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Fading stars from MMA's past have been a ratings hit, but will fans pay premium prices for it?

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It’s funny how, if you’d told us a few years ago (and by a few I mean roughly six or seven) that an event featuring Chael Sonnen, Wanderlei Silva and Fedor Emelianenko was headed to Madison Square Garden, we would have had our credit cards out before you could even finish the sentence.

That was then. So what about now?

This is the question Bellator seems intent on answering with Bellator 180, one way or another. In a move that will test the viability of its current strategy, Bellator is loading its second attempt at pay-per-view with exactly the kinds of attractions that have proven to be ratings winners on cable TV.

Just look at the lineup, and you can see the thought process at work. You’ve got Sonnen (29-14-1 MMA, 0-1 BMMA) vs. Silva (35-12-1 MMA, 5-7 UFC) in a matchup between two 40-year-olds who haven’t won a fight since 2013. You’ve got Emelianenko (36-4 MMA 0-0 BMMA) vs. Matt Mitrione (11-5 MMA, 2-0 BMMA) in a fight that was called off the first time due to kidney stones, and could easily be scratched again over anything from osteoporosis to gout.

There’s also a chance for somewhat more relevant fighters, like Phil Davis (17-3 MMA, 4-0 BMMA) and Ryan Bader (22-5 MMA, 0-0 BMMA), to get in on the fun, but at a glance it all still looks very much like what we’ve come to regard as a Bellator “tent-pole” event.

Familiar (though rapidly aging) fighters. Interesting (though well past their expiration date) matchups. Echoes from MMA’s past, relying on the power of nostalgia and our ability to enjoy this sport in at least semi-ironic fashion.

That’s proven to be a good bet on cable, but will it work the same on PPV? Because for most fans, it’s a whole different calculation when actual money is involved.

Some of the highest-rated fights that Bellator has put on in recent years have been a little like the “Sharknado” of the MMA world. We roll our eyes and make our jokes on Twitter, but we’re still going to watch because a) The bigger the trainwreck, the bigger the crowd that gathers to gawk at it, but also because b) It doesn’t cost us anything extra.

There’s a reason “Sharknado” didn’t debut in theaters, where the fun comes at a price.

Bellator’s second PPV event also reflects a clear shift in attitude from its first. Three years ago, when the Viacom-owned entity first tried its hand on premium fight promoting with Bellator 120, it felt like a different kind of pitch to fans.

The original plan for that one was to pit Eddie Alvarez vs. Michael Chandler in a rematch of one of Bellator’s first truly great fights. It was about as close to homegrown as a six-year-old fight promotion could reasonably hope to get while still charging PPV prices.

In the end, due to injury, former UFC champ Quinton Jackson faced former Strikeforce champion Muhammad Lawal in the main event, but it still had a different feel than the fading stars Bellator leads with now.

Maybe the big difference is that, back then, Bellator still wanted us to take its fights seriously. Now there’s something tongue-in-cheek about these big shows. That’s not to say that it’s ever a joke when two people try to punch each other in the head for money, but you don’t put together a card with Ken Shamrock vs. Royce Gracie at the top (in the year 2016) without the wink and the nod being at least implied. When the co-headliner is Kimbo Slice vs. Dada 5000, come on, we all know what you’re doing.

And the thing is, it’s worked. Despite ourselves, we had to admit that we did want to see those fights. You know, in a particular kind of way.

Part of that appeal has to do with the magic of social media, which allows us to gather in the virtual living room to make fun of the same thing in real time. It’s like renting a bad movie with your friends, all just so you can have a good time mocking it together. People don’t do that by themselves. They also don’t do it if the movie costs more than a couple bucks.

In sticking with the same warmed-over legends approach for this PPV, it feels like Bellator is both sticking with what works, while also setting out to discover the limitations of its own strategy.

Ratings numbers suggest we like this Bellator better than previous versions. Do we like it enough to pay for it? And if not, what then?

For more on Bellator 180, check out the MMA Rumors section of the site.



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