Not so very long ago I was paraphrasing Yeats in describing the slow death of Strikeforce, in terms of its fighters resenting the idea of "being tied to a dying animal." Those hostages were vocal, too. Everyