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Bellator 204 on Friday was, to some spiriting degree, a breath of fresh air from the promotion. In a larger context, as entertaining and purposeful as it was, the card was a reminder of the difficulties facing virtually all major MMA promotions in this sport’s current climate and particularly Bellator MMA itself.
Bellator 204, which went down in Sioux Falls, South Dakota -- not exactly a prime locale for big-ticket MMA -- was divergent from the sort of card construction and matchmaking that has been part and parcel of Bellator President Scott Coker and senior booker Rich Chou’s oeuvre for nearly a decade. The card was low on star power, as its most visible, well-known fighter was bantamweight champion Darrion Caldwell, who stepped back up to featherweight to clobber Ultimate Fighting Championship veteran Noad Lahat in a non-title affair; Caldwell main events have typically averaged only 400,000-550,000 live viewers in recent history. However, Caldwell, a former NCAA Division I wrestling champion, is a bona fide two-division stud; and if you add up the current records of the four victorious fighters on the main card, you tally up to 35-2.
Naturally, this card’s structure was largely informed by many of Bellator’s largest drawing cards being tied up in its ongoing heavyweight grand prix or preparing for its forthcoming welterweight grand prix, both of which are promotional machinations much more akin to Coker’s normal philosophy. It dates back to the Strikeforce era. Nonetheless, it remains valuable, because all too often, this era of Bellator has been too unwilling to give center stage to its developing talents.
Tywan Claxton, just 2-0 as a pro heading into his bout with Cris Lencioni, largely got an opening main card gig because of insane flying knee knockout, one of 2017’s finest, over Jonny Bonilla-Bowman in November. However, even on a less star-laden, small-market Bellator card, he would normally be relegated to the Internet prelims. Ricky Bandejas’ beautiful thrust-kick knockout of previously unbeaten and highly touted Irishman James Gallagher would usually be relegated to a tape-delayed card from England or Ireland, which even hardcore fans are more willing to skip on broadcast, having already read spoilers or seen an animated gif of the fight finish on Twitter. Four-time All-American wrestler Logan Storley has looked positively incredible at 170 pounds and like a no-brainer future Bellator title challenger, affirming it again by mauling A.J. Matthews. However, look at how Bellator has buried its other ex-wrestler blue chippers like Ed Ruth, Tyrell Fortune and Joey Davis. All three have looked great and, yes, Ruth grabbed a spot in Bellator’s upcoming welterweight tournament, but as recently as eight weeks ago, all three were marooned on the online prelims, opening up a fairly ho-hum Bellator 201 card.
What made this card a more positive and interesting development is that Coker has traditionally struggled to develop and showcase prospects going back to the aforementioned Strikeforce days. Sure, Coker helped put Gina Carano, Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino, Ronda Rousey and Miesha Tate on the map, but he was largely interested in Carano for her kickboxing background initially and “Cyborg” became a no-brainer as she eventually needed a serious foil. Rousey and Tate fell into his lap, as the UFC wasn’t yet running the women’s divisions.
I can already hear you screaming in your head: “What about Daniel Cormier? What about Luke Rockhold?” Well, during the Strikeforce heyday, American Kickboxing Academy trainer Bob Cook was serving as a low-key matchmaker for Coker’s undercards, and given the promotion’s San Jose, California, main base, Cook got to fill Strikeforce cards with AKA prospects and use his influence to move them into prominent, televised positions. If not for the San Jose connection and Coker’s relationship with AKA, it’s unlikely Cormier and Rockhold, both future UFC champions, would’ve ever realized their potential first in the Strikeforce cage. Remember, this is the promotion that cut and ran on Yoel Romero after one single, albeit admittedly awful, showing against Rafael “Feijao” Cavalcante.
It’s not that Coker and Co. lack an eye for talent, but rather that the Coker mandate typically operates on different principles. As he’s always been running second fiddle to the bigger, more powerful UFC, he has opted to sign notable free agents with established name value that may or may not already have had their best days in an effort to compete for ratings and attention. When it comes to a personal preference, Coker, given his taekwondo and kickboxing background, is more drawn to snatching up exciting, standup-oriented fighters. Is it any surprise that under his Bellator regime one of the few hot prospects the organization has heavily promoted and pushed is Michael Page?
