Thursday February 18th, 2016

Scott Coker was sitting at a San Diego sports bar less than four months into his new job when the past and the future walked into the place, all at once.

It was the fall of 2014, and Coker was gearing up for a big-splash comeback. Bellator MMA had brought him on as president, hoping to tap into the mixmaster flair and common-touch affability of his that had fueled Strikeforce. Coker had founded that fight company as a kickboxing promotion in the 1980s, before mixed martial arts was even on the map, and transitioned it into the No. 2 spot among MMA companies. Strikeforce was doing well enough eventually that the parent company of the top dog UFC bought it up and shut it down.

Now, Coker was preparing to climb a whole new mountain, and his first act was to put together the first of what he calls “tent pole events”—fight cards designed to reach beyond the hardcore fans and draw the attention of the casual ones towards Bellator. The main event would ride the wave of UFC name recognition by matching a pair of the behemoth promotion’s castoffs. Tito Ortiz had once been light heavyweight champion but had fallen on injury-plagued hard times. Stephan Bonnar was a journeyman who had enjoyed 15 minutes of fame thanks to a boffo brawl on The Ultimate Fighter reality show.

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But Coker, not known for his subtlety, wasn’t done riding the coattails of Dane White & Co. In the lead up to fight night, Bellator scheduled a Fan Fest at a Dave & Buster’s bar, with the public invited to come meet not only Ortiz and Bonnar but also a guest list of legends drawn from the UFC’s Hall of Fame. Among them was Ken Shamrock, a veteran of more than a dozen appearances in the Octagon dating back to his tussle with Royce Gracie at UFC 1. Coker hadn’t seen Shamrock in years, and the first thing he noticed when the then-50-year-old walked in the door was that Shamrock looked like his old self. “He still had that swagger to him,” says Coker. “I thought, this guy looks like he’s in shape to fight.”

In the moment that followed, it was as though Shamrock read Coker’s mind. The retired fighter looked right past the company president and glared across the room, then said, “I want to fight that guy.”

That guy across the room was Gracie, who’d choked him out in less than a minute some 20 years earlier at that first UFC event, and who’d fought him to a 36-minute draw a couple of years later. Coker didn’t know what to say. Gracie was 47 at the time and hadn’t fought in seven years. Shamrock had been idle for almost five. But there was fire, so Coker stored away the idea, thinking, “This guy isn’t over it.”

As it turned out, Shamrock did get a fight but not against Gracie. Coker, whose formula is to utilize recognizable names even if past their sell-by dates, and also to put together what he terms “fun fights” and others might call embarrassing spectacles, saw an opportunity to mark both items off the Bellator checklist. So he matched Shamrock with Kimbo Slice, who’d ridden his YouTube street fighting videos to celebrity as an MMA attraction. The fight went down last June, amid much mockery from the sports' purists, but turned out to be more of a fun fight than expected, with Shamrock nearly locking in a choke before Kimbo escaped to his feet and scored the TKO. No less important than artistic success to Bellator and its TV partner, Spike—the fight peaked at 2.9 million viewers, the best showing in the promotion’s history.

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Now Coker is aiming to top that. On Friday night at the Toyota Center in Houston, Bellator 149 presents a double shot of ratings bait. The main event will be the fight Shamrock originally called for, as he’ll take on Gracie for a third time. And the co-main will be Kevin Ferguson vs. Dhafir Harris—though you might know them better as Kimbo Slice and a onetime associate from his rough-and-tumble South Florida neighborhood who goes by Dada 5000.

This brand of MMA matchmaking is an unsightly cousin of the TV programming decisions that pollute our cable boxes with The Bachelor and Real Housewives. It’s playing to the lowest common denominator, making a mockery of the sport in the same way that the Super Bowl would have if the Broncos had decided to reach into their glorious past and started John Elway (who at age 55 is even older than their real starter).

Aesthetics aside, is this matchmaking safe for the midlife men who’ll step in the cage Friday night? Coker confirmed that both Gracie (14-2-3) and Shamrock (28-16-2), in order to be allowed to fight by the Texas Board of Licensing and Regulation, had to supplement the standard medical screening with an electrocardiogram on their hearts and an electroencephalogram on their brains, because of their advanced age. 

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Coker makes no apology for the matchup. “You ask yourself, is this a fair fight?” he says. “I think it is. Some of the fighters who continue to compete into their later years are fighting 25-year-old killers. Those are the unfair fights. But these legends are at the same stage of life.”

And the UFC certainly cannot climb on a soapbox and shake its head at this old-timers day matchmaking, not after signing C.M. Punk, a 37-year-old professional wrestler with zero real, non-scripted fight experience.

This is the prizefighting business, after all, with the business part of it being what’s most prized.

“Spike is an entertainment company,” says Coker. “So why not have entertaining fights when you can do them?”

Coker insists that there’s actually a deeper method to his madness—deeper, that is, as in lower down on the fight card. When Slice and Shamrock attracted nearly 3 million viewers, he points out, the fight right before was a featherweight title fight in which Patricio “Pitbull” Friere defended against Daniel Weichel. “A lot of people watched that fight because they tuned in early for Kimbo vs. Shamrock,” says Coker. “We’re building some stars.”

Not really. Whenever Bellator puts on a fight card without the poles, the tent falls to the ground along with the TV ratings. Coker is trying to change that by signing stars in their prime away from the UFC, but it’s tough going because the big promotion recognizes that by spending a few extra dollars it can keep Bellator’s roster leaning toward the has-been and never-was variety of pugilist. So while Coker recently was able to woo former UFC lightweight champ Benson Henderson, that coup was tempered by the UFC re-signing heavyweight Alistair Overeem and rising bantamweight Aljamain Sterling. As a consolation, Bellator got to add Quinton “Rampage” Jackson to its fleet of broken down luxury cars.

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Is this a sustainable blueprint? Time will tell—although Coker isn’t saying how much time will pass before we see anything like this Friday’s event. “These things come together organically,” he says. “We’re going to do legend fights once in a while, when it makes sense and we have the right fighters available. And we’ll have more fun fights, like the Kimbo one. And we’re always going to continue to put on fights that the hardcore fans want to see. We can do it all. I don’t see why we have to be put in a box.”

That’s Scott Coker for you. Outside the box. Turning expectations inside-out.

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