More and more guys are leaving the UFC to fight for Bellator.
The type of athlete who's been leaving the UFC over the past year or so is the exact type of guy the promotion has undervalued and underused for quite some time, the type who fits nicely on free television in a late-night donnybrook that'll keep Fox Sports 1 numbers respectable.
Benson Henderson. Josh Thomson. Phil Davis. Rory MacDonald. Ryan Bader.
They're all guys who've left, all guys who've enjoyed varying degrees of success and exposure since they did. Titles and title shots, marquee matchups on big cards, television commercials, improved sponsorship dollars.
For a mid-level guy who's looking for greener pastures, Bellator seems to be pretty well fertilized if you're standing on the UFC side of the fence and looking over.
Among the greatest examples of seizing fistic opportunity will come Saturday night at Bellator 172, as former UFC favorite Matt Mitrione will fight the greatest heavyweight ever, Fedor Emelianenko. Emelianenko is an icon, a beloved warrior who refused the UFC's advances for years because he wouldn't bow to its terms and has gone on to make major money and build a global fanbase without the promotion.
He's also a guy Mitrione wouldn't have gotten near in a million years if this event were slated for the Octagon instead of the Bellator cage.
Mitrione was a mid-level guy for the UFC. He came to MMA in his 30s after years in the NFL and grew up in its greatest promotion, going from a 0-0 neophyte on The Ultimate Fighter to a 9-5 veteran and lock for action by the time his UFC run came to a close.
He was never in title contention and arguably the top contender he ever fought was Roy Nelson. The biggest name he ever fought was definitely Kimbo Slice.
That's not exactly the sign of a guy seen as worthy of title shots and wars against the best men to ever do it by the entity promoting his fights.
Drawing on his football days Mitrione took to free agency after his UFC deal ran out in 2016 and signed with Bellator, where he fought twice in a month last summer. With a name from his continued showings on free UFC programming (11 of his 14 fights there were on free television) and a couple of violent stoppages, he positioned himself to land the biggest fight of his life.
Silly theatrics aside, he did just that when he signed to welcome Emelianenko back to U.S. soil for the first time since 2011. It's an opportunity he'd get nowhere else.
Matt Mitrione @mattmitrione
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It's representative of the fact guys like Mitrione—clever, business savvy and aware of their value outside of the realm of the strict chase of a UFC title—can make a good living away from the Reebok-clad ignominy of being another face in the crowd of UFC fighters. Where the UFC pushes the brand before all else, a guy like Mitrione can branch off to break out in Bellator, making more money and getting far bigger fights with the right blend of success and salesmanship.
What's more, Mitirone can win this fight.
Emelianenko is older and more shopworn than most will remember him, coming out of a three-year retirement in late 2015 and stumbling to go 2-0 against low-end opposition since he did. Mitrione is a born athlete with slicker striking than he's given credit for. If Emelianenko lets Mitrione touch him the way he let Fabio Maldonado touch him in his last bout, he won't make it to the final bell.
So there you have it.
You want to be the best in the world? Sign with the UFC, take on all that comes with that and maybe prove that you are.
You want to collect a nice pay cheque and have a chance to create a small legacy for yourself in one night? Bellator might be the place for that
Fedor vs. Mitrione shows as much, and Mitrione looks pretty smart for seeing that.