Every fight card has a main event, and Saturday night's outside Memphis was a big one. In one corner was Bellator MMA. In the other, the discernment and wallets of the sport's fans.
For the entirety of its six years, the fight promotion has played second fiddle to the UFC, except for the long-gone days of Strikeforce when Bjorn Rebney & Co. sat third chair. But it's an apples-and-oranges comparison, really, when one company is charging fruit lovers by the sliver while the other is giving away the whole sweet salad.
The UFC was built upon a pay-per-view business model. Bellator? Well, it's always been free for the taking, if you could find it in your cable guide.
That changed on Saturday night, maybe forever, maybe just temporarily, when Bellator finally got into the PPV business. And while the evening's key result will not be known until buy rates are calculated, the show itself had enough entertaining, at times bizarre, twists to make Bellator 120 qualify as An Event.
A champion gets manhandled, but by a much bigger man in a nontitle bout. A grave is dug, not for Tito Ortiz but by him. The company's biggest fight-in-waiting gets postponed, diminished or even scuttled. The promotion's president gets called out, loudly and vulgarly, by a fighter. A winner calls for a rematch.
Those who bought this fight card on PPV will not forget it. Will they buy again, though?
The main event was to be Eddie Alvarez defending his lightweight championship against the man from whom he took the belt, Michael Chandler, who'd gotten the strap from Alvarez in the first place. Their two bouts were wildfires, and there was legitimate expectation among even Bellator-wary fight fans that the third time would burn the place down. But Alvarez suffered a concussion in training, the fight was canceled a week out, and Chandler was given a new opponent, Will Brooks, who was described as his clone.
Now, we all know that clones of fighters never do very well against the fighters themselves. And the first couple of rounds of this five-round interim title bout played out pretty much as expected. Chandler was in control. Brooks was surviving.
But then Brooks hurt Chandler in the third and pounced, and wherever Eddie Alvarez was sitting at the moment, he surely sat up in his seat. Maybe he checked to see if he still had his wallet. What he saw from there was Brooks get takedown after takedown, threaten submissions, and get the better of Chandler for most of the rest of the way, until in the last half-minute Chandler caught him, nearly knocked him out, then nearly choked him out.
But Brooks made it to the bell, got his hand raised via a split decision, and the guts and glory of Alvarez vs. Chandler III disappeared right before our eyes.
That was Bellator being Bellator, grasping bad luck from the jaws of good.
But even when a fight produces not a disappearance but a reappearance, there's a dark cloud hovering. Minutes earlier, Tito Ortiz had won for just the second time in eight years, rising to an occasion on which he was a huge underdog and choking out the champion. Of course, the champ who went to sleep was Alexander Shlemenko, who owns the middleweight belt and looks like a welterweight who could cut to lightweight. Ortiz is a light heavyweight who, after weigh-ins, bulks up to supersize.
Apparently, size matters. Ortiz made it look easy, taking the Russian to the canvas in the first two minutes and smoothly advancing position until he secured an arm-triangle choke. There was little resistance from Shlemenko, and not even a tap before he went night-night. The referee jumped in at 2:27 of the round, whereupon Ortiz went into his gravedigger routine at center cage.
Two things: One, it was surprising that 39-year-old Tito remembered how to do that nasty celebration, since he'd won just one other time since 2006; and two, boy does this beatdown douse the image of Shlemenko as a Drago-like destruction machine.
Those two fights brought enough drama to make this an interesting night, which was a good thing, since the main event didn't exactly take center stage. Except in its aftermath, once Quinton "Where Did All My Rampage Go?" Jackson had eked out a decision over "King Mo" Lawal. The fight itself consisted of Lawal either taking Jackson down or Jackson fending off a shot, then firing punches from distance. Both men looked exhausted by early in the second round, Lawal had a cut over his left eye, but other than that this bout was all talk.
The jibber-jabber continued afterward, when a frustrated Lawal accused Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney of, well, let's just say favoring Jackson. And Jackson was calling for a rematch. "How many of y'all," he asked the Memphis-area hometown crowd, "want to see me knock out King Mo?"
There were cheers, no doubt coming from fans caught up in the moment. Rampage vs. Mo again? No thanks. But sure, we'll watch another Tito fight, as long as he picks on someone his own size next time. And if Alvarez vs. Chandler III transforms into Alvarez vs. Brooks I, so be it. Is all that worth paying for? Let's give it a resounding maybe.