Friday night the UFC and Fox Sports 1 got their wish and went head-to-head against Bellator in Connecticut. The early Nielson numbers are in according to MMA Payout and they show the UFC slightly edging out Bellator in the raw numbers: 0.54 for the UFC/FS1 to 0.43 for Bellator/Spike. Meanwhile Bellator had a bigger crowd with almost 7,000 filling the Mohegan Sun while the UFC sold-out the smaller Foxwoods Resort Casino and drew a $479,000 gate. My guess is that the UFC had higher ticket prices and made more money at the gate.
But those aren't really the right metrics for measuring who won the night. Bellator is under new management with ex-Strikeforce boss Scott Coker at the helm. Friday night was Coker's first show and gave big clues to the direction the promotion will be taking: pro wrestling style silly promos.
For his part, Bellator boss Scott Coker is keeping kayfabe (per MMA Junkie):
"What you saw out there, I think, was serious heated emotion," Coker said after the event. "I know Justin McCully. I don't know what he means to Tito Ortiz. I don't what happened, but obviously there's some bad blood there between those two. And hence the mask. At first, I thought I was at a Japanese pro-wrestling event or something."
Reactions were split. Bloody Elbow's Fraser Coffeen was among those who thought it was great:
To say this segment was bizarre is an understatement - it could be the oddest thing we've ever seen on mainstream MMA in the US. There is an obvious parallel here to Bellator's Spike TV stablemates TNA. Because this segment was straight up professional wrestling. The semi-scripted promos from both men, the clearly staged brawl, the reveal of the mysterious masked man (a former ally of Tito's turned against him!) - this was exactly what some people feared would happen when fighters like Tito Ortiz, King Mo, Bobby Lashley, and Rampage Jackson began crossing over between TNA and Bellator. Last night, the carny world of professional wrestling invaded the sport of MMA in a big way.
And it was glorious.
Yahoo's Kevin Iole had a different take:
My God @ScottCoker that skit last night was horrible. I expect much better from you.— Kevin Iole (@KevinI) September 6, 2014
Kirik Jennis of MixedMartialArts.com gave it a thumbs down too:
...what happened after Bellator 123 descended into a new circle of weird. Stefan Bonnar, recently released by the UFC to compete in Bellator, entered the cage accompanied by a man in a mask in mask.
The man, retired fighter Justin McCully, was there to provide some convoluted, pro wrestling inspired story line to the upcoming fight between Bonnar and Tito Ortiz. Then Ortiz and Bonnar got into a fake shoving match.
Borrowing some aspects from pro wrestling, like manufactured heat between fighters, can be smart. This was stupid. The staged brawl was all the more baffling because now Bellator president Scott Coker saw the Strikeforce Brawl in 2010 end CBS's interest in the sport.
Dave Meltzer of MMA Fighting provided a good capsule summary of the difference in approaches between the UFC and Bellator:
The UFC presented its typical Fight Night show. With so many shows, and so little time to promote the shows, the UFC almost comes across like something with a take-it-or-leave-it approach. We're putting on a show. We have some good fighters, some of which you may know, some of which you don't. More often than not, the fights will be good. And this week it's free. If you miss it, next week we have another show.
Bellator doesn't have the depth of fighters so it relies on attention grabbing. And Friday night's fall season opener, the first of ten straight weeks of fights before the new vision of Bellator begins in 2015, was a weird amalgamation. It featured a serious quality main event title fight, and a couple of name fighters going in no particular direction. It also featured the most talked about thing on either show, whatever it was that Stephan Bonnar, Tito Ortiz and Justin McCulley were doing.
In many ways, it felt like this missing link between pro wrestling and sport MMA. It was a little bit of both, and a lot of neither.
But in the end, Meltzer didn't seem to think Bellator pulled off anything of lasting value calling the pull-apart brawl "an ill-conceived sideshow" and saying after the show no one was talking about Bellator's quality Featherweight title fight between Patricio Friere and Pat Curran or their November 15 Lightweight title rematch between Will Brooks and Michael Chandler:
(The Tito-Bonnar brawl) hardly felt spontaneous or serious, and came off cartoonish. But the idea was to draw attention. Quietly putting on fights with skilled fighters with no national names on Nov. 15 isn't going to get it done for Bellator, given UFC is putting on a pay-per-view, head-to-head, its first foray in Mexico City, with heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez facing Fabricio Werdum.
So it's the nostalgia and the circus.
