Mixed martial arts' No. 2 promotion, Bellator MMA, has undergone significant changes over the past half-year.
The promotion released its founder and chief executive, Bjorn Rebney, and replaced him with former Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker. Coker was hired to overhaul the Bellator approach to MMA promotion, bringing in new fighters, moving away from a tournament-based format and switching to a lighter schedule with more stacked individual shows.
The first test for this new approach will come Saturday night, as Bellator 131 goes head to head with UFC 180 and WSOF 15 in a showdown between MMA's top three North American promotions.
Headlining the card is a fight featuring some of the strangest build you're ever going to see. Stephan Bonnar, whose fight with Forrest Griffin played a key role in popularizing MMA in the United States, has long disliked former Ultimate Fighting Championship light heavyweight champion Tito Ortiz. So when he had the chance to talk up a fight with Ortiz, he went all out.
Bonnar brought in a former training partner of Ortiz dressed up in a mask and unveiled him on television to show that he had joined Bonnar. He then made remarks that precipitated a shoving match, and the two have been jawing ever since. Bonnar was willing to make himself look silly in order to get to a man he clearly dislikes.
"Tito should be thanking me for turning him babyface," Bonnar says. "I made him the good guy.... I don't care. I'm not trying to get people to like me. I don't like him.... And I wanted to show that regardless of if it cost me fans."
Ortiz does have some gratitude toward Bonnar, as his words have provided added motivation as Ortiz prepares for a fight that might otherwise not stand out in importance.
"I've always been fueled on emotion," Ortiz notes. "It makes me who I am. I like the situation. It gives me extra fuel when I'm training so I'm able to push the tempo."
Both Ortiz and Bonnar come into the fight with something to prove. Ortiz was in a career tailspin, having lost seven of nine fights prior to submitting Alexander Shlemenko in his last fight. Another win would go a long way toward showing he is still a force in the sport. Bonnar, meanwhile, hasn't fought in more than two years after losing a fight to Anderson Silva and failing a test for performance-enhancing substances. A win over Ortiz would help to erase those bad memories.
More than anything else, the fighters are competing for pride after a harsh series of insults has upped the ante. Neither man has slowed the trash talk as the fight approaches. If anything, the proclamations have gotten more over the top.
"He says he likes to bleed," Ortiz says. "We'll see if he's ready to bleed every drop of blood in his body."
"He has this hashtag #willingtodie," Bonnar replies. "We'll find out. We'll see if he's willing to die."
The other top fights on Bellator 131 on Saturday night are a Bellator lightweight title fight between elite competitors Michael Chandler (12-2) and Will Brooks (14-1), plus the return of "King" Mo Lawal against Joe Vedepo.
WSOF 15 counters with three title fights: Japanese standout Yushin Okami challenges middleweight champion David Branch, former UFC star Melvin Guillard challenges undefeated lightweight champion Justin Gaethje, and Kalindra Faria challenges women's strawweight champion Jessica Aguilar.