With Strikeforce now reduced to a temporary pet of the UFC, Bellator Fighting Championships finds themselves as the default No. 2 MMA promotion in America, if not the world.
Yes, I know that Dana White said that Strikeforce will still exist separate from the UFC, just as it had before Zuffa purchased it. But, I have seen this movie before and the Strikeforce label's days are numbered.
It is just a matter of time before Mauro Ranallo and Stephen Quadros return to cursing the UFC from the back of the unemployment line, and Gus Johnson returns full-time to a sport he knows something about.
And, with the new role as No. 2, Bellator has to keep their momentum going by picking up whatever talented fighters have not found their way under the Zuffa umbrella, or have prematurely been thrown out into the rain already.
Bellator has to find a balance between established veterans and rising prospects.
They must bring in some familiar faces to attract the attention of the casual fan, but also pack plenty of substance into their product by not going the way of EliteXC and selling more sizzle than steak.
Of course, they are already doing a tremendous job of that already. But, to borrow a line from Woody Allen, a fight promotion is like a shark. It has to keep moving to stay alive.
Bellator needs to keep moving and pick up any valuable free agents while they are still available.
Here is a list of 30 names I think would be worth giving at least one chance on the Bellator stage. Some of them are fading veterans, some are lesser known prospects. But, Bellator is all about giving a fighter an opportunity and putting their future into their hands.
30. Ryo Chonan
Chonan is clearly no world beater, but he is a tough and recognizable veteran who should at least be given a chance to earn his way into a tournament.
If nothing else, his presence will give the commentary team the opportunity to talk about his win over Anderson Silva, and that can grab the attention of some of the casual MTV2 fans.
29. Pete Sell
Sell tore his groin in 2010 and is coming off of a knockout loss, but he always makes exciting fights and has declared he is making a comeback in 2011.
He may not be a threat, but a win over him could help build the name of a lesser-known middleweight.
28. Jake O'Brien
O'Brien had won two straight since losing to Gegard Mousasi last year, and he is a familiar UFC veteran.
His only losses in the UFC were to Jon Jones Andrei Arlovski, and Cain Velasquez, with two of those coming at heavyweight. Bellator could use some more faces for their new light heavyweight division.
27. Murilo "Ninja" Rua
The brother of UFC light heavyweight champion "Shogun," Murilo had won four straight before losing a decision to Roy Broughton, who came in five and a half pounds over the limit.
Rua is a PRIDE veteran and the former EliteXC middleweight champion. Not to mention, he is on the EA Sports MMA video game.
26. Joey Villasenor
Former PRIDE and Strikeforce vet Joey Villasenor should always be considered a worthy opponent. Last year, he went the distance with current Strikeforce middleweight champion Ronaldo Souza.
Before that, he won four straight over Riki Fukuda, Ryan Jensen, Phil Baroni and Evangelista Santos. He would be a valuable participant for Bellator's next middleweight tournament.
25. Houston Alexander
Alexander has plenty of power and is rarely in a dull fight. Fans still remember him from his UFC days, so he could be a very attractive acquisition for Bellator's new 205-pound division. He has won two straight.
24. Jamie Varner
The former WEC lightweight champion has fallen on tough times, going 0-3-1 in his last four fights. Still, they were all against tough competition and Bellator is all about giving fighters a chance.
Varner still has plenty of name value to add to the next lightweight tournament.
23. Rameau Thierry Sokoudjou
Sokoudjou may not be the prospect fans once thought he was, but he is a strong, athletic veteran and always provides fireworks.
He likes to fight often, which works for the tournament format, and is coming off of a win.
22. Akihiro Gono
Gono has fought as many top fighters as anyone in the sport, and holds a 2006 win over Bellator middleweight champ Hector Lombard.
He recently lost his lightweight debut, but the the Japanese veteran is always crafty and should be given a chance to rebuild himself.
21. Joaquim Ferreira
The lone fighter to give UFC heavyweight contender Junior Dos Santos a loss, Ferreira now fights at light heavyweight and has won three straight.
The fact that he has beaten Dos Santos will grab the attention of viewers and he would be a very decent contender at 205.
