It's been increasingly popular to either hate on or staunchly defend Bellator as a mixed martial arts (MMA) promotion over the past couple years. Finding the middle ground is seemingly becoming harder and harder to find, but as is the case with the second largest (or third, depending on who you ask) such organization in operation today, pretty much everything it does can be viewed via multiple angles.
Therefore, let's start off with the ugly for Bellator 120: "Rampage vs. King Mo," the promotion's long-awaited pay-per-view (PPV) debut.
On a night (Sat., May 17, 2014) that featured two (aging) legends -- Rampage Jackson and Tito Ortiz -- in separate fights and several of the company's biggest names, Bellator didn't sell out Landers Center in Southaven, Miss., an 8,400-seat arena.
Rampage's hometown of Memphis, Tenn., was a hop, skip and a jump across the state line and Bellator couldn't sell out a small venue. For comparison's sake, the Mississippi River Kings of the Southern Professional Hockey League have an average attendance that is probably not too far off from the paid attendance of Bellator 120.
Moving along, from the standpoint of existing plans and build up of both the brand and the stars within the brand, Bellator 120 could best be described as bad.
Probably its best fighter above 155 pounds, Middleweight champion Alexander Shlemenko, just lost to an ancient wreckage of a practitioner, Tito Ortiz. There's hay to be made on the other side of this, and I'll get to that later, but Shlemenko went from stuffing early takedown attempts to folding like a cheap lawn chair and looking like a schlub on the ground.
If someone like Ikuhisa Minowa can beat decrepit larger fighting wrecks like Sokoudjou and Don Frye, then there's no real excuse for Shlemenko to look so bad against a man who got embarrassed by Matt Hamill and owned by the equally decrepit Antonio "Lil Nog" Noguiera in recent fights.
In addition, one of the possible stars who Bellator MMA and its parent company, Viacom, have put a lot of marketing muscle and money behind, Michael Chandler, dropped a very close judges decision to the relatively unknown Will Brooks. It's an upset that could potentially neuter what is still the biggest potential fight the company can make -- the rubber match between Chandler and Eddie Alvarez.
The judging was, again, an embarrassment to the sport as a whole; however, no knock on Bellator on this aspect. How multiple judges saw the final round for Brooks -- who was nearly knocked out and choked out -- is mind-boggling (watch full fight video highlights here).
And in the main event of the evening, Rampage looked old and slow -- again -- against Lawal before winning another curious decision. I don't hate the decision because Lawal did very little with his attempts and top control and because "King Mo" seems to have fully embraced his pro wrestling heel-persona.
"King Mo" took to shitting on his boss with a bunch of homophobic nonsense both before and after the fight and behaving like a boor in general. Whether this was calculated or simply behaving like a child (again), it doesn't endear me to the man and his style doesn't endear me to the fighter.
No tears here.
That said, everyone was reminded that Jackson is a shell of himself, having completely abandoned his wrestling roots to become a one-dimensional sprawl-and-brawler. That the judges decided to behave in a manner they don't normally do -- favoring damage and some striking over top position and cage control -- as the only reason he managed to eke out a win over a decidedly third-tier (or worse) opponent is nothing to be thrilled about.
That's bad, but again, not the fault of Bellator, unlike its curious Chandler match-making case.
But, you know what? Let's look on the bright side to end this piece.
Brooks getting the (probably undeserved) nod isn't great from a casual or financial standpoint, but from a future matchmaking one, this can easily be a good thing. Alvarez is leaving after his next fight, most likely for Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).
We all know this, win or lose, he's going to be gone.
Bellator can now claim that there are still two top-whatever level lightweights in their division once that happens as Brooks and Chandler can now spend a couple of years going back-and-forth until perhaps someone else emerges. It certainly isn't what it had in mind, and doesn't fit the easy narrative, but assuming Bellator plays its 155-pound cards right the second time around, Brooks just became a promotable asset.
Michael Page is another one of those assets.
Depending on who you asked, he behaved like a jerk, douche, jackass, virtuoso, natural, artist and the next hybrid of Anderson Silva and Naseem Hamed. The Hamed comparisons are pretty good if you ask me because he'll have everyone rooting for him or rooting for him to get knocked out.
It might not happen for a while, and it's gonna be fun to watch until it happens ... then it'll REALLY be a lot of fun when Page meets his Marco Antonio Barrera and everyone can holler from the peanut gallery.
While Shlemenko losing hurts him in the eyes of both hardcore and casual fans to some extent, Bellator just gained a promotable asset in the corpse of Tito Ortiz. It's not hard to sell Ortiz as "back." Bellator just traded a hardcore darling and someone the casuals maybe-kind-of-but-possibly-don't care about for someone who the casual observer will eat up because he's a known quantity.
If, impossibly, Ortiz manages another win -- or Rampage gets through whatever he decides he wants to do next -- we could still get that nonsense on another PPV. Shockingly, it would come with a bit more relevance and back story since they'd both be coming off of wins.
Finally, it's pretty astonishing, but Rampage came off as the level-headed, intelligent fighter, saying things that make sense for his bosses and for himself in the future. He didn't look great -- it's the rare fighter who looks good against Lawal and Jackson isn't capable of really doing much to surprise us these days, but he still ended up with the win. He also made himself look better for not complaining about fighting a boring wrestler, but instead choosing to call out "King Mo" again for a rematch.
This lets Bellator Chairman and CEO Bjorn Rebney again sell us on the grudge match angle and get another main event from one that he wouldn't have had otherwise. Rampage now has the possibility of running the gamut against Lawal (perhaps again), Emanuel Newton and Ortiz -- all winnable fights. In fact, maybe Rampage ends his career on a six-fight win streak and we can all look back fondly on an old legend leaving the game on a positive finish.
It would certainly be a nice change from the old men who stick around too long and suffer loss after ignominious loss.
And that's surprisingly good.