It felt like deja vu all over again this Tuesday morning when we learned former UFC light heavyweight champion Quinton 'Rampage' Jackson has signed a multi-year, mutli-platform contract with Bellator MMA, TNA Wrestling, and Spike TV.
After all, it was only a little over a year ago when news broke the same triumvirate had inked a similar deal with former Strikeforce light heavyweight champ Muhammed "King Mo" Lawal. The idea at the time was King Mo would be a big crossover star who could help draw ratings for both Bellator and TNA, and thus be a valuable asset for Spike TV. So far that hasn't been the case.
First of all, the idea of Lawal gaining new fans on TNA Impact and bringing them with him when he fights in Bellator hasn't exactly panned out. How could it, when he's yet to have a match on Impact? Those who thought King Mo would be a ready in under a year to be a featured player on a national pro wrestling promotion - even one as bush league as TNA - grossly underestimated the precipitous learning curve when it comes to mastering the art of pro wrestling. While we still don't know if Rampage intends to wrestle or not, if he does it's almost certainly going to be a matter of years and not months until he's able to look convincing inside the ring.
When it comes to Lawal's MMA career inside the Bellator cage he's had mixed results, despite high expectations at the time of his signing. Before he books Jackson's first match, Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney would be wise to spend some time examining why Lawal's run in the company has so far fallen short.
Lawal's Bellator debut against Przemyslaw Mysiala at Bellator 86 netted 812,000 average viewers - the fourth highest of the promotion's initial eleven week season on Spike. Although this number was up 2% from the season average of 793,000, it still could only be considered a slight disappointment given the hype surrounding Lawal coming into his first Bellator fight, the well-produced "King Mo: Unrivaled" hype special Spike aired all week leading up to Bellator 86, and the no doubt well above average financial terms of King Mo's contract.
Still, if one buys into Rebney's insistence that his company's tournament format helps create stars, or in this case puts more steam behind a star from another promotion making his first run in the company, then it might be safe to assume viewership would be even higher for King Mo's next appearance after his first round TKO destruction of Mysiala.
However, this wasn't the case. Bellator 90 did a mere 737,000 average viewers, down 7% from the average and the fourth lowest rating of the season. When your supposed difference maker pulls in that kind of number in his second fight in the company, it's a sign that somewhere along the way your promotion of him misfired in a major way.
Even worse for Bellator's bottom line, Lawal lost that fight to underdog Emanuel Newton by way of a spectacular spinning back fist knockout. This might be where Rebney would cite the unpredictable nature of the tournament leading to the creation of new stars, but a look at the numbers for Newton's tournament-final match with Mikhail Zayats paints a decidedly different picture. Newton/Zayats headlined Bellator 94, which did the second lowest number of the season at 713,000 viewers. Whatever star power King Mo may have had coming into Bellator, it certainly didn't rub off on Newton after he knocked him out.
Granted this is MMA, and upsets are a part of the game. However, if we accept as a given that it's at least within the realm of possibility for even the most heavily favored fighter to lose to a less popular opponent on any given night, doesn't it make sense to book your big money stars in manner calculated to squeeze the most financial and promotional juice out of their name value in the event they do suffer a loss?
Which brings us to Rampage Jackson. Although the terms of his deal remain unknown, it's safe to say a star as popular as Rampage - who continually complained about not earning enough money throughout his UFC tenure - didn't come cheap. There are also major question marks surrounding how much the almost 14-year veteran of 43 professional fights has left in the tank, especially when you consider he's the owner of a less than stellar 2-4 record over the past three years. He also has a history of knee injuries, which caused him to undergo surgery last year.
With the above in mind, if you asked a Magic 8-Ball whether or not Rampage would be a good prospect to run though even a two fight tournament en route to earning a title shot, that all-knowing mystic sage would likely reply with "outlook not so good." Going through multiple fights - and multiple fight camps with all the concomitant wear and tear they inflict on a fighter's body - in the span of a few weeks to get a title shot is a game best played by young up and comers and those still in their primes. Rampage, who is a couple weeks shy of his 35th birthday, is anything but young and even his most partisan supporter would have to admit his best days in the cage are behind him.
The one thing Rampage undeniably still has going for him is his name value. Even though he's lost his past three fights, he's a big enough star that he can likely move the needle for Bellator if his star power is used in the most effective manner possible.
How does Bellator go getting the most bang for their buck with Jackson? Simple. Rebney needs to hold his purist nose and keep Rampage as far as humanly possible from the light heavyweight tournament. As we saw with King Mo, there's simply too much risk involved in booking your big stars in a tournament where they can end up getting lost in the crowd or losing early to a lesser name. Instead, a wise promoter shines as big a spotlight on his featured attractions as he possibly can.
Given the current state of Bellator's light heavyweight division, there are only two potential match ups that make sense for Jackson: the winner of light heavyweight champ Attila Vegh vs. Emanuel Newton or a number one contender's match with King Mo.
Although Rebney would never be able to cast aspersions on UFC matchmaking again if he put Rampage in an immediate title match against the winner of Vegh/Newton, he'd at least have the satisfaction that comes from knowing he did the right thing for business. If we've learned one thing from UFC business this year, it's that win/loss records don't matter to the majority of fans when it comes to determining title contenders. Stars booked in important matchups lead to increases in business, not impressive winning streaks.
If Rampage wins the fight, Bellator can temporarily use his star power to build up the prestige of the light heavyweight title and hopefully get the division over with fans who still see Rampage as a big deal. In the event Rampage loses to Vegh or Newton, the champ gets put over strong by defeating a former UFC champ and top draw in a big match rather than in just another interchangeable tournament bout.
However, in the event Bellator feels it would reflect poorly upon them to have a UFC fighter riding a three fight skid come in and win their title in his first match, then the next best fight they can make is Jackson vs. Lawal. Given both men's promo ability and the history of past beef between the two of them, a number one contender's bout between the two of would likely do a big number for Bellator, especially if Spike helped them put together a three week special in the vein of "UFC Primetime" to hype the fight. Of course in order to make this match, Bellator would have to pull Lawal from his upcoming bout with Seth Petruzelli, but that should hardly be a concern given how much Bellator would stand to gain in the bigger picture with a high profile feud between Jackson and Lawal.
Finally, if there is anything Bellator can learn from TNA it's that the shine on big stars who migrate over from the dominant number one promotion can quickly tarnish if they aren't used correctly. Kurt Angle and Jeffy Hardy were both two of the biggest stars in the pro wrestling business when they debuted in TNA, but neither have been able to take the company to the next level long term. Instead, their star power has been diminished to a fraction of what it once was in WWE thanks to shoddy booking and the obviously second rate nature of TNA's programming. Jackson could find himself in the same barely seaworthy boat Angle and Hardy are currently floundering in if he loses to a relative unknown in a largely meaningless tournament bout.
Booking Rampage in an immediate title shot or number one contender's match may go against the tagline "Where Title Shots Are Earned, Not Given" but it would be foolhardy to use him in any other way considering where he is in his career and the lucrative contract the company is likely paying him. If you're Bjorn Rebney it's better to break with tradition and make the most of your assets rather than risk being known as the company "Where Money is Burned, Not Earned."