Will Bellator's big bet on Fedor Emelianenko pay off in the long run?

Combat columnist
Yahoo Sports
Fedor Emelianenko is 36-4 with one no contest in his professional MMA career. (Getty)
Fedor Emelianenko is 36-4 with one no contest in his professional MMA career. (Getty)

It’s been obvious for a while that Bellator fancies itself as a competitor, or an alternative, to the UFC.

In the last year, Bellator president Scott Coker has signed UFC regulars Phil Davis, Benson Henderson, Matt Mitrione, Rory MacDonald, Ryan Bader and Michael McDonald as free agents.

Bellator lightweight champion Michael Chandler may have let drop a secret Tuesday during a news conference at Madison Square Garden to announce a June 24 pay-per-view when he said, “there are more [free-agent signings] to come.”

Despite all of Coker’s efforts, the UFC remains far and away the leader of the race for MMA supremacy. This is the NFL vs. the AFL in 1965; the AFL was improving then, and had just added the great Joe Namath, among other stars, but it was still no contest in favor of the NFL.

That would change three years later when the Namath-led New York Jets upset the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III and changed professional football forever.

It’s going to take at least that long to see if Bellator can supplant the UFC as the de facto major league of MMA, but make no mistake, even though he didn’t say those words, that’s Coker’s plan.

Coker and Jon Slusser, Spike TV’s senior vice president of sports and specials, announced that the June 24 pay-per-view isn’t a one-off. Though Coker stressed Bellator won’t do a monthly pay-per-view, as the UFC does, he also made it clear that pay-per-view is about to become a regular part of Bellator’s equation.

“We’re not going to do monthly pay-per-views just to do pay-per-view,” Coker said. “We’re going to build up fights like the boxing model, and when the time is right, we’ll do the big, big fights on pay-per-view.”

Slusser called Bellator NYC, which is what the company is dubbing the pay-per-view portion of the June 24 show, “the first of many” and added it is “a new revenue stream for us.”

This card is not going to be a referendum of where Bellator is in the marketplace vis a vis the UFC. This will instead be an indication of how popular Fedor Emelianenko remains essentially seven or eight years past his prime.

Emelianenko is the greatest heavyweight in MMA history, and you don’t have to take just my word for it.

Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira called him “incredible, the best.” Dan Henderson referred to him as “just awesome.”

Emelianenko is 40 now, and got a gift draw with Fabio Maldonado in June in a bout he should have lost and which was originally called a majority decision win for the Russian.

He’s not the dynamic fighter he was for most of the previous decade, when he was all but invincible.

But his is the name that will ultimately determine the fate of this pay-per-view.

There are recognizable names on the card, and Coker said Tuesday that one more bout will be added to the pay-per-view show, perhaps by the end of the week, but none of them grab attention like Emelianenko does.

Chael Sonnen vs. Wanderlei Silva is a fight that would do big numbers on Spike. Sonnen’s bout with Tito Ortiz at Bellator 170 in January peaked at 2.2 million viewers, but how many people will drop $49.95 to see those two aging stars go at it?

The two title fights Bellator announced for the pay-per-view – Chandler against Brent Primus and welterweight champion Douglas Lima against Lorenz Larkin – are good fights, but none of the four have the kind of name recognition required to sell on pay-per-view.

And that puts the burden on Emelianenko. He was as soft-spoken as ever on Tuesday, with little to say and offering not much more than a wan grin. Bellator live-streamed the news conference, but Emelianenko was difficult to hear and his interpreter was impossible to hear.

So those watching simply saw Emelianenko sit quietly while Sonnen ranted and raved to build a rivalry with Silva that seems forced and phony.

It wasn’t working when they were coaching against each other on “The Ultimate Fighter,” and it didn’t seem to be working Tuesday.

“The biggest star in the history of the business is coming to New York, and why this is a big deal when you got a city decorated with concrete is beyond me,” Sonnen said, trying to hype the show. “I don’t come to buildings this old in West Linn, [Ore.] You got a building as old as MSG in my hometown, we’ll tear it down. This is a big deal for you guys.

“While everybody else is happy to be in New York, New York is happy to have me. … Fedor Emelianenko, in his crowning moment, is going to jerk the curtain before the ‘Bad Guy’ himself walks [to the cage]. Can you imagine being Fedor Emelianenko and being told, ‘You’re coming to MSG. You’re going to pull the curtain back for Chael Sonnen to make the walk. And while Wanderlei hides in the bathroom in Rio, I can promise you this: It will be one more in the win column, one more in the highlight reel and one more for the ‘Bad Guy.’ ”

It was a good shtick, but it probably won’t do much to boost pay-per-view sales given it’s not a fight many were asking for and the rivalry seems contrived.

Emelianenko has never been a salesman like Sonnen. He’s a low-key type who prefers to allow his performance in the cage speak for itself.

Normally, that’s a recipe for disaster, because the No. 1 element in pay-per-view success is promotion and awareness. But every now and then, a guy comes along who so captivates the public that he doesn’t need to rant and rave and shout insults and play a character in order to sell. The public recognizes his brilliance and makes it a point to see him.

That is who Emelianenko has been. But since losing three in a row to Fabricio Werdum, Antonio Silva and Henderson in 2010 and 2011, he’s fought a decidedly weaker level of opposition.

He defeated Jeff Monson and Satoshi Ishii in 2011, stopped Pedro Rizzo in 2012, submitted Singh Jaideep in 2015 and drew with Maldonado last year.

Truth be told, he remains immensely popular but is a shell of the fighter he once was.

There remains a mystique about him – “He’s a bad ass,” Mitrione said – and there remains a public fascination with him.

He was supposed to fight Mitrione last month in San Jose, Calif., but the bout was cancelled because Mitrione had kidney stones (Mitrione said he passed 24 stones).

Now, will the public pay $50 in June to see a fight they were told they’d get for free in February?

We’ll see.

Bellator is a long way away from its goal of surpassing the UFC, though Coker has made it an infinitely better product than it was under his predecessor.

But to kick off the new era of Bellator MMA, Coker is turning, as he has so often in the past, to the one-time king.

Whether that’s a wise decision or not won’t be known for sure until all the numbers are counted in late June or early July.

For Bellator to survive while its young potential stars such as Aaron Pico, Ed Ruth, Dillon Danis and the like mature and reach the pay-per-view age, it’s going to have to need Emelianenko to come up big one last time.

Popular MMA video on Yahoo Sports:

What to Read Next