Bellator can be defined as an organization with two faces. The first face is one of legitimacy. Fighters like “Iron” Michael Chandler, Douglas “The Phenom” Lima, and Michael “Venom” Page fall into that category.
The other face of Bellator is one often called “the freakshow”. That face is characterized by the Dada 5000s the senile Ken Shamrocks and the many tomato cans floating about their roster. Tito Ortiz and Chael Sonnen occupy a strange place in Bellator, while they are without a doubt legitimate fighters, the significance of their fight is on par with least of their fighters.
On January 21st in Inglewood, California “The American Gangster” makes his long anticipated return against “The Huntington Beach Bad Boy”. While most fans expected Sonnen to return to the octagon following the expiration of his suspension, the Oregon native had other plans following the likes of Phil Davis, Benson Henderson, and Rory Macdonald to the UFC’s distant rival. We could speculate endlessly about what brought Sonnen over to Bellator, a lack of testing, sponsorship, easier competition, a better contract, but now that he has arrived what can we say about the implications of this fight?
Bellator is an organization that does not dabble in the PayPerView business. With the passing of their greatest draw (Kimbo Slice) Scott Coker and co. find themselves in a predicament not unknown to the bigwigs at the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Both organizations are in need of new stars on whose backs, or more accurately brains, they can meet their respective quotas. For Bellator, and their Viacom overlords, Sonnen might just be the golden goose they are looking for.
The Team Quest member is a proven draw largely due to his bravado that was once lauded as the best in the sport. So even though UFC Lightweight Champ Conor McGregor has usurped that title Sonnen still has a lot to offer any promotion. His polarizing diatribes have produced not only a fan base that is keen to tune but also a number of “haters” who are just as likely to watch his fights in the hopes of seeing him getting viciously knocked out.
A following like that is immensely valuable to Bellator and matchmaker Rich Chou multiplied Sonnen’s potential drawing power by matching him up with Ortiz. Former UFC Light-Heavyweight Champion Ortiz almost certainly has his best days behind him, not unlike the Oregonian, but like Sonnen he still retains value. Ortiz has adopted a textbook “heel” persona accompanied with the quintessentially stilted and scripted trash talk. Ortiz’s following is very much similar to Sonnen’s and that combination likely means big numbers for Spike.
The outcome of Bellator’s Main-Event on January 21st will be significant only within the organization. Neither man is on the short or long track back to the UFC – though that is not to say they have no value to the sport as a whole. If Bellator 170 is successful it could fuel a paradigm shift within the promotion. Ortiz and Sonnen are no spring chickens but they also aren’t doddering geriatrics. Their fight is very much representative of the “legitimate” face of Bellator (though they clearly aren’t putting their best foot forward). Should Bellator 170 do good numbers we might see the promotion move away from “legend fights” and “freak shows” and towards legitimacy.
The average fan cares little about the long-term trends an organization may or may not follow (at least in the immediate present). The causal fan is attracted to the shiny bells and whistles offered by “freak show” and “legitimate” fights alike.
Ortiz vs. Sonnen will be the best of both worlds. While both men are still relevant and legitimate fighters, albeit past their prime, their respective trash talk is enough to attract the “illiterate casuals” who long to see catastrophic injuries on the big screen. Ironically though, those casual fans, if they show up in large enough numbers, might push Bellator, Spike, and Viacom towards a paradigm in which Michael Chandler, Douglas Lima, and Michael Page take their rightful places at the top.