mma / Columns

Bellator Aims for a Big 2017

January 16, 2017 | Posted by Dan Plunkett
Bellator Fedor Emelianenko

This Saturday night, Bellator MMA kicks off its year with what it hopes will be a bang. Once again, the promotion is turning back the clock, but to a much more reasonable degree than last year’s ethically questionable yet wildly successful Bellator 149 (Shamrock vs. Gracie and Slice vs. Dada 5000). The main event pits Tito Ortiz, in what he has stated will be his final fight (he prematurely announced his retirement in 2012 before reversing his decision the following year), against Chael Sonnen, who returns from a two-year drug suspension and a retirement that stemmed from the drug failure. Barring a total surprise, it will be the promotion’s most-viewed show since Bellator 149 and should comfortably surpass a one million viewer average.

In some ways, last year was a stagnant year for Bellator. Live viewership was slightly down, there were no big new stars created, and the promotion carried no real momentum. However, the Scott Coker regime also made some moves that could set the promotion up for a significantly bigger 2017.

They signed big stars with proven drawing power. Sonnen, Wanderlei Silva, and Fedor Emelianenko are all expected to compete in the Bellator cage this year. Early last year, the promotion settled a lawsuit with Quinton Jackson that included the star signing a two-fight deal with the promotion. He still has one fight remaining on that contract. Bellator also signed away UFC welterweight contender Rory MacDonald, who was never close to the star the others were, but has name value and is much younger than the rest. Coker also geared up for a heavyweight tournament in 2017, the same gimmick that brought a lot of attention to Strikeforce in 2011, but postponed plans with the signing for Emelianenko. Still, a tournament is still likely in the plans for this year.

Last year, Bellator surpassed one million viewers in live and same day viewing numbers only once, for the record-setting Bellator 149 show. This year, they may surpass that landmark four or five times, if not more. Beyond Saturday’s bout, they have plans to promote the Sonnen vs. Silva grudge match that fell through UFC’s hands in 2014. The fight won’t be as big as it would have been then, but it’s still an excellent television fight. In February, Emelianenko is slated to debut against Matt Mitrione. It’s no secret that Emelianenko, who drew strong numbers on CBS and Showtime for Strikeforce, is well past his prime, so the Mitrione match may not average one million viewers across the entire show. However, if he wins and fights again this year, one million viewers could be a sure thing with the right opponent. Jackson is a similar case. Although his sole fight last year, a dull decision victory over Satoshi Ishii, drew only an average number, there are more name opponents available for him to fight this year, so his next bout should yield much stronger results.

Of those big names, Jackson is the youngest at 38-years-old, and his next fight could well be his last with the promotion. Emelianenko and Silva are 40, while Sonnen will turn 40 in April. Although they may lead Bellator to a strong 2017, clearly these aren’t the fighters that will lead for much longer. The promotion will need to build more stars and likely sign others in free agency.

A stable of dependable stars – Cheick Kongo, Phil Davis, Mo Lawal, Michael Chandler, Benson Henderson, Joe Warren, and Darrion Caldwell – carried the promotion in 2016, but it seems that none of them, save perhaps Caldwell, who is too new to his position to get an accurate read on, will rise to the next level of stardom. Rory MacDonald is another name to add to the rotation of dependable stars, and although he’s unlikely to become more than a solid television attraction, he brings more value to the Canadian market. Of course, there are fighters with that star potential in Bellator, beginning in MacDonald’s weight class.

Michael Page has been tapped as a potential big star for years due to his unique striking talents and charisma, but to this point, he’s been brought along slowly. Page went 3-0 last year, but only one fight made an impact. At 29-years-old and 12 fights into his career, it’s time for Bellator to put Page on a path toward a title shot by the end of the year. He won’t become a superstar overnight, and perhaps he won’t even make it to a championship fight, but he has real star potential and the only way to continue his growth is to begin challenging him. Bellator needs homegrown fighters to become must-see television for MMA fans in order to sustain their success once the old, big name, and big money attractions are gone. Page, competing in a welterweight division with a wealth of strong potential opponents, could be that guy.

Bellator will continue to look toward its longer-term future in 2017. Wrestling standouts Tyrell Fortune, Ed Ruth, Jarod Trice, and Joey Davis made successful debuts in late 2016, and will continue to be groomed this year. Fortune, competing in the thin heavyweight division, could be an impact player in short order. A.J. McKee, son of accomplished fighter Antonio McKee, has progressed tremendously since debuting in 2015. He’s been brought along carefully thus far, which I don’t see changing this year. Before the end of the year, we may also see the debut of 20-year-old Aaron Pico, who barely missed out on a potential Olympic berth last year and has been hyped as a prodigy. Three-time NCAA Division II national champion wrestler Romero Cotton is also expected to debut for the promotion in 2017.

It should be a big year for Bellator. Emelianenko, Jackson, Ortiz, Silva, and Sonnen will garner attention as the promotion’s big stars and draw big numbers. However, the most interesting moves will take place underneath those fighters, as Bellator continues to groom its existing talent to eventually take the place of those big stars.

Dan Plunkett has covered MMA for 411Mania since 2008. You can reach him by email at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @Dan_Plunkett.