Patricio Friere has compiled a sparkling 24-2 record. | Photo: Will Fox/Sherdog.com
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Since Scott Coker took over Bellator MMA for Bjorn Rebney, there has been a stark difference in approach for the No. 2 promotion in mixed martial arts. Tournaments, the prior key to creating new stars for Bellator, were phased out. Instead, Bellator signed a series of Ultimate Fighting Championship castoffs, looking to capitalize on the fame those fighters already had. Homegrown talent has been mixed in, as well, but the biggest focus has been on the likes of Tito Ortiz, Stephan Bonnar, Kevin “Kimbo Slice” Ferguson and Ken Shamrock.
There is a clear logic behind this promotional philosophy. Bellator is a television product. Stars move ratings, and the biggest stars were created on the sport’s biggest stage. Freak show fights are the best way to get big viewership in the short-term, even if the example of K-1 shows the long-term peril in building around those sorts of fights. There’s often a difference between fights people will pay to see and fights they’ll watch for free. The UFC has to worry about whether fans will still pay $60 to see certain fighters, while Bellator only has to worry about whether they will watch it for free on Spike TV.
Bellator has thus banked on fighters whose best days are behind them. Fans have in the short-term vindicated that approach. The promotion’s biggest ratings successes have been for a 41-year-old former street fighter against a 51-year-old legend who hadn’t fought in nearly five years and for a grudge match built around a masked man derisively referred to as “The Gimp.” Casual fans tuned in en masse, even if the fights weren’t aesthetically pleasing, to say the least.
While casual fans are drawn to names they know and larger-than-life stories, many hardcore fans would prefer to see the light shined on the best and most exciting fighters of today. I am firmly in that camp. They’re capable of better performances in the present day; their fights are more important in the sense that their legacies are still being defined; and they deserve to be recognized for their ability among more than just the most ardent fans. It’s frustrating to see them take a backseat to names from the past, like if Vitor Belfort and Dan Henderson were the headliners for T.J. Dillashaw’s next title defense.
There is of course the argument that those older names can be used to help turn younger fighters into stars. That’s certainly the hope, like when Ortiz was put in a fight with Liam McGeary. However, in reality, building around big names from the past often teaches casual fans that the “real” stars are the stars of yesteryear. The reverse effect can take place, with it becoming harder to create new stars when fans are just waiting around for the fighters they know to show back up rather than being taught that the new headliners are the most important part of the sport.
It’s easier to transfer star power from one fighter to another when the original star is closer to his or her prime. The UFC has it easier in that sense. By defeating the legend still close to his prime, fans come to believe that the new star is the real deal. However, when the legend is far removed from his or her prime, it’s much harder to convince fans that the new star is a big deal in victory. It becomes harder and harder over time. Rather than using old stars to create new ones, you can set up a system of stars and non-stars with the stars just accentuating the inferior status of the lesser names.
That’s why Bellator 145 “Vengeance” on Friday at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis is so important. Unlike most of the previous Bellator “tent pole” events, “Vengeance” is built around elite fighters who made their names in the Bellator cage. This is an exciting card with plenty of prime, high-quality talent.
Featherweight champion Patricio “Pitbull” Freire may be the best fighter not in the UFC. His sparkling 24-2 record includes a 76 percent finish rate and has come against increasingly high-quality opposition. His only two losses were via split decision, with the Joe Warren verdict particularly controversial and the Pat Curran ruling later avenged. Daniel Straus may be his top career rival, and he desperately wants to avenge a pair of previous defeats to Freire.
Lightweight champion Will Brooks, like Freire, has a glittery record at 16-1, with the only loss avenged. It was his wins over Michael Chandler that elevated his reputation as a dangerous fighter in MMA’s best division. Marcin Held, the challenger, is riding a six-fight winning streak and is a fun fighter to watch with his leg submission-oriented game. A third fight between Bellator homegrown talent features the colorful David Rickels looking to avenge a loss to Chandler, who is aiming to work back towards regaining the Bellator lightweight title.
There’s plenty to like about this card. However, that does not mean that it will be a ratings success. There isn’t a lot of star power, even if fans who regularly tune into Bellator like the matchups. If the show is a failure on TV, Coker and Spike may take the lesson that they need to build even more around names from the past. A success, on the other hand, would likely give the promotion greater confidence to prominently feature younger fighters who have lesser names.
For those of us who want to see more of an emphasis on Bellator’s homegrown young talent, we can only cross our fingers and hope for the best. Bellator is going to cater to what it perceives to be the whims of the larger public, not just the most ardent MMA fans. If those two interests converge, it will be a good thing for Bellator and the sport. “Vengeance” will be the biggest test yet of how much they do.