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The Fight Corner: Bellator heavyweight grand prix will conclude at the Forum

The Fight Corner: Bellator heavyweight grand prix will conclude at the Forum
Chael Sonnen (Gregory Payan / Associated Press)

Hi, my name is Lance Pugmire, and welcome to our weekly boxing/MMA newsletter. Let’s get right to the news.

Next week’s Bellator MMA doubleheader of heavyweight grand prix semifinals will lead the winners to Southern California.

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Bellator Chief Executive Scott Coker told the Los Angeles Times that his heavyweight grand prix will conclude Jan. 26 at the Forum.

“L.A. has a great MMA market, we have a great relationship with the Forum, and when you look at the fighter bases, there’s so many great gyms there,” Coker said. “When I think about MMA in the United States, I think first of L.A., the Bay Area, Las Vegas and New York … L.A. is such a big hub. The guys know that when they fight in L.A., they better bring it.”

The semifinals commence Oct. 12 when Russia’s legendary Fedor Emelianenko meets former UFC two-division title challenger Chael Sonnen at Mohegan Sun Casino in Connecticut. The next night, also on the Paramount Network, Ryan Bader meets Matt Mitrione at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in New York.

The Emelianenko-Sonnen winner will drive the publicity of the eight-fighter tournament final, while the Bader-Mitrione winner is likely to be established as the betting favorite.

“But you never know,” Coker cautioned. “The grand prix has created so much interest for Bellator … the ratings have been very successful — Fedor knocked out Frank Mir and 1.3 million people watched that fight — with the kind of explosive, fast fights you like to watch. With heavyweights, you can blink one time and miss the end. It’s been a good piece of business.”

Emelianenko, 42, reigned as the most dominant, mysterious figure in the sport before Fabricio Werdum submitted him in 2010. The Russian has confided in Coker that the honor of winning the grand prix is something he’s focusing hard on, “I might never get a shot at it again, it’s important to me to win this belt.”

Coker said, “He’s the greatest fighter of all time and it’s the fourth quarter for him. He wants to be the champ, and if he wins next week, then January is a big, big, emotional event for him.”

Mitrione knocked out Emelianenko in 2017 at Madison Square Garden and UFC defector Bader, 35, made his heavyweight debut in his grand prix opener.

“The heavyweight final is the centerpiece, and we’ll surround it with an amazing fight card,” Coker said.

Different results

While HBO exits the boxing business, Showtime is thriving in it.

In spinning his own failures as head of a former boxing broadcasting giant that his bosses were content to fit in a guillotine, Peter Nelson, the HBO Sports vice president, said his company was shifting from its storied, 43-year legacy of televising classic fights to “storytelling,” and it was an immediate turn, as he crafted a tale of subscriber surveys revealing diminished interest in the sport.

Was it a poll of only Nelson and his superiors?

Funny that rival premium cable network Showtime, which has access to powerful manager Al Haymon’s stable of fighters, reports a 2018 tracking study that revealed subscribers say “World Championship Boxing” was deemed “important” in their decision to subscribe and “very important” to 29%, while Showtime also reports a “strong uptick” in new subscriber sign-ups on fight weeks.

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Showtime will broadcast the important women’s middleweight unification between Claressa Shields and Christina Hammer on Nov. 17, and the Deontay Wilder-Tyson Fury heavyweight-title pay-per-view from Staples Center on Dec. 1, and it’s well positioned afterward to land marquee fights following involving unbeaten welterweight champion Errol Spence Jr., unbeaten lightweight champion Mikey Garcia and Southland-based featherweight champion Leo Santa Cruz, even with Fox also televising more of Haymon’s Premier Boxing Champions bouts starting next year.

This year, Showtime has aired 26 world-title bouts, and it intends to exceed that number in 2019, much to the delight of the diverse audience.

Nelson this week refused to take responsibility for allowing HBO to hack its boxing budget en route to losing veteran promoter Bob Arum’s Top Rank stable to ESPN, while popular middleweights Canelo Alvarez and Gennady Golovkin are also moving on.

“I don’t know what your question is,” he said twice when asked about his accountability.

Many in the industry know, and it's why they make light of the young executive whose self-importance shines in fashionable clothing, a stylish haircut and rehearsed vocabulary.

The smartest guy in the room? No. That's the guy who wouldn't put up a fight.

Heavy doings

Veteran fight promoter Richard Schaefer says he believes he handles three of the top five young heavyweights in the sport with England’s Big Bear-trained Joe Joyce, Nigeria’s Houston-trained Efe Ajagba and France’s Oakland-trained Tony Yoka.

The common denominator is the three 2016 Olympians’ link to U.S. training camps and their willingness to fight here.

With England’s former three-belt heavyweight champion Fury on his way to Staples Center on Wednesday to promote the Dec. 1 title shot against unbeaten World Boxing Council champion Wilder (40-0, 39 knockouts), Schaefer sees an opportunity to apply pressure on three-belt heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua to make an exception to his U.K. allegiance.

“Being a heavyweight champion is a global responsibility,” said Schaefer, who will help promote Wilder-Fury and is expected to place both Joyce, 33, and power-hitting Ajagba on the undercard. “Anthony Joshua, for some reason, always feels as if he has to fight in the U.K. The heavyweight champion has a duty to fight internationally.”

Unbeaten Joshua is bound contractually to fight next at England’s Wembley Stadium in April, and has said he expects his opponent to be the Wilder-Fury winner.

After that, Schaefer and many fight fans in the world’s most powerful boxing market are hopeful Joshua comes to the states.

Until next time

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