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Swinging for the Fences

Bellator is the MMA underdog, but it’s a lot more fun with Chael Sonnen

(AP Images/Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

The promos for Bellator 170 have centered on a fight "20 years in the making," a personal grudge match between Bellator newcomer Chael Sonnen and the legend himself, Tito Ortiz. It’s a voyage into the deep scaffolding, you see, a peek back at who the Count of Monte Cristo was during adolescence. What exactly was it that created all this bad blood?

Allow me to take you back to 1998, when, while wrestling for the University of Oregon, Sonnen pinned Ortiz (of Cal State Bakersfield) in a match on Tito’s birthday. This really hurt Ortiz’s feelings, to the point that he carried that weight with him through a championship run in the UFC, an MMA boom-period rivalry with Chuck Liddell, a marriage with adult star Jenna Jameson, some epic guys-night-out events at Dave & Busters, and all the way into the cage at the Forum in Inglewood, California, on Saturday night.

Technically, Ortiz’s "rematch" with Sonnen will come 18 years, 363 days after the traumatic event he suffered while donning the collegiate singlet. Still, it’s a fun bit of backstory to help sell a fight, this early intersection between MMA notables. Ortiz and Sonnen, two brand names who’ve both had their share of glorious — and infamous — moments in the mixed martial arts, combine for a fight that needs only a tiny bit of kindling to warm a million hands.

All told, it’s a nice departure from where Bellator — the no. 2 promotion behind the juggernaut UFC — stood a year ago. Then, the "tent-pole" event on the Bellator calendar was a freak-show bout between Kimbo Slice and Dada 5000 in Houston last February. Bellator president Scott Coker called that match and a special quinquagenarian main-event bout between 52-year-old Ken Shamrock and then-49-year-old pioneer Royce Gracie "fun fights," which was the most ridiculous euphemism for "naked ratings grab" we’d seen.

Still, it was directional. The declaration seemed to be that Bellator’s idea of competing with the UFC, under former Strikeforce CEO Coker, was to put on some crazy-ass, barely sanctionable shit that would force us to watch through our fingers (yet watch just the same). The company was taking a page from the UFC playbook, circa 1993, only it was brushing off the relics.

Making matters worse, the Slice-Dada 5000 fight nearly played out as a real-time snuff film for all 2.5 million viewers. Heading in, everybody expected the bout to last a minute or two, given Kimbo’s desire to knuckle-up and Dada’s relative dearth of experience. It didn’t. It went the full 15 minutes. The fight became slow — comically slow, like it was taking place underwater — and Dada 5000 nearly died: He suffered cardiac arrest and renal failure afterward, and flat-lined.

He survived, but in June Kimbo Slice himself died in a hospital while waiting for a heart transplant, just weeks ahead of a bout against James Thompson in London. Four months after that "fun fight" between Kimbo and Dada, it was already a taboo matter, a disastrous recipe that could have derailed all the progress that MMA has made over the last many years in distinguishing spectacle from sport. In the same year that MMA was finally legal in all 50 states, and at its peak of acceptability, a nationally televised death in the cage would have set the sport back 20 years.

Bellator would just as happily like to forget it ever happened.

But it did happen, and the Ortiz-Sonnen bout feels a bit more … reasonable? understandable? desirable? … in the grand scheme of ratings ethics. Not that either fighter isn’t carrying baggage, starting with the simple fact that both are well past their primes. Though of late it has begun to add viable free agents like Rory MacDonald, Bellator loves to collect damaged goods and re-essentialize them as simply "legends."

Ortiz is an heirloom from the UFC swing era that helped push MMA through its so-called "Dark Ages," and he’s going out on his home turf against somebody he genuinely can’t stand. He’s a former champion who — with his flame-licking trunks and bleach-blond hair — also happened to be one of MMA’s first sellable heels (even if he did recently change his name from "The Huntington Beach Bad Boy" to "The People’s Champion" in a show of maturity). Ortiz says this is his last fight, and the tendency is to believe him — if you’ve listened to Ortiz detail his injuries over the years, you know his 41-year-old body feels closer to 61.

Sonnen, who showed during the Anderson Silva series how profitable it can be to talk as much shit as possible — and who, in no small sense, became the architect who drew up the blueprints for Conor McGregor — is ending his retirement. Sonnen decided to call it a career after getting busted for taking a cocktail of PEDs back in 2013, and his retirement lasted, not so coincidentally, about as long as his two-year suspension. He is perhaps the most asterisked fighter to ever carry a smirk, yet he carries that smirk so damn well that it’s easy to pump those asterisks full of helium.

Sonnen calls himself the greatest of all time, and that’s why he’s so special — he’s MMA’s greatest liar. He’s also Bellator’s smartest free-agent pickup. When you’re running a carnival, get a good carnival barker. Sonnen, by himself, can sell a fight, whether it’s against Ortiz, or Quinton Jackson, or Wanderlei Silva.

When Bellator put together the Ortiz-Sonnen fight, the first thing that popped into my head wasn’t about the fight itself, but about the fight before the fight. Sonnen is one of the great talkers in MMA, and Ortiz is one of its clumsiest. The lead-up to the fight looked like a mismatch of epic proportions. And guess what. It has been! But that’s exactly what you really need to sell a fight. Just a bear (Ortiz) and somebody (like Sonnen) to poke at it.

Ortiz is still rolling out the "his mouth wrote a check that his ass can’t cash" line, like it’s still the gold standard in clever retorts. During one split-screen exchange early on, Ortiz squeezed a juice box at the end of a fumbling rant. This was his way of saying he would crush the PED juicer Sonnen, but it came off as unintentional comedy.

(He doubled down on the metaphor later on: "The only thing that has gotten him into big fights is his mouth. And every time he’s gotten into big fights, he’s failed. And it’s not going to change no different in this one. Because I’m going to smash him like the juice box he is.")

Meanwhile, Sonnen has coolly carved up Ortiz at every turn. At a press conference at the Mohegan Sun in November, he said he threw an orange at Tito’s head, and the orange stopped a foot away and began to orbit the sphere. He said that Tito’s head was the size of a cinder block, only half as smart. And during that split-screen, he talked about Ortiz’s repossessed car, and said, "Unfortunately, he couldn’t get this match before — I heard he tried to sell some suits to make due on the car, but nobody had a size 52 stupid." Suffice it to say, Sonnen is being Sonnen, and Ortiz can’t help being Ortiz.

What’s been refreshing about this particular tent-pole affair is that it matters in a way that doesn’t really much matter. It’s legacy confetti. Ortiz was 1–7–1 in his last nine UFC bouts before debuting in Bellator in 2014 (where he’s since gone 2–1). We’re dealing in fumes when it comes to Tito, yet there’s still the chance he gets to say goodbye to the sport on his own terms. And we’re dealing with the post-suspension Sonnen, who treats his past cheating with a shrug and as an opportunity to roll out some new material. Sonnen, the original Janus face of MMA — the "Gangster from West Linn" who can also play at your heartstrings — has lost 14 times in his career. Who cares, though? They’re both somebodies.

This fight doesn’t matter that much, but it’s a "fun fight" in the real sense. It’s a fight with twilight competitors who have recognizable names and personal beef with each other. All of this is a vast improvement from last year. The inclination is still to gawk, yet there’s enough merit to keep things sporting.

In other words, this is Bellator’s version of a big event in a nutshell.