Why do we value the existence of an organisation like Bellator? There are a variety of reasons, but two stand out as being of particular importance.
The first, and perhaps most obvious, is that fans appreciate the content it provides. While the UFC continues to pump out more and more cards each year, there remains an appetite for yet more MMA.
Therefore, the oft-posited notion that MMA has reached its saturation point is, in light of recent television ratings and pay-per-view buys, a total non-sequitur. It makes no more sense than suggesting that there is too much NFL, NBA and EPL soccer on television.
While Bellator can’t match the UFC’s level of talent, the California-based promotion nevertheless consistently offers high-level MMA competition.
The second reason why we tend to value an organisation like Bellator is that it offers additional opportunities to the growing number of mixed martial artists who view the sport as a viable career path.
The UFC has a limited number of roster spots it can fill, which means Bellator plays a vital role in the maintenance and growth of our industry. Not only does the promotion employ fighters who generally aspire to be a part of the UFC, but it also provides a platform for them to showcase their skills against respectable opposition.
However, Bellator now seems eager to take on a different role within the industry.
I am certainly not in principle opposed to Bellator showing ambition, but this recent attitudinal change has had an undesirable effect on the industry. In fact, Bellator is currently failing our fighters on a number of different levels.
But why should you or I care?
When I refer to mixed martial artists as “our fighters,” I do so affectionately. After all, there is an element of truth to the quixotic notion that they are risking life and limb for our entertainment.
I recall one MMA journalist claiming that compassion for fighters should be our penance for deriving so much pleasure from their suffering. It’s very poetic, but the truth is arguably much simpler.
We should care because we are emotionally invested in the well-being of these athletes and because how they are treated and the opportunities they are afforded directly impacts the health of the MMA industry.
If there is a clear path to prosperity and opportunities are abundant, MMA becomes a much more attractive option for young athletes. However, the health of the industry relies just as much on organisations like Bellator as it does on the UFC.
During a recent talk at Stanford, Dana White claimed that smaller promotions are basically feeder organisations for the UFC, whether they like it or not. Some promotions, like Resurrection Fighting Alliance, have explicitly embraced this purpose.
Bellator clearly has not.
While you might argue that Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney has every right to hold loftier goals in mind, it is a fantasy to think that his organisation will ever genuinely compete with the UFC. We are not talking WWF vs. WCW from the mid-1990s here, despite the obvious parallels.
And this delusional sense of potential equivalence is in many ways harmful to the industry. Indeed, Bellator’s current contract dispute with Eddie Alvarez perfectly illustrates this point—the particulars of this quarrel can be read here.
Some will doubtless argue that Rebney and Co. are just trying to hold onto a fighter their organisation helped build, but they are essentially holding Alvarez hostage, stalling not only his career but also his earning potential.
Do not allow the legal legitimacy of Bellator’s claim to cloud your reasoning. People tend to conflate legality with morality, as though all immoral acts are illegal and all moral acts are legal.
Bellator may have matched the guaranteed earnings promised within the UFC’s contract offer to Alvarez, but the respective deals are not equivalent. To say that Eddie Alvarez does not have much greater earning potential as a UFC fighter is a failure to reason honestly.
The additional money he could gain from sponsorships alone undermines the common-sense argument, if not the legal argument of Bellator. This does not even factor in the money Alvarez would earn on pay-per-view—assuming the events on which he appears draw at least 200,000 buys.
Technically, those earnings are not guaranteed, since it can never be stated with absolute certainty that the shows he appears on will breach that threshold. But when you consider that the UFC has only failed to exceed 200,000 buys twice in the past seven years, Bellator’s argument seems spitefully contrary.
It is also worth looking at Tyson Nam’s experience with the promotion.
Having been under contract with Bellator for around six months, Nam was released when the organisation chose to cancel their bantamweight tournament.
But when Nam later went on to knockout their 135-pound champion, Eduardo Dantas, at a Shooto event in Brazil in mid-2012, Rebney decided to “unrelease” a fighter who had never so much as stepped foot inside a Bellator cage.
While Nam fielded offers from the UFC and WSOF, Bellator took advantage of their contractual right to match any offers from rival promotions.