This is where things get complicated, as it’s not just Coker’s preferences and predilections that have somewhat hamstrung his competitive promotional efforts against the UFC. As we know, the UFC is the Kleenex or Coke of MMA, so trying to appeal to casual sports watchers or moderately informed combat sports fans may always result in audiences seeing any non-UFC product as an inferior good, which is a fundamental, seemingly intractable uphill battle. More than that, Bellator has very little history and success in the pay-per-view market, which is still prizefighting’s real moneymaking device. When you can conjure up a stacked PPV card, you have the chance to blend big-draw stars with up-and-coming talents just on the cusp of greatness, bolstering all athletes involved. This is not the reality Bellator enjoys.
Instead, MMA interest is as fickle as ever, as witnessed by the UFC’s wildly fluctuating and mercurial cable and PPV numbers based on simply who is in the main event; more than ever, people want to pick and choose how to spend their time and money, especially when even diehards can easily catch up on whatever they missed in digest form if they have a Twitter account or know how to use Google.
Apropos of this, it’s not just the UFC’s numbers that are down. As I write this, the Bellator 204 live viewership numbers have not been released, but up to Bellator 203, the promotion is drawing approximately 463,000 live viewers per card through its first 12 events in 2018. In 2017, it was 742,000. In 2016, it was 772,000.
Now, those are just difficulties germane to the entire MMA market, while Bellator has more specific hills to climb. Bellator signed a nine-figure deal with international, online streaming service DAZN, but will this fickle, ever-more-choosy MMA audience -- many already pay for UFC Fight Pass -- throw down another $9.99 a month for those cards? By the way, it’s $20 a month in Canada after the introductory free month. As far as its relationship with the Paramount Network goes, main cards for Bellator events, sans the rare PPV card, still only offer four fights, which gives you a paltry amount of space to expose a casual audience flicking through cable to some of your best prospects and potential future champions.
I know you can’t always catch lightning in a bottle and identify the next Conor McGregor, snatch him up and transform your second-banana MMA promotion into a neck-and-neck UFC competitor. At the same time, part of what has made McGregor one of the most famous athletes on the planet is the UFC’s platform and media distribution model. Even if Bellator finds a pleasing balance between using UFC castoffs with remaining star power and top-notch up-and-comers and even if the company improves its cable ratings from the current doldrums, it’s still hard to compete with the fact that the UFC has used its long, far-ranging tentacles to mobilize media outlets like TMZ Sports and Barstool Sports to keep its stars constantly in the consciousness of casual sports audiences. Never mind the fact that it just signed its next television deal with ESPN, which even in an era of cord-cutting consumers, will put more UFC faces in a more visible position with average sports fans than its Fox deal ever did.
Again, don’t get this twisted; I’ve never promoted a world-class MMA promotion in my life and I certainly don’t have a panacea for what ails Bellator or any promotion trying to make its way in the world. What I do know is that signing free agent Eddie Alvarez to a fat deal to come back and finally fight career rival Michael Chandler for a third time isn’t going to turn the tide for the company, nor is relying on the Chael Sonnens and Fedor Emelianenkos of the world in 2018.
Bellator’s success as a company, both internally to Viacom and externally to fans and media, is not defined by whether or not it can overtake and dethrone the UFC. Even if the UFC is struggling, this is not some rote Hollywood movie on cable -- you know, most of the Paramount Networks’s lineup -- where your enemy’s exposed weakness is your chance for opportunity. In combat sports, the wounds inflicted by media and consumer indifference hurt every party involved, be they friend or foe. You need to outwit and out-strategize your contemporaries and in the MMA sphere, and it’s never as simple as just sign hot amateur wrestlers or just snap up faded MMA legends. It’s an incredibly difficult alchemy; Bellator 204 showed some promising laboratory results, but it’s far from an elixir.