Bellator rocked the MMA world yesterday by signing Chael Sonnen. Sonnen is one of the UFC’s biggest draws in the past five years and will bring his brash pro wrestling persona to Spike TV and Bellator. Sonnen will immediately be a player in the promotion and will have opportunities to face off with some big names at 185 and 205 like Tito Ortiz, Rampage Jackson, Phil Davis and Rory MacDonald, all of which are former UFC fighters.
Scott Coker has quietly been signing away free agents once their deals expire with the UFC, and who can blame him? If the fighters are upset about pay and the awful Reebok sponsorship deal why wouldn’t they test the waters of free agency and see what Bellator and Viacom are willing to spend? In the past two years Coker has signed former #1 welterweight contender Rory MacDonald, heavyweight Matt Mitrione, perennial light heavyweight contender Phil Davis, former lightweight champ Benson Henderson and lightweight standout Josh Thomson. When you throw them in with other UFC re-treads under contract like Cheick Kongo, Paul Daley, Ken Shamrock, Royce Gracie, Tito Ortiz and Rampage Jackson the Bellator roster doesn’t look too bad.
Back in the 1990s we saw the same thing in pro wrestling. WCW was a fledgling wrestling promotion owned by Ted Turner and eventually Time Warner/AOL. Turner wanted to get serious about wrestling after being a minor player for so long and wanted to compete with Vince McMahon and the WWE. Under the leadership of Eric Bischoff WCW signed away top talents from McMahon like Hulk Hogan, Kevin Nash, Scott Hall, Bret Hart, Randy Savage, Lex Luger and several others. Turner and Bischoff eventually overtook the WWE in the ratings but eventually it imploded. All the guys were making so much money eventually their parent company Time Warner/AOL sold the company to McMahon because it was hemorrhaging money and their bottom line and shareholders couldn’t stand the losses. WWE stayed the course and did what they did best, which was put on wrestling shows that fans wanted to watch.
Now Bellator, Viacom and Coker are taking a page out of the WCW playbook and trying to sign just about anyone that the UFC has built up over the years. The problem is that instead of throwing money at older established stars Coker has to figure out a way to build his own and grow Bellator from within like the WWE did when Ted Turner raided their roster.
When I think of Bellator I think of Eddie Alvarez, Hector Lombard, Joe Warren, Ben Askren and Michael Chandler. All came up through the old tournament format that Bellator did when they started to rise to prominence under Bjorn Rebney in 2010. Gradually the promotion went away from this format and eventually got rid of Rebney in favor of Coker who ran Strikeforce before it was bought out by the UFC. Coker ushered in super-fights and has tried to make Bellator different from the UFC. Dana White has always tried to build up the champions in the UFC and find challengers to promote whereas Coker went for name recognition, side show attractions and big fights in tent pole events held a few times each year. We didn’t know we wanted to see Kimbo Slice vs Dada 5000 and Ken Shamrock vs Royce Gracie 3 but they were so bad we couldn’t turn away.
Eventually the stars that Bellator had built either jumped to different promotions or got old. Alvarez and Lombard jumped to the UFC. Alvarez won the lightweight title while Lombard has been regulated to a gatekeeper in the middleweight division after several losses and a USADA violation.
Joe Warren has been with Bellator since 2010 and is featured on Bellator programming all the time. He’s a very good fighter but he’s never really been marketed the way he should. Had Warren had the UFC machine behind him he would’ve been a star. Instead he’s pushing 40 and has lost 2 of his last 3 fights.
Ben Askren, who some consider the best welterweight in the world was allowed to walk away from Bellator under the Rebney regime where he has gone on to dominate in ONEFC. Askren was often criticized for his dominant wrestling style which could tend to be boring to watch and Bellator opted to not re-sign him. Georges St. Pierre has a very similar style and is even more boring to watch than Askren but the UFC has found a way to market him as being unstoppable. If Bellator had kept Askren and figured out a way to build him up they could be reaping the rewards from that today. Instead Askren leaves and a guy who he dominated, Douglas Lima wins the belt from Rick Hawn. Then Bellator markets Lima as the champion of the world even though he couldn’t beat Askren. How are we supposed to take their champions and titles seriously?
Michael Chandler is in the same boat. After losing three straight fights to the Bellator lightweight champs Eddie Alvarez and Will Brooks he beats two guys and wins the title by beating Patricky Freire and is touted on TV as being the champ of the world. He’s only the champ because Alvarez and Brooks vacated the belt and went on to the UFC. Neither lost it. You don’t see Michael Bisping or Stipe Miocic wanting to leave the UFC after their title wins. Dana White pays them well and gives them incentives on new contracts like sharing the revenue from pay per view.
Bellator tried to get creative in 2013 with a reality show, Fight Master which brought in some of the top free agent weltwerweights in the United States. Regional stars like Andy Uhrich, Dom O’Grady, Mike Dubois, Joe Williams and Mike Bronzoulis were featured but ultimately it was a former UFC fighter, Joe Riggs that won the show. Riggs never appeared in Bellator again and resurfaced with the UFC. Viacom spent all that money on building up a former UFC fighter who wound up going back to the UFC. Go figure.
Fighters start out their careers dreaming of fighting for the UFC. The UFC is the NFL of MMA. No kid dreams of playing the Canadian Football League. But once they get there and struggle with getting paid 10 or 20 grand for each fight only to fight two or three times a year then they realize they need to get paid more. If they are lucky to make it to the mid-card or co-main or main event status only then are they able to test out free agency and hope that Scott Coker wants to throw a bunch of money at them.
When you look at the Bellator roster there is talent there that didn’t come from the UFC. Middlweight champ Rafael Carvalho has looked good against mid-level competition. If he was in the UFC he would be marketed correctly and people would know who he is. Michael Page is perhaps one of the best fighters in the world and legitimately could be the next Anderson Silva but only hardcore fans know who he is. If Page was in the UFC he would be headlining cards on Fox or featured in the co-main events on pay per views being groomed for a Jon Jones-type push as a future champ. Instead, Page fights on the undercard below guys like Paul Daley and Benson Henderson who made their names in the UFC.
Sometimes Bellator’s plan of hiring guys away from the UFC backfires and blows up in Cokers face. Bellator rolled out the carpet for former UFC champion Benson Henderson when he debuted earlier this year but he got embarrassed by Andrey Koreshkov in April losing a lopsided decision at welterweight, when he should’ve been competing at 155 pounds.
Josh Koscheck and Chris Leben are also examples of bad free agent signings. Koscheck was signed by Coker and marketed as a big free agent last year. Koscheck was announced for a big event in Fresno, CA, his hometown in January. Unfortunately the former #1 welterweight contender has been injured and unable to compete since his signing 15 months ago.
Chris Leben was signed earlier this year by Bellator. He too can’t compete. “The Crippler” failed his physical and had to retire due to an issue with his heart.
Ultimately Bellator signing UFC fighters is good for the sport. It helps even the playing field for fighters who think they deserve more and gives them an outlet to pursue more money. But a business model like Bellator’s can’t sustain itself if they aren’t building up new fighters for the older guys to fight. Chael Sonnen should get to fight Tito Ortiz and make himself and the promotion a lot of money. But he shouldn’t just fight older UFC stars. Sonnen also needs to face Liam McGeary too and help build up the next generation of Bellator fighters that will have to carry the company into the next decade. It’s the only way Bellator can survive and not become the WCW of MMA.