Bellator surprised, annoyed and confused many hardcore MMA fans last Friday night with an on-air publicity stunt that harkened back to the days of professional wrestling. The incident involved Tito Ortiz, Stephan Bonnar and a “masked man”. Advertised by Bonnar as the man that would give him the secrets on how to beat Tito Ortiz, the mask was then removed to reveal, long time training partner and former cornerman Justin McCully. After a clearly surprised and irritated Ortiz was confronted by his now estranged training partner the in-cage angle escalated into a scuffle between three men. Bonnar and Ortiz had to be broken up, with Ortiz angrily storming out of the cage.
Since then the MMA community has been in knots over the possibility that MMA via Bellator may be turning into “Pro-Wrestling”. But hard-core MMA fans need to settle down. While the angle may have been seen by some as over-the-top generated enough media attention that outlets who’d rarely mention Bellator’s name have been able to do nothing but use this opportunity to bash them.
One truth remains here and that is there’s no such thing as “bad” press. The more any MMA organization can do to entertain its fans, the better. Here’s why:
1. The Masked Man Is The Buzz Of MMA
People are talking about Bellator. The UFC held a show on the same night as Bellator and what is the big takeaway for MMA fans? “Did you see that masked guy Stephan Bonnar brought to the cage?” No one is really talking about Jacare Souza’s impressive submission victory over Gegard Mousasi. Everyone’s talking about the Bonnar vs. Ortiz angle. When you are starting a business or trying to rebrand one, you have to create a buzz. You have get people talking. Nobody liked Lady GaGa’s outlandish costumes at first either. It did get people to pay attention to her music though, and people liked what they heard.
2. Chael Sonnen Built A Career In MMA On Pro-Wrestling Talk
Fans like pro wrestling angles. Anybody heard of Chael Sonnen? Was he the most dominant MMA fighter of the last five years? Was he a former UFC world champion? Did he have big wins over top MMA stars. No, he didn’t. We all know who he is though because of his big mouth and ability to entertain fans. Sonnen grew up watching wrestling and it’s in his blood. He knows how to sell a fight. That ability translated into money for the UFC and the sport of MMA. When Sonnen walked around with a fake championship belt that was ripped out of the pages of pro wrestling. The fans loved it. Sonnen, even though he tested positive for performance enhancement drugs in his first fight against Anderson Silva, was smashed in the rematch, then was destroyed by Jon Jones and Rashad Evans, is a household name in MMA. Pro wrestling angles work and Bellator should do more of them.
3. Being Different Draws Attention
How do you stand out in a sea of sameness? By being different! It’s time to be different. Bellator is in a unique and powerful situation. It has a new President that is both a seasoned martial artist and excellent promoter. It’s backed by Viacom, one of the world’s largest media companies. And they have the budget and resources to create new programming niches that the UFC could only do with complex contractual arrangements with large production houses like Fox. Bellator has those resources at their fingertips. Script writers, actors, celebrities outside of the MMA arena. They can experiment and create new perspectives and modes to enjoy the sport of MMA than any other promotion can today. The first attempt at this may have seemed like a cheesy rip-off of a bad Pro-Wrestling skit, but you never learn without trying. And Spike/Viacom has more money to put their favorite child (Bellator) through school than any other mixed martial arts promotion on the planet.
4. Majority MMA Is Becoming Minority MMA
What used to be is no longer and what is to be has yet to be defined. Every promotion is scrambling to redefine themselves to appeal to the elusive set of demographics that make a sport “mainstream”. There’s a lot that needs to be done to achieve that but it’s well within reach. When you think of your mom, girlfriend, wife, non-confrontational best friend, your unassuming, mild mannered neighbor, the kids in grade school waking home form the bus every day, you may not think of an MMA fan. But those are exactly the fans that MMA needs to capture to be mainstream. They can’t get there without the other (depending on how you slice it) 50 or 70 percent. Part of that means that shedding some of the ‘old ways’ and bringing in ‘new ways’ will be crucial. As much as die-hard, long-time MMA fans may decry the possibility of a change or losing key elements of a form of entertainment they have grown to love, the hard truth is, it’s happened before and will happen again. From the days of Pride and Pride Rules we’ve grown to love MMA with it’s Unified Rules.
As MMA continues to evolve we will all continue to find something new to appreciate in it, while also missing part of what we’ve lost in the process. Ladies and gentlemen that is, as they say, “Part of growing up!”