The theory behind all this is you bring in viewers, and hopefully, they get interested in the younger fighters you are promoting. That's easier in theory than in fact. But for Nov. 15, it's not like they had a better plan up their sleeve when putting on a show against a UFC heavyweight title fight.
Zach Arnold has a different take:
Friday night's dueling Connecticut events featuring Bellator & UFC exposed the fault lines for what looks to be a rather entertaining battle between Spike & Fox. UFC has the talent. They have their rankings. They have the inferior cable channel. They also have a cold product right now in the ratings.
In contrast, Bellator doesn't have nearly the roster that Zuffa does in terms of depth. However, they have the stronger cable channel. They have the energy on TV. They also have a plan to combat the UFC/Fox combination.
I just didn't imagine how blatant, how transparent, and how all-in Spike TV executives were going to be with their strategy to counter the UFC.
...What ensued was a strangely entertaining back-and-forth that had the Mohegan crowd engaged. Then came the bombshell that the fight is being booked for November 15th in San Diego, running head-to-head against the UFC Mexico City PPV with Cain Velasquez vs. Fabricio Werdum. Michael Chandler vs. Will Brooks will also be on that San Diego card.
Dana White was busy telling people earlier in the week that he didn't mind giving Bonnar his release to go kick Tito's ass. I bet he isn't singing the same tune tonight....
The contrast between Bellator & UFC is very stark now. You'll see nostalgia a plenty with Spike. You'll see a pro-wrestling crossover as opposed to the now rankings-based presentation by Fox. ...
Friday night proved to be interesting on a lot of good and awful levels. The UFC decided to pick a fight with Bellator in Connecticut and Spike has decided to push back twice as hard.
Arnold makes an excellent point about Bellator deliberately choosing to counter-program the UFC again in November. In the past, Bjorn Rebney went out of his way to avoid going head-to-head with MMA's top promotion, but it seems Scott Coker has a better understanding of jiu-jitsu and the art of using your opponent's strength against him.
As we saw Friday night, when Bellator goes up against the UFC it creates an aura of something special around both cards that gets MMA fans buzzing. Keep in mind that Bellator isn't so much looking to beat the UFC as they are looking to hitch a ride off their audience. On UFC night every MMA fan is already watching TV and talking about MMA on social media. It's just plain smart to hitchhike off your competitor's momentum.
Plus on November 15, it won't be Tito vs Bonnor going head-to-head with UFC 180's Cain Velasquez vs. Fabricio Werdum. It'll be Spike TV going up against the UFC prelims on Fox Sports 1 and its quite possible Spike will win the night's ratings battle.
For my part, while I don't think Bellator executed the Bonnar-Ortiz promo particularly well and it was patently silly, they accomplished two things Friday night. First they showed they can go head-to-head with the UFC on Fox Sports 1 and be very competitive. Secondly they got people talking about their product which is a huge change from the sport-driven tedium of the Bjorn Rebney era.
Kevin Iole may disagree, but I think the one unpardonable sin of a fight promoter is boring the fans. Scott Coker may have stooped to some new lows, but let's get real. It's cage fighting, not sumo at the Budokan. There's no glorious cultural tradition to preserve.
While MMA fans may take the sport seriously, for most everyone else it's something that fits quite comfortably on Spike TV, home of The World's Worst Tenant and didn't make the cut on FX, home of Louie. Ergo, there's no dignity to be diminished.
Hardcore fans and pundits can bleat all we want, but Spike TV isn't after us. They know we'll tune in for Chandler vs. Brooks. We can't help ourselves. They're after the big pro-wrestling audience out there. Never forget that while Spike and FS1 were fighting over crumbs, the SyFy Channel was crushing them both combined in the ratings with WWE's SmackDown.
It should also be remembered, that Coker's inheriting a very different situation at Bellator than the one he enjoyed at Strikeforce. In the latter instance, SF was a local promotion that went national in a very organic manner. Coker, as a long-time figure in San Jose's bustling martial arts scene for decades, was able to capitalize on the local drawing power and charisma of NoCal natives Cung Le, Frank Shamrock, Cesar Gracie and his camp (Melendez, Diaz & Shields) and the American Kickboxing Academy (Josh Thomson et al).
With Bellator, Coker is playing the hand that Rebney drew and is only now beginning to draw cards of his own. With PPV out of the picture, Coker's clearly got a mandate to draw ratings NOW and he has to do that while building the roster and trying to compete with the UFC's near-monopoly on talent.
Coker is in a situation similar to Chairman Mao and the Chinese communists in the mid-1930s as their last strongholds in central China were smashed and they embarked on the long march. Just surviving to fight another day is a triumph.