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Bellator gets ready for its most expensive undertaking

Esther Lin/

What is hoped to be the biggest event in Bellator history takes place June 24 from the World's Most Famous Arena.

It's probably the most expensive undertaking the company has ever done. MSG is not just the most famous, but also the most expensive arena to run television and pay-per-view from in the country. Consider that the WWE, with its $729 million per year in revenue, has long since abandoned running the arena that was long considered its home base for television or pay-per-view shows due to the expense.

It's also the company's deepest lineup when it comes to recognizable names. And likely, by a significant margin one would think, it's probably the biggest payroll for talent in Bellator history.

In bowing to the unfortunate realities of what the fan base is buying, the two main events are non-title matches featuring well-known major names past their primes. That's also been Bellator's most successful drawing formula to date.

Chael Sonnen (29-15-1) is now 40, and struggling to compete while no longer chemically enhanced. He lost quickly in his last outing to the bigger Tito Ortiz. His last win was nearly four years ago. But he is a name, and an expert in building up fights. His fight with Ortiz in January was a huge commercial success for the company, the third-highest rated show in its history. Before that, he was a significant pay-per-view drawing card in UFC title bouts with Anderson Silva and Jon Jones.

Wanderlei Silva (35-12-1, 1 no contest) is also 40, and hasn't even fought in four years. Sonnen vs. Silva were scheduled for a much-hyped UFC fight in 2014, which fell through when both ended up being suspended over drug-test issues. Sonnen failed for a multitude of substances. Silva was suspended for pulling a disappearing act when the testers came to him for an unannounced sample collection and at one point was put on a lifetime suspension. Silva was once among the most consistently exciting fighters to watch in the sport, and his last fight, a win over Brian Stann, was one of the most thrilling and memorable fights of the last decade. Silva headlined often for UFC, and from a numbers standpoint, was usually successful.

Fedor Emelianenko (36-4, 1 no contest) is also 40. While he has won his last five fights, it's been six years since he's faced legitimate top competition, when he lost to Dan Henderson. At one time he was widely considered the best fighter in the history of the sport and was almost mythical until a run in Strikeforce humanized him. While Emelianenko has no history as a big pay-per-view draw, largely since he never fought in the UFC, he did draw big on CBS once and his loss to Bigfoot Silva was the most-watched MMA fight ever on Showtime.

Matt Mitrione (11-5) is 38, although that number surprises most people since his first fight was less than eight years ago. He was to face Emelianenko in what he called the biggest fight of his career back in February, and then suffered painful kidney stones right before the fight and had to pull out.

Bellator's greatest commercial success was built around Kimbo Slice, a past-50 Ken Shamrock and a nearly 50-year-old Royce Gracie. The message, perhaps sad, is that the public would rather watch big names from the past rather than great current fighters.

There is little doubt the show would be the biggest drawing MMA event on cable so far in 2017 if that was its venue.

Instead, Bellator is moving to pay-per-view for a second time. And drawing on pay-per-view is very different than drawing television ratings.

In 2014, a show headlined by Rampage Jackson vs. King Mo Lawal did just over 100,000 buys. The fact it's taken three years to try it again tells you that number wasn't viewed as a home run. When this show was first announced, Scott Coker was predicting 200,000 buys. That figure would be roughly what Holly Holm and Germaine de Randamie drew at the Barclays Center in UFC's first pay-per-view of the year.

This show is far stronger when it comes to names, but is minus the key name to pull numbers: UFC.

Even though the pay-per-view has three other fights, two championship fights and the debut of the most talked about prospect in years, the reality is its success or lack thereof will be determined by whether enough of the audience that watched the Bellator legends fights in the past are willing to spend money to see these stars now.

There are actually three championship fights in all.

Phil Davis (17-3, 1 no contest) defends the light heavyweight title against Ryan Bader (22-5) on Spike TV just prior to the start of the pay-per-view. Davis and Bader, both former All-American collegiate wrestlers, for years were among the top-ranked light heavyweights in the UFC. They are both better known to the public than the fighters in the two title bouts on pay-per-view. Both fell short of getting title fights in UFC.

Davis lost to Rashad Evans in 2012 and Anthony Johnson in 2014 in fights that could have gotten him the next title fight with a win.

Bader defeated Davis via split decision on Jan. 24, 2015, on FOX. The win over Davis and then another over Rashad Evans was expected to land him a title shot at Daniel Cormier later that year, but UFC instead chose Alexander Gustafsson for the spot. Bader lost his spot in line to Johnson in early 2016 with a quick knockout loss, and UFC decided not to match Bellator's offer to keep him.

The first Davis vs. Bader fight was close enough that the outcome was heavily debated at the time, but it was not a very exciting fight.

The strategy seems to be to try and get a big television rating through that fight, and then sell those viewers on wanting to see a kill-or-be-killed Fedor fight, and for Sonnen and Silva's grudge to entice enough of those people to plunk down money.

Rory MacDonald (19-4) may be Bellator's best fighter in any weight division. His resume includes 2014 wins over UFC welterweight champion Tyron Woodley and top contender Demian Maia. At 27, he should be in his prime. He was four minutes away from beating Robbie Lawler for the welterweight title, until a Lawler comeback leading to a destroyed nose cost him the fight that many felt was the best of 2015.

He made it clear he wants the winner of the pay-per-view's Douglas Lima (28-6) defense of the Bellator welterweight title against Lorenz Larkin (18-5, 1 no contest). MacDonald would be favored to win against either opponent.

Lima vs. Larkin in many ways is the key fight on that show. The marketing strategy is that Bader vs. Davis will bring people to television, that the hype of Sonnen, Silva and Emelianenko will get them to buy the pay-per-view, and that Lima and Larkin, along with Michael Chandler (19-3) defending the lightweight title against vs. Brett Primus (7-0) for the lightweight title will be strong enough fights to help make stars of the champions and build bigger title fights for later in the year.

It sounds good on paper, but with Chandler as the best example, Bellator has yet to truly make it work.

Chandler is its most enduring star, dating back to his wars with Eddie Alvarez that won him his first championship in 2011. He's been frequently put on shows underneath the bigger names. He was No. 2 on the Jackson vs. Lawal pay-per-view. He was on the Slice vs. Shamrock Spike show. But Chandler's last win, over former UFC champion Benson Henderson, headlined a show that did 597,000 viewers on Spike, nothing better than normal.

The other key to the show is the high-profile debut of 20-year-old Aaron Pico, perhaps the most highly touted serious prospect before their first fight in years. Pico, at 19, nearly made the Olympic team in wrestling last year. With his background that includes winning boxing and Pankration tournaments as a youth, and capturing age-group world championships in wrestling, he's been talked about as the best MMA prospect in years since he was 16.

Bellator signed him early, back in 2014, knowing it would be several years before he'd compete. If he comes close to his hype, when it comes to hindsight, Bellator's biggest undertaking in its history may be most notable years down the line as the night Pico made his debut.

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