Bellator Fighting Championships has been making plenty of headlines lately, but for none of the right reasons. The promotion has come under fire for a dubious "matching rights" stipulation in its contracts after public disputes with two fighters -- Tyson Nam and Roger Hollett -- left many observers soured, the most recent of whom was UFC President Dana White.
"I don't talk much about Bellator, but what they do is one of the dirtiest things you can do in the business," said White. "It's dirty, it's grimy, and it's just despicable. Of course I have the right to match, but once I cut a guy and let him go and somebody else tries to sign him, I don't come back and say, `Oh, you're breaking the contract. I have matching rights.' You made the decision to cut him. You cut him. That's one of the scummiest, dirtiest things you can do.
"I guess that's the way those guys do business. We don't do business like that."
Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney listened to White's words on Monday's episode of The MMA Hour, and did not mince words in his response.
"It's a very, very hypocritical statement," Rebney mused.
"We had to go through the exact same process with Zuffa when we signed ‘King Mo.' Zuffa released ‘King Mo' Lawal on March 27, 2012. They went public with their release, they put it up on their own website, on UFC.com, Dana confirmed the release of 'King Mo' to the media on the exact same day, and then in April, when Bellator looked to sign 'King Mo,' we had to submit our full contract to Zuffa. We sent it certified mail to their attorneys. Then we had to wait 14 full business days, which is typically 20-to-21 days in total, for them to decide if they were going to match or not going to match -- which thankfully they didn't, and we ended up with one of the most exciting and entertaining light heavyweights in the world -- but, this is, to the letter, the exact same process.
"So it's one thing to call somebody out on doing something," continued Rebney. "But when you follow the exact same process, the veracity of the comments have to be taken in context with what the real world dictates."
Looking back, while Nam and Hollett's disagreements with Bellator differed in the details, the common thread remained that both fighters were at one time signed to a contract before eventually being released.
Nam went on to knockout heralded Bellator bantamweight champion Eduardo Dantas in a regional show in Brazil. After which, hoping to capitalize on his newfound momentum, Nam claims he fielded several lucrative offers from various promotions before being informed by Bellator lawyers that, due the promotion's matching rights, Bellator still held claim over his contract. Now, despite never actually fighting for Bellator in the first place, Nam could potentially be held out of action for the remainder of 2012, waiting for a spot in the next Bellator tournament, which is expected to kick off sometime in the spring of 2013.
A half-year of inactivity is a tough pill for any up-and-coming fighter to swallow, and Nam has repeatedly implored Bellator to "take the handcuffs off." Nonetheless, Rebney maintains his matching rights clause is just a side effect of the business.
"You have a limited number of spots," Rebney explained. "So you're ultimately going to look from a business perspective to protect yourself as a company, so that if you do give somebody that big opportunity, you ultimately are not going to be left out in a position where you're just building someone up for someone else.
"That's what the clause is designed for. It's not designed to put the fighter in a worse position. It's not created to give the promoter who had the contract with that fighter the opportunity to pay him less. All you're saying is, ‘Look, give me the opportunity to pay you exactly what someone else will pay you, and if I decide to, I get the right to keep you. If I decide not to, in relatively short order, 14 days, I've got to release you.'"
Rebney previously admitted those 14 business days can actually stretch to "20-to-21 days," and in the case of Hollett, that discrepancy makes a difference.
According to Hollett, it was only through Vladimir Matyushenko's misfortune that he ever escaped Bellator's clutches to fight at UFC 152. Hollett signed with Bellator in 2011, competing just once before being dropped from season six's light heavyweight tournament due to a potentially serious heart condition. After receiving his Bellator walking papers, Hollett remained inactive until the UFC came calling with a chance to fight on pay-per-view against Matt Hamill. The 33-year-old jumped at the offer, which was easily the biggest opportunity of career, but it soon fell apart because, he believes, Bellator dragged it's feet during the matching rights period, not signing off until the day after the UFC decided to move in a different direction.
From an outsider's perspective, the situation certainly is coincidental enough to appear like a vindictive attempt to block Hollett from joining the UFC. However, according to Rebney, that's simply not true.
"It's literally a mechanism where you're actually giving a fighter an opportunity to go out and entertain other offers," said Rebney. "Because if you keep a fighter under contract and just keep him on the shelf, if you keep a fighter under long-term promotional agreement and just keep him on the shelf, you're not doing the fighter any favors at all.
"A fighter like Roger Hollett -- he's a talented fighter, he's got good abilities, he got a good following up in Canada -- we didn't have a place for him, just based on the depth of that division. The UFC did, and it took us literally 30 minutes looking at the offer to say, ‘Hey, Roger, good luck. Go do the best you can. We wish you all the luck in the world. You can move on to the UFC.' But, there's benefits to the fighter as well, because you're not ultimately holding onto fighters, you're just keeping one small segment of that contract in a position where you can protect the time and money you've invested into that fighter."
Aside from Lawal, Rebney also referenced the signing of Roger Huerta in 2010 as an example of the UFC utilizing its matching rights to determine a fighter's future. For this reason, Rebney admits he isn't sure why Bellator is now being singled out if the practice is so widespread.
"If you're a fan of the game and you've been watching, you want the Viacom's onboard," he explained. "You want the Fox's onboard. You want huge, monolithic entertainment giants supporting this game and building it up, and building it up both domestically and internationally. Part of that is investment, and part of that investment is in the fighters. So, are we going to continue to follow a process that's been pretty well documented and that the other large organization in this space follows? We may.
"I think it would be a different situation if you were saying to the fighter, hey, we want a right to match, but we want to pay you 30-percent less than any deal you get. Now that would be untenable. That would be, in my mind, unfair. But when you do make the commitment, and you do provide the opportunity, and you do provide the platform, I don't think it's an unreasonable thing to ask for.
"These contracts are 40-something pages long," Rebney concluded. "And written by some of the smartest minds in the legal profession. So sometimes people don't have the opportunity to review them all or see them in totality, or understand the commitment that our company or another company might make to a fighter."