Christmas is over and for fight fans, so begins the punctuation to the end of the year, which means a barrage of fights spread over just a few scant days. However, this year marks a twist on the tradition of fighting in New Year’s season in Japan; as Rizin Fighting Federation’s usual two-cards-in-three-days soiree will be presented in conjunction with Bellator MMA. The festivities kick off on Saturday with Bellator 237 from the Saitama Super Arena. On the surface, cooperation between two of the biggest promotions on the planet, especially on such a grand stage, seems like every fan’s dream.
It certainly is a dream for Bellator President Scott Coker. Unfortunately, it’s a dream he had long ago, one that he has never been able to shake and that he continues to chase regardless of optics, logistics or circumstance. It’s a man chasing a vision he had many moons ago and it shows.
Since Bellator and Rizin announced their intentions to work together in late 2018, there have been positive outcomes. Well, maybe one: last New Year’s Eve did give us a showdown between Japanese star Kyoji Horiguchi and then-Bellator bantamweight champion Darrion Caldwell, which led to a rematch this past April that saw Horiguchi capture the Bellator title on American soil. It is, no questions asked, an example of true and meaningful co-promotion, which is truly rare in this sport. It is worth celebrating and commending promotions on both ends. That said, this New Year’s season reveals the true psychologies of both sides of the equation: Scott Coker incessantly romanticizes an era 15 years past where Japan was the nexus of combat sports, whereas Nobuyuki Sakakibara and Rizin simply want access to valuable drawing cards as it suits them.
Bellator 237 is headlined by Fedor Emelianenko and Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, a fight that would have been an absolute blockbuster during Pride FC’s heyday, but now is seems like a sad, expired facsimile of a fantasy fight. Nonetheless, Rizin is tasked with filling up two cards in three days with compelling fights, which is incredibly hard for the company given that MMA is not as en vogue as it once was in Japan and that the company’s roster is naturally not equipped to serve up 30-something fights in 48 hours. Now, Rizin can simply prey on Coker’s fetishizing of an era gone by in order to advantageously gain access to two fighters that were superstars in Japan 15 years ago, without having to actually sign them to lucrative contracts.
If the Bellator-Rizin relationship were a real flesh and blood marriage, Coker would have married out of a strange, unwavering, pathological-yet-true love. Sakakibara and Co. married out of opportunity and the prospect of money. Intention is everything in this case: if Emelianenko-Rampage was booked to be a stateside Bellator main event – which is exactly the kind of fight Coker would use to headline a promotional tent-pole event – it would be a fight made out of, for the man himself, genuine interest and respect for the fighters themselves. In this case, its creation has everything to do with being an easy solution to help anchor and buttress Rizin’s efforts. It’s pure opportunism and cynicism, only existing to fill a necessary role in a necessary circumstance for the company.
I’m not even dumping on the fight in and of itself, though there are clearly lamentable aspects inherent to it. Anywhere between 2003 and 2010, this would be a fight worth doing backflips over, but now it’s a tale of two faded stars; the eventual victor simply being the lesser of two shopworn evils. The 43-year-old Emelianenko is 2-2 in his last four bouts, taking easy wins over equally spent opponents Frank Mir and Chael Sonnen, while more importantly, showing an increasing fragility in quick, nasty knockout losses to Matt Mitrione and Ryan Bader, in which he lasted less than two minutes combined. Meanwhile, Jackson, who has been increasingly disinterested in fighting, is coming back from what will be a 454-day layoff – the longest of his career – and is 1-2 in the last three and a half years; not having fought since clunking archrival Wanderlei Silva, perhaps the most faded of any fighter I’ve mentioned, in September 2018.
All of this being said, I myself, and I think many others, still have an interest in the fight because there remains some level of intrigue in seeing two former greats duke it out, even under dubious circumstances, simply to see what the outcome is. It speaks to the fundamental particle of what drives us to watch fights: simply to find out who is better, regardless of context. A win or loss for either man will have no bearing on their legacy, but there remains an inescapable if possibly macabre thirst to see how things will actually play out. This dynamic is further bolstered by the fact that both men are so deteriorated that it creates a near pick ‘em situation, pitting Emelianenko’s increasing vulnerability against Jackson’s intensifying lethargy.
Bellator 237 is not even a poor card per se, even if not up to snuff when compared to the grandeur of fights on New Year’s Eve 15 years ago. We are still getting to see Michael Chandler, Michael Page and Lorenz Larkin, albeit in showcase fights. Daron Cruickshank and Goiti Yamauchi promises car crash-level violence. Rizin has also been generous enough to offer up unbeaten judo super-prospect Kana Watanabe, who has fortunately been given a main card slot. Even if it’s annoying that fans outside of Japan won’t be able to see the postliminary fights without resorting to piracy, the actual main card is truly stuff worth watching, even if it’s mostly cotton candy matchmaking. Still, I’m not writing this to assess the overall card quality of Bellator 237, but rather what it reveals about the actual desires, goals and machinations involved in Bellator-Rizin co-promotion.
It’s not a sham marriage, but it’s hardly a pure one, either. Nonetheless, even the most unbalanced marriages often produce offspring. Bellator 237 is one of those children.