When the surprising announcement was made that former UFC star Chael Sonnen had inked a deal with Bellator MMA it seemed inevitable that a matchup involving “The American Gangster” and Tito Ortiz would be booked at some point.
Company president Scott Coker recently confirmed that the high-profile showdown would serve as the headlining act for Bellator 170 on Jan. 21 in Inglewood, California. The clash definitely shapes up as an exciting and nostalgic way for the organization to kick off 2017 and will unquestionably be one of the biggest fights and events in Bellator history.
While there will undoubtedly be critics of the scheduled clash between the fading former UFC stalwarts, it still shapes up as a major bonanza for both Bellator and Spike TV. When you consider the tremendous viewership numbers generated by a previous battle between “The Huntington Beach Bad Boy” and another former UFC veteran in Stephan Bonnar, this clash against Sonnen could actually dwarf that one. While Bonnar was for the most part blatantly over-the-top in his quest to promote the Ortiz fight after coming out of retirement himself, the entertainment component will come far more naturally for Sonnen. He’s one of the greatest trash-talkers that the sport has ever known and will be a formidable opponent for Ortiz in both the event build-up and the actual fight itself.
Sonnen is best-known for his two failed title challenges against legendary Brazilian Anderson Silva during what proved to be a highly captivating UFC middleweight title rivalry. The 39-year-old Oregon native was also unsuccessful in his bid to dethrone former light heavyweight kingpin Jon Jones at UFC 159. Sonnen has plenty of experience in competing against top-flight opposition in both the 185 and 205-pound divisions.
When Sonnen indicated he was willing to tangle with all-comers at “gangster weight” when announcing his deal with Bellator, it opened the door to several attractive options with Ortiz being near the top of that list. The January clash will be Sonnen’s first appearance since his UFC 167 loss to former light heavyweight champion Rashad Evans back in 2013. Sonnen initially retired after the controversy surrounding his multiple failed drug tests that scuttled his UFC 175 showdown against Vitor Belfort, but it seemed clear that he was itching to return once his two-year suspension had been served. He stayed close to the sport with his analyst work and popular podcast. Sonnen’s ‘legends ass-kicking tour’ officially begins against an opponent who doesn’t mind stirring the pot in his own right.
Ortiz is a former dominant UFC light heavyweight kingpin who made five successful defenses before losing his belt to Randy Couture. He was involved in memorable rivalries with Chuck Liddell, Ken Shamrock and Forrest Griffin and was one of the faces of the sport during his prime. While the losses and the injuries have piled up in the past several years, Ortiz still maintains that instant name recognition.
The 41-year-old Ortiz has had somewhat of a resurgence while competing under the Bellator banner. He’s 2-1 since ending his retirement including victories over former middleweight kingpin Alexander Shlemenko and Bonnar. His lone setback came against Liam McGeary when he was submitted in the first-round of their Bellator light heavyweight title clash back in September of 2015. He hasn’t competed since that setback but should feel right at home with this contest against Sonnen after facing the younger and physically imposing champion.
When you examine Bellator’s recent history under the Coker regime, it’s quite evident that fans are drawn to familiar fixtures, whether they’re well past their expiration dates or not. How else to explain the record ratings for the Ortiz-Bonnar clash at Bellator 131? That fight set a new standard for Spike TV only to be outdone by a Bellator 138 event headlined by Shamrock against Kimbo Slice. As if that wasn’t strange enough, the viewership record was again broken by the Bellator 149 show in Houston that featured the trilogy bout between former UFC greats Royce Gracie and Shamrock and a co-main that featured brawlers Slice and Dada 5000. Sadly that proved to be Kimbo’s last fight ever as he passed away in June at the age of 42.
Gracie and Shamrock are clearly shells of their former selves and had a combined age of 101 heading into their trilogy bout, but it simply didn’t matter. The numbers that were generated proved that fans were glued to their television sets and were surprisingly still interested. Sonnen and Ortiz are actually on the young side when you consider their combined age of 80 in comparison. They have 75 fights between them and should provide a far more compelling affair than Gracie-Shamrock III did.
Bellator has found out in its strategic approach that great fights on paper aren’t traditionally the key ingredient to enjoying major viewership success. While current promotional mainstays like Michael Chandler, Patricio Pitbull, and Andrey Koreshkov along with key free agent acquisitions Benson Henderson and Rory MacDonald will provide plenty of excitement, it’s clear that the old guard or circus-style matchups have attracted the most attention from fans and media alike. That’ll undoubtedly be the case when it comes to Sonnen vs. Ortiz. They’ve already carved out impressive MMA resumes and remain well-known stars despite the relatively mediocre win-loss records posted in the past few years.
Most fans probably thought they’d never get to see two of the most polarizing figures in the game square off before their careers ended, but now they’ll get to witness just that at Bellator 170. Whether you love or loathe the matchup, the guess here is you’ll probably be watching. That’s what Bellator is counting on and based upon the surprisingly strong results of past offerings the Sonnen-Ortiz tilt should prove a winning formula come January for the Viacom-owned promotion.