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Event Scheduling: The Not-so-Quiet Front in the MMA Promotion Wars

Scott Harris@ScottHarrisMMAMMA Lead WriterJanuary 25, 2019

UFC President Dana White
UFC President Dana WhiteSarah Stier/Getty Images

It almost happened this weekend.

This Saturday, Bellator 214 goes down at The Forum in Inglewood, California. Topping the event is a heavyweight title bout between Ryan Bader and the great Fedor Emelianenko, who just might be fighting his last fight.

A co-main featuring super-prospect Aaron Pico sweetens the deal. It's a card any fight fan should want to see.

Ryan Bader
Ryan BaderGregory Payan/Associated Press

But there's someone who really doesn't want you to see it. You know of whom I speak.

UFC officials still carry the mindset of the scrappy upstart, battling opponents tooth and nail for any edge. Now that they're the Goliath in the space, that mindset obviously causes headwinds for other MMA promotions.

Those promotions, including Bellator and more recently Asia-based ONE Championship, are now forced into that scrappy role and are finding ways to—if not compete with the UFC directly—at least carve out footholds for themselves.

Those battles happen on different fronts. Signing fighters away from each other is probably the clearest of those. Various broadcasting deals, including through streaming services, is another. 

But there's a third, less familiar front: event scheduling. This is not a new phenomenon, but recently, it appears to be reaching a new pitch.

It just so happens that, well after Bellator announced its intention to hold a card on this date, the UFC set up UFC 233 just down the road from Inglewood in Anaheim, California.

The only reason Bellator—offering one of the biggest cards it can make—has the date to itself is because UFC officials were forced to postpone the event after issues with filling out the card.

As Bellator president Scott Coker put it, they "ran out of bullets." The UFC is giving an opponent a win here, but not for lack of trying.

Bellator president Scott Coker
Bellator president Scott CokerDave Kotinsky/Getty Images

There's plenty of precedent for this scheduling gamesmanship. Each time, the UFC has scheduled a card to conflict with an opponent's existing event. Some unintentional overlap is inevitable, particularly given the UFC's hectic event schedule, but sometimes the move feels deliberate.

It often coincides with a big Bellator event. On January 20, 2018, a big UFC 220 card occurred on the same night as Bellator 192—Bellator's debut on the newly rebranded Paramount Network that featured nostalgia favorites Chael Sonnen and Rampage Jackson, as well as a title fight for former UFC welterweight contender Rory MacDonald. 

In June 2017, Bellator held its second-ever pay-per-view, this one at New York City's Madison Square Garden. The day after, in an unusual Sunday card, UFC Fight Night 112 went off.

Maybe the most egregious happened in September 2014, when UFC president Dana White had to deny claims that UFC Fight Night 50, which happened in Ledyard, Connecticut, was purposely scheduled against Bellator 123, which featured a title bout and some of its bigger names and happened just a few miles away in Uncasville, Connecticut—a well-known Bellator stronghold.

This is not an exhaustive list, but the failed UFC 233 bid was a major entry. The funny part is it wasn't even the most noteworthy example of the past few months.

As hardcore fans know, ONE Championship came out of nowhere last year and started luring away big UFC stars. In a "trade," flyweight and pound-for-pound great Demetrious Johnson went to Asia while Ben Askren headed for the Octagon. Every fight fan's favorite boy next door, Sage Northcutt, later followed suit.

But perhaps their biggest acquisition was former UFC and Bellator lightweight champion, the enormously popular Eddie Alvarez.

On December 19, ONE announced a March 31 debut date for Johnson and Alvarez. On January 22, the UFC announced it would hold an event March 30 on ESPN 2. The host city? Alvarez's hometown of Philadelphia.

It was a bridge too far for Alvarez, who took to social media to voice his displeasure. 

Eddie Alvarez @Ealvarezfight

Unfortunately @ufc Philadelphia will be tuned into @ONEChampionship that week to watch me work to claim another title .The timing of this venue and date is incredible .As a kid I wanted the UFC belt , now I want all of them . One more shelf to fill #UGking #phillyfighter #thnq https://t.co/pj02hm4A13

As long as fighters continue to defect to other promotions, and as long as Bellator and others continue to inch their way forward on the MMA landscape, expect this to continue to be a potent weapon in the UFC arsenal.

There is no question this move cuts into the other promotion's drawing power for an event, given the thoroughness of the UFC's dominance. But as the sport and the UFC continue to change, the UFC appears to be making decisions that are more emotional than tactical.

With ONE occurring on a stream and attracting only a tiny fraction of the American MMA market, it's not a real UFC competitor. There is no TV-ratings battle here.

The ONE event happens in Singapore, so it's not like they're competing for gate revenue. No, this one feels like it happened purely out of spite, as if UFC officials are still eating sour grapes over Alvarez's departure.

Yes, the UFC has a business to run. No one's suggesting otherwise. No one's suggesting they don't have a right to do this. It's a more under-the-radar aspect of its ongoing battle with competitors. It might continue to heat up, especially if the UFC is striving not to make a dent but to make a point.

    

Scott Harris covers MMA and other topics for Bleacher Report.

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