20. Chris Wilson
Though Wilson only went 1-3 in the UFC, one of those losses was a competitive fight with top contender Jon Fitch, and another was a close split decision against John Howard that many felt could have gone his way.
He also holds notable wins over Pat Healy, Jay Hieron and Rory Markham. Wilson is a cagey pro who would give anyone a fight.
19. Gerald Harris
Much was made about Harris' quick boot from the UFC following only one loss preceded by three wins. Harris may not be what some fans were hoping he was, a contender, but Bellator should capitalize on what name value he still has.
He is young and could still turn out to be a worthy talent. Either way, he was famous for a week when his slam knockout of Dave Branch was featured on ESPN's SportsCenter.
18. Paulo Filho
Filho was scheduled to face Bellator middleweight champion Hector Lombard last year, but alleged visa issues forced him to pull out of the fight.
Most MMA fans are aware of Filho's addiction issues, but if he can clean up his life, he is world-class talent. He is 5-1-1 in his last seven fights.
17. Dan Lauzon
The younger brother of UFC lightweight contender Joe Lauzon, Dan still holds the record for youngest fighter to compete in the UFC for when he fought Spencer Fisher at the age of 18.
Though he was released by the UFC after two straight losses, he has won two straight since that time.
Lauzon made headlines last month after he was stabbed in front of a nightclub, but the the injuries were not life-threatening.
16. Din Thomas
Thomas is a proven veteran and now fights at featherweight.
Though his best days are clearly behind him, he would make a good addition to the 145-pound division, bringing some much-needed name recognition.
Since being released from the UFC, he has won three straight.
15. Hermes Franca
Franca, a former UFC lightweight title challenger, notched a first-round submission win last month and is as experienced as anyone in the division.
He would make a good addition to the lightweight tournament, as he is a very recognizable face and usually puts on good fights.
14. Roan Carneiro
Carneiro went a very disappointing 2-3 in the UFC, but since being released, he has won two straight. At age 32, there is still a little bit of time left for him to put the pieces back together for a good run.
If they didn't want to consider him for the welterweight tournament, he could be a good opponent for Ben Askren in those non-title "superfights" that Bellator likes to put on.
13. Marcus Aurelio
Though Aurelio lost a unanimous decision to Shinya Aoki in December, he was 4-1 in his previous five fights, with the one loss being a close split-decision to Evan Dunham.
Aurelio would make a good non-title fight with champ Eddie Alvarez for next season. If Alvarez could put him away, he could at least claim that he did what his former conqueror Aoki couldn't.
12. Gabriel Gonzaga
Gonzaga may not be the fighter he once was, but Bellator needs all the heavyweight talent they can find. If Eddie Sanchez can make a run in Bellator, then Gonzaga should get a chance.
Gonzaga lost a unanimous decision to rising heavyweight Brendan Schaub in his last fight and was subsequently dropped by the UFC.
He is scheduled to face Parker Porter later this year, but I would not bet money on that event coming together. A bout with the previously mentioned Sanchez would be fun.
11. Denis Kang
Kang is an enigma to me. He has proven his talent numerous times, but so often he just doesn't show up to fights in the right mental state.
Nonetheless, on the right night he is a tough fight for anyone, and he has all the tools to win if he could put them together.
He is a popular veteran in the game, so his name would draw attention. A non-title fight with champion Hector Lombard would be exciting.
One issue for Bellator is that casual MMA fans get a notion in their heads that if a fighter hasn't fought in the UFC, they aren't legitimate contenders.
Even many hardcore fans get into that train of thought. They have been convinced for so long that the UFC only has world-class talent and everyone else isn't on their level.
Of course, that is not the case. Bellator does have elite fighters and plenty of promising prospects.
One way to break down that wall in the minds of fans is to bring in some recognizable faces from the UFC, and show that they don't just walk right through the rest of the competitors in Bellator.
Keith Jardine may not be an elite fighter, but the fans know "The Dean of Mean."
The casual fan does not know that Jardine was recently on a five-fight losing streak.
Whether it is because they don't realize UFC Unleashed episodes aren't usually current or they just don't pay that much attention, they seem to remember names more than results.
Jardine has won his last two and is still a motivated competitor. He trains with a great camp and has as much big-fight-experience as anyone.
If casual fans saw him in Bellator, they would accept Bellator as a legitimate stage for top talent a bit easier than if they just saw a random face, whether he was winning or losing.
Jardine still has something left in him. How much is hard to say, but Bellator needs names for their new light heavyweight division, and Jardine would give it everything he has.
Most will remember Yoshiro Maeda from his battle with Miguel Torres for the WEC bantamweight title in what is surely regarded as one of the best fights in the promotion's history.
For four rounds, Maeda and Torres traded punches before the doctor forced Maeda to retire in his corner due to a badly swollen eye. Still, the Japanese warrior was game throughout.
Since that time, Maeda has gone a very mediocre 5-4, but notched wins over Micah Miller and Chase Beebe and has won his last two.
Most recently, he scored a first-round TKO over Masanori Kanehara in December.
Bellator could use a recognizable face in their new bantamweight division, and anyone who saw Maeda in the WEC likely still remembers him.
He puts on exciting fights and proved his class by going to war against arguably the best bantamweight of all time.
If Bellator doesn't get to him, the UFC likely will, as both promotions are in need of quality bantamweights.
After winning the eighth season of The Ultimate Fighter, Efrain Escudero went 2-2 in the UFC with impressive victories over Cole Miller and Dan Lauzon.
He was competitive in both of his losses to Evan Dunham and Charles Oliveira, but after missing weight prior to the Oliveira bout, he was surprisingly cut from the UFC roster.
Since that time, he has won two straight and is already scheduled to face Fabricio Camoes for Tachi Palace Fights in May.
Whether it was his talent or his discipline to make weight that the UFC didn't believe in, at age 25, Escudero has plenty of time to improve.
With a strong wrestling background and a quickly improving striking game, Escudero would be a great addition to Bellator's lightweight division.
Certainly, they would have to feel confident he would make weight to be in the tournament—in a non-title superfight that would not be such an issue—but I think Escudero's upside makes him worth a try.
And if he were to lose early, it would say something to the fans about The Ultimate Fighter and its level of skill compared to Bellator.
Another 25-year-old, Todd Duffee may have fallen short in his last two fights, but the kid clearly has talent and could easily rebound if given the opportunity.
The good thing about being a young heavyweight, is you will have plenty of chances. It's not like being a lightweight where every time you lose, there are 10 other fighters trying to take your job. Top-level heavyweights are few and far between, especially young ones.
In his UFC debut, Duffee achieved the fastest knockout in the promotion's history with a seven-second knockout of Tim Hague.
In his sophomore UFC appearance, Duffee dominated the first two rounds against Mike Russow before being caught with a right hand in the third and knocked out.
Duffee was cut from the UFC months after the loss, but according to Dana White, it was due to Duffee's attitude, not lack of potential.
Duffee then took on Strikeforce heavyweight champion Alistair Overeem on short notice and lost quickly in the first round. But, if someone had been looking after Duffee's career properly, that fight would never have taken place.
Duffee deserves the chance to prove himself by working his way up toward a bout with a fighter the caliber of Overeem. If he could find his way into Bellator's next heavyweight tournament, he would have that opportunity.
If nothing else, fans will watch.
Patrick Cote is another fighter who is coming off a tough string of losses, but still has plenty of worth, for two reasons in particular.
The first of which is that he fights with an exciting style. Due to having big power in his hands and a granite chin, if Cote can get his opponent to stand with him, you can always count on an entertaining show.
The second is that the fans know who he is. With 11 fights in the UFC, including a main-event bout with Tito Ortiz, and a stint on The Ultimate Fighter, Cote has had plenty of exposure.
And, though he has lost his share of fights, you can usually count on him to make a it a fight with anyone.
Cote has a bout with fellow UFC vet Kalib Starnes in April, and a win there would be a perfect springboard to enter Bellator.
A non-title bout with Hector Lombard would make plenty of sense.
Glover Teixeira may not be known to most MMA fans, but it is just a matter of time before a major promotion picks him up. If Bellator doesn't get to him, someone else will.
Unlike many of the other fighters I have listed who would bring attention to Bellator, Teixeira could make a name for himself through the promotion. Currently on a nine-fight win streak, he is not a faded UFC name, he is a rising fighter who still has much to prove.
With wins over Rameau Thierry Sokoudjou and Joaquim Ferreria, Teixeira has not lost in six years and could be a force at 205 pounds. And, that is a division Bellator needs to bolster as much as any other.
If the Bellator fans are unfamiliar with PRIDE veteran Ricardo Arona, it will be hard for them to not take interest when the commentating team points to the list of names on his long resume.
Over the last decade, Arona has notched wins over such notables as Dan Henderson, Jeremy Horn, Kazushi Sakuraba, Wanderlei Silva, and Alistair Overeem.
Arona became a fixture in PRIDE and made it the finals of the 2005 Middleweight Grand Prix, so tournaments are nothing new to the Brazilian standout.
Old school fans have been waiting to see what's next from Arona for some time, as he hasn't fought since late 2009. But, he has constantly stated to the media that his intentions are to sign with the UFC and make a name for himself in America.
Well, that doesn't seem to be happening. You need to put together wins to get into the UFC and they are not going to come begging for your services if you are just idly waiting.
Arona should take the next best option, which would be a spot in Bellator's wide-open light heavyweight division.
Do that, make some money and get some exposure in the States, then see what the future holds.
After stopping Mike Campbell in his WEC and welterweight debut, Danillo Villefort was offered a chance to fight in the UFC against Jesse Lennox at UFC 101.
Villeforte lost that fight controversially when the fight was stopped in the third round due to a cut caused by an accidental headbutt. After the loss, he was surprisingly released by the UFC.
Since then, Villeforte has won four straight and returned to middleweight. Just last Friday, he won a unanimous decision over veteran Matt Horwich in the main event of Shark Fights 14.
Before that, he notched another decision win against talented veteran Joey Villasenor, in a fight he took on short notice.
Villeforte would make a perfect addition to Bellator's next middleweight tournament. He is becoming a seasoned veteran now, but is still just 27 years old.
The recent win over Horwich makes this a perfect time to enter Bellator with some momentum.
With most of the fighters signed to crumbling Japanese promotion Sengoku asking for a contract release to pursue opportunities elsewhere, one has to wonder where veteran Kazuo Misaki will eventually end up.
Only one win removed from what I considered the fight of the year in 2010 with Jorge Santiago, in which Misaki lost by TKO in the fifth and final round, you have to assume that an offer will be coming his way from the States, if it has not already.
The winner of the PRIDE 2006 Welterweight Grand Prix, which included wins over Dan Henderson and Denis Kang, Misaki is a proven commodity.
He has beaten big names and he has won a big tournament. Misaki would be as big of an acquisition for Bellator as there is available.
He would have a very good chance of besting Bellator's middleweight field, and if he could, a fight between him and Bellator middleweight champion Hector Lombard would be an event.
And if he couldn't make it that far, someone would have made a name for himself by besting this Japanese fan favorite.
Though, Misaki does have some legal troubles to take care of in Japan.
He is also a character on the EA Sports MMA video game.
If you don't follow Japanese MMA, then you likely haven't heard of Hatsu Hioki. But, it is only a matter of time before he makes his American debut.
Ranked No. 2 at featherweight by most respected MMA rankings, the current Shooto lightweight champion and Sengoku featherweight champion's list of victims include Marlon Sandro—who recently signed with Bellator—Mark Hominick—who will be fighting for the UFC featherweight title in April—and Masanori Kanehara.
Hioki has only ventured out of Japan three times and each of those fights took place in Quebec, Canada.
Though most of his career has taken place in Shooto and the soon to be defunct Sengoku, he did have one successful appearance in PRIDE, a unanimous decision win over veteran Jeff Curran in 2006.
If Hioki could find his way through the next featherweight tournament, a fight between Bellator featherweight champion Joe Warren and Hioki would be massive.
If they don't jump on him, the UFC will. That is, if they haven't already.