I was headed to the Santa Ana Star Center in Rio Rancho, N.M., last Friday when I first saw the news flash across my smartphone’s screen: Tito Ortiz injured, no more Bellator pay-per-view.

One man injured, one event down the drain, at least in terms of pay-per-view. The event itself would go on, but now as a stellar free Bellator card featuring the likes of lightweight champion Michael Chandler, former lightweight champ and returning star Eddie Alvarez, featherweight champ Pat Curran, Daniel Straus, Muhammed “King Mo” Lawal and Emanuel Newton on Spike TV on a Saturday night (talk about throwing off people accustomed to seeing Bellator on Friday night). Gone was the main event that pitted Ortiz against Quinton “Rampage” Jackson. Gone too was the heavyweight tournament final that paired high-profile acquisition Cheick Kongo against Vinicius Queiroz.

Rampage’s Bellator debut was shifted to Nov. 15 against UFC castoff Joey Beltran. The Kongo-Queiroz bout was initially moved to Bellator 107, but Queiroz was forced out with an injury. Kongo, still on the Nov. 8 card, now meets replacement Peter Graham instead. The dispersal of talent makes sense in terms of strengthening the season’s other events, and there’s certainly not a large contingent of fans complaining about the money that they can put back in their wallets. But this series of events does lead to another question: What message does Bellator’s decision to nix the pay-per-view because of one injured fighter send to the promotion’s other fighters?

It was ironic timing that the news broke last Friday. It was at Bellator’s last event in Rio Rancho on July 31 that the Rampage-Ortiz headliner was first announced. The initial reaction to that fight announcement was a mixture of disbelief and ridicule. Fans and pundits alike pointed to the duo’s combined record in the UFC over the last several years and their insignificance in the present-day light heavyweight division. To many of the people making those comments, this was a fight that had come five years too late, at minimum, and featured two over-the-hill fighters that would do little to convince fans to shell out cash for a pay-per-view event. Only when Bellator stacked on a lightweight rematch between Alvarez and Chandler, a featherweight title showdown between Curran and Straus, a heavyweight tournament final and other additional intriguing fights, did the general MMA viewing public come around to the notion of paying extra for a product it normally viewed on Spike TV.

So, why then should it be dismantled after the loss of Ortiz, a fighter who is 1-7-1 over his last nine fights dating back to his 2006 loss to Chuck Liddell? Why, after the loss of a fighter whose injury withdrawal was predicted by more than a few at the moment of the big reveal in July?

Ortiz and Rampage still carry significant name value, and as much as the diehard crowd may not like to admit it, those were the two names that would resonate with the casual fans and the mainstream crowd. Chandler and Alvarez may have engaged in one of Bellator’s all-time classics, but ask someone who doesn’t religiously watch the promotion’s weekly events about those two talented lightweights and you’re likely to be met with a blank stare. Bellator promised Rampage and Ortiz, and when it couldn’t deliver, it opted to reward its loyal fans and strengthen its other events. In terms of business sense, it’s hard to blame them.

But then there’s Alvarez. There’s also the long-term idea of Bellator on pay-per-view—as strong as a Rampage-Ortiz headliner might seem, at least in the heads of the Bellator braintrust, it can’t top the bill of every pay-per-view venture. There’s the fact that despite touting its homegrown talent, Bellator imported two UFC stars and noticeably increased its efforts to sign UFC castoffs when it came time to install a pay-per-view model. And here’s where the message comes in.

Bellator watched Alvarez, arguably its biggest star through a good portion of the company’s existence, sign with the UFC. However, the promotion fought for him. It matched the contract and argued that the pay-per-view aspects of the UFC’s offer were all things that Bellator, too, could provide to Alvarez. That argument came from a company that had never entered the pay-per-view realm. The legal standoff between Bellator and Alvarez escalated and then stalled, with court dates not scheduled to arrive until 2014. In the meantime, Bellator, needing proof to support its claim that it could give Alvarez the same pay-per-view clauses as the UFC, brought everything together for Rampage-Ortiz. Soon after, Alvarez was back in the fold and on the card.

There’s no doubt that there was at least some animosity remaining between Alvarez and Bellator upon his return, but at least Alvarez was out of the courtroom and returning to the cage, complete with a payday that included at least some pay-per-view related perks.

But what now?

With the news of the downgrade of the event from pay-per-view to Spike TV still fresh in everyone’s mind, I asked Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney last Friday at a post-fight media scrum about how it would impact the company’s standing with Alvarez. Rebney admitted that he had not talked to Alvarez since the news broke, but indicated that he thought the lightweight would be happy to be headlining an event that was now on Spike and would attract plenty of attention.

Yet, Alvarez has to feel, at least to some degree, as though he was tricked. Rebney commented at the post-fight scrum that plans for future pay-per-views were uncertain and admitted that Bellator’s model wasn’t really staked to a pay-per-view model. Alvarez may be hit with the biggest double whammy of a message here. A) No pay-per-view perks after all—so much for matching the UFC, and B) Bellator doesn’t have confidence in him as a headliner, even in a rematch of a “Fight of the Year”-caliber bout.

That lack of confidence extends to the message to the rest of the lineup. Without Ortiz—and therefore, by association, without Rampage—Bellator didn’t think a strong lineup of its best could shoulder the load. This has to take a psychological toll on not only Alvarez, but also the promotion’s champs, Chandler and Curran, and even the others in the lineup who are viewed as the promotion’s stars, including Lawal, Newton and Straus. Bellator’s commitment needed to extend beyond two aging UFC stars, but it didn’t. Will this cause a rift between the promotion and its homegrown talents? Only time will tell. But for a promotion that once said that it wouldn’t pursue the UFC’s castoffs, reversing course in the face of the move to pay-per-view and then retreating when those match-ups imploded is not exactly a vote of confidence for what Bellator’s message has always been. It’s not a vote of confidence for the talent the promotion nurtured and touted as its biggest asset for so long.

Things didn’t go wrong for Bellator when the pay-per-view fell apart. In fact, Bellator’s decision to move the event back to Spike TV is a win-win, creating the most exposure for the fighters and the promotion and easing the strain on the budgets of MMA fans who already spend more than they can probably afford on UFC’s vast offering of pay-per-views each year. No, things didn’t go wrong there. They had already gone wrong much earlier.

Things went wrong for the promotion the minute that it picked up the phone and dialed its lawyers to get involved in the Alvarez contract situation. That’s when it had to make promises, promises it could only keep if it headed to pay-per-view. And heading to pay-per-view meant bringing in big names, ones that went beyond anything the promotion felt it had in-house. That’s when it changed its philosophy and targeted the UFC’s former stars and mid-card talents. That’s when it lost its way and abandoned its long-standing dedication to delivering something unique.

It’s too late to take back the message that the move of the pay-per-view sent, but Rebney’s words on Friday night in Rio Rancho were encouraging. It seems that Bellator now recognizes that it took a few steps down a path that wouldn’t serve the company well. Now, it can once again focus on its biggest asset and send a new message: those that brought the company this far are the ones who can take it to the next level.

Photo: Eddie Alvarez (Sherdog)

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