This is a big week for Bellator MMA. Big and getting smaller.
The second-fiddle fight promotion is poised to dive into the choppy waters of the pay-per-view wilderness, and that's a leap of faith under the best of circumstances. But what a few days ago might have been characterized as merely a daunting step forward is now looking like a pratfall in progress.
When the marquee for Saturday night's Bellator 120 (10 p.m. ET, PPV) lost its bright-lights attraction, a meeting between Eddie Alvarez and Michael Chandler for the lightweight championship belt they've grudgingly passed back and forth in a pair of heart-pounding previous clashes, the air fizzled out of every balloon in Southaven, Miss. Surely, Bjorn Rebney & Co. were going to have to shelf their PPV ambitions again and put the crippled event on regular cable TV, as they did in November when their first pay wall came crashing down. Was there any other option?
Well, there's always the option of falling in line with a great theatre tradition: The show must go on. Indeed, after carrying on with Alvarez vs. Chandler III hype during every break in last Friday night's televised fight card, and even denying a Sherdog.com report that the trilogy capper was off, Rebney announced the next day that a concussion had indeed sidelined Alvarez but the card still would be a PPV. A light heavyweight tournament finale between Quinton "Rampage" Jackson and "King Mo" Lawal, which had been slated for the co-main event, now had top billing.
So, do you buy it?
If you're a discerning fan of the sport, you can't help but recognize the new main event as a significant downgrade. Alvarez (25-3) and Chandler (12-1) are ranked in the Top 10 at 155 pounds in the SI.com MMA fighter rankings, which are dominated by UFC roster names. These Bellator interlopers have secured their spots among the elite with two memorable firefights.
The first, in November 2011, saw Chandler nearly finish the reigning champ in the first round, then get beaten up himself in the third before rallying to choke out Alvarez at 3:06 of the fourth. It was a popular choice for Fight of the Year in all of MMA.
That wasn't enough, curiously, to warrant putting the rematch under the brightest spotlight Bellator could generate. When the promotion announced its first foray into PPV, that one in November, Chandler vs. Alvarez II was on the card, all right, but only in a co-main event slot. Apparently, the Bellator brass thought the fight that fans were aching to plunk down some cash to see was Rampage vs. Tito Ortiz. We never found out whether anyone really was willing to pay to see that battle of faded UFC refugees, though, because Ortiz had to pull out with an injury. Chandler and Alvarez were bumped up to the top of the bill, where they belonged, but they were not entrusted to carry a PPV. So a big Spike TV audience got to see Alvarez get the better of the battering this time on the way to a belt-reclaiming unanimous-decision win.
This sequel was the MMA version of The Godfather: Part II, as brutally electrifying as the first Alvarez vs. Chandler fight. So much so that it apparently persuaded Bellator that its second shot at a first PPV should be built around these two lightweights. Until it no longer was.
Jackson vs. Lawal might be brutal, too, but electrifying? It's highly doubtful that these guys can sustain a fistic spectacle beyond a few sporadic thrills. Jackson is 35, and even with two first-round knockout wins over overmatched opponents during his six months with Bellator, hasn't truly brought any rampage to the cage in ages. And Lawal, 33, has been a disappointment ever since signing with the promotion early last year. Neither Quinton nor Mo is within shouting distance of the Top 10, but they've used their voices to make it clear that they don't like each other one bit. So the promotion has that going for it.
Here's where the waters get murky. Pay events draw a higher percentage of diehards than network or cable telecasts, but devoted fans do come in many flavors. While it seems obvious that Alvarez vs. Chandler, in the grand scheme, is a more significant fight than Jackson vs. Lawal I, some fans with long memories might feel more attachment to "Rampage," a former UFC champion whose 15-year, 45-fight career has included tussles with Chuck Liddell, Dan Henderson, Rashad Evans, Lyoto Machida, Wanderlei Silva, "Shogun" Rua and other bright lights.
"King Mo" doesn't have as glittery a resume, but he is a former Strikeforce champ. This matchup of name fighters, faded as those names may be, plays off of whatever thinking went in to Bellator's decision to make Tito vs. Rampage its original PPV main event.
So maybe Saturday's event will pull better numbers than the naysayers are predicting. And even if it doesn't -- even if it turns out to be an epic failure, with PPV buys able to be counted on the promoter's fingers and toes -- Bellator has a built-in excuse. Jackson vs. Lawal wasn't the fight the promotion had planned on as a headliner, so whatever happens happens. The ownership of deep-pocketed Viacom allows for second chances. This weekend might prove to be an expensive lesson in the pay TV business, but better to be rudely awakened than to be knocked out of the game.
If Alvarez vs. Chandler III had occurred on Saturday night as scheduled and had bombed as a draw, that would have been a dead-end disaster for Bellator's PPV dream. Where would the promotion have turned next? The trilogy title fight is the only ace in the promotion's hand, really, at least as an attraction worthy of opening the cash register. As it stands now, no matter what happens this weekend, there will be two 155-pound wildcards sitting in Bellator's back pocket, waiting to be played when the time is right.