Bellator carves new identity with 'guilty pleasure' MMA

As Bellator president Scott Coker remembers, the seeds for Friday's third bout between MMA pioneers Royce Gracie and Ken Shamrock were planted in November 2014.

Days before a similar Bellator "legend fight" between Tito Ortiz and Stephan Bonnar, Shamrock walked into a fan fest sporting his familiar intense glare. In fighting shape at age 50, Shamrock shook Coker's hand before spotting Gracie, a fellow UFC Hall of Famer, across the room.

Without hesitation, Shamrock exclaimed, "I want to fight that guy," prompting a somewhat annoyed response from Coker.

"I was like, 'Come on man,'" Coker told ESPN.com. "And I was thinking in my mind, 'You haven't let go of this yet?' And sure enough, it had been eating at him for the last 20 years."

Fifteen months later, the pair of middle-aged legends will face off once more in the main event of Bellator 149 from the Toyota Center in Houston (Spike TV/ESPN Deportes, 9 p.m. ET).

The fight's announcement in November was met with the expected malaise that comes with staging an open-weight bout between fighters a combined 101 years of age. It's car-wreck reality TV at its finest and preys on the general public's weakness toward nostalgia. Some have called it the equivalent of MMA pornography.

But in many ways, it's par for the course for Bellator in the Coker era. And whether or not you dismiss it as low-rent ratings bait, it's hard not to tune in and join the fun. Which raises a larger question: Is Bellator onto something here by creating a new genre of guilty pleasure MMA?

"It all stems from me being a fan, and that's what I am," Coker said. "This really comes down to what fights do I want to see? It doesn't always have to be No. 1 vs. No. 2, because sometimes that can be boring or doesn't really have the appeal outside of the hard-core fans. Spike TV is an entertainment property, so we are going to do fights that entertain."

Coker, who built Strikeforce into a viable UFC competitor before selling it to UFC parent company Zuffa in 2011, replaced CEO and founder Bjorn Rebney as Bellator's chief in June 2014 and quickly disbanded the promotion's seasonal tournament format.

He credits the idea for Bellator's recent run of fun fights with something he learned more than a decade ago while working as the director of North American operations for K-1.

"They were the king of this stuff, but at first I didn't get it," Coker said. "I was asking [promoter] Kazuyoshi Ishii, 'Why are you doing Bob Sapp against Akebono? And why are you trying to get Mike Tyson to fight Bob Sapp? And why do you have other sumo wrestlers fight?"

The answer, of course, was ratings, as the kickboxing match between the American giant Sapp and sumo legend Akebono on New Year's Eve in 2003 attracted 54 million viewers in Japan. But Ishii's philosophy stuck with Coker.

"I'll never forget this -- he said, 'You know, Scott, when Ernesto Hoost fights Peter Aerts or the Pride fighters face each other, the hard-core fans tune in. But I need the grandmothers and the grandfathers and the uncles and the aunts, and people that cross over to mainstream America and the water-cooler talk of the offices,'" Coker said.

"That's really where it hit me. He's right. It's really that crossover audience to get you to the massive numbers you need to be successful."

The first nine Bellator cards under Coker's watch averaged 657,000 viewers, according to Nielsen ratings. But as Coker puts it, you really can't begin to see his signature on an event until Bellator 131, which featured ex-UFC stars Ortiz and Bonnar in the main event and a promotion that unabashedly borrowed from pro wrestling.

The card set Bellator records with 1.2 million average viewers and peaked at 2 million. Seven months later, Coker reached back to the past once more as Shamrock made his promotional debut against Kimbo Slice at Bellator 138 last June.

With both fighters fresh off five-year layoffs from competitive MMA, the action was predictably sloppy. Yet unlike Ortiz-Bonnar, which dragged to the final bell with both fighters exhausted, this fight was fun, if not dramatic. Shamrock (28-16-2) nearly submitted Slice with a choke in Round 1 only to be stopped by punches moments later.

The result was another ratings bonanza as the fight peaked at 2.9 million viewers and blew up social media with high-profile athletes across multiple sports chiming in. Admittedly, a large chunk of the reaction to the fight was negative -- a combination of ridicule and outright accusation that the fight was fixed -- but the buzz was very real.

