With the UFC eating up most of the best competitors in recent years, PRIDE, WEC and more recently Strikeforce, a void is created. The UFC tries to fill up this void by putting on more shows; we now have UFC # PPVs, UFC on FOX and the UFC on FX, UFC on Fuel becoming UFC on Fox Sports 1/2. However there is still room for a number 2 promotion.
There are always a few promotions floating around, lots of regional promoters: RFA, Titan, Cage Warriors, King of the Cage, BAMMA, Shooto but the seemingly strongest right now are ONE FC (an Asian only promotion), Bellator and relative new comers in WSOF.
Bellator, by far have the best track record right now, they were created in 2008 and in 2011 were bought by media powerhouse Viacom, which saw them move to former UFC home SpikeTV. With nearly a hundred cards under their belt and a reality show.
ONE FC, a far more recent promotion, created in 2011, focusing on the Asian market and still finding its footing as it begins to crown it's champions of the lighter weight classes in 2013.
WSOF though only staging their first event in November 2012 will have promoted 6 events by the time November 2013 comes around. They were quickly signed to NBC Sports after a speculative event offering - leading to a 3 year deal. NBC Sports AKA Versus also hosted UFC and WEC at separate times.
As far as the Western market is concerned there are only 3 promotions making waves right now and those are Bellator, WSOF and Invicta. Invicta though are a somewhat new and niche promotion without a television deal, though several promising events they still have a fair amount of work to go.
This leaves us with two promotions battling for a second place in a race where UFC are already a hop, skip and a jump ahead of the competition in terms of market share and brand recognition.
What is interesting is the way both promotions went about building their brand and roster.
Bellator went with new talent (being very careful signing ex-UFC talent), building from the ground up; creative new name but still spinning on the whole gladiatorial concept that UFC bled dry (remember their PPV opener?) a tournament format, new commentators and even a women's division. Though Strikeforce were doing many of these things, the UFC was not.
World Series of Fighting took a different route. They chose a name that although cheesy represents what they are aiming for, they didn't shy away from name power from ex-UFC fighters, recognizable commentators in Bas Rutten and no women's division.
Interestingly, WSOF went from point A-B far faster than Bellator did. The media were on top of them from the start, which I guess is one of the benefits of using big names rather than starting from scratch. Not to say Bellator did it wrong, they may have the more sustainable talent pool via their methods - they have created a few "stars" in Hector Lombard, Ben Askren, Eddie Alvarez (more on him later), Michael Chandler and Pat Curran. Meanwhile WSOF's idea of building talent has involved giving a home to an already hyped and recognizable Tyrone Spong, capturing former UFC fighters that are back in form such as Josh Burkman, Anthony Johnson.
Funnily enough WSOF's attempts to sign fighters with name recognition to build their brand ended up with them finding new talent. For example: WSOF signed Miguel Torres and Tyson Nam, both promising fighters and they ended up losing to Marlon Moraes. Fitch, Simpson and Harris coming in and all losing to Josh Burkman.
Recently however, Bellator encountered a problem; they build their stars and then the UFC comes calling. After losing one of their biggest middleweight names in Hector Lombard, when the UFC came back to poach one of their few lightweight names in Eddie Alvarez, Bellator seeked to assert their position by invoking the use of their contractual matching rights on a not-so negligible UFC offer (in fact it was far in excess of what their current UFC LW champion was making) Unfortunately for Bellator Hector Lombard's poor form in the UFC and Tyson Nam upsetting their BW champion Dantes led to a lot of MMA math, further questioning Bellator's depth.
As Bellator fights to retain their fighters that they built up they also changed up their talent acquisition tactics from scouting the untapped Russian market and fresh faced American wrestlers; they started to look at some recognizable names, first came King Mo Lawal, then Paul Sass, Matt Riddle, Matyushenko and more notably Rampage and Tito. Bellator are fighting for recognition, they are risking losing Alvarez, Askren and others, with only a few names left to headline their cards, they have to do something. So while Bjorn Rebney has said in the past he doesn't want to sign UFC rejects, it seems his hand has been forced to assert their position as #2 and future challengers to the UFC. Also worth nothing they essentially copied The Ultimate Fighter (and borrowed Randy Couture) to further this.
Personally, I am more interested in watching the WSOF cards right now, unless Chandler or Askren are fighting. So, for me, unless Bellator's shift in tactics works, WSOF might be edging into #2 spot sooner than we think.
Interesting times coming, can Bellator retain their talent despite the lure of UFC? Can Bellator combine their building of new talent with poaching bigger names to fluff their cards? Can WSOF sustain their current run of decent cards? Will WSOF lose their bigger names (Burkman, Moraes, Spong)?