For the UFC, 2017 has gotten off to a wobbly start. Conor McGregor has decided to take some time off and seems more interested in boxing than the UFC, Ronda Rousey was walloped again and vanished, Nick and Nate Diaz show little interest in returning, and the events that have taken place have been largely short on sizzle.
You know who’s having a good start to the year, though? Bellator. The world’s No. 2 promotion scored a strong rating with Tito Ortiz vs. Chael Sonnen, finds itself in good position to chip away at the industry goliath by signing away some free-agent talent as well as prospects and arguably has the better event coming up this weekend.
All of which begs the question: Has Bellator suddenly seized the momentum in the head-to-head promotional battle?
Joining me to discuss is my colleague and MMA lead writer Chad Dundas.
Mike Chiappetta: Chad, let’s start with an overall look at the health of both companies. Less than a year ago, the UFC was sold for over $4 billion. If we can call that the company’s all-time high-water mark, a lot has gone wrong since then. Several champions have gone on the shelf, a huge chunk of the employees have been laid off—taking a bit of soul out of the company—and there has been a mass purging of the roster, potentially weakening the depth of cards.
Meanwhile, over at Bellator, all the little moves Scott Coker has made seem to be adding up. Cards seem to be deeper and offer more intrigue. As an example, Bellator recently announced its return to London, England in May. Its main event will feature the promotional debut of Rory MacDonald as he takes on granite-fisted Paul Daley. As our friends across the pond say, that’s a "cracker" of a matchup.
By comparison, when the UFC visits the same city a month prior, they’ll lead with Jimi Manuwa vs. ... Corey Anderson? That, Chad, is not a “cracker.”
To be fair, on an event-by-event basis, the UFC still out-rates Bellator in quality matchups and stakes, but it sure seems like the gap is closing.
The reasons why are numerous.
For one thing, it certainly feels like the UFC puts its promotional muscle behind a very select group of athletes. If none of those athletes are populating a card, it tends to feel rather ordinary. For another, we seem to be in an unprecedented time of inactivity for the UFC’s champions.
There hasn’t been a single reigning champion in action since the turn of the new year, and we won’t see one defending a belt until Tyron Woodley squares off again with Stephen Thompson on March 4.
That’s the longest stretch to start the year without a UFC title defense since 2010, when Georges St-Pierre fought Dan Hardy on March 27. However, those were very different times with far fewer events (24 vs. 42 last year) and fewer champions to populate them with (five, as opposed to the current 11).
Whatever the reason, having those stars and technical marvels on the sidelines isn’t helping matters.
In my eyes, Bellator seems to be taking advantage of a tough cycle for the UFC. Whether it can actually seize any market share is another matter, but, other than being a trend worth watching, is there any reason to believe it’s something more?
Chad Dundas: For the most part, Bellator and the UFC are still playing two very different games. The UFC obviously remains the dominant brand and figures to be so—if I may steal a phrase from the company’s own standard fighter contract—in perpetuity.
With its lucrative network television deal, full menu of near monthly pay-per-view events and an overstuffed slate of fight cards going down all over the globe, the UFC is still to MMA what the NFL is to pro football. By contrast, it perennially feels as though Bellator is scrambling just to put together halfway compelling main events here and there.
That said, two things strike me.
First, I’ve long argued it wouldn’t take as many high-profile free-agent acquisitions as people think for Bellator to at least appear as if it’s making up ground on the UFC. Fights like this weekend’s Fedor Emelianenko vs. Matt Mitrione and next month’s Daley vs. MacDonald prove it can already put on a comparable—and in some cases better—product a few times a year.
Plucking Ryan Bader off the UFC scrap heap this month gives Coker yet another piece with which to play mix-and-match. That slow trickle of defections will likely continue into the foreseeable future, and every new hire makes the smaller promotion’s portfolio a little stronger.
Second, though, I don’t think "competing with the UFC" even ought to be Bellator’s main goal. At least, not right now.
If I’m Coker, my only immediate directive is to simply keep plugging away. Keep putting on solid fight cards each time out while occasionally popping the TV numbers with a big-name matchup. Keep providing a product that, when fight-friendly eyeballs do land on it, makes people think, "Hey, Bellator is alright. I ought to watch more of this stuff."
Above all else, continue to show the head honchos at Viacom that Bellator is a modest success. Keep it profitable. Through your consistently reliable work, continue to send regular reminders that this is something the parent company should keep supporting with its dollars.
Because for all the reasons you listed above, Mike, the UFC is in uncharted waters right now. New ownership is just finding its legs. Fighter unions are fomenting. Lawsuits are lurking.
The overwhelming chances are that the world’s largest MMA promotion will bounce back from a rocky start to 2017. It always has before. But if things continue to destabilize, if calamity ever does strike, Coker will want to be waiting with open arms and a fat operating budget, ready to take advantage of whatever situation the market offers.
This weekend clearly offers one more small skirmish in a much larger cold war, when Bellator’s Emelianenko vs. Mitrione and the UFC’s Derrick Lewis vs. Travis Browne offer fans competing heavyweight fights on back-to-back nights.
