When Kimbo Slice roughed up Ken Shamrock on Friday night with the heavy-handed fists which made him one of YouTube’s original sensations, mixed martial arts fandom’s pseudo-intellectual wing scoffed.
The main event of Bellator 138 wasn’t MMA at its purest, they brayed. It was an embarrassment to the sport. Throwing the 41-year-old brawler in with the 51-year old UFC Hall of Famer would kill credibility.
All the other metrics, however, indicate otherwise.
Google searches for “Kimbo Slice” over the weekend were around 500,000, putting it on par with UFC 182 (Jon Jones vs. Daniel Cormier) and UFC 183 (Anderson Silva vs. Nick Diaz), the UFC’s biggest events over the past year. Bellator 138 took first for the day in the Nielson Twitter TV ratings in the Series and Specials category. Media outlets like the New York Times, which rarely touch MMA, much less the sport’s second-place brand, covered the event.
While television ratings haven’t been released at the time of this writing, Bellator 138 buzzed big.
Coincidentally, the Slice-Shamrock fight came one year to the week after former Strikeforce promoter Scott Coker was brought in to revamp a struggling brand. And while there’s still a long way to go, the mere fact Bellator has become buzzworthy is just one of the reasons perceptions of the company have changed -- and why fights like Slice vs. Shamrock make sense when done right.
Bellator, founded by promoter Bjorn Rebney in 2008, did a commendable job simply getting as far as it did under his leadership. While promotions from Elite XC to Affliction to the IFL came and went at dizzying speed during the second half of the ‘00s, Bellator, running a disciplined ship and sticking with a tournament formula, emerged from the rubble of the MMA boom as industry’s second-biggest company.
That helped Bellator get a deal with Viacom after the latter lost UFC programming to FOX in 2012. But by then, Bellator’s limitations were obvious. By adhering to a format in which the only way to get a title shot was through winning an eight-man tournament, injuries were rampant, and promoters couldn’t build on hot fights that seemed to demand rematches, which hampered the ability to turn fighters onto stars. Bellator’s tournaments came and went in a blur, with so many events in so short a time that nothing really stuck with viewers.
“When I used to watch Bellator before, it just seemed like they would hold tournaments to hold tournaments,” Coker told MMAFighting.com. “So to me, it was, like, you want to throw a tournament? It should be a big tournament. ... We got off the tournament wagon and went into superfight mode. I don’t think you should throw fighters into a tournament just so you can fill a tournament.”
Coker, who has a combat sports promotion background dating back to the early 1990s, when he ran kickboxing shows which aired on ESPN 2, found success with Strikeforce by giving fans a little bit of everything: Great technical fights from well-rounded fighters; big brawls from fighters with kickboxing backgrounds; special events like the memorable 2011 heavyweight tournament; an emphasis on women’s fighting long before UFC jumped on board, and so on. The current roster of UFC champions who were either made by Strikeforce or did noteworthy stints in the company include heavyweight champ Fabricio Werdum; light heavyweight champ Daniel Cormier; welterweight champ Robbie Lawler; and women’s bantamweight champ Ronda Rousey.
So Coker went about attempting to remodel Bellator in Strikeforce’s image. In November, Bellator rolled out its vision for quarterly big shows, major events that were heavily pushed on Spike TV. Coker's first major main event was Tito Ortiz vs. Stephan Bonnar in San Diego. The bout was ruthlessly mocked by the same people who looked down on Slice-Shamrock.
Then the ratings for the bout, which was won on a split decision by Ortiz, came in. Bellator 123 averaged 1.2 million viewers and peaked at two million for the main event, both company records. The basic cable special also did a number on the buy-rate against UFC 180, which ran head to head.
The UFC’s response was immediate: all of a sudden, the UFC signed wrestling star CM Punk, ended an impasse with popular holdout Nate Diaz, and held on to veteran fighters, like Dan Henderson, who would have gotten cut in the old system after losing streaks, but held name value for the competition.
“Guys that maybe would have got cut after a couple losses, [the UFC is] holding on to,” Coker said. “Hey, that’s fine. Do your thing. How I feel is, Tito vs. Bonnar is like a painting. The canvas is empty. It’s how we paint the picture, that’s what it comes down to. Are we able to paint the picture and make you as the fan tune in? The answer is yes.”
Coker’s big events aren’t being put on without rhyme or reason. The Ortiz-Bonnar card also included a knockout-of-the-year caliber finish when Joe Schilling dropped Melvin Manhoef, and served as a coming out party for Will Brooks, the company’s lightweight champ. Likewise, the Kimbo-Shamrock show featured one of the year’s best finishes as featherweight champ Patricio Freire rallied past Daniel Weichel, as well as impressive victories by former champs Daniel Straus and Michael Chandler.
The way Coker sees it, the quarterly big events -- which feature high production values with a big screen and stage area and differentiate Bellator from the UFC’s standard arena presentations -- will continue to use big names from the past matched against one another in order to let fans sample the rest of the product and thus grow the brand.
It’s not as if Bellator is banking its entire future on fighters like Slice, the fatal mistake which finished off companies like Elite XC.
“If we have Kimbo vs. Ken, it’s going to cast a bigger net than ‘this guy vs. this guy’ that only the hardcore fans know,” Coker said. “That’s what it is. I don’t mind doing these big fights. The undercard fights will resonate with hardcore fans, and hopefully those eyeballs will become fans of the fighters we’ll put underneath the main event.”
As for Slice, his performance Friday night, and the attention it brought the company, all but guarantees he’ll be back.
“Every fight will have to be the right kind of fight,” Slice said at the post-fight news conference. “Respectfully, you get over 35 and you’re considered a senior fighter. You want to be smart in your opponents, smart in who you fight.”
And if nothing else, Bellator’s new leadership, one year in, has proven to be smart.
Follow Dave Doyle on Twitter: @DaveDoyleMMA