Was it really just two years ago that Bellator tried to put together its first pay-per-view? Wow… it seems like a lot more time has passed since they tried to present us with Tito Ortiz vs. Rampage Jackson at Bellator 106 on Nov. 2, 2013, only for an Ortiz neck injury to derail that ill-conceived bout; but that has more to do with the massive amount of changes that Bellator has undergone in that time. They’ve attempted to change the perception of the organization in that time from what was seen as a place few wanted to go into a place that in some ways is more attractive than the UFC
By far the biggest storyline heading into that Bellator 106 event was the relationship between former Lightweight Champion Eddie Alvarez and Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney, a saga that had been unfolding for about a year heading into the event. Rebney had designs for Bellator to challenge the UFC in popularity, and was hell-bent to make Alvarez one of the centerpieces of his MMA empire. Despite losing the title to Michael Chandler in November of 2011, the fight was an instant classic of epic proportions, easily the best fight seen in Bellator. Due to the quality of the fight, Alvarez was able to keep his status as one of the top fighters in the world despite the loss. After the loss, Alvarez completed his contract the next October, having done so with a pair of victories over top competition. It was anticipated that Alvarez would jump ship to the UFC at that point, as Alvarez had made no secret of his desire to test himself against the best in the world.
Allowing the time period of exclusive negotiations between himself and Bellator to pass, Alvarez would sign a contract with the UFC that included pay-per-view points, which is a share of profits from pay-per-view sales. Considering Bellator had never had a pay-per-view, nor did they seem in a position to jump into that field at the time, no one felt it was possible for Bellator to be able to match the contract. But match it they did, claiming just because they hadn’t yet had a pay-per-view didn’t mean that they couldn’t, resulting in Alvarez filling lawsuits against them, as he didn’t believe they had a viable right to match the UFC’s contract. Bellator responded with lawsuits of their own against Alvarez.
The legal battle lasted for months with little ground being made by either side. By August of 2013, it had been 10 months since Alvarez had fought, and he wasn’t making any money not being able to fight. So he reached an agreement with Bellator to have a rematch with Chandler for the Lightweight Title on a pay-per-view platform.
The pay-per-view had already been put in place by the time the settlement was reached, with Tito and Rampage in place as the main event; however, it could be debated that the pay-per-view was only put in place to satisfy the terms of Alvarez’s contract, as few fans felt neither Tito or Rampage were in a position to be headlining a pay-per-view anymore, with both riding three fight losing streaks out of their exit’s from the UFC and into Bellator.
After the initial reception for the announced main event was met with coolness, Bellator put all of its eggs into the basket. They had their last two light heavyweight tournament winners meet in a rematch for the Interim Title. That was a rematch after Emanuel Newton had beaten Muhammed Lawal in a massive upset given the loads of hype placed on Lawal at the time. Dominant Featherweight Champion Pat Curran would meet tournament champion Daniel Straus in a rematch of a fight that had occurred long before either stepped foot in Bellator for the title. Recent UFC defector Cheick Kongo and Vinicius Queiroz would clash in the conclusion of the most recent heavyweight tournament, and the conclusion of Bellator’s reality television tournament known as Fight Master would also be shown on a full length prelim card on Spike. Bellator was pulling everything out of the vault to present to the public.
Things didn’t quite work out as planned. Fight Master didn’t end up being the success they hoped it would be, generating little if any hype. Vinicius Quieroz would pull up lame with a knee injury, resulting in his fight with Kongo being rescheduled. And just over a week before it was supposed to take place, Ortiz was forced to pull out with a neck injury. Without enough time to schedule Rampage a replacement opponent, he was pulled from the card as well. Now lacking their big names to headline the card, Bellator pulled the plug on the pay-per-view and instead decided to make the card available on Spike.
While the card blew up a bit (the light heavyweight title fight was an uneventful 25-minute affair with Newton again coming out on top much to the chagrin of management), the lightweight and featherweight title fights were two of the better fights of the year. Both went the distance, with Alvarez and Straus both avenging their earlier losses and taking the titles. Straus did so via unanimous decision while Alvarez took a split decision that could have gone either way. Rebney went as far as to say that was the best fight that he had ever seen, and few would claim he didn’t have a legit argument to that claim.
Now I will acknowledge that there were other more eventful happenings for this week that have occurred, but I felt it was appropriate to highlight this event, even if it did occur just two years ago. Up-and-coming fighters at the time were reluctant to sign with Bellator due to their legal battle with Alvarez. It was clear Alvarez didn’t want to be there anymore, but Bellator refused to let him leave. For others, what if they were to sign with Bellator in hopes of improving their profile so they might capture the UFC’s attention, only for them to end up in a similar situation? Bellator was a viable option, but the UFC was still the ultimate goal for most fighters. Nobody wanted any part of a scenario where they were stuck in Bellator with little chance of jumping to the UFC. Things would only get worse by the time that they did hold their first pay-per-view at Bellator 120, with most of the blame being laid at the feet of Rebney. Lawal would go so far as to claim Rebney was “dick riding” Rampage, expressing his frustration with what he perceived to be a trail of broken promises and unfair favoritism towards Rampage by Rebney.
In June of 2014, Rebney was out and replaced by former Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker. In his first major move, Coker allowed Alvarez out of his contract, leaving him free to go to the UFC as he had desired, despite his status as their Lightweight Champion, stating he wouldn’t keep Alvarez against his will. This was a huge signal for a change in the way business would be done as well as how the fighter’s would be handled.
Though it took a while for Coker’s stamp to truly be made, as a number events were already planned, the atmosphere around the organization has changed, largely for the better. Coker discarded the tournament format as fighters would be forced to compete up to three times in a short period of time while also being subjected to long periods of inactivity if they either became champion or won the tournament, something fighters were ecstatic to see change. Coker would also make fights casual fans who knew little about the sport had an interest in, bringing in Ken Shamrock and Kimbo Slice to compete despite the fact neither were a relevant name in the sport anymore. He also recruited some viable big names such as Phil Davis into the organization.
Coker has also received glowing reviews from the fighters within the organization, as they have stated that he has treated them with respect in addition to valuing their opinions, something most felt was a missing component of the Rebney regime. Compare that to the UFC not having the courtesy of letting fighters know their promised fights were off (ala Miesha Tate finding out Holly Holm would be fighting Ronda Rousey instead of herself over the television) or announcing fights that hadn’t been agreed to (ala the Nate Diaz-Matt Brown fight that never came to fruition this past summer).
Part of what has made Bellator so attractive has been factors that have made the UFC less attractive to compete under… more specifically the Reebok deal. The UFC’s deal with Reebok has killed much of the sponsorship money fighters were making, as they were no longer allowed to sport advertisements in the cage as Reebok apparel was now the only authorized apparel. Bellator has no apparel deal, allowing fighters to sport as many advertisements in the cage as they wanted, leaving them open to potentially make more money overall than UFC fighters thanks to less sponsorship restrictions. This also led to the UFC letting go of respected cutman Jacob ‘Stitch’ Duran after Duran voiced his displeasure with the uniform changes for cutmen, which also resulted in a large public outcry in how the UFC handled the situation. Moves like this have done little to curry a positive image for UFC in terms of public as well as fighter opinion.
While there is little doubt that the UFC is comfortable in its place as the #1 MMA organization in the world, factors like that have their arrow pointed down, while the changes in atmosphere in Bellator – as well as no sponsorship restrictions – have their arrow pointed up. No one is predicting Bellator overtaking the UFC, but to say that there is a stark difference in where the organizations were two years ago in terms of the fighter community’s opinion is a very safe statement. Anyone else wonder how things might change in the next two years?
This Week in MMA History
November 2, 2001: Randy Couture defeated Pedro Rizzo at UFC 34 in a rematch of their hotly debated first fight in which Couture walked out with the belt. There was no debate this time, as Rizzo came out flat, and Couture was able to get a stoppage in the third round. The card also featured at least one future UFC title contender in every bout, with seven of the eight featuring future or present UFC champions.
November 3, 2001: Pride FC crowned their inaugural heavyweight and middleweight champions at Pride 17 in Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Wanderlei Silva, respectively. Nogueira defeated Heath Herring via decision and Wanderlei easily disposed of Kazushi Sakuraba for a second time due to a shoulder injury.
November 5, 2011: For the first time in UFC history, a non-title fight was scheduled for five rounds at UFC 138, as Chris Leben fell to Mark Munoz in Birmingham, England. Though scheduled for five rounds, it was stopped after two when Leben couldn’t answer the bell thanks to an eye injury. Since that time, most UFC main events have been five-rounders, with the exceptions coming thanks to short notice injuries causing three round bouts to get bumped into a main event slot.