If there ever was a night to become a believer in Scott Coker, last night was that night. Bellator 131 was promoted on the backs of Tito Ortiz and Stephan Bonnar, two former UFC fighters who both achieved their own level of accolades and praise within the organization before departing, both on their own terms. In fact, both men are UFC Hall of Famers, which is said without a hint of irony. The fact that both men are still competing and selling tickets should show that UFC’s method of promoting fights isn’t always the correct, catch-all way to promote fights like many fans and pundits might view.
Tito Ortiz was still fighting high-level guys before he departed from the UFC, with his career looking all-but-finished after losses to Rashad Evans, Lil Nog and Forrest Griffin. Bonnar was toiling in the UFC Light Heavyweight division before he stepped up for what he felt was a career-resurging shot at Anderson Silva at a Catchweight, only to test positive for PEDs post-fight and then Dana White pulled the old Chuck Liddell on him, announcing that Stephan Bonnar was retired from the UFC.
It was clear that both guys were no longer top level fighters anymore, but the truth of the matter is that both guys are still able and willing to step into the ring and fight, but just outside of the whole title contention thing. In the UFC you are either in contention for a title or you aren’t in the UFC, there is no grey area outside of a few favored fighters who get kept within the organization. So the old dogs are put out to pasture even though fans aren’t ready to say goodbye to them. Interestingly enough, a lot of fans aren’t biting on the UFC’s newer stars of late, with numbers not being what they used to be and fan interest sinking.
Enter last night’s Bellator.
The whole Bonnar/Tito thing was ridiculous, to say the least. It was fun, goofy, kind of dumb and still brought a lot of attention to the fledgling Bellator organization. If we are honest with ourselves in regards to Bellator, Bellator has never been “cool.” It was promoted as a clear #2 to the UFC and was always going to be seen as second fiddle. They had to make due with what they had for MMA talent, which was usually guys that the UFC didn’t want or had overlooked and they mainly steered clear of former UFC stars until the end of Bjorn Rebney’s run with the organization.
Everything about Bellator was stale, lame and just all around not cool.
What changed was Scott Coker, believe it or not. Scott Coker, a balding, overweight former martial arts stunt man that if you saw him on the street you wouldn’t peg him as the guy who could make something cool again. If you saw Dana White on the street you’d see a guy with an intentionally shaved head, some sort of cool t-shirt, a pair of expensive jeans and cameras following him around. Clearly that guy is the cool one, right?
Scott Coker is an interesting resource and one that, for some reason, the UFC decided to never take advantage of after absorbing Strikeforce and ceasing to run shows. Scott Coker was then just riding out his contract until he could jump ship to somewhere else, which is exactly what he did when Viacom came knockin’ and backed up the armored car into his driveway. Many have derided Strikeforce for various reasons, but it’s hard not to admit that Scott Coker knew how to promote shows and to build up stars, with star building being something that UFC brass seem to be agonizing over right now.
Coker has been in power for a while now, but Bellator 131 was the first show that had Coker’s fingerprints all over it. It wasn’t booked beforehand, it wasn’t planned beforehand, this was all Coker and Rich Chou. Not only did Bellator 131 look different, it felt different, it felt big league, something that you couldn’t say for past Bellator events. It felt unique, adding in that flavor of MMA spectacle that died out years ago. It felt like someone uncovered an ancient codex and followed it to the letter, bringing a sleeping giant back to life under a new name.
Tito Ortiz vs. Stephan Bonnar was never going to be a great fight. We all knew this and I bet that Scott Coker knew it better than anyone else. But selling fans on a rematch between Michael Chandler and Will Brooks was going to be difficult, because why reference the history of a promotion that nobody really watched? I understand that MMA fans are some of the most pro wrestling-averse people on the planet, but if you stick with me here for a minute, I’m going to compare Bellator to WCW.
In the mid-90’s WCW’s main event scene was not only stale, it was filled with rotting corpses. Hulk Hogan, Macho Man Randy Savage, Lex Luger and so forth. They were older guys who saw their primes back in the early 80’s but still had name appeal to the casual fan. WCW in the Nitro era was all about pushing those main event storylines featuring dinosaurs. But here’s the thing, just about everything else that happened before those matches on the undercard were incredible, the kind of stuff that introduced these casual fans to something new, something that they might like and might want to support in the future. It was no surprise when guys like Eddie Guerrero, Chris Jericho and others went on to be bigger stars in the future.
The big problem with WCW is that those dinosaurs only gained more power and traction, while ignoring how popular everyone else was getting. In MMA there isn’t that luxury. Last night at Bellator 131 we got to see King Mo starch some guy who had hot nurses walk him out to the ring. Nam Phan got obliterated by Mike Richman, Joe Schilling and Melvin Manhoef put on a super-exciting fight that saw Schilling emerge as a potential huge star and Will Brooks put on a star-making performance of his own against Michael Chandler.
By the time that Tito/Bonnar rolled around it literally didn’t matter. If you were tuning into Bellator because of Tito vs. Bonnar you just saw a lot of good things, which meant that the plan works. Last night was Scott Coker doing what Scott Coker does best, which is to put on a show that entertains with what they’ve got to offer. Last night was the first time in a long time that there was a show and it felt fresh, it felt invigorating and that it wasn’t just like every other show.