This past Friday, Bellator held what was to be their signature event of the summer, a card headlined by Kimbo Slice and Ken Shamrock. It was years in the making, the tag of “Unfinished Business” stuck to it in all the promotion leading up to the event. There was even an over-glorified hour-long segment on Spike TV that played like a poor-mans “HBO 24/7” of the same name. To say that this was an affront to the die-hard Mixed Martial Arts would be sugarcoating it. The fact that Shamrock, a spent 51-year old man, and Slice, a former Bare Knuckle Boxer famous from Youtube clips, could headline a card on Cable TV was nothing short of ridiculous to those who covered the sport seriously.
Thing is, a funny thing happened on Friday Night.
2.3 million people tuned in and watched a fight that had no business being taken seriously. They flicked the channel over to Spike and watched an event that served more of a rubber-necking purpose than that of an actual athletic contest. People tuned in to see the flaming wreckage from their metaphorical driver-side window and if that was their goal then they weren’t disappointed.
A victory for Kimbo Slice by means of Knockout was mired in doubt when Ken Shamrock, once the World’s Most Dangerous Man, was unable to do anything from an advantageous position on top of Slice. Not only could Shamrock not score any offense, but he seemingly was unable to lock in the same Rear Naked Choke he had synched in a thousand times before. Suddenly, Shamrock became the “World’s Most Dangerous Can”, and millions, myself included, gobbled it up with glee and a guilty pleasure.
People love train-wrecks. It’s human nature. We want to see the bizarre and the ridiculous. We’re like moths to the flame when it comes to the perverse. There is hundreds on the internet devoted to just that. But as Bellator continues forward on as a company, Matchmaker, guru and H.M.F.I.C. (figure it out…) Scott Coker has embraced this and built his promotion around it.
Fully aware that Bellator can not compete with the UFC from a talent, brand recognition or saturation level, Coker has taken us back to the circus. His company has given up on the pretense of even trying to position themselves as a Sports entity and has gone about strictly providing us entertainment. There are many who hate the idea, who believe the fact that Kimbo-Shamrock got 2.3 million viewers is a sign that MMA will never be viewed as a sport. Still, if 2.3 million are viewing MMA on a Friday night, then Coker’s idea is working, even if it’s misguided. And if 2.3 million people are viewing Mixed Martial Arts then is the idea all that bad? Probably, but it makes money.
It is most certainly a departure from their days when every event was a one-night tournament and a battle of wills, a true showcase of athletic performance. That can’t be argued otherwise. Rather, Bellator has fully dedicated themselves to “Super-Fights” and the shock and awe factor they are able to generate with match-ups that at-best could be deemed intriguing and at worst are deemed ridiculous.
However, Scott Coker has experience with TV networks and saw first-hand how buzz could generate viewers and bring interest when he was the head of Strikeforce. Ronda Rousey, Kimbo Slice, Nick Diaz and Jason “Mayhem” Miller all helped draw viewers back in the day by being characters and making the casual fan care about them and their upcoming fights. They were able to connect, even if it was through nefarious means. In this day and age, you need a hook. While that’s less prevalent in the UFC because there’s such an establishment and brand recognition, you still need something to keep the casuals glued. Coker knew that as far back as 2011.
Coker is putting all his eggs in the “Big Top” basket. It’s a risk, and eventually it’ll fizzle out and lose its appeal. There’s only so many times you can have Kimbo Slice fight a can. There’s only so many times you can have Ken Shamrock fight someone. As nostalgic as Royce Gracie vs Ken Shamrock III will be, and how big of a rating it will pull, where do you go as a promotion when you run out of side-shows? You need to build off that.
Luckily, Bellator has a hidden secret that could work to their advantage.
While promoting these freak-show acts and side-show attractions that moonlight as Main Events, Scott Coker has a roster chock-full of talent that he has begun to place in the Co-Main Events and Undercard of these events. Guys like Patricky Pitbull, Daniel Strauss and Michael Chandler are getting millions of eyes placed upon them simply by being part of an event. All they have to do is perform, and stars can be made. When you have the talent of a Pitbull, a Strauss or a Chandler, all you need is a showcase.
Take for example Patricky Pitbull.
To the die-hard, he’s a known commodity. To the casual fan, he’s a nobody. But during his fight; an exciting affair which he won with an incredible KO that came out of left-field and showcased his magnificent power, 1.5 million people were watching at that point of the night. The number is down from the 2.3 million peak number during the Main Event, but 1.5 million eyes watching at a moment like that creates stars and creates a situation where people will remember and tune back in to see the short Brazilian kid with hands of stone and the memorable nickname.
It’s one example, but it’s a viable one. One that Coker and the Bellator staff hopes repeats itself time and time again. At their next card, UFC castoff Cheick Kongo is Main Eventing. On the undercard is former champion Pat Curran, an exciting all-out fighter and a Lightweight Feature Fight between John Alessio and David Rickles that not only hold title implications, but showcases the top-tier of talent that Belator is slowly presenting to the casual fans as appetizers for their ridiculous Main Events.
The die-hard fan is going to tune in for your David Rickles, your Joe Schilling, your Pat Curran. The casual fan on the other hand will tune in for Cheick Kongo and the name recognition. They’ll tune in the next time Kimbo Slice fights, the next time Tito Ortiz calls someone out. The next time Bobby Lashley of WWE fame has an MMA fight the casual fanbase will turn out in droves.
It doesn’t make it right. As a writer who has followed MMA since the early days, it pains me to see. Still, it might be the best business plan that Bellator could possibly enact right now. They were never going to compete directly with the UFC. They couldn’t. They didn’t have the recognition, the financial clout or the talent base to do so.
But if they can fill a niche, if they can provide you with good fights and they can keep you entertained?
You’ll find yourself watching Spike TV on Friday Nights a lot more often and that represents good business to Bellator MMA, Scott Coker and the network executives at Spike TV and Viacom.
As carny as it may be.
Tags: Bellator, Bellator MMA, Ken Shamrock, Kimbo Slice, MMA, scott coker, Spike TV