LOS ANGELES — Brennan Ward remembers his Bellator debut well. It was in 2012, on the campus of the University of Rhode Island. Ward estimated that less than 1,000 people were in attendance.
At the time, Bellator was being broadcast on MTV2. That event did a whopping 149,000 viewers.
Fast forward a little more than four years later and Ward was in Hollywood on Thursday at a press conference promoting his co-main event fight with Paul Daley. Bellator 170 is Saturday at The Forum here in LA and it will be broadcasted on Spike.
Though the event, headlined by a fight between legends Tito Ortiz and Chael Sonnen, is not a sellout at this point, The Forum does hold more than 17,000 people. And Spike is expecting a big ratings number, perhaps more than 2 million viewers, for the card.
The progress has been gradual and, at times, uneven, but things are changing for Bellator.
“It’s kind of wild to see how big it’s getting,” Ward said at the pre-fight press conference. “It’s almost like a household now, just like the other organization that everyone talks about.”
That other organization is, of course, the UFC. Every other MMA promotion on the planet will inevitably be compared to the UFC. There’s no way around it. In the UFC’s $4 billion shadow, though, Bellator is trying to build its own brand. And Saturday night might mark the next phase — call it the third wave — of Bellator’s evolution.
Under founder Bjorn Rebney, Bellator grew from a tournament format and its days on the now dormant Fox Sports Net to being purchased by Viacom and placed on Spike. Scott Coker, the former Strikeforce promoter, was given the ball in 2014 and has set out to blend high-profile names from yesteryear with up-and-coming, exciting talent.
Bellator 170 isn’t necessarily a deviation from that. But Ortiz and Sonnen are also not Kimbo Slice and Dada 5000, the men who headlined the top-rated card in Bellator history (1,964,000 viewers). They’re not Royce Gracie and Ken Shamrock, the co-main event at that event, either.
Sonnen, 39, is two fights removed from finishing Mauricio Rua, though that was three years ago before a doping suspension from the Nevada Athletic Commission (NAC). Ortiz, one of the greatest light heavyweights fighters of all time, has won two of his last three fights, the loss a title fight against Liam McGeary in September 2015.
Sonnen also happens to be a former top UFC draw and Ortiz one of the faces of MMA from 2000 on.
“I can say it’s the biggest event in the Bellator history, of this fight company,” Coker said. “I think I’ve been associated with some big, big shows, but I think that this one, it’s gonna take the cake.”
On the undercard, Coker and matchmaker Rich Chou have put together a strategic collection of potentially all-action fights, beginning with surefire banger of a co-main event in Daley vs. Ward. Also on the card is a throwback-type fight between returning Ralek Gracie and knockout artist Hisaki Kato. Emmanuel Sanchez vs. Georgi Karakhanyan and Derek Anderson vs. Derek Campos are also main card matchups with potential for excitement.
The idea here is obvious: Come for the big names like Sonnen and Ortiz and leave wanting to watch more of Bellator’s exciting brand. Spike senior vice president Jon Slusser also promised some production bells and whistles. On that side of things, Bellator is arguably already trumping the UFC, making certain big events — or tentpoles — feel more significant than others.
“Spike and Viacom have never been more behind Bellator,” Slusser said. “We’re excited about it. Everyone is gonna be there Saturday. We’ve got a ton of talent, a ton of celebrities — more than the inauguration, I’m sure about that.”
Between Ortiz vs. Sonnen, and Fedor Emelianenko’s return to the U.S. to face Matt Mitrione at Bellator 172 on Feb. 18 in San Jose, Bellator probably has the two most high-profile fights to begin 2017. That’s something the promotion just hasn’t done before.
Sanchez said he has already seen a difference from last year’s shows in St. Louis and Houston to this one in Los Angeles. In that time, Bellator has been to five new countries and signed free agents like Emelianenko, Sonnen, Mitrione, Benson Henderson and Rory MacDonald.
“Ever since the change in regime when Scott Coker took over, it’s just different,” Campos sad. “The vibe is different. The level of broadcasting. It’s out there. Bellator is more well known than it was before under the old regime. I’m just excited to see where it goes and be a part of it.”
Bellator is now targeting ranked light heavyweight Ryan Bader in free agency and perhaps exciting welterweight Lorenz Larkin, too. There is also a lot of hope in top former amateur wrestlers like Ed Rush, Tyrell Fortune and Jarod Trice. Coker has said all along that the blueprint is a combination of building from the bottom up and signing well-known free agents.
“I’m very happy with what Bellator is doing, primarily because they’re not just throwing money and chasing any free agent,” Mitrione said. “I think they’re being very selective to who they pick. I think they’re paying attention to who has a fanbase, a good following, who affects ratings, what their placements have always been on cards and what they’ve been able to do. I think they’ve made very intelligent choices.”
Coker said Bellator plans on visiting eight different countries in 2017. Free agency has become a much more regular occurrence in MMA. Sonnen has a six-fight deal and there are multiple big fights awaiting him, against the likes of Wanderlei Silva and maybe even Emelianenko. Those are the kinds of bouts that will draw ratings while the young prospects mature. Coker and Chou did help to develop the likes of Ronda Rousey, Daniel Cormier, Luke Rockhold, Tyron Woodley, Miesha Tate, Amanda Nunes and more with Strikeforce.
None of that means Bellator is ready to surpass the UFC. Bellator’s ratings were not much better on average in 2016 than they were in 2015. But it could mean the upstart promotion is on the right track.
“It’s the marketing machine, right?” said Mitrione, who fought his entire career in the UFC before last year. “It’s the PR. It’s the money that’s been put into the game. And the UFC was the ground breaker, next to Pride. It’ll probably take time. I think [Bellator is] doing the right things.”
It does seem that way, though it’s impossible to tell what the future will hold. The only thing that can be certain is that Ward and Bellator will be a long way from that small crowd in Kingston, R.I., back in 2012.
“It’s wild to see the growth — especially in the last two years, since Mr. Coker has taken over,” Ward said. “He’s done his thing. His credentials show for him, what he’s done in other organization. He’s a businessman that knows what he’s doing. He’s doing a pretty good job steering the ship and taking us all along for the ride.”