If the question, “Is mixed martial arts a sport or spectacle?” was asked to ten different people, there is an possibility that the results would end up split down the middle. Though MMA has grown into a mainstream sport, it's clear that business aspects -- particularly the ability to “sell a fight” -- have remained important to the bottom line. Whether MMA fans want to believe it or not, this is an integral component of how individual fight cards become successful. The spectacle that arose out of the final moments of Bellator 110 showed just how deeply this kind of promotion has become ingrained in mixed martial arts.
Last Friday night, Bellator MMA hosted the semifinals of its lightweight tournament, which featured two of the company's most well-known fighters. Quinton “Rampage” Jackson and Muhammed “King Mo” Lawal were placed on opposite ends of the brackets in hopes that the two fighters would be able to make their way to the 205 pound final. At the end of the night, the matchmakers had the fight in hand that they wanted, so they seized the opportunity. As Jackson celebrated his victory, Lawal was brought into the cage and a “scuffle” between the two ensued. The reaction across the online community of mixed martial arts fsns was almost as entertaining to watch as the moment itself.
The social sphere that takes the time to comment on the sport on social media platforms and blogs was immediately ablaze with expressions of disgust that Bellator would put together a “worked” segment. Both Jackson and Lawal have spent time recently in the wrestling promotion known as Total Nonstop Action (TNA), so this was considered nothing more than a carryover of tactics from that organization. Since both TNA and Bellator are linked through Spike, it's clear that there will be an effort to cross-promote this fight in the coming months.
Furthermore, Lawal and Jackson have become close friends. While there was a time that they did have a legit beef with each other, that time has passed. Those who follow the sport closely know that there isn't any real animosity between the two that would cause such a situation to occur.
However, should Bellator have been criticized as much as they were for staging the situation? The answer should be a resounding “No.”
Some of the most commercially successful contests within the mixed martial arts world in recent memory have involved some sort of manufactured animosity between the fighters. Georges St. Pierre and Josh Koscheck used a whole season of The Ultimate Fighter to build up their fight, only for Koscheck to admit to working hard to “sell” the fight. Chael Sonnen has given his career a second wind simply due to his ability to hype up a fight against anyone that the UFC matches him against. There are even those who subscribe to the idea that Nick and Nate Diaz are simply selling fights with their antics, in hopes of making as much money as possible.
Now it goes without saying that real hatred between can draw attention. Both fights between Ronda Rousey and Meisha Tate were steeped in animosity between the two fighters, but that helped bring commercial success to both of the promotions that staged the fights. UFC 100, which featured Brock Lesnar vs. Frank Mir, is another example of a card in which a fight between two athletes who displayed a real dislike of one another drove interest in the event.
Bellator is in a position where they need to give fight fans the most interesting fights they can muster. While the third fight between Michael Chandler and Eddie Alvarez is likely to headline Bellator's debut on pay-per-view, a fight between Lawal and Jackson would most likely gain the most attention. The promotion already tried this strategy when Jackson vs. Tito Ortiz were billed as the main event of the planned PPV card for November of 2013. Alvarez vs. Chandler is the fight that will be the most compelling and evenly-matched, but that doesn't mean it will be able to grab the attention of those casual fans that drive the success of PPV cards.
Fight fans can expect to see “King Mo” and “Rampage” all over their regularly-scheduled Spike shows, as Bellator will work hard to push their “feud” to the forefront. While it is all manufactured, the sports world shouldn't roll their eyes at what the promotion is doing. This isn't the first time that fake hatred has been created to sell a fight or event, and it will not be the last time it occurs.