Mike, if we can take our macro discussion micro for a moment, which 265-pound scrap do you like better. Which company do you think stands the best chance to win the weekend?
Mike: This is why examining the phenomenon more closely is important. Looking at the entirety of the fight world, it does feel like Bellator is gaining ground. But when you put things under the magnifying glass, the evidence might look a little differently.
Cases in point are this weekend’s events.
From a pure entertainment standpoint, these headliners are fairly comparable. In fact, I’m sure many would give the edge to Bellator, largely on the presence of Emelianenko, who somehow manages to keep some semblance of mythology around him despite an uneven recent past. Old legends live on, even if they’re (figuratively) dying right in front of us.
Objectively, though, the Lewis vs. Browne fight has much more meaningful stakes. Lewis, currently ranked eighth, has systematically made his way forward and has the opportunity to vault past another veteran standing in his way. Browne, while facing recent struggles, was ranked in the top five within the last two years. And, at 34, he’s not old enough to write off as a has-been.
The fact is, people tend to judge these promotions on different scales. Over time, we’ve come to expect different levels of quality from the UFC than we do from Bellator. When the latter manages to approach or even meet the market leader, it seems like a monumental development.
In some ways, that’s fair. The UFC has been in business for over two decades; Bellator ran its first event in 2009. In other ways, we cut Bellator a little too much slack. For example, if they can afford to sign Emelianenko, they can probably also afford to spring for a third-party drug testing program like the UFC has done.
But these sliding scales certainly ascribe a lower target for Bellator to reach. The UFC rarely has that luxury. The promotion was roundly roasted for its UFC 208 show last weekend, including by its own president Dana White, who, when asked by the company's own YouTube channel what the best part of the event was, replied, "the plane ride home" (h/t Bloody Elbow).
Perhaps relatedly, the UFC seems close to finalizing an agreement for the return of St-Pierre, according to MMA Fighting's Ariel Helwani. Such a development would be a huge shot of adrenaline for a promotion in need of one.
By contrast, Bellator expectations are much more reasonable. Even when they throw out a rusty Chael Sonnen vs. an old Tito Ortiz, it somehow becomes not just palatable but fun. If the UFC tried to sell us that—as they kind of do when they toss out aging legends like B.J. Penn and Anderson Silva—we are much more likely to wince.
One promotion’s gift is another’s curse.
Is this fair, Chad? Does Bellator deserve to win the weekend even with an inferior main-event matchup, and, if so, what does that say about this ongoing promotional battle?
Chad: A lot of it is a matter of perception. Hardcore fans and media types might prefer the main event of UFC Fight Night 105 based on Lewis’ potential and our hope the next generation of great heavyweights is finally starting to arrive. On the other hand, Bellator 172 is almost certain to score the better Nielsen number.
Who "wins" the weekend in a scenario like that? It depends on how the fights play out, and there’s no way to know that in advance—especially in the unpredictable 265-pound class.
Bellator has been smart carving out this niche for itself. It knows it can’t compete with the UFC’s depth, so it doesn’t even try. Instead it picks its spots, lobbing these theoretically fun, nostalgia-based matchups whenever it can to spike ratings.
It doesn’t take itself too seriously—as evidenced by this recent video about Emelianenko’s somewhat iconic striped sweater—and doesn’t mess around with PPV. Instead, it offers even its best fights on free TV. In doing so, it positions itself as a fresh and fun alternative to the UFC, which by comparison often feels like it only knows one way to promote fights.
The trouble is that Bellator’s senior-circuit attractions don’t always deliver. Sonnen’s bout with Ortiz last month, for example, enjoyed a nice media build but ultimately left consumers unsatisfied. The organization also regularly strays too close to the line between fun and dangerous, as we saw in Kimbo Slice’s disastrous fight against Dada 5000 last February.
This weekend’s pairing of a 40-year-old version of Emelianenko against the flagging but still capable Mitrione may not be patently unsafe—but it might end up being sad. If too many of these turn-back-the-clock fights continue to leave fans feeling gloomy and even dirty for watching, then the strategy becomes unsustainable.
If Fedor looks like a depressing shadow of his former self Saturday and the next night Lewis solidifies his candidacy for a future heavyweight title shot, I think it’ll be clear the UFC got the better of this head-to-head matchup.
And perhaps all this reveals the true big-picture problem for Bellator: It can't go on promoting old-guy fights forever and yet hasn’t been very successful cultivating its own stars.
There are one or two homegrown Bellator talents who routinely make a dent in the sport’s consciousness—Michael Chandler and Michael Page, for example. But aside from its aging lions and UFC castoffs, most of Bellator’s roster feels pretty anonymous.
There are some good young fighters there (think Douglas Lima, Andrey Koreshkov, Eduardo Dantas or A.J. McKee) but, so far, few move the needle.
Perhaps that’s the ultimate test here. From week to week, Bellator might be able to make life interesting for the UFC, but until the smaller company can sustain enough interest to forge its own drawing cards, the bigger organization will probably always have the upper hand.