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Bellator’s Out with the New, In with the Old

There was something special in the air as fighters took center stage at Bellator 145 on Friday night. For once, it seemed like the Viacom-headed MMA promotion had abandoned its reliance on recycled talent to steal headlines.

An all-important fight card featuring two world title bouts was packed with new and homegrown talent. Bellator lightweight champion Will Brooks was complimentary of the new direction at the official weigh-ins on Thursday:

“I’m just really excited to be on this card with a bunch of guys that are home-grown guys. I think we’re finally getting an opportunity to show people that we can carry a card by ourselves and not need a bunch of other fighters or older guys to jump on and have to carry us.”

Brooks’ admirable, yet incredibly naïve, comments shed light on a promotion leaning on circus fights and the presence of UFC veterans. Bellator dipped its hand in the cookie jar once before with the odd pairing of 51-year-old Ken Shamrock and Kimbo Slice, a street fighter turned MMA fighter, in June.

The harshly ridiculed bout was promoted as the headliner of Bellator 138 and proceeded to smash the previous ratings record, which was held by Tito Ortiz and Stephan Bonnar, by 27 percent.

Given the success of Shamrock vs. Slice, it was only a matter of time before Bellator went reaching into the cookie jar again.

Brooks’ vision of “homegrown” fighters being spotlighted wasn’t exactly realized on Friday night, as the show was once again commandeered by familiar faces. The trio of Shamrock, UFC legend Royce Gracie and professional wrestling star Kurt Angle appeared onstage for a pair of major announcements.

After cracking one of the most oddly-placed promos you’ll ever hear, Angle announced Shamrock would be headlining Bellator 149 against Gracie on February 19. Slice vs. Dada 5000, another street fighter-turned-MMA fighter, was announced as the co-main event.

A prevalent problem with Bellator has been its inability to sustain talent. There has never been a longstanding, dominant presence in any of its weight classes. The title picture in every division has been a revolving door of new faces, and unless you’re a hardcore fan, it’s impossible to keep up with every champion and contender.

Fans were just starting to get behind former Bellator featherweight champ Patricio Freire, who recently claimed he could beat UFC interim champion Conor McGregor. But after two successful title defenses, he was dethroned in Friday night’s headliner by Daniel Straus. Brooks has been the most consistent champion on Bellator’s roster, and he only has three title defenses. “Homegrown” fighters aren’t sticking around long enough at the top to become standalone stars.

The short-term remedy for that issue is instant gratification through circus fights. Shamrock, Gracie and Slice aren’t legitimate contenders. They might even get smoked by local jobbers on smaller venues.

But their entertainment value is immeasurable, and they are capable of moving the needle. It’s out with the new and in with the old for Bellator.

Sure, we’ll all be seated highly with our nose curled and feet hovering an inch above ground, analytically dissecting everything that is wrong with Bellator’s habit of placing meaningless fights on a pedestal.

But when Feb. 19 rolls around, we’ll all be seated in front of the television — eyes glued to the screen — equally partaking in the same circus we deem nonsensical.

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