills, spend time with my kids and train full-time."
Lashley (12-2) lost to his original opponent for Bellator 138, James Thompson (20-14, 1 no contest), on May 6, 2012, in New Delhi, India. That happens to be his last career loss. Lashley started off well and was winning the bout early, but Thompson came back later to take the decision. Lashley says thinks he should have won that fight, but that he was going through personal life issues that affected his conditioning heading in.
Still, he insists this fight is not at all about retribution.
"I didn't train for the last fight [with Thompson]," he says of the loss. "I didn't spar at all. I wasn't necessarily in a good frame of mind. I got offered good money, and I took the fight. The only reason I watched the fight a few weeks ago is because I wanted to see what happened. There was nothing. I put the guy in the hospital with a broken orbital bone and he was a bloody mess. I walked away, went home, didn't have a scratch on me, and nobody who saw me knew I had just had a fight."
He said he wasn't surprised when the rematch fell through, and is hopeful that if he gets past Charles he can fight Thompson next, as soon as possible.
"I know he's not hurt," Lashley said in an interview with Submission Radio. "I don't know what his case is. I don't know what his situation is. But I know he can go out there and he can take the fight. So hopefully after this fight, I'm gonna try and call him out right away. If this fight goes the way I plan for it to go, I'm gonna call him out right away and say, `Hey, no disrespect, but I want you to get your ass out here and fight.
"I come from a (amateur) wrestling background and we used to wrestle every week," he said. "I don't like taking months off. Injuries happen, but I'd rather stay active if I can fight in July or August and keep the ball rolling. I was surprised James took the fight and I was prepared for him to find a way out of it. It's business. Anything can happen in a fight and anything can happen in training. At first I was a little upset because I wanted to fight him. But I can't dwell on that."
Lashley is going against Charles not quite sight unseen, but with limited footage to study. Charles is taking the fight on short notice but does have an interesting edge in that his wrestling coach, Aaron Simpson, was a former training partner of Lashley's when both were at the Olympic training center.
"There's not really much on him," Lashley says. "I was trying to see his last few fights. He had some fights in Bellator but the only stuff I could find was years ago. But fighters don't change too much. I know what he wants to do. We're keeping going with what we were doing. He's going to be quicker than James but he's not as big."
Lashley feels that Charles is a durable fighter who will hang in.
"He's a tougher heavyweight who likes to bang it out for a few rounds and he's not going to be easy to finish," Lashley says. "He's a more athletic guy than Thompson was. But I'm in a really good place right now. I'm moving better than I've ever moved. I don't think there's anything he can throw at me that'll shock me or cause me any real problems."
Lashley hopes the win can propel him into a heavyweight title fight with Vitali Minakov (14-0), a Russian who came into MMA with the junior national championships in both judo and wrestling, and multiple world titles in sambo.
"I know guys who train with him, and he's a real champion," Lashley says of the champ. "That's the one I want to focus my attention on."
Lashley's career path has been unique. He was ranked nationally in both freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling. But he suffered a freak knee injury while dropping to the ground quickly upon a gunman's request during a bank robbery. That incident ruined his 2004 Olympic dream.
Since there wasn't yet much money in MMA at that time, he went the pro wrestling direction that same year. A decade later he can make money in either venue.
"I've got two passions," he says. "(Pro) Wrestling is a huge passion. Fighting is a huge passion. If I can do both, I'll do both. If I need to make a decision, I'll make a decision. I have to take care of my family."
With a physique that looks more suited for a Mr. Olympia contest than Olympic wrestling or cagefighting, he got signed to pro wrestling, where he was rushed to the main roster as WWE owner Vince McMahon's project.
By 2007, McMahon was grooming him to be his future top star. At WrestleMania that spring, McMahon put him in what turned out to be one of the biggest money matches in pro wrestling history. In the so-called "Battle of the Billionaires," McMahon, represented by Umaga (the late Eddie Fatu), was opposed by Donald Trump, represented by Lashley. The losing billionaire would get their head shaved. McMahon figured that Lashley causing him to get his head shaved would springboard him to superstardom, with the idea he and John Cena would be the company's two biggest stars going forward.
The show sold out Ford Field in Detroit with more than 74,000 fans, and did 1,250,000 buys on pay-per-view. It's still the largest pay-per-view number in pro wrestling history, and, given the economic changes in that industry, it's difficult to conceive that number could ever be equaled again.
But things between Lashley and WWE fell apart soon after. He suffered a torn rotator cuff and needed surgery. Some people thought that, as a top star, Lashley should have worked through the injury as opposed undergoing surgery and taking six months off. There were other incidents behind the scenes, which, due to confidentiality, he can't talk about. But he never wrestled another match in WWE. Even so, he has always maintained a love of pro wrestling and has kept at it. After he fully recovered from his injury, he started training in mixed martial arts at American Top Team in Coconut Creek, Fla.
If those issues with the WWE had never happened, it's very likely Lashley would have never tried MMA.
"No way, you can't do anything on the WWE schedule but WWE," he says. "You have to sit down with your family and see what you really want. At the time, wrestling was all I wanted.
"Wrestling has taken me on a ride and a love affair. I absolutely enjoy wrestling. I don't know if I'd be where I am if it wasn't for wrestling's pay scale. Wrestling has done a lot for my life. Going into my 30s, I train with a lot of guys in their early and mid-20s and I can go as hard as those guys. I see guys my age, but I train hard and I can go, I'm in great shape. I feel like I'm in my 20s. I don't have too much damage or abuse."
Seven years after starting in MMA, while still a name people tune in to watch on television, he's never been a ranked heavyweight.
"One thing I would have done is I would have uprooted and moved to one of the big camp areas to start everything over," he says when asked about what he's learned and what he'd change about his MMA career if he could. "There were times I worked out with AKA, ATT, I met up with (Greg) Jackson. I was jumping all over the place. I had a lot of things going on with my life. I love ATT, love the guys there, love Dan [Lambert]. They have a great team. That would have probably been a top choice. I'd have bought a townhouse in Fort Lauderdale or San Jose. That's one thing I'd have changed."
Lashley did his entire camp for Friday's fight at different gyms in the Denver area, where he lives, but the last few days was scheduled to train on some finishing techniques in California with Josh Barnett. There's still one thing he's hoping to accomplish in the sport.
"I'd love to win the Bellator title, and to do that, I have to beat guys in impressive fashion."