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Bellator is above fight-fix claims, but can’t outrun their shadow

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Bellator 170 photos
The Bellator fight between Tito Ortiz (left) and Chael Sonnen has come under some scrutiny.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Controversy follows Bellator. Or, perhaps, Bellator creates controversy for itself. Whatever the process or arrangement, the two are linked, perhaps inextricably.

For the second time in 18 months, strongly worded opinions have been publicly issued by noteworthy figures inside mixed martial arts about the veracity of Bellator main events. Among others, UFC commentator Joe Rogan expressed skepticism about Bellator 138’s Kimbo Slice vs. Ken Shamrock contest in June of 2015. In January, Dan Hardy —  again, among others like Yves Edwards — felt something was amiss in Bellator 170’s Chael Sonnen vs. Tito Ortiz bout. Bellator denies any and all such charges.

While it’s tempting to wonder if there’s fire where there’s smoke, one inevitably faces the reality that if there is systemic fight fixing occurring on Spike TV, there’s scant proof of it. Beyond the utter lack of incentives for public companies that stage public events, there’s no paper trail. No one has produced money transfers, text messages, bank statements, voicemails or any other form of reliable evidence demonstrating collusion either between the fighters themselves or any other party. There are no whistleblowers and no formal investigations either by law enforcement or athletic commissions. While the charge of fight fixing is incontestably serious, the blithe manner in which it has been flung out into the world underscores how little one should take it seriously.

Bellator 138 Photos
Ken Shamrock loses a rear-naked choke on Kimbo Slice in 2015.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Still, it says something this has happened more than once. No other modern promoter in MMA has faced this version of repeated scrutiny. Rogan, Hardy and Edwards might also be mistaken, but they are not inept or MMA neophytes.

Whether intentional or inadvertent, Bellator has twice attracted almost as much suspicion as they have genuine interest in their main events. For a product that is above board where charges of wrongdoing carry no evidentiary weight, that is a curious burden to carry. Upon inspection, it turns out the Viacom-backed promotion is both a victim of deeply unfair circumstance as well as a contributing architect to some of the enduring misgivings surrounding their brand.

There are a few reasons why this has happened and will continue to do so, some of which are totally out of Bellator’s control. Others, however, are the result of their own doing, an inconvenient fact the organization is reluctant to admit.

Old Man Theory

The simplest explanation for the abiding and proverbial raised eyebrow toward Bellator centers on the age of the competitors. The fights appeared unusual because older, out-of-practice athletes produce fights with non-standard complexions.

Prizefighting’s labeling as a young man’s game is not an old trope repeated for its own sake. The young excel in ways the elderly cannot, but generally speaking, our expectations and understanding of what fights typically look like are shaped by the contours produced by younger competitors. Older fighters aren’t merely producing a lesser version of the same thing, but at times, a barely recognizable version.

Sonnen entered the bout coming off of a three-year layoff. He was fighting above his normal weight class and appeared to be in decent shape, if not the type of more elite physical shape he’d displayed during his UFC run. However rigorous the program is up for debate, but Sonnen was also subject to out-of-competition drug testing prior to the bout. Insofar as unscientific assessments of appearances are concerned, there were no obvious flags he was using performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs).

In addition to ring rust and the (seeming) reality of competing without pharmaceutical-grade help, Sonnen also fought at age 39. When Ortiz, 42, secured a fight-ending rear naked choke that seemed only applied to one side of Sonnen’s neck, he nevertheless tapped. In fairness, the choke turned Sonnen’s face and head purple. “It was an oxygen issue, not a pain issue,” Sonnen would later say. “All I can tell you is I couldn’t breathe. I didn’t respect it when it went on. I thought we were going to get in a scramble and I was going to come on top and I was stuck…it’s embarrassing and all those different things.”

Sonnen, too, has a history of getting caught in semi-applied submission attempts toward the end of rounds or bouts. Still, what stuck out in this contest was his inability or unwillingness to offer the ferocious resistance quite commonly available from hungry contenders in their 20s. Sonnen didn’t give Ortiz the choke, but he didn’t give him much pushback either.

“I mean, he’s 40 years old, and he’s been retired for a time,” Hardy said of Sonnen. “From my perspective it seemed like he was there to kind of give Tito this big boost, and he just looked like he didn’t want to fight.”

In previous Bellator main events between aging competitors, the bouts have routinely ended in other forms of bizarre action. Royce Gracie’s rematch with Ken Shamrock  —  a contest where their combined age was 101  —  ended with a groin shot Shamrock alleges to have taken place, but which can’t be reliably reproduced with any video replay to show definitive impact. The entire thing, lackluster and tentative from the opening bell, lasted a mere two minutes and 22 seconds into the first frame.

