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Fightweets: Bellator MMA is reaching the crossroads

Bellator’s balancing act seems to have stalled. What should they do?
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

It’s the rarest of rare MMA weekends: One without a major card. If you’re still clicking on fight sites on a weekend everyone else is heading for the hills, you must be a pretty hardcore fan. So let’s talk some fight stuff, then.

What’s up with Bellator?

@DuaneBarth: Hey Dave! With Bellator MMA’s viewership trajectory looking like that of the Hidenburg, can you provide some professional analysis and suggestions for a needed course correction?

Oof ... that is a pretty harsh assessment. But the numbers are telling a story: Bellator 195 last weekend averaged 465,000 viewers, Bellator 194’s card headlined by Matt Mitrione vs. Roy Nelson averaged 476,000, and Bellator 193 did 470,000. Those all came on the heels of the tentpole Bellator 192 event, headlined by Rampage Jackson vs. Chael Sonnen, which topped out at 1.3 million viewers.

We’re more than three years into the Scott Coker version of Bellator. As the recent ratings demonstrate, there’s a base of fans who will tune in for every show, and a much larger audience who will tune in a few times per year for the bigger-hyped shows.

But there’s simply a finite amount of veteran headlining talent who still have the ability to pull in big numbers. The recent announcement Mirko Cro Cop vs. Roy Nelson has the feel more of a gimmick that’s been used one too many times than a matchup with someone like Ortiz or Sonnen, who can talk people into getting excited over their fights, even if you can intellectualize the fights themselves won’t be great.

You’d like to think, though, that someone somewhere up the chain is questioning why the company hasn’t been able to build homegrown stars, and why the numbers for the non-major events aren’t growing. The company has almost an embarrassment of riches in up-and-coming young talent.

But that weak Bellator 195 number came on a card headlined by Darrion Caldwell, who has been with the company four years and blossomed into their bantamweight champion. They’ve had plenty of time to turn someone like Caldwell and many like him into drawing cards, but so far it’s not panning out.

In fact, it was the UFC which came out of last weekend looking like the company with a wealth of young stars, after the performances of Brian Ortega, Sean O’Malley, Mackenzie Dern, and Alexander Hernandez. And that’s on the heels of Israel Adesanya, the sort of kickboxer who would seem right out of the Coker playbook, making a splash in the UFC.

Maybe Bellator’s corporate overlord, Viacom, is fine with the way things have developed. Maybe they’re good with having an entity that does a large rating a few times per year, smaller but reliable numbers for the rest, and will budget their shows accordingly.

But they’ve been trying to do a balancing act between being a real competitor to the UFC and simply being a television promotion designed to do a certain rating for a few years now, and it seems they’ve stalled trying to be all things to all people. Sooner or later, they’re going to have to pick a path.

Amanda Nunes vs. Raquel Pennington (not Cris Cyborg)

@grommelvilla: WTF?? They shouldn’t play with our emotions. Then Cyborg will fight Megan Anderson, right?

There was an undeniable, collective “womp womp” sound coming from Twitter when word came down on Thursday that Nunes vs. Pennington for Nunes’ bantamweight title would, in fact, be the main event of UFC 224 in Rio de Janeiro.

That fight had been long expected, but then UFC president Dana White went and said he wanted to skip over Pennington and go straight to Nunes vs. featherweight champ Cris Cyborg, which generated far more fan enthusiasm.

Still, Nunes vs. Pennington is the right call for a variety of reasons, the biggest of which is logistics. Cyborg’s victory over Yana Kunitskaya at UFC 222 was her third fight in seven months and second in two months. If Cyborg wants a break at this point, that’s an entirely reasonable ask. (As an aside, Cyborg almost immediately tweeted that she wants the Nunes fight at UFC 226. That’s quite generous of Cyborg to offer to fight her undersized opponent just two months after a title defense.)

