By Michael Ford
From the moment the fight was announced, the online blogosphere let loose. During Bellator 97 on Wednesday night, the promotion announced that its first foray into PPV will be headlined by Quinton “Rampage” Jackson vs. Tito Ortiz, a bout nobody has been clamoring for, featuring fighters nobody wants to see. And yet, it does seem to be a fight that people can’t stop talking about. Yes, some of the commentary is the kind of snarky mockery that tends to proliferate on the internet. (Actually, that’s most of the commentary.) And why not? Both fighters have seen better days, having been run out of the UFC on the heels of three-fight losing streaks. Neither man is an elite fighter any longer. But they are personalities, and polarizing ones at that. And that’s why Rampage vs. Tito makes for a fine PPV main event.
Now to be clear, I am not a proponent of the PPV Model, and think that a company like Bellator MMA, which is partially-owned by a broadcast conglomerate like Viacom, should stay as far from it as possible. (Hell, I believe that the industry leader, the UFC, would do well to transition away from pay-per-view as its core product.)
However, one factor that figured prominently in the Eddie Alvarez contract negotiations was the company’s plan to do PPV, and offer Alvarez bonuses based on that buyrate. Given the litigation costs associated with moving forward with that dispute, and the likely ramifications of being found to have made the claim in bad faith, it was always a safe bet to assume that a PPV was forthcoming, if only as a one-off. And now that a date and a main event has been finalized, we can expect some kind of settlement between Bellator and Alvarez to be announced, and some kind of fight to be booked for the former lightweight champion. The savviest move, I think, would be a non-title “grudge match” between him and current lightweight champion Michael Chandler. If Alvarez wins, then a trilogy fight instantly becomes a bigger deal. If Chandler wins, then he’s up 2-0 on the former face of the promotion, and hopefully a more bankable star because of it.
But what does any of that have to do with Ortiz-Jackson? They’re in the main event, and they’re not even champions! Their presence on the marquee disrespects and overshadows the young talent that Bellator should be highlighting! This is like WCW, or TNA, and Bellator is turning into pro wrestling!
Except not really. As tempting as it may be to judge Bellator by UFC standards, we shouldn’t. To casual fans, UFC is the sport. That it is now prominently featured on Fox, and will be part of the launch of a purported ESPN competitor, only reinforces that perception. Bellator is an alternative, so it has the freedom to go about things a different way. Over 90% of the top 25 fighters in the eight major weight classes are in the UFC, so Bellator promoting itself as the home of “the best fighters in the world” would be disingenuous and foolhardy. However, it can promote action fights involving up-and-comers and guys past their prime who have built up names for themselves. It can put together tournaments featuring a mix of those people, and promise that something exciting or noteworthy is going to happen. And for the most part, it can deliver on that promise. That formula works on free TV, to the extent that people are aware of when and where it airs.
However, on PPV, you’ve got to mobilize the people. Sometimes that means getting fans so emotionally invested in a fight’s outcome that they just have to see it. Sometimes it’s because of the talent, sometimes it’s because of the names, and sometimes it’’s just plain curiosity. Rampage vs. Tito is short on the first one, but long on the other two.
Both men are stars, two of the biggest the sport has ever known, and have headlined million-selling PPVs. Their names are instantly recognizable to casual MMA fans, and to a degree, recognizable to casual sports and entertainment fans as well -- Rampage through his appearance in The A-Team, and Tito through his high-profile relationship with porn star Jenna Jameson. Both are polarizing to hardcore fans, and are very good at manufacturing publicity. In mainstream outlets, both interview well, and come off as engaging and charismatic, though not particularly eloquent or witty. Fans will be aware of the PPV, and the personalities involved, and that goes a long way.
As for the in-cage product, this is where it gets iffy. Against world-class opposition, Rampage has looked lazy and unmotivated in some of his defeats, but has managed to string together moments that energized his fans, “hope spots,” to use pro wrestling parlance. Generally speaking, his boxing and his knockout power are his best assets, and fans still do believe that he can end a fighter’s night with one well-placed punch. But where Tito Ortiz is concerned, stoppage losses to Lil Nog and Rashad Evans provide ample evidence that he can be finished spectacularly, while his spirited outing against Forrest Griffin at UFC 148 showed his unwillingness to quit, even while being outclassed. And who can forget his huge upset win over Ryan Bader at UFC 132, which was one of the feel-good moments of 2011. Add those elements together, and you have a fight that should be entertaining, so long as the fighters show up motivated to give it their all.
Let’s be clear here: Rampage Jackson vs. Tito Ortiz is not a “superfight.” Neither man will be showing up to the cage to demonstrate that he is an elite world-class fighter. Guys like Chandler, Ben Askren, Pat Curran, and Muhammed Lawal, if they end up fighting on the card, will have that motivation. And if Jackson and Ortiz do their jobs, many of the fans watching this event will be seeing them fight for the first time, so those fighters will all be motivated to steal the show, and make memorable first impressions. Whatever happens in the main event, Bellator’s real superstars will determine whether fans got their money’s worth or not. Tito and Rampage, however, will be the names in the bright lights, bringing the eyeballs, keeping the conversation going, and continuing to remind people that, for better or worse, on November 2nd, their fight will be something fight fans need to pay attention to. And that’s what main eventers are supposed to do.
• Quinton "Rampage" Jackson vs.Tito Ortiz
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