Bellator cancelling its PPV proves what a bad idea 'Tito vs Rampage' was from the get-go

USA TODAY Sports

Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney bet big -- and lost big -- with his decision to have "Tito vs. Rampage" headline his company's first pay per view. Find out why this move was doomed from the get-go below.

It's hard to muster sympathy for a gambler who has just lost a big stake.

Sure, there's undoubtedly something pathetic about the sight of a busted roulette player who knows his monthly rent is now in the croupier's possession -- just take a look at the gambler absently running his fingers through his hair while regarding the implacably spinning wheel with a thousand yard stare, and try not to feel a little twinge of pity.

However, in such cases there's an ineluctable fact that usually leaves us shaking our heads at the poor wretch rather than feeling sorry for him.

Namely, losing big is the gambler's just desserts for being enough of a dumbass to risk his last dime on a game as uncertain as roulette in the first place.

But if the gambler in question was foolhardy enough to risk everything on the pill alighting on zero? As crushed as he must be when he sees all his chips dragged away, that kind of foolhardiness just begs for our mockery.

Unfortunately, staking everything on the roulette wheel coming up zero is exactly what Bellator MMA CEO Bjorn Rebney did when he made the call to build his company's inaugural pay per view (PPV) around a match-up pitting former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) stars Quinton Jackson and Tito Ortiz against one another.

Defenders of Rebney's decision claimed it was a smart move: Slotting two established names, each with a history of drawing money, in the main event of Bellator's first PPV would in theory attract a larger audience than homegrown talent put in the same position.

In practice though, it was a huge gamble -- one in which Rebney and company staked Bellator's future on a pair of temperamental, broken down thoroughbreds whose days in the winner's circle were nothing but a distant memory.

To begin with there was Jackson. Not only has he amassed a dire 4-5 record since losing the UFC light heavyweight title to the now-retired Forrest Griffin way back in 2008 at UFC 86, but the 35 year old has a history of knee problems. Throw in a lack of reliability that has led to him pulling out of big fights when a better offer comes along, and "Rampage" isn't exactly what a gambler would call a lock to make it to the cage on fight night.

For all his issues, Jackson is a safe bet compared to Ortiz. The body of MMA's Humpty Dumpty has fallen apart and been put back together again so many times that for years it has been something of a running joke whenever he blames one of his none too infrequent losses on an injury suffered in training.

When one considers that Ortiz is an abysmal 1-6-1 over the past six years, it paints a picture of a fighter whose body has long since given out on him -- not to mention one whose antiquated style never kept pace with the rapidly evolving state of the art.

Now it appears Ortiz's egg-shell spine once again needs putting back together again after a neck fracture suffered in training. As a result of the injury, the erstwhile "Huntington Beach Bad Boy" was forced to pull out of his Nov. 2 main event.

Bellator's reaction to this news spoke volumes about what an ill-advised move it was for the company to stake its PPV success on Rampage and Ortiz, and how shabby a job it has done building up its homegrown champions as feature attractions. Rather than stay the course and slot the much more relevant Chandler vs. Alvarez lightweight title bout in the main event, Bellator instead chose to scrap the PPV altogether and air its Nov. 2 card for free on Spike TV.

If UFC President Dana White was looking for more ammunition for his none-too infrequent denunciations of Bellator as a company that doesn't matter, the Viacom-owned promotion's apparent inability to put on a PPV without relying on washed up UFC cast offs provides him with the rhetorical equivalent of an A-bomb.

While Bellator brass may claim it takes time to build a successful promotion, the fact is they have already had almost a year's worth of exposure on Spike TV -- the same network the UFC built its brand on eight years ago -- and have failed to create one homegrown drawing card who can serve as a difference maker on PPV.

"But Bellator's PPV was designed to make younger fighters like Michael Chandler, Pat Curran, and Muhammed Lawal into bigger stars on the backs of established names like Tito and Rampage," apologists may say. Tell that to UFC, which was drawing boffo numbers on PPV immediately out of the gate thanks to the television exposure it got with the first season of The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) on Spike.