"It's really simple if you think about it -- you just need to have great ratings and put butts in seats," said Coker, when asked what will make Bellator 149 a success. "That's really how you are measured in this business."

While you can't argue with Bellator's success, it might be fair to question whether they are making a mockery of the sport.

Art Davie, who co-founded the UFC in 1993 and promoted the first two Gracie-Shamrock fights, looks at offering this brand of "legend fights" as a gamble.

"The question becomes: Is it shameless fun or is it a carnival mess?" Davie told ESPN.com. "Gracie hasn't fought in over eight years and Shamrock has lost eight of his last 10 fights since 2005. Whether or not this fight is going to determine a long-term strategy is really a question. If these fights are entertaining and it generates numbers, I think it's a good strategy. But if the two guys are washed up and look like they really shouldn't be fighting, I think we will be having a different discussion."

UFC president Dana White provided a very honest reaction when asked about the fight in December at a Q&A with fans before UFC 193 in Australia.

"Listen, everybody has got to do their own thing, but I don't think that 50-year-olds fighting is ever a good idea," White said. "I hope nobody gets hurt. I mean, two 50-year-old guys? That's crazy. Crazy."

Outside of the safety of the fighters at such an advanced age, Davie believes the biggest issue becomes what to do next. Bellator currently has no plans for a legends division or title belt, although Coker admits his phone has been ringing off the hook with ex-fighters like former UFC welterweight champion Pat Miletich showing interest in returning. Coker has also expressed his desire in making fights with veteran heavyweight Fedor Emelianenko.

"After Gracie-Shamrock III, where do you go?" Davie said. "You can't match these fighters against today's middleweights or light heavyweights. All you can do is Gracie vs. Miletich or Shamrock vs. [Dan] Severn. After that, what's next? Do you do Gracie vs. the ghost of Emmanuel Yarborough?"

Promoting fights is ultimately about creating stars, Davie says, although he acknowledges the dilemma Bellator faces in building talent like Eddie Alvarez only to lose them to the UFC. What that creates is a competing balance between promoting MMA as sports entertainment and finding the best fighter at each weight class, where satisfying each on an equal level can be difficult.

Davie has a great deal of respect for Coker's professionalism and business acumen, and realizes the challenge he's up against in creating short-term profitability.

"Since Bellator was purchased by Viacom, I don't think they are in there to do 500,000 viewers every night on Spike TV," Davie said. "They purchased Bellator because they want to get in the MMA space on the cheap and wanted to create a viable alternative to the UFC."

Either way, Davie expects to feel a great deal of personal nostalgia on Friday and believes Shamrock will enter the cage with something to prove.

"Royce has said recently that Ken has not slept well for the last 23 years thinking about that first bout," Davie said. "I remember that Ken was enormously shocked and never got over that loss."

Shamrock entered the eight-man tournament at UFC 1 in 1993 as the chiseled favorite but ultimately tapped out in 57 seconds to Gracie, who went on to win three of the first four UFC tournaments. Their rematch at UFC 5 in 1995 was contested for the first UFC Superfight Championship, but the fight -- before the advent of rounds and judges -- was a forgettable one and was ruled a draw after 36 minutes.

"If there were judges [in the rematch], that fight would have gone to Shamrock, in my opinion," Davie said. "He felt he was not vindicated because of that ending and it gnawed on him. I think for the fans, they know there's unfinished business."

Gracie (14-2-3), who was hired by Coker as a national brand ambassador for Bellator in 2014, hasn't fought since 2007. But the 49-year-old was quick to agree to the fight, initially telling Coker, "I'll fight him right now. I'll literally fight him now, like move the chairs out of the way. Right here."

Coker refers to Friday's card as another "tent-pole event," which he believes are the staple of the company as a showcase of "Bellator's best and biggest fights and production." After doing three cards of this size last year, he expects Bellator to do seven more in 2016 and upward of 10 by 2018.

It's unclear, however, whether the irony of the "tent pole" name is lost on him, considering the criticism of fights like Gracie-Shamrock III for their circus feel. But Coker remains unapologetic and is unmoved by the critics.

"They don't understand that you can do it all," Coker said. "I call them fun fights and legend fights. You can have the hard-core fights. We are going to put something on air for every segment of our audience, and to me, it's like why not? We have something for everybody."