Scott Coker talks changes in Bellator, aims for more superfights

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

On his first day on the job as Bellator president, Scott Coker didn't have a lot of answers, but he did provide some hints as to his mentality and changes that could be expected in what he called Bellator 2.0.

If you're looking to know how Bellator's direction will be changing with former Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker replacing Bjorn Rebney at the helm, the answer, like Scott Coker is prone to saying, is that it's up for discussion and we'll be better equipped to answer that question in a few weeks.

Without directly saying so during a conference call Wednesday evening, the overriding theme from Spike TV President Kevin Kay was that Bjorn Rebney's vision of constant tournaments to create title contenders was no longer a direction they wanted to go. Scott Coker's vision, which was to utilize more latitude when it came to matchmaking and talent, and constantly try to find fights that the public would want to see, was more effective going forward.

"As we move away from  the tournament structure to a more traditional format, that's where Scott comes in," said Spike TV President Kevin Kay.  "He's an incredibly forward thinking sports executive."

"My plan is to go from a tournament format to a more traditional format, to more of a superfight format," said Coker, in his first day at his new job after what he described was a very quick negotiation period. "We will do tournaments when the situation makes sense. I think a tournament can make sense, but it has to be the right time and the fighters have to be right.

"The mission is to showcase the best and most exciting MMA fighters in the world and a have a place where advertisers will be proud to be along with us."

"As Bjorn put it in his comments, this is a discussion we've been having of tournaments vs. a different way of going," said Kay. "When Scott became available, this was the right time to do it."

"The job is very clear, it is to put the big fights on Spike TV and move the needle as best as we can," said Coker.

Coker did say that using talent not under contract, and working with other organizations, like he did with Japanese groups while running Strikeforce would likely be part of his battle plan going forward.

"If we can put a fight together that makes sense and that can move the needle on Spike TV, we're going to do it," he said. "Some of the fighters we had in the past we didn't have ownership of."

Neither Coker nor Kay would commit regarding the pay-per-view aspect of the business, but both felt the company's debut event on May 17 in Southhaven, Miss., was a successful building block.

"I'll stand by that 100,000 number (of buys), and tell you that is a dead on accurate number," said Kay.

Coker, whose contract with Zuffa and non-compete clause as a promoter ended in March,  said one of the reasons he didn't have a lot of definitive answers is because this all came together so quickly.

"I got a call from Kevin very recently," said Coker. "We sat down and talked. When I look at Bellator, they have a great team in place, great fighters, great TV platform. There is a commitment to MMA at Viacom. This might be a good place to reboot, to start Bellator 2.0. That was really it. The commitment they had made me feel like I should go for it. This has been a martial arts journey for me. I spent my whole life dedicated to martial arts, doing martial arts, teaching martial arts, and promoting martial arts. I did miss it. My golf game improved, but retirement is overrated and keep that in mind. I loved what I did. This is my 31st year in the business."

But even on the first day on the job, there is drama, as the fighter most responsible for that number, Rampage Jackson, was talking retirement hours earlier.

"I did read the comments," said Coker about what Jackson said. "I know we'll be reaching out to his management and having conversations in the very near future. Quinton has been a legend in the sport and we'd like to work out the kinks in that deal and whatever the issues are, and I'm sure we'll be able to do that."

Coker hinted that he'd prefer a deal to be able to build more loaded shows than having the pressure of churning out weekly shows during a season, which was the Bellator format under Rebney. 

"I'm not sure I can answer that right now," said Coker. "To me, my vision is more continuity. Maybe not every week, but build big superfights, As far as the season, I think it should be a year-round sport. It shouldn't have a season, but that's something I have to sit down with Kevin and Bellator. I'll have a better understanding tomorrow."

But Kay noted, for now, that the plan is to run on July 25, and then start the fall season with weekly Friday night shows starting Sept. 5.

Coker a few times mentioned his life's journey, which started out working backstage on martial arts shows in his home city of San Jose, Calif., in 1984. He started promoting, coming up with the name Strikeforce, the next year, and continued to promote through 2011. Over the next two years, he had a run as essentially a figurehead in the Zuffa machine in the latter stages of the Strikeforce brand. 

Back in the 90s, he started taping long shows that were edited down for multiple taped television shows on ESPN. He then moved to MMA in 2006, and became the most successful live event promoter in the U.S., outside of the UFC, and turning his home town into the No. 2 MMA live event city besides Las Vegas.

He's learned a lot of lessons over those decades, and if there was something substantial stated, it was that his role is to find talent, and make them into stars, and not all fighters, even if they can win a lot of fights, are going to be stars. Coker was fortunate when he started MMA that he had two city residents, Frank Shamrock, a former UFC champion and an incredible self promoter, and Cung Le, a uniquely skilled ethnic hero to the Vietnamese and Asian community, that Coker had groomed for a decade, to build around. There was also a steady stream of talent that area gyms were turning out during that period  like The Diaz Brothers, Gilbert Melendez, Daniel Cormier, Josh Thomson, Scott Smith, Luke Rockhold and Jake Shields.

"I look at the MMA industry now, and there's a lot of fights out there," said Coker. "I'll tell you what, when we were starting Strikeforce, you had Pride, the IFL, Affliction, Elite XC, there was a lot of product out there. I don't think that's a bad thing. It comes down to the fighters, and that's what we're going to develop, world class fighters and put those fights on TV. We had a great platform with Showtime. The platform here is in three or four times as many homes. This is a star building business. It's not just about the league, it's about building stars and making fights that you want to see, building fights that move the needle. Not all fighters move the needle, and we'll do the best to move the needle for the network."

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