Not only did UFC create numerous stars from the initial Ultimate Fighter cast who went on to become some of the company's most popular names -- including headliners such as Forrest Griffin, Josh Koscheck, Kenny Florian, Chris Leben, and Diego Sanchez -- but in just 12 weeks of programming the company managed to take two names that only the minuscule pre-Spike UFC audience cared about, in Randy Couture and Chuck Liddell, and turn them into bona fide superstars.

Granted, the MMA landscape is far different in 2013 than it was in 2005. Back then the sport was a novel concept on North American television;  today the profusion of televised MMA is overwhelming to all but the most dedicated of hardcore fans.

Still, this is the business Rebney, and his partners at Viacom, chose to get into. If one is going to play the game, better to study the methods that led to your competitor's success than to lay all your chips on a bet that was destined to fail from the start.

And make no mistake about it, there is no way Rampage vs. Tito wasn't going to be a failure. Not only had Bellator sold an abysmal 1,700 tickets for an arena that holds 13,500 approximately three weeks out from the show, but the promotion also resorted to the bush-league move of handing out 2,000 tickets to be hawked on consignment (via a report by MMAJunkie.com).

This fan-apathy didn't come as a surprise to anyone who has followed the history of Bellator's former lead-in program on Spike, TNA Impact. For years TNA have pushed physically shot, over-the-hill wrestlers whose heydays were in the 80's and early 90's, like Hulk Hogan and Sting, rather than shine a spotlight on homegrown talent. The result has been almost a decade of failure to achieve sustained growth, with the future of the money-losing promotion very much in doubt at the moment.

While pro wrestling may be scripted and MMA a legitimate sport, at their cores both genres are about building stars and making matches the public wants to see. If the past eight years of failure on TNA's part wasn't enough to teach Rebney and Bellator that hardly anyone is willing to fork over $50 to watch a dominant industry-leader's sloppy seconds, then that is a truly frighting sign for the future of MMA's de facto number two promotion.

Rather than spending the entirety of this season bombarding viewers with footage hyping up Chandler vs. Eddie Alvarez, Curran vs. Daniel Strauss, and "King Mo" vs. Emanuel Newton, Bellator instead went all in with Ortiz and Rampage. Alvarez gave an excellent interview hyping up his rematch against Chandler, but until this past week it never aired on Bellator TV, despite being featured in weeks past on the Spike.com "Prelims" that only an infinitesimal audience watches.

Instead, Bellator fans have been subjected to incessant Punishment Athletics commercials staring Ortiz and the abysmal "Rampage 4 Real" reality show. What's more, for the entirety of the current season, Bellator's announcers have mentioned the "Tito vs. Rampage" main event far more than any other fight on the Nov. 2 show.

The implicit message Rebney and company have sent fans with this promotional strategy is that ZUFFA leftovers are a much bigger deal than the best homegrown talent Bellator has to offer. By focusing exclusively on Ortiz and Jackson, to the exclusion of everyone else, Bellator has inadvertently neutered its brightest potential stars' immediate drawing power.

And now here we are: Less than a week away from what was designed to be Bellator's coming out party on PPV, and the company is forced pull the plug and instead air the show for free on Spike because it knows nobody would pay for a card headlined by Chandler vs. Alvarez.

Watching the visibly upset Rebney break the news of the PPV's cancellation to fans on Bellator 105 last Friday night (Oct. 25, 2013), it was almost tempting to feel a smidgen of pity for him. Despite the positive spin the smooth-talking CEO tried to put on the situation, disappointment dripped from his every word. He looked like a guy who was attempting to explain to his wife how it was really a good thing he had just bet the title to their Mercedes-Benz on a losing hand of poker, because after all, gas prices are through the roof these days.

But, much like the gambler who finds himself penniless after a kick to the balls from Lady Luck, it's impossible to feel sorry for a fight promoter who gets burned after staking his company's future -- and the future of the athletes on his roster -- on a ridiculously bad bet.

If Rebney hopes to grow Bellator into anything other than a moderately successful television property that treads water with an audience of around 500,000 to 600,000 people on a weekly basis, now would be the perfect time to start building for tomorrow rather than attempting to rehash UFC's past.

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