The legendary Ken Shamrock, he of UFC 1 fame and half of mixed martial arts' first major rivalry, returns to action on Friday, June 19, and no one is more excited than Bellator President Scott Coker and featherweight champion Patricio "Pitbull" Freire.
Set to face notorious YouTube brawler-turned-pro-MMA fighter Kevin Ferguson, better known as "Kimbo Slice" to the millions of netizens who followed his rise from the streets to the ring in the early aughts, Shamrock, 51, enters the cage for the first time in nearly five years.
The bout, which headlines the Bellator 138 (9 P.M. EST, Spike TV) fight card, has been dubbed "Unfinished Business," referencing a failed 2008 booking between the two fighters that fell through at the last minute when Shamrock was forced to pull out after suffering a cut on the eve of the contest. And while Friday's matchup amounts to more of a spectacle than relevant competition, it's the perfect fight for Bellator's new direction and strategy, which sees events built off of tentpole matchups and well-known names, regardless of their actual relevance to the contemporary MMA landscape.
Having just completed his first year at the helm of Bellator, Coker knows a thing or two about turning around a struggling MMA business and building a competitive promotion with viable athletes. Coker, who founded the now-defunct Strikeforce organization in 2006 (it previously ran as a kickboxing-only promotion from the mid-80s), helped build the careers of mixed martial artists like UFC light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier and middleweight challenger Luke Rockhold. He is now hoping to do the same for Freire, challenger Daniel Weichel, and a smattering of other Bellator aspirants like Michael Chandler, Daniel Straus, and Justin Lawrence, using both Shamrock and Ferguson's popularity and notoriety as a pillar to draw in a larger audience.
Coker has already seen this strategy work to some extent. In November 2014, Bellator booked a pair of UFC hall of famers to top its 131st card. Former light heavyweight champion Tito Ortiz took a split decision over Stephan Bonnar, and more than 1.2-million viewers tuned in to Spike TV, despite scheduling against UFC 180. Ortiz and Bonnar were the evening's main course, but it was the lightweight champion Will Brooks who benefitted most from Coker's design. Brooks defended his title against Chandler, and was exposed to the largest audience of his career.
The Bellator President is expecting similar numbers come Friday, as is Freire, who publically lobbied with the promotion for a spot on the tentpole program.
Freire is exactly the type of fighter Bellator is attempting to push forward into the public eye. A Brazilian national, Freire, 27, has been with the promotion for five years, winning two featherweight tournaments before capturing gold in 2014. His 23-2 record is formidable, to say the least, with notable wins over Straus, Pat Curran, and Georgi Karakhanyan. And still, very few people outside of hardcore MMA circles know much about Freire.
Even fewer are aware of Weichel, a submission specialist, who has spent the majority of his career fighting in Europe, which makes Coker's promotional methods that much more lucrative for his fighters, and for the Viacom-backed organization as a whole.
It is, in part, this very restructuring, along with a proven MMA track record (Coker sold Strikeforce to Zuffa LLC., parent company of the UFC, in 2011) that led Coker to the helm of Bellator. And with Coker in, the doors to Shamrock and Ferguson, fighters most believed were done with professional MMA, were thrust open.
Shamrock, the much beleaguered catch wrestler and submission ace who once fought to a 36-minute draw with inaugural UFC champion Royce Gracie, has been a polarizing figure in mixed martial arts from the very beginning. A UFC Superfight champion and former King of Pancrase, Shamrock beat the best of the best in the mid 90s, topping greats like Bas Rutten, Dan Severn, and Matt Hume. He was also involved in a contentious rivalry with Ortiz in the early aughts, losing three straight to the Huntington Beach, California product. It was at the peak of his back-and-forth with Ortiz that Shamrock, and his fighting career, began to fall into disarray, as he fell out with the UFC and later went 2-3 on the regional MMA circuit.
Far less experienced in mixed martial arts, Ferguson hung up his four-ounce gloves in May 2010 after a TKO loss to Matt Mitrione. His 4-2 MMA career peaked with a 2009 decision win over Houston Alexander, but still the legend of "Kimbo Slice" is enough to attract casual viewers, especially in the wake of the 2015 documentary "Dawg Fight," which chronicles the Miami-Dade county backyard brawling scene and promoter Dhafir "Dada 5000" Harris. It was this very same region and setting that propelled Ferguson to international fame, and his success has become somewhat of an inspiration to the impoverished hopefuls of southern Florida.
So while Ken Shamrock and Kevin "Kimbo Slice" Ferguson will likely never again contend for a major MMA title, it is their combined list of career achievements that Bellator and Coker are hoping to cash in on come Friday. And should the strategy once again prove successful, there is no telling what they'll think of for their next tentpole event. Perhaps they'll convince Randy Couture to come out of retirement, maybe even a fourth go-around for Shamrock and Ortiz.