Okay, maybe it’s a bit premature to begin writing the promotion’s obituary but it certainly seems like we’re getting close to an announcement regarding their demise, most likely as part of a sale to the PFL, where Donn Davis and Peter Murray will presumably cherry-pick the fighter contracts they like the most and throw away everything else.
The imminent news was all but confirmed by Bellator Heavyweight Champion Ryan Bader (remember him?), who was supposed to defend his championship this Saturday at Bellator 300 before his opponent dropped out. Instead of slotting in a new foe, Bader revealed that the decision was made to leave him off the card entirely, as Bellator’s parent company Viacom would rather lose a championship fight than pay out more money when they’re just going to be out of the MMA business by the end of the month anyway.
It was a bit of a shocking reveal but one that’s also not entirely surprising, as the rumors have been out there for years that Viacom was looking to sell. Whether that’s because the promotion didn’t make enough money or because Viacom wants to avoid any legal quagmires that might result from ongoing antitrust legislation, or if it’s because, as Dana White said, “they’re just tired,” it’s an unfortunate end to a promotion that generated a lot of great moments and cultivated a number of quality fighters over the years.
A lot can change in a decade in MMA
Things seemed like they were looking up for the promotion when they were purchased by Viacom in 2011, who was looking to continue featuring MMA content after UFC left Spike TV to sign with Fox Sports.
Back then Bellator operated a bit differently. It was being run by Bjorn Rebney, that son of a Winnebago Man with a business history that kept the MMA rumor mill well fed, who relied on a seasonal tournament format as his way to stand out from the pack and create an identity that at least made it easy to say how they were different from the UFC.
Eventually, Viacom decided they wanted to go in a different direction and, in 2014, removed Rebney in favor of Scott Coker, who was re-emerging on the MMA scene after leading the Strikeforce promotion to a successful run against and subsequent buyout by the UFC.
Many saw this as a welcome change, as Coker had proven he could succeed working in the shadow of the behemoth that is the largest MMA promotion on the planet. While no one was expecting he could make Bellator serious competition, he could still make some noise as the top alternative for fans who wanted more high quality MMA, right?
And he did have some success here and there over the years. He put on what may have been Bellator’s most successful Payperview outing, Bellator 180/Bellator NYC, which did anywhere from 95,000 to 130,000 buys (that’s a lot for a non-UFC PPV).
He booked the first sanctioned MMA event in France after it was legalized in 2020. He helped bring back New Year’s MMA in Japan by partnering with Rizin. He created some quality spectacles by delivering main events such as Chael Sonnen vs. Wanderlei Silva and giving us the Royce Gracie-Ken Shamrock rematch that we apparently still wanted 20 years after their last clash.
Of course, therein lies the problem of why Coker was never able to find much success: because he was stuck relying on trying to recreate his own or others’ greatest hits or trying to strike lightning twice in a desperate attempt at remaining relevant in a landscape that was changing more and more in UFC’s favor.
There were a lot of differences between the state of the UFC at the time Coker was winning in Strikeforce and when he started losing in Bellator.
It’s hard to punch up when your opponent keeps moving (and taking all your talent)
Strikeforce, which started as a kickboxing promotion in the 1980s before pivoting to MMA in 2006, first took center stage in 2009 in the wake of EliteXC’s self-destruction. At the time, UFC had just established itself as the top MMA promotion in the world following its purchase of Pride (Neva Die) FC in 2007.
The UFC was a lot smaller then than it is now, not having anywhere near as many events on its calendar. That means there were a lot of talented fighters who weren’t competing for the UFC at the time who Coker could utilize to bring attention to his little San Jose hideaway.
Fast forward to 2015, when Coker started as Bellator President, and most of the talent that helped make Strikeforce what it was were no longer available. All of his top names — from Gilbert Melendez and Josh Thomson, to Luke Rockhold, Cung Le, Tyron Woodley, Daniel Cormier, Dan Henderson, and Tim Kennedy — were all in the UFC.
All of the women that he had used to prove they were capable of competing at the highest levels of MMA, from Ronda Rousey to Miesha Tate to Cris Cyborg, were also gone, as Coker’s work was enough to convince Dana White to bring them over to the UFC.
In Bellator, he had a couple of homegrown names to work with, such as Patricio Pitbull and Michael Chandler, but it never felt like he was able to get anywhere close to challenging the UFC the way he was able to in Strikeforce.
Personally, I feel part of that is due to dropping the tournament format. I know that making fighters cut weight and compete three times in three months was never going to be a sustainable business model, but it did wonders in building up what was, at the time, a relatively unknown roster of fighters. Hector Lombard, Alexander Shlemenko, and Joe Warren may never have reached the heights they did if not for those tournaments.
Coker came in and took the one thing that made Bellator unique and did away with it immediately, turning the promotion into a UFC-lite. And, while he did bring back Grand Prix tournaments to North American MMA, something that he used in Strikeforce, it never felt like those tournaments were able to boost the promotion in the same way the seasonal ones did back in the day.
Coker and Viacom both ensured the end was inevitable
Honestly, it just feels like, since at least 2018, all Coker has been doing is trying to bring back things that worked in Strikeforce in the hopes of them working in Bellator, all to no avail.
Granted, convincing Fedor to fight again was certainly a big deal, and his run to the finals of the Heavyweight Grand Prix will remain as one of the most memorable things about Coker’s tenure, but it didn’t create interest the way Fedor’s Strikeforce run did, even though Fedor’s Bellator record (4-3) is much better than his Strikeforce record (1-3).
Aside from the Grand Prixs, Coker’s Bellator legacy has mostly been making due with UFC’s leftovers, taking in castoffs like Bader, Gegard Mousasi, and Liz Carmouche and allowing them the chance to find the success they weren’t able to achieve on the bigger stage.
Now, I wouldn’t put the blame for Bellator’s demise squarely on Coker. A lot of it likely has to do with Viacom. While UFC was getting purchased by Endeavor and making deals with ESPN to become even bigger than they already were, Viacom was stowing Bellator away, moving them off the Paramount Network to the CBS Sports Network and then to Showtime, making little effort to promote any of the company’s events.
Seriously, unless you follow Bellator’s social media or religiously read all of the MMA sites (as you should), would you even know that Bellator has an event this Saturday? Were you even aware that Bellator has an event this Saturday until I just mentioned it now?
And it’s a good main card too (or what’s left of it). Even without Bader, they’re still presenting Carmouche vs. Ilima Lei-McFarlane, Cyborg vs. Cat Zingano, and Usman Nurmagomedov (of the west Dagestan Nurmagomedovs) vs. Brent Primus in what is a nice blend of homegrown talent and fighters who got a second life under Coker’s leadership. It’s the type of matchmaking that could continue to work for Bellator if Viacom cared enough to keep going with it.
But it doesn’t look like that is what’s going to happen. While Bellator 300 is not the last scheduled event, there’s only one more on the calendar, November’s Bellator 301. If these events are the final ones for the promotion, then it’s been quite the roller coaster ride. Hopefully this doesn’t end Coker’s run in MMA but, if it does, he has a lot to look back on and be proud of. He can sit back and see how the careers of stalwarts like the Pitbull brothers or newer stars like A.J. McKee and Johnny Eblen grow from here.
And we, the ones who have begging for years for a true competitor to the UFC to emerge, get to sit back and shake our heads as we watch the same story unfold now with PFL. Best of luck to them. They’re going to need either that or a lot more Saudi money.
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