Unfortunately, Rebney’s offer to give him a spot in an upcoming 135-pound tournament would have kept the 29-year-old out of action for six months. Bearing in mind the fact that Bellator had already reneged on two similar offers, can anyone blame Nam for being reluctant to re-sign with them?
Indulge me and put yourself in Tyson Nam’s position for a moment. Imagine a former employer, who had previously wasted both your time and money, deliberately halting your momentum just as your career is about to take off.
Now imagine them doing such a spectacular job of sabotaging your career that you are unable to earn a living for seven months, by which point your value has plummeted and you are forced to take a job with a smaller company for less money.
Hopefully you now have a sense of the ease with which Bellator is willing to torpedo a fighter’s career in order to meet its fanciful ends.
Perhaps the most salient factor in the above cases is that neither Alvarez nor Nam want/wanted to fight for Bellator.
Tyson Nam stated explicitly his wish to sign with the UFC. Eddie Alvarez, on the other hand, has been forced to remain officially neutral on his preferred final destination. Stating outright his desire to compete for the UFC would certainly undermine his legal argument, so we are forced to read between the lines.
I find it astonishing that the community is seemingly divided on these issues. Are we really so charmed by the false notion of “the little promotion that could” that we are willing to suspend our ethical intuitions?
In addition to these cases, Rebney has made it clear that he has no real interest in signing former UFC talent.
There are obviously some exceptions, such as Ben Saunders and Vladimir Matyushenko, but it has become apparent that Bellator is not a realistic option for former UFC fighters who have achieved any degree of notoriety.
Why might this be?
Bellator is intent on discovering and building its own stars, rather than relying on former UFC talent. However, the promotion is also very much interested in controlling its image and guiding fan perception.
Does anyone really think that Jon Fitch is a sub-UFC-level fighter? Signing Fitch would only have strengthened Bellator’s welterweight division. But it would also have come with the risk of him potentially toppling their 170-pound champion, Ben Askren.
In terms of fan perception, this would have been disastrous. A discarded former UFC fighter strolling into the organisation and unseating their long-time champion? Such an occurrence would only highlight the talent disparity that exists between the promotions.
The net result of this is that there are currently few opportunities to be found in Bellator, unless you are young or relatively unknown. Or Russian.
One suspects that if Fitch had decided to change his name to Jon Fitchamovic, Bjorn Rebney would have been powerless to stop himself from offering the UFC-vet a contract.
And as has been demonstrated, parting ways with Bellator is becoming increasingly problematic for any fighter with a lick of talent. Rebney seems to be running his organisation like he is the warden of Alcatraz: difficult to get in, even more difficult to leave.
If you thought my criticism would only extend to Bellator’s treatment of male fighters, I would like to draw your attention to their women’s division, which currently boasts a whopping five fighters.
Bellator may have featured female fighters before the UFC, but it is difficult to see how they could have done any less to promote women’s MMA. Beyond the comically-shallow talent pool, Bellator has minimised WMMA at every opportunity, whether consciously or unconsciously.
Female fights are routinely relegated to the undercard—including title fights. Additionally, there are currently no women’s tournaments planned for the near future. With that in mind, one wonders why Bellator is in the WMMA business at all.
The only upside of the situation is that, if need be, these women should find it trivially easy to emancipate themselves, given how indifferent Bellator appears to be towards promoting their female fighters.
Needless to say, my criticism of Bellator should not be viewed as some sort of endorsement of how the UFC handles its fighters. I have my own problems with the UFC in this context, particularly when it comes to their minimum fighter pay and the issue of financial transparency.
With that said, I am not even remotely tempted to claim that Dana White and Co. are failing our fighters in quite the same way as Bellator.
Whether or not Bellator is viewed as the plucky underdog, people have to recalibrate their priorities and start to realise that the promotion has been egregiously unscrupulous in some of its recent dealings with fighters.
Some might argue that Bellator’s perceived failures are a product of Bjorn Rebney’s ambition. I am more inclined to argue that they are a product of his self-deception.
The general rule is that competition in business is a good thing. Bellator seems to be demonstrating that there are clear exceptions to this rule.