Bellator is stepping up to Madison Square Garden and back onto pay-per-view.
The mixed martial arts promotion will stage a stacked card in New York City on June 24, The Associated Press has learned.
Bellator 180 will be headlined by Chael Sonnen's long-awaited rivalry bout with Wanderlei Silva. Additional fights will be announced soon for several of the promotion's top talents, including a handful of its newly-signed free agents.
Bellator will broadcast on pay-per-view for only the second time in promotional history, signaling another step in its growth as a rival for the industry-leading UFC. Bellator staged its only previous pay-per-view event in May 2014, shortly before CEO Scott Coker took over the promotion.
"We always said that when we come to New York, we'll bring the biggest and the best fight card we've ever had in the history of this company," Coker told the AP. "We're putting it together, and our roster is robust enough that we feel like it's time to get into the pay-per-view business, so here we go."
After New York lifted its long-standing restrictions on the sport last year, the UFC debuted at Madison Square Garden in November with Conor McGregor headlining the star-stacked UFC 205.
Bellator 180 will feature the Viacom-owned promotion's formula of big-name veteran fighters topping a card to draw fans for a showcase of elite up-and-coming talent. Sonnen and Silva likely are in the final years of their careers, but they're still two of the best-known names in MMA.
Bellator also intends to debut a portion of its latest crop of free-agent signees in New York, although the bouts haven't been finalized. The promotion confirmed Monday that it has signed Ryan Bader, the longtime UFC light heavyweight title contender.
Coker has built Bellator around regular fight shows on Viacom's Spike TV, its flagship cable station. Even with this leap into the more lucrative world of pay-per-view fights, Coker doesn't intend to stage regular pay-per-view shows every few weeks, instead following the boxing model of using pay-per-view for only the biggest events.
"I've watched how hard Bellator has worked and how they've stuck through it, and I think they belong on pay-per-view," Sonnen told the AP. "After a I joined up, I was stunned that Bellator was packing houses from the East Coast to the West Coast. They've got a great product, and it just seemed like the next logical step was going into pay-per-view."
Bellator is ramping up while the UFC is in an undeniable fallow patch, with its biggest mainstream stars — including McGregor, Ronda Rousey, Georges St. Pierre, Brock Lesnar and Jon Jones — all in various stages of inactivity, retirement or suspension. Among the UFC's surefire pay-per-view sellers, only St. Pierre has a fight booked, and it doesn't have a date.
The UFC has no show booked for the weekend of June 24, which is two weeks before the UFC's International Fight Week.
"I think (Bellator 180) will be the most exciting fight card in MMA this year so far," Coker said. "I mean, who knows what's going to happen before the end of the year, but I think this is going to be the biggest fight card put together by any company so far in the pay-per-view business, and we feel really good about it."
Bellator has acquired the services of several former UFC fighters over the past 18 months, including Rory MacDonald, Phil Davis and Lorenz Larkin.
Bellator has a multi-fight deal with Russian heavyweight great Fedor Emelianenko, although his promotional debut last month was scrapped at the last minute when opponent Matt Mitrione fell ill. The promotion also recently signed star grappler Dillon Danis, McGregor's training partner.
Sonnen made his Bellator debut last November with an upset loss to Tito Ortiz, but the talkative wrestler remains one of MMA's best-known fighters and most effective promoters.
"New York is a big deal for a lot of people," Sonnen said. "I'm a big deal for New York."
Sonnen has a long-simmering feud with the 40-year-old Silva, the Brazilian veteran who signed with Bellator last year. The fighters got into a real-life brawl when they coached against each other on a season of the UFC's long-running reality television show in 2013.
Silva hasn't fought since March 2013, but the former Pride champion nicknamed "The Axe Murderer" remains one of the sport's big names.
"I'll fight Wanderlei Silva the next time I see him," Sonnen said. "I fought Wanderlei Silva the last time I saw him. I'm glad it's going to be an organized event. I'm glad it's not going to be something outside of the ring."