The chasm between what the public wants to see versus what makes for great fights may have never been wider as Friday night's Bellator show featuring Royce Gracie, Ken Shamrock and Kimbo Slice, which drew an average of 1,964,000 viewers over the three hours to beat the company's all-time record by 24 percent.
The prior record was set on June 19, by the Shamrock vs. Slice match, which averaged 1,580,000 viewers, peaking with 2.3 million viewers live for the main event.
The Slice vs. Dada fight from 11:16 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. drew 2.5 million viewers, while Shamrock vs. Gracie from 11:54 p.m. to 11:57 p.m. drew 2.4 million viewers.
The show beat out everything on cable on Friday with the exception of Gold Rush on the Discovery Channel and some programming on Fox News. It was about triple the usual Bellator Friday night audience.
In the male 18-34, 18-49 and 35-49 demos, Spike for the night beat not only everything on cable, but all the broadcast networks.
Spike also had a big night surrounding the fights, as a 90-minute feature show — Kimbo Slice: The Truth — did 867,000 viewers beforehand, while the 30-minute post-fight special which aired just after midnight — Unrivalled: Benson Henderson — did 818,000 viewers.
With the exception of the Gold Rush, which beat Bellator — and two NBA games which finished significantly lower — no other show on cable did even half the 1.30 rating in the Male 18-49 demo, with the largest audiences being men between the ages of 35 and 49.
Friday's show was the third-most watched MMA program on cable television in nearly five years. The two shows that did better were UFC Fight Night 59: Conor McGregor vs. Dennis Siver on Jan. 18, 2015, which did 2,750,000 viewers on average, and the FS1 aired bantamweight title fight between Dominick Cruz and T.J. Dillashaw in January, which did 2,288,000 viewers. Aside from those shows, the last event that topped Friday's number was a UFC card on Spike TV on March 26, 2011, headlined by Phil Davis vs. Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, which did a surprising 2,173,000 viewers.
Spike officials note that they expect to top that 2011 number with the inclusion of DVR viewership, a number which should be available Wednesday.
The flip side of the story is the quality of the fights, as well as the ramifications of the two main events.
Dhafir Harris — or Dada 5000, as he's better known — remains hospitalized after growing gravely ill on Friday night after his bout with Kimbo Slice, with reports of heart and renal failure, the latter of which the promotion confirmed. While certainly memorable, the bout was ultimately a sad display of MMA, with both competitors barely able to avoid collapsing during the fight, each sapped of energy just minutes after the opening bell. Because neither man had any strength or power left to hurt the other, the bout did something nobody expected by extending into the third round, with Harris eventually going down more from exhaustion than from punches.
Gracie vs. Shamrock, the rematch 21 years in the making, ended early after the 52-year-old Shamrock took a low blow and couldn't recover. It was ruled a TKO win for the 49-year-old Gracie, despite Shamrock's protestations. Neither fighter had a chance to show whatever they had left in the tank as the fight barely lasted two minutes, the anticlimactic ending boiling down to the referee missing the knee to the groin. As of Monday, Shamrock is officially protesting the decision, asking it to be overturned to a no-contest, and asking for a rematch.
Based on the ratings, the public likely wants to see that rematch, although at some point going in this direction may no longer work. If and when that point comes, one would expect them to change courses.
From a sports standpoint, these matches are sad to watch. But the public spoke through the numbers, and in a difficult and competitive television landscape, their voices will be heard. If the show didn't do well, it would have sent a message. Instead, it sent a very different kind. The numbers don't lie.
So, given that Bellator is more than likely to book some of these men into fights again, the lesson from Friday is that these fights need to be modified for safety concerns.
It's imperative athletic commissions thoroughly examine all fighters over the age of 40, or inexperienced fighters nearing that age. And they certainly shouldn't be allowed in the cage if they have made a rapid weight cut. Not just normal medical testing, but stricter hydration testing should be a must.
From a promotional standpoint, there needs to be a realization of what these matches are and, if Bellator wants to continue promoting them, maybe shorter time limits should taken into consideration — perhaps three-minute rounds instead of five minutes. That's not a total answer to potential problems, of course. The only true answer is not book them in the first place. Still, if ratings tell you that these kinds of fights are what the public wants to see, ramifications — such as shortening matches — is at least an improvement when it comes to the odds of avoiding a future tragedy.
People should not be blinded by the ratings Bellator 149 drew and ignore the fact that we came very close to a catastrophe, a catastrophe that could have greatly impacted the sport in the most negative way possible.