Then there’s, you know, the matter of the bantamweight division in and of itself. Don’t sleep on Pennington, who has won four straight fights, the last of which was her victory over Miesha Tate which sent Tate into retirement. Not only is Pennington deserving of the bout, but if they went straight to Cyborg vs. Nunes now, we’d likely end up with at least a year between bantamweight title fights by the time Nunes was ready to fight again. Going with Nunes-Pennington now buys the UFC time to build up the next challenger in a 135-pound class which is still in rebuilding mode.

All of this conjecture, of course, sleeps on the fact Pennington could very well win this fight. But if you’re looking at the big picture here, the timing’s right for Nunes-Pennington, it’s not quite right for Cyborg-Nunes, so it’s worth the calculated gamble that Nunes wins and then you’ve still got a superfight to make at a later date.

Max Holloway, P4P Twitter king?

@sigep422wesg: @BlessedMMA has KO/TKO’d @TheNotoriousMMA on twitter here lately! How do you think Max has done? I mean, 2 strips meal? And its all been classy! So is Max coming out of his shell?

See, here’s the thing with Max Holloway: For the past couple years, in his media interviews, the current UFC featherweight champion often has a lot to say, and quite a bit of it is really intelligent stuff. But he rattles off so much information so quickly that it’s tough to break it all apart and digest it.

Twitter, however, is great for nothing else if not rattling off a fast flurry of information. Holloway particularly shines online when he’s taking the piss out of someone like McGregor, whose self-aggrandizing statements were all the rage in 2015 and 2016, but border on self-parody now that he’s a year and a half removed from his most recent MMA fight and still has never defended a title.

And it’s not just a matter of trolling, either. His praise for Frankie Edgar after Edgar lost to Ortega at UFC 222 was a touch of class which showed the level of respect he has for the game.

Max might be a little nutty, but he’s 100-percent authentic. He cares about his legacy, he cares about the sport, he cares about being a fighting champion, and he cares about the fans. Maybe he’s taken the long road to real stardom, but talent wins out in the long run. And Twitter, in this case, is going a long way toward showing a fighter’s best side.

What’s up with Eddie Alvarez?

@PitbullLove1970: Is Eddie on the sidelines waiting to see if he’s fighting Tony when something happens to Khabib?

Well, in fairness, let’s not forget that Ferguson was responsible for one of the three fight fallouts between he and Khabib Nurmagomedov, so it would be best to frame this as “whether he’s willing to step in if either fighter drops out.”

Either way, it sure sounded a couple months back like Alvarez was angling to fight Nate Diaz, and that this would help explain why he turned down fights like a Dustin Poirier rematch.

The cards played out in a manner that he’s on the outside looking in at the moment. But Alvarez, for such a plain-spoken, everyman type of guy, has always proven adaptable about playing the long game, going all the way back to his days in Bellator. If someone has to drop out of that fight (or Poirier vs. Justin Gaethje, for that matter) then staying in shape and being ready to step in is far from the worst game plan. And barring that, you know somewhere along the way, someone’s going to call him out. I’m sure one way or another, we’ll end up seeing Eddie in the cage sooner rather than later.

Next HW contender?

@LiahmOBrien83: Let’s say Volkov and Blaydes win their next fights with Miocic retaining - who gets the title shot and why?

That’s an interesting thought. If Volkov wins, he’d be 4-0 in the UFC, he’s got a title pedigree as a former Bellator and M-1 champion, and a victory over Fabricio Werdum would be by far the biggest feather in his cap. Blaydes, meanwhile, is still a work in progress. But a win over Overeem would give him five in a row (minus a no-contest in a fight he originally won) since losing his UFC debut to Francis Ngannou.

Of course, this is a series of hypotheticals that don’t take into account that Volkov fights next week and champion Stipe Miocic doesn’t fight until July, when he takes on Daniel Cormier in what is far from a gimme fight. There are so many variables here that I’m going to punt on making a final call, but the fact that there are actually fresh names to ponder in the heavyweight division in and of itself is promising, no?

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