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SportsColumnistsMark La Monica

Bellator NYC card is a sign of the MMA promotion’s growth

Scott Coker speaks during the Bellator 158 MMA

Scott Coker speaks during the Bellator 158 MMA Press Conference at the Four Seasons Hotel on April 18, 2016 in London, England. Credit: Getty Images/ Jordan Mansfield

Michael Chandler said it perfectly at Thursday’s news conference for Bellator NYC.

“It doesn’t get any bigger than Madison Square Garden,” the Bellator lightweight champion said.

Certainly not in terms of stature. It’s in the heart of New York City, the No. 1 media market in the world and home to the NBA’s Knicks, the NHL’s Rangers and dozens of other historic moments in sports from Joe Louis to Sugar Ray Robinson to Muhammad Ali to Conor McGregor.

This was the stage Saturday night as Bellator made its biggest and boldest move as a mixed martial arts promotion by coming to New York City for the first time and putting 12,133 fans in the Garden. It is the biggest venue they’ve ever been in, had three title fights, Fedor Emelianenko and oh yeah, it’s on pay-per-view.

“This is the premier event that I think I’ve ever promoted, ever,” said Scott Coker, who used to promote Strikeforce and K-1 events before taking over as Bellator CEO three years ago. “Usually, it’s one big name and then we have some undercard fights.

“This is the biggest fight card I’ve ever been associated with.”

So big, they gave it two names. The online prelims and the Spike TV card was called Bellator 180, and the pay-per-view headlined by Chael Sonnen vs. Wanderlei Silva was called Bellator NYC.

Success will be measured in multiple forms. Ticket sales and pay-per-view buys are the obvious ones given their financial implications. There also are the number of views on the prelims streamed on, the ratings from the Spike TV fights and the amount of engagement on various social media platforms, to name a few.

For example: Long Island MMA’s Hugh McKenna, a relative unknown, was trending nationwide on Twitter more than 30 minutes after he won the first prelim. It streamed online. It was his second pro fight. And he doesn’t even have a Twitter account.

Many of the fighters, both winners and losers, trended on Twitter throughout the night, which has to please those monitoring such things. Thirteen items appeared in Twitter's top 20 U.S. trends at various points during the night, the most for any Bellator event in the promotion's history, according Bellator VP of digital Eric Burak.

Ultimately, the long-term success of the event will be determined by the quality of in-cage action. No matter how much a fight card is hyped and marketed by the promoters, written about by media and looked forward to by fans, fighters fighting build the brand.

"We talked about doing a fight card that had something for everybody," Coker said after the fights Saturday night, "and that's what we had tonight."

Chael Sonnen and Wanderlei Silva put on a fight more entertaining than expected, ending in a unanimous decision win for Sonnen. 

Emelianenko and Matt Mitrione knocked each other down simultaneously early in the first round, only for Mitrione to get up quickly and knock out “The Last Emperor,” considered by many as the greatest MMA heavyweight in history. Chandler lost his title when doctors stopped the fight because of his busted-up ankle, yet he yelled on the mike, “Cut it off, I’ll keep going.”

Pro boxer Heather Hardy, in her MMA debut, put together a series of combinations to win by TKO with 13 seconds left in her bout on Spike TV. Zach Freeman surprised mostly everyone at MSG and beyond with his submission in 24 seconds of Aaron Pico, billed as the top prospect in the entire sport.

“This fight had a lot of heat and it was promoted, I think, extremely well," Coker said. "You're in Madison Square Garden, this is the most iconic sports venue in the world ... It was really special. It just felt like all the pieces came together.”

Chandler was there when Bellator used a tournament-only format. When Coker took over for Bjorn Rebney as head of Bellator three years ago, he and broadcast partner Spike TV (both properties are owned by Viacom) changed that.

“To be in New York, to have a fight card like this, and you guys saw the promotional push and support that Viacom gave to this event,” Coker said.  “To be at the Garden, yeah, it was fantastic. It was unbelievable. It was definitely one of the highlights of my life.”

Coker methodically has rebranded Bellator as a legitimate destination for fighters and a viable No. 2 promotion behind the UFC. Several former UFC fighters have signed with Bellator in the past three years, including former lightweight champion Benson Henderson, Phil Davis, Rory MacDonald, Lorenz Larkin, Ryan Bader and Roy Nelson. Bader won the light heavyweight title from Davis by split decision on Saturday night.

“It’s been amazing, it really has, to see the exponential growth,” Chandler said. “I’ve been with Bellator since the ESPN Deportes days. Back in the day, when girls softball games were getting precedence over mixed martial arts events on TV and my fights weren’t happening on TV until 2 in the morning.”

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