Bellator’s unpredictable night shows difficulty of building stars

UNCASVILLE, Conn. — Despite losing a pair of fights during the leadup to Bellator 185, promoter Scott Coker and matchmaker Rich Chou still put the organization in a position to set up something for the future. Gegard Mousasi was coming to town, Heather Hardy was riding a burst of momentum, and debuting champion boxer Anna Julaton was injecting herself into a feud. There was fresh blood! There were real story lines to build!

And then the fights happened.

Best laid plans in MMA are often thrown by the wayside and laughed at by the fight gods. For Coker and company, Bellator 185 was one of those nights. By the end of it Mousasi was in the hospital, Hardy’s face was destroyed, and Julaton had been upset.

Back to the drawing board.

For Coker, this is nothing new. Being the upstart brand brings its own set of unique challenges, many of which he’s familiar with.

“To me, the people who come over here from other leagues, they have had a hard time, and I just say, ‘Hey, welcome to Bellator,’” Coker said. “This is going to be tough going for everybody.”

And he means everybody, including those working in the Bellator front office. He smiled softly as he spoke, a “Hey, what can you do?” kind of grin that fight promoters often break out when a night takes them in yet-another unexpected direction. It’s a natural reaction, one that is easily generated by the cruelty of the fight game.

You couldn’t blame him if he slammed the mic and dropped a string of F-bombs, not after a night like this, one that showed just how difficult it is to cultivate talent and build new stars.

Everyone thinks there is some formula to it, but the fact is that there is no set way to actually construct a “star.” Sure, you need a fighter with charisma, with fight skills, who organically connects with an audience. But there are too many other variables. One is luck, another is the unforeseen.

Who knows if Bellator saw Kristina Williams coming?

Before this week, this 20-something Oklahoman was a nobody on the world MMA stage, and that’s no insult, because she was making her professional debut. To add degree of difficulty, she was doing it on national television, and against someone in Hardy who’s had five years of professional combat sports experience, albeit in boxing.

It was supposed to be a blowout, and it was, only in the unexpected direction. Williams beat Hardy up, bloodied her and finally finished her after a smashing head kick that appeared to break her nose.

Who knows if Bellator saw Lisa Blaine coming?

With only a single pro fight, she seemed a perfectly beatable opponent for Julaton, until as it turned out, Julaton couldn’t stop a takedown. This one was at least closer than the Hardy fight, but the result was still the same, a loss.

Alexander Shlemenko? He wasn’t difficult to see coming, but he still functioned as a fly in the soup, a crafty veteran with no quit in him. Within the first two minutes of the bout, Mousasi, who spurned the UFC to sign with Bellator at the tail-end of a five-fight win streak, was hit with a Shlemenko overhand left that almost immediately left his right eye swollen shut. For a moment, it appeared the cageside doctor would stop the bout between the first and second rounds. As the doctor approached referee Dan Miragliotta to talk it over, his body language suggested the fight was done. He shook his head and sighed. But after a brief conversation, the doctor had another look, and as the crowd added some pressure with boos, he allowed it to continue.

It was perhaps the only good luck Bellator had on the night. Instead of a TKO loss, he was given a chance, one that he eventually cashed in with a tight and controversial unanimous decision. By the time the fight was over, most of the arena thought Shlemenko had won, and loudly booed the judge’s call. But Mousasi wouldn’t escape the cage unaffected. Not on this night. Instead, he soon left the arena to visit a local hospital, with a broken orbital being feared.

At least he left with a win. The same couldn’t be said for Hardy and Julaton, two former boxers who appeared set on a collision course that could draw some money for Bellator. It seemed like a no-brainer, that if they could get past their respective opponents, they would build momentum heading in the same direction until they stood across from each other.

Bellator can still do the fight between them; it simply won’t have the luster they would have wanted.

Ah, well, those are the breaks in the fight world. At least Coker’s been here before. He faced similar pains in Strikeforce, and he built an organization with some sizzle and steak. There’s no reason he can’t do the same again, but nights like this one don’t make his job any easier.

To that kind of thinking, he shrugs. He just makes the fights, he reminds you. Whatever happens when the bell rings is beyond his control. Whatever the perception is, that’s beyond his control, too, even if he gently schools any newcomers or those with short-term memories.

“Here’s how I feel about it,” he said. “When I owned Strikeforce and we were doing fights back in the day, we had some of the best fighters on the planet. People said, ‘Well, the UFC guys are better than the Strikeforce guys.’ Look what happened. Tyron WoodleyLuke RockholdDaniel Cormier. Those are all our guys.”

In other words, don’t get it twisted; last night’s results show that the talent is there even if the star-power is a work in progress.

And it’s true, there were potential building blocks to be found. Williams looked like something special. On the undercard, Costello van Steenis looked like something special. Jordan Youngdid, too. At least for now. Tomorrow, anything might happen. In the world of star-making, the cosmos remain firmly in control.

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