Coker brought years of experience behind the wheel of a mixed martial arts company. He came to Bellator saying the right things: He wasn't enthused about the tournament format. He believed the company was probably running too many events. He wanted to spend more time building up fighters and fights and creating stars.
Coker immediately went about repairing the damage created by his predecessor, Bjorn Rebney, the man who created Bellator. Rebney's abrasive style rubbed many, including his own fighters, the wrong way. Muhammed "King Mo" Lawal, one of Rebney's biggest stars, famously launched into an expletive-ridden tirade against Rebney on Bellator's first pay-per-view.
Lawal was not alone in his problems with Rebney. Eddie Alvarez, who reigned as Bellator's best fighter and has perhaps been the best fighter not signed to the Ultimate Fighting Championship roster, became embroiled in a bitter dispute with Rebney that began in the court of public opinion and eventually spilled into a real courtroom.
Alvarez eventually settled his case against Bellator, returning to the promotion for a short-term contract. He defeated Michael Chandler to win back the Bellator lightweight championship, and a rubber match between the two was immediately scheduled. It was an important fight for Alvarez. Win, and he could go to the UFC on a winning streak and as the reigning Bellator lightweight champion. Lose to Chandler, and the original offer made to him by the UFC would likely be reduced a great deal.
A week prior to the fight, however, Alvarez suffered a concussion and was forced to withdraw. His departure for the UFC would be postponed.
But a month later, Rebney was gone, fired from the promotion he created. Coker, who earned a reputation while promoting Strikeforce as a reasonable and rational man, was now in charge. And suddenly, there was a light at the end of the tunnel for Alvarez.
Coker met with Alvarez and discussed the potential of re-signing his lightweight champion. But as Alvarez told MMAFighting.com, he had no intention of re-signing with Bellator at the end of his short-term deal:
Yeah, we spoke about possibly re-signing and things like that, but I just think the damage was done. I explained to Scott and the guys at Bellator, all the new guys, my decision had nothing to do with them. I think Scott Coker is a great promoter, a great guy, and I followed him and his promoting for a while. Everything he does he does with class, and he does it well. There's no doubt in my mind that Bellator is going to do well under his leadership. I just think for me, you and the fans know the past, the damage is done. I was ready to move on.
On Tuesday, Coker did something that has earned him praise from all corners of the mixed martial arts world: he offered Alvarez his release and then followed through with his promise. He announced Alvarez's departure via press release and noted Bellator would retain no matching rights for his services:
"We've granted Eddie his unconditional release this morning. Eddie is free to explore the free agent market, we hold no matching rights, and we wish him the best in the future."
Alvarez was a free man.
He didn't stay free for long. Later on Tuesday, the UFC announced they'd signed Alvarez and booked him for a co-main event spot against Donald Cerrone at UFC 178. The fight, rumored since the beginning of August, instantly put Alvarez in the UFC title picture. He obtained what he'd fought Rebney for: a chance to prove he is the best lightweight in the world.
Tuesday was a good day for Alvarez. But it was a great day for Coker, and an even better day for Bellator.
Coker saw the writing on the wall with Alvarez. He knew Alvarez wasn't going to stick around after his next fight. Win or lose, Alvarez would head to the UFC. He would either do so as the Bellator lightweight champion—with a win over Will Brooks, the interim champion who could be a star for Bellator if handled properly—or he would do so with a loss. Either way, Alvarez was gone.
Instead of forcing Alvarez to stick around and finish up his contract, Coker made the wise decision to cut bait and allow him to leave early. It is a move that helps Bellator because they would have no way to capitalize if Alvarez beat Brooks and then left the promotion. They would have no champion, and their two top contenders would have suffered recent losses to a fighter no longer with the company.
But perhaps more importantly, Coker is fostering trust with fighters already on his roster and those outside of the company. He has promised to fix Bellator's notoriously restrictive contracts. He is discussing the possibility of co-promoting fights with other companies.
These are important steps if Bellator is going to attempt to compete with the UFC for free agents in the future. Fighters will be less afraid to jump ship with Coker in charge because they know they'll get better treatment than they would from Rebney.
It is likely Bellator will never serve as proper competition for the UFC. But it doesn't have to take down the mighty machine. Strikeforce was never competitive with the UFC, but they were fondly regarded and developed stars.
If Bellator can accomplish that, they will be far more successful than they were under Rebney. And if they are successful, it will be due to Coker, his promotional skills and his ability to make good decisions.
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