Shamrock’s bout with Kimbo Slice, who was 41 at the time, came close to ending with a ham-fisted submission application that ultimately failed. Shamrock appeared to have the choke sunk improperly, but perhaps enough to elicit a tap. Yet, his desire to exert physical pressure to secure it faded before it ever really began. He offered up one push and when that wasn’t enough, seemed content to let the choke and bout go.

Worse, neither fighter appeared athletically nimble. Slice’s balance was easily upended, pulled to the ground with the clumsy speed one would see from donning ice skates in a rink for the first time. Shamrock flexed a little remaining grappling prowess both with the choke and a back take, but when his resolve faded, everything else about his game did, too.

While mileage may vary, the lesson from older fighters is they routinely don’t exhibit the same iron will to succeed common among fighters in their prime. Age takes more than athletic grace from a fighter; it depletes perseverance, too.

There’s an argument to be made if Bellator continues to place older fighters against one another, perhaps audiences might grow accustomed to their eccentricities. In all likelihood, however, this will be too infrequent and perpetually clash with the overwhelming volume of fights that cohere to more traditional norms.

Bellator offers these deviations from the norm as a means of brand differentiation. Older fighters help them avoid being viewed as UFC-lite while appealing to a broad demographic. Aging stars’ services are also typically easier to secure. In the end, when the product works, the result is an admixture of wild entertainment, sports intrigue and nostalgia.

However, while a prudent strategy in terms of remaining competitive in the marketplace, there is no free lunch. The model also produces a perception tax Bellator could and likely will continually be forced to pay.

Pro-UFC Theory

A second theory centers on fan preferences. UFC is the dominant promoter in the mixed martial arts space and historically garners strong loyalty from its customers, occasionally in extraordinary ways. In August of 2010, eventual UFC Hall of Fame entrant Randy Couture faced off against boxer-turned-(temporary) MMA fighter James Toney at UFC 118 in Boston. The bout was promoted explicitly as ‘UFC vs. Boxing’ even though it was a professional MMA contest. Couture would go on to submit Toney at 3:19 in the first round, but would do so to chants of ‘UFC! UFC!’ by the crowd in attendance. With some noteworthy exceptions, fans in combat sports commonly range anywhere from reluctant tolerance to outright revulsion in terms of sentiment towards promoters. For one such actor to be explicitly cheered is unheard of in combat sports.

According to current Bellator fighter ‘King’ Muhammed Lawal, who fought for Strikeforce both before and after the 2011 Zuffa acquisition, that UFC loyalty helps explain the extreme scrutiny Bellator receives. MMA fandom is bifurcated, he argues: There are UFC fans and MMA fans. Not only is the former a larger group, but in Lawal’s estimation, dismissive of any perceived UFC competitor. That includes having disdain for that competitor’s fighters or product.

“Most of these dumbasses talking [about fixed fights] are just UFC fans that want to see Bellator do bad,” Lawal told SiriusXM’s The Luke Thomas Show. “It’s like this, man. In MMA, we have MMA fans, which watch everything in MMA and are hardcore. It’s a small number. Then you’ve got UFC fans, which they just watch UFC. They don’t really pay attention to Bellator. If it’s a big fight, they’ll pay attention and just talk trash about it. You got your MMA fans and you got your UFC fans.”

Any evidence to support the theory is strictly anecdotal, which isn’t to say false, but unsubstantiated by data. Still, it isn’t a stretch to claim UFC curries fan favor in a way almost no MMA promoter ever has. From staging fan expos to having the company’s president give event tickets away on Twitter to generally billing themselves as a fan-friendly company, the putative ability of UFC to shape consumer preferences isn’t much in doubt.

Dubious Past Theory

This is territory where Bellator assumes a measure of responsibility for the mistrust they foment. How much is a matter of debate, but they can’t wash their hands of the situation on this count. In the two fights that garnered the most pushback for a lack of authenticity, all four competitors carried with them either a dubious history in sporting competitions or a willingness to make permeable the firewall between sports and entertainment.

Shamrock has a well-documented background in Japanese pro wrestling, having fought in what appear to be both worked and shoot matches. He also dabbled in professional wrestling stateside for many years across numerous organizations.

In 2012 and between stints in professional MMA, Slice took a boxing bout with Brian Green, a journeyman MMA fighter. Green’s record in MMA was 27–17 at the time (31–23 now). His bout with Slice remains his only professional boxing contest. Aside from the oddities aforementioned, Green was also a middleweight to Slice’s heavyweight and was filling in on short notice. These facts, though, are just partial curiosities. What truly caused alarm was the unusual manner in which Green collapsed to the canvas after defenselessly eating a series of punches that didn’t appear to land with significant authority. Slice and Green faced accusations of fight fixing at the time, though both vigorously denied them.

As previously noted, Sonnen has a history of succumbing to fight-ending submissions in unusual albeit above board circumstances. More notably, Sonnen has openly adopted pro wrestling tactics in pre-fight build promotion for an impending fight. Prior to Bellator 172, Sonnen had not been a part of any athletic contest questioned for authenticity, but perhaps even more than Shamrock, Sonnen has employed a purposeful pro wrestling posture to sell himself, rivalries and events where he’s competed. To that end, Bellator even enabled Sonnen for his Ortiz bout with all the pro-wrestling atmospherics they could assemble.

Ortiz is largely exempt from this labeling, but carries his own moonlighting background in pro wrestling.

One gets the gist. Participation in professional wrestling or relying on dramatic and even cartoonish antics to promote a cause isn’t evidence of malfeasance. Yet, in the case of these Bellator fights, they are hardly exonerating when something else is believed to be amiss. Observers having difficulty making sense of the action in those bouts might conclude what they’re watching makes becomes comprehensible when the fighters’ biographies are properly considered.

Not Getting Better

While the authenticity of every Bellator main event is unlikely to be questioned, unwarranted suspicion is equally unlikely to wane.

First, the two bouts that have already received skepticism add reputational cost. Fairly or not, Bellator now stages events in the shadow of those controversies. The damage from them was mostly contained and never reached mainstream sports coverage, the truest signal MMA news is relevant to larger, casual audiences. Yet, while what we’ve experienced is more tempest in the teapot than raging inferno, they aren’t out of sight and mind either.

Second, aging heavyweight Fedor Emelianenko fights Matt Mitrione on Saturday at Bellator 172. Emelianenko is 40 years of age while Mitrione 38. Heavyweight is historically kinder to older athletes in terms of preserving their prowess, but both competitors also tend to be action fighters. MMA is chaotic and unpredictable in its most common forms. Adding conditions of age, accumulated damage and a willingness to compete as if such things didn’t exist suggests some of the ingredients are in place this weekend for the particular strain of unusual-ness Bellator seems to court or attract.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, Bellator isn’t staging main events that raise eyebrows by accident. Sowing seeds of suspicion about whether their product is forthright isn’t their aim. In fact, they rightly bristle at fight-fix charges. However, their reliance on the kinds of fighters or characters who engender suspicion is part and parcel of their business designs.

Bellator President Scott Coker’s free agent acquisition strategy is to sign from the top down. While there is some dismissiveness about the policy’s long-term feasibility, collecting fighters whose popularity is outlasting their ability to compete at the elite level is a perfectly viable business model. In fact, more than mere viability, it’s outright lucrative. Fighters like Sonnen, Ortiz, Slice, Rampage Jackson, Emelianenko, Shamrock and Gracie have the ability to draw significant ratings and live gate attendance long past their ability to fight among the world’s divisional best. Fighters might age out of the UFC, but their fans’ attachment lingers long into post-prime territory. Bellator explicitly feathers a nest for precisely this kind of talent. All of the available evidence indicates the strategy is working. The organization’s highest Spike TV ratings  —  by far —  have come when using them.

Ahead of Bellator 172, Coker — usually reluctant to comment on fight-fixing rumors so to deprive them media oxygen — finally vented.

“Let’s face it, who was it starting these rumors? To me, the guy driving it was a commentator for UFC in the UK. It’s so ridiculous,” Coker said about Hardy. “It doesn’t even deserve a response, but if they’re going to attack us and really try to make this something that hurts our company, they should just talk to Viacom legal. I’ve turned it over to them and said, ‘Hey, you should really look at this because certain [are] people coming after us and they have a say because they’re a public figure in this MMA space.’ They have some respectability.

“I think it’s out of my hands at this point. At some point, somebody’s going to have to be responsible,” Coker continued. “You’re going to have to be accountable for it.”

Coker’s concerns are legitimate. Publicly promoting unsubstantiated and potentially ruinous theories about a competitor without evidence carries a cost. “Somebody” is going to have to be responsible.

But that “somebody” cuts both ways, at least partially. For as ill-conceived and discriminatory as it may be to tar Bellator, “somebody” at Bellator has to be aware their own model, promotional style and employment of fighters with unusual histories aren’t very useful when it comes time to silence hasty rumor mongering.