mma / Columns

Bellator’s Heavyweight Grand Prix Can Be Called a Success

January 28, 2019 | Posted by Dan Plunkett
Ryan Bader

In November 2017, Bellator MMA announced plans to hold an eight-man heavyweight tournament throughout 2018. It was a retread of an idea that had worked (at least initially) for Bellator president Scott Coker in his previous life as the head of Strikeforce. That tournament generated unprecedented attention for Strikeforce initially, but delays, a key withdrawal, and stars losing killed its momentum.

Thankfully, the story of Bellator’s tournament is cheerier. The field did not have the top heavyweight talent that the Strikeforce tournament did, but Bellator made do with what they had, slotting as many big names in the tournament as they could, regardless of a fighter’s natural weight class. There were no withdrawals—for injuries or otherwise, minimal delays, and interest in the tournament peaked with the final. The tournament culminated in Bellator’s first heavyweight title fight in nearly five years, and the winner was clearly the best fighter in the tournament.

In all, it would have to be considered a success.

The tournament got off to a good start. Chael Sonnen and Quinton Jackson had the longest odds of winning the tournament, but their first-round matchup ensured (or, at least, made it a strong likelihood) that one of the stars would proceed to the second round. Despite a size disadvantage, Sonnen took two rounds from Jackson to win the fight by decision. The fight drew the best viewership of the tournament, with the show averaging 770,00 viewers on Paramount and 163,000 on a CMT simulcast.

One month later, the second opening round bout was a rematch of a UFC bout from five years earlier. Matt Mitrione was one of the tournament favorites, but first needed to avenge a loss to Roy Nelson. Nelson, 41, was the most senior fighter in a tournament of mostly past-their-prime fighters. In a close bout, Mitrione edged out a majority decision to move on. Notably, ratings fell sharply, with the show averaging only 476,000 viewers on Paramount.

In theory, staggering each tournament bout to main event different cards would not just fill several main events, but give each card with a tournament bout a real boost. That didn’t turn out to be the case. In general, fights with the big stars—Fedor Emelianenko, Chael Sonnen, and Quinton Jackson—did well. Fights without those big stars did not draw well.

Spreading out the tournament bouts seemed to make it lack cohesion. Almost four full months passed between the first quarterfinal bout and the last. Had ratings been strong for each quarterfinal bout, that would have proven it was the right move. Instead, it seems the tournament would have benefitted from having two quarterfinal fights per card, as it would have put more eyes on Mitrione vs. Nelson and Ryan Bader vs. Mo Lawal.

The next tournament fight was a dream bout from years past. Former Pride heavyweight champion Fedor Emelianenko met former UFC heavyweight champion Frank Mir. Years earlier, Emelianenko’s first round loss in the Strikeforce tournament was a major blow to the tournament. This time, in a fast and furious fight, Emelianenko overcame early trouble to stop Mir in 48 seconds. The show drew 581,000 viewers on Paramount and 169,000 viewers on a CMT simulcast.

The last quarterfinal bout saw Bellator light heavyweight champion Ryan Bader knock out Mo Lawal in 15 seconds. Bader, being in his prime and legitimately one of the top light heavyweights in the world, was a tournament favorite, but the swiftness of his victory came as a surprise. The event drew 453,000 viewers on Paramount and 152,000 on a CMT simulcast.

Ratings-wise, the semi-finals bouts were always going to be a mixed bag. One side of the bracket had Sonnen, Jackson, Emelianenko, and Mir, which virtually assured a good rating. The names on the other side weren’t proven draws in the same way, and therefore could have been expected to draw less.

Bellator took the interesting approach of promoting the semi-final bouts on back-to-back nights. Bader vs. Mitrione took place on Friday, and the next night Fedor would fight Sonnen. The idea was likely that this would increase attention on Bader vs. Mitrione. In a sense, it worked, as the Bader vs. Mitrione drew Bellator’s best viewership in months. On the other hand, it only drew 416,000 viewers, perhaps a sign that it was overshadowed by Fedor vs. Sonnen more than it was helped by its proximity.

Bader dominated Mitrione in a fight that was never close. On Saturday, Fedor stopped Sonnen in a wild one-round fight. The Saturday show drew 521,000 viewers, which, even by modern Bellator ratings standards, would have to be considered a disappointment considering the name value of the headliners.

The result of the final was practically written on the wall. Ryan Bader had breezed through the tournament, while Fedor had been in bad spots against both Mir and Sonnen. Although Fedor had scored two first-round victories in the tournament, it had been about ten years since he’d looked like Fedor against a strong opponent. Clearly, his power was still there to give him a puncher’s chance, but that was about it.

Bader completed his flawless tournament victory by knocking out Emelianenko in 35 seconds. Ratings are not available as of this writing, but Bellator had more than 200,000 Google searches on Saturday, which is a positive sign.

Now with two Bellator titles, Bader leaves the tournament with tremendous momentum. The current issue is the lack of bankable challengers for him in both divisions. Certainly, there are interesting fights for Bader in both divisions, but none that would be considered major fights from a viewership perspective. Certainly, the tournament succeeded in increasing Bader’s star, but there is still more work to be done overall.

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.