In the moment, it felt like an old-school professional wrestling surprise.
Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, a recent dual signee of Viacom's Bellator and TNA Impact Wrestling brands, stood in the center of the cage with Bellator color commentator Jimmy Smith.
The world expected Jackson to announce a pay-per-view boxing match with the aging Roy Jones Jr. Indeed, Jackson's camp spent the last two weeks telling every media member who would listen that the Jones fight was all but a done deal. The promotion even flew Jones in to sit cageside during the announcement.
But then came the twist: Jackson told us that we should not believe everything we read on the Internet. He wanted his first Bellator fight to be of the MMA variety, and it would be against the man about to make his way to the cage.
The camera cut to the entrance, and the shadowed figure was instantly familiar: Tito Ortiz, the former UFC light heavyweight champion who retired a year ago after winning just one fight in nine opportunities since 2006.
As crazy as it may sound, Jackson vs. Ortiz may have been the perfect choice for Bellator's first PPV outing on November 2. Neither man is relevant in the modern MMA sporting landscape, which is a nicer way of saying that they won't be holding their own against the best light heavyweights the sport has to offer.
Sure, they could compete against other fighters in Bellator's 205-pound division, but that isn't saying much. It's no secret that Bellator's weight classes above middleweight are mostly barren landscapes.
But for Bellator—and more importantly for Jackson and Ortiz—those things don't matter. Bellator signed them because they have name value, something sorely missing from the promotion's best fighters in Michael Chandler and Ben Askren. Though Bellator has made dramatic strides since the days it occupied air time on MTV2, it had lacked the kind of instantly recognizable fighters who draw people to pay-per-view.
For better or worse, Jackson and Ortiz give Bellator that value. And though the chances of Bellator pulling the kind of PPV numbers that will allow it to compete on even footing with the UFC are slim to none, it's still a smart decision.
Jackson and Ortiz are master promoters. If they're successful in selling this event and curious MMA fans tune in to see the battle between two popular veterans, then Bellator's decision to book the fight will have been a good one. Fans will watch to see Jackson and Ortiz, but they may get the opportunity to see Chandler, Askren and other Bellator stars on the undercard as well.
Here's another upside: Perhaps this fight will be the impetus for Eddie Alvarez, currently embroiled in a legal battle with Viacom that could potentially take away years from the prime of his career, to give up his fight to escape Bellator. It likely isn't the perfect scenario for Alvarez, who would love to ply his trade against the best fighters in the world in the UFC, but it's better than sitting on the sidelines in a battle he may never win.
Sure, Jackson vs. Ortiz doesn't remotely compare with the UFC's fall slate of pay-per-view offerings. You'll never confuse it with Georges St-Pierre vs. Johny Hendricks, which takes place later in the month on November 18.
But that's not the point. With Jackson vs. Ortiz, Bellator has a safe entry point into the world of pay-per-view.
Many promotions have tried to run paid events in the past, and almost all of them have failed. The major difference between those now-defunct promotions and Bellator is that Bellator has a good television slot and a major media company in Viacom behind it.
Jackson vs. Ortiz isn't a world-beating fight, but it's one with enough nostalgia that fans who purchase the event may decide they want to see more of this Bellator thing and start watching the weekly television events.
But even if Jackson vs. Ortiz fails as a PPV event, it's still a commendable effort from Viacom. It's proof that the promotion recognizes that star power is necessary to drive sales—that it can't just throw Michael Chandler in the main event and hope fans will tune in because he's a great fighter and they need to watch him compete.
Maybe you'll order the PPV. Maybe you won't. I suspect Bellator will have a tough time matching even the lowest of UFC PPV numbers.
But it doesn't matter. Even if this is the first and only Bellator pay-per-view offering, it at least demonstrates that the people in charge understand one thing: At the end of the day, star power is still the most important factor when putting on events.
I may not be thrilled with this fact, but it's a fact nonetheless. And you can say what you will (and you probably will) about Jackson and Ortiz and their relevance in today's MMA landscape and whether or not Ortiz should have even contemplated a return to the cage. But there's no denying that Ortiz and Jackson are Bellator's biggest stars. Putting them on pay-per-view is one of the best decisions the promotion has ever made.
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