Three years ago, if you asked Scott Coker—early-1990s karate movie D-lister and owner/promoter for the now-defunct Strikeforce—about his grand plans for Bellator MMA, he'd tell you he was in "Phase 1."
After all, he'd just been handed the keys to the promotion. Coker, famously a guarded promoter who held his cards close to his chest, wasn't about to give up any hints as to how he planned on revamping his new toy.
Bellator had largely floundered since it was launched in 2008. Founder Bjorn Rebney used tournaments in an attempt to set Bellator apart from the dominant Ultimate Fighting Championship. Rebney's pitch to fight fans was a logical one: Tournaments would allow the most deserving contenders to rise to the top.
As a bonus, they would also serve as a hook for American sports fans already used to the playoff format.
But in execution, Bellator's tournament format was messy and plagued with issues from the start. Rebney's best attempts to create stars were usually derailed by injuries midway through brackets.
Still, Viacom purchased the company in 2011, giving Rebney a near-limitless source of funding for his pet project. But by late 2013, the writing was on the wall. Rebney's time overseeing Bellator seemed to be coming to an end.
In 2014, the inevitable finally happened. Rebney left Bellator and Coker—who, according to friend and former Strikeforce champion Luke Rockhold, had been spending a lot of time golfing while waiting out a non-compete on his UFC employment contract (put into effect after the UFC purchased Strikeforce from Coker and his investment group)—was hired to take over.
Coker immediately began imbuing Bellator with the same signature touch he'd used on Strikeforce, booking fights between legendary names who found themselves no longer needed by the UFC.
Phase 1 was underway.
Today, as Coker and his Bellator team finish final preparations for Saturday's massive pay-per-view event at Madison Square Garden, Phase 1 is in his rearview mirror.
This, Coker tells Bleacher Report, is Phase 3.
"I think Phase 2 was really our international expansion and our continued growth in free agency, our signing free agents," Coker says.
Several of those free agents will be in featured bouts on Saturday night; Chael Sonnen, Wanderlei Silva, Ryan Bader, Phil Davis, Lorenz Larkin and Matt Mitrione were all signed by Coker after their UFC deals ended. Save for Larkin, all were known commodities in the UFC.
Coker also nabbed Fedor Emelianenko, considered by many pundits to be the greatest heavyweight in the history of the sport. After a decade of teases, it was thought to be a foregone conclusion that Emelianenko would finally sign with the UFC. In the end, Coker won his services yet again.
Sonnen, in particular, strikes Coker as a notable pickup, largely due to the fighter's outsized personality. "I love having Chael as part of the roster," Coker says. "He can promote like nobody's business."
And though he isn't competing Saturday night, the signing of Rory MacDonald—one of the world's best welterweights who is still in his prime—is a highlight for Coker's Bellator tenure.
"I think we have the best welterweight division in mixed martial arts right now," Coker says, and it is hard to disagree with him. "And Rory is a big part of that, along with Douglas Lima and all the other killers we have at welterweight.
"Having Rory come over shows that we're not just going to be in the business of doing legends fights and fun fights. And we're not just going after up-and-comers. We're going to go after every free agent that we can in order to have a robust roster. And that includes guys who are the top fighters in the world."
Coker's Viacom-backed free-agent spending spree hasn't been limited to athletes, either. Earlier this year, veteran UFC public relations staffer Ryan Grab was brought into the fold as the new director of communications.
And Bellator recently announced the signing of two important new talents: longtime UFC play-by-play man Mike Goldberg and the ultra-talented Mauro Ranallo, who has called a swathes of combat sports events over the years and who will be the play-by-play voice for the August boxing match between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Conor McGregor.
Goldberg will call Bellator 180—a full Bellator event, complete with a headlining title fight, that will serve as the preliminary appetizer for the pay-per-view. Ranallo will handle play-by-play duties for the PPV as Goldberg switches to a hosting role; he'll be the first voice you hear on the pay-per-view broadcast, and he'll continue setting up events throughout the evening.
Goldberg and Ranallo are a sublime pairing. The duo will lend Bellator's broadcast a tone and presentation that will feel instantly familiar to both hardcore and casual fans of combat sports. If you've only seen a few MMA fights in your lifetime, there's a good chance Goldberg or Ranallo were the voices you heard blaring from your television.
"If you put the fights Goldberg has called with the fights Mauro has called, it's pretty much the history of MMA," Coker says. "To get both of those guys on the same night? This is a special occasion. It's an honor because both of those guys are the best in the business. We're so excited to have both of these guys on board and part of the team."
Bellator has historically been a television product; Saturday night sees just the second pay-per-view in company history. But if Coker is at all nervous about the shift to a platform that is potentially lucrative but also potentially devastating, he isn't showing it.
This, he says, is a premium fight card, worthy of pay-per-view. In fact, with a great deal of confidence, he states this is the best combat sports pay-per-view event of 2017 so far.
"Really, it just came down to, 'is this a fight card I would buy?' And the answer was 'yes,'" Coker says. "It's stacked from top to bottom. We have Aaron Pico, who is the most highly recruited prospect in the history of the sport.
"We have something for everyone."
And that, more than anything, is the perfect distillation of Coker's promotional ethos. How do you compete with the UFC? How do you garner eyeballs and create a distinct product in an industry with a consensus world leader?
By widening the audience. By serving up a thing or two that everyone will be interested in. By taking his product far beyond the wall that generally keeps combat sports fenced in.
Whether it's Phase 1, Phase 3 or whatever comes next for Coker, the goal is always the same.
Something for everyone.