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Tito Ortiz, Stephen Bonnar, and the Bellator Brawl that highlighted MMA's identity crisis

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Tito Ortiz and Stephan Bonnar embarrassed themselves in Bellator trying to foster a pro wrestling level atmosphere. Some observers think this is a good idea. I stubbornly disagree.

Tito Ortiz and Dana White Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

For whatever reason, nestled in the cortical tissue of our brains is the love of a good brawl. Perhaps because it emphasizes our true nature as perverts of the garden, but combining raw violence with enough information to coax our desire for patterns and narratives into one chewy but bloody morsel of circumstance simply attracts us in a primal way.

And so when I heard about the Bellator brawl, I couldn't wait to click the video link.

Even now, I have a hard time processing the whole thing. Maybe I've lost my sense of humor, but I would hope that as someone who can sit through the entirety of a Troma film that said sense is not missing entirely. So ultimately I was left feeling disappointed.

Sure, some parts were amusing. Justin McCully's reveal to begin with was its own metaphysical disaster. I mean, even I couldn't remember who McCully was, and I'm usually pretty good with faces, no matter how obscure. Then there was Bonnar's psycho gaze after being separated, as well as his paradoxical notion of kicking Tito's ass (so you're gonna accomplish that by eating his elbows?), Jimmy Smith's persistent almost Freudian battle for maintaining oligarchal control of the mic, and Ortiz pushing Bonnar off cue because it was obvious he didn't know how, when, where, or in what language he needed to finish his sentence.

I could write an entire pointless article analyzing that video but that's beside the point. And so the debate marches on over whether or not this was good for Bellator, or bad.

The consequence of stuff like this is that there's always the question about pro wrestling theatrics and whether they belong. Which I never really understood. The principles of theatre are not specific to pro wrestling, nor does MMA owe pro wrestling a nod to its influence by trying to replicate its histrionics.

Nate Wilcox addressed the general criticism wonderfully with as true a statement as you'll find about MMA:

"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."

A fair point. And yet I feel such a notion deserves a response from MMA: the only reason there's no cultural tradition to preserve is because no cultural tradition exists to begin with. Why not try to create instead of imitate?

Stunts like the Bellator brawl only exaggerate MMA's identity crisis. These "stunts" also confuse viewers. After all, Bonnar and Ortiz are anomalies. They happen once every eclipse. And when they do happen, what evidence is there to indicate that it "sells the sport"? James Toney was given a UFC contract during the height of the boxing vs. MMA debate, and faced off against Randy Couture at UFC 118 with BJ Penn vs. Frankie Edgar as the headliner.

The PPV did 535,000 buys while Penn's previous number as headliner (UFC 107) was 620,000. And that was with Frank Mir and Cheick Kongo as the co-main. Even if you ignore his title fights where Anderson Silva fought alongside him, or his rematch with GSP, his headliner at UFC 84 did 475,000 buys (not that much less than 118).

If pro wrestling decided to dabble in a real mixed martial arts prizefight, I, the casual sports fan with no interest in pro wrestling might tune in to watch John Cena fight a real fight with say, Triple H or whoever. But would I suddenly start to watch pro wrestling? Of course not. Because pro wrestling itself isn't what caught my attention. A diversion within pro wrestling caught my attention. Why do MMA observers think diversions within the sport will attract fans with what the sport is not? It's like trying to say that this crude New Jack stunt is a measurement of value within pro wrestling.

Zach Arnold, who I respect, has what I think is the most pro-post Bjorn Bellator take, saying that:

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.

....With Spike going all-in to attract disenchanted pro-wrestling fans to watch Bellator, there will be pressure next year on UFC to sign Brock Lesnar.

This is what confuses me. When did the correct way of promoting MMA become a dichotomy between "pure sports" versus "pro wrestling nostalgia"? Sports that revolve around individuals will always be a fickle business because you're at the mercy of their personal attitudes, and eccentricities. 12 of the top 20 UFC PPV's of all time were headlined by either Brock Lesnar, or Georges St-Pierre. What do these guys have in common? Nothing. They just happened to be stars. You can't manufacture charisma, and you can't coax it out of someone by putting them in artificial situations that try to convince us otherwise.

As Kirik Kenness noted:

Pre fight hype is a skill. If you don't have the skill to fight, don't fight. If you don't have the skill to hype fights, let the fighting speak for itself.

The only PPV in the top 20 that didn't involve a title fight was UFC 141: Lesnar vs. Overeem. But nobody tuned in to watch pro wrestling. They tuned in to watch a pro wrestling star in a mixed martial arts fight.

Can MMA succeed off its confusion about what it is? I don't think so. Real estate developer, Kurt Otto thought he had an interesting idea on how to promote mixed martial arts with a team concept, blending prizefighting with the concept of franchise sports. It was called the IFL, and it lasted two whole years. There's a lot more to the story, just like there's a lot more to Pride's success than simply "had roots in pro wrestling".

But the point remains the same. MMA has to figure out how to promote MMA. After all, 19 of the top 20 PPV's involved title fights. And though some may argue there are exceptions here and there, pro wrestling cues won't be the ingredients for creating a world mixed martial arts champion.