Tito Ortiz vs. Chael Sonnen will draw ratings for Bellator tomorrow night on Spike TV. The fight itself is also irrelevant and could potentially be another blemish on the promotion's track record.
At a time when the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the major league of mixed martial arts that sold for over $4 billion last year, is looking to promote its next pay-per-view stars, Bellator is still trying to establish themselves as something other than "UFC lite." Scott Coker, the president of the Viacom-owned MMA group, has done that, yielding mixed results in the process. Most will recall the disaster that was "Dada 5000" vs. the late Kimbo Slice on the same card as the almost laughable Royce/Shamrock bout. On the other end of the spectrum, there are competitors like Micheal Chandler, Patricio Pitbull, Michael Page, and others that have delivered thrilling performances. So, while Bellator does showcase the side show fights, you usually don't know what might happen unless you tune in, which is the key to garnering viewers.
Ahead of Bellator 170, there are questions about if Ortiz/Sonnen is a contest that could potentially embarrass the company. From the prospective of die hard fans, there's no draw to watch the match-up, Tito is an aging fighter that the evolution of the sport eclipsed long again and hasn't been relevant in a decade, winning only three bouts during that span. Sonnen, an average competitor, somehow talked his way into the spotlight during his nearly five year run in the UFC. At 41, Ortiz isn't making some career resurgence, and Sonnen seems to be merely cashing in on his name value or lack thereof while he can so there's not much on the line in this fight.
After that, when you consider that it's not as though stylistically fans were demanding Tito vs. Chael, and it's easy to see why there's not much anticipation for this contest. So, why will it do numbers?
Much like any other genre, the key to major success for mixed martial arts is drawing the general public to the product, something that the UFC did tremendously in 2005 with the Ultimate Fighter reality show and that foundation set the stage for the global entity it has become today. For Bellator, they bring in names that the general public have heard of before and then feature them on cable. The average person that doesn't follow the sport regularly sees the name Tito Ortiz and decides to tune in because it's a chance to see a well known MMA fighter on free TV. Bellator's one venture into pay-per-view was a flop because fans aren't going to pay to watch fighters that are past their prime compete for a perceived minor league group, but with free TV there's a market for the novelty acts since it cost consumers nothing extra to watch it.
Truthfully, that's the major problem that Bellator will continue to have unless they sign or promote more current stars. They haven't found a way to monetize the product that puts them anywhere near the level of the UFC. Don't get me wrong, it's a smart business move for Bellator to promote bouts that fans wouldn't usually see in the UFC, but there must be substance added to the sizzle on the card or there are results like the Bellator 149 debacle. The Kimbo/Shamrock card was a good example of this, it had a solid under card, and the gimmick main event was short so it did enough to draw viewers, but didn't sour the rest of the card.
On the horizon, the legendary Fedor Emelianenko is scheduled to fighter former UFC competitor Matt Mitrione. Despite being past his prime, Fedor, arguably the greatest MMA fighter in history, has reached almost mythical status within combat sports so that's certainly a positive for the company. Along with that, Bellator has a roster that has improved exponentially over the past few years, including the acquisition of Rory MacDonald, the Canadian welterweight that opted not to renew his deal with the UFC. Theoretically, the dispute between the Ultimate Fighting Championship and some of its well known athletes regarding compensation could provide the opportunity for Bellator to add some star power to the roster, but if this card flops, it won't help the perception of the organization. At this point, the group is still viewed as minor league, but will there be a boost in the status of the company?
Tito vs. Sonnen is the first Bellator card of the year and could set the tone going forward. If the bout is lackluster, it creates a predicament for Coker and the rest of management because there won't be much momentum going toward Fedor's bout in February. Fans aren't demanding to watch Tito or Chael, and the two grapplers don't have the best track record so there's more of an infamous tone to the contest. Sonnen, who failed multiple drug test and was fired from his broadcasting duties for the UFC, is returning from a two year suspension. Sonnen plead guilt to money laundering and fraud charges a few year ago. Chael brings a record of 29-14-1 into the cage. Tito was charged with domestic violence in 2010 and then with DUI in 2014.
The point being, if this fight flops, the viewing audience won't be too sympathetic toward these fighters. If I had to guess, I would say that Chael wins a decision in lackluster fight. As mentioned, the event will draw ratings for Spike TV, but if it helps or hinders the progress of the promotion remains to be seen. It will be interesting to see if the event is a success or another disaster for Bellator.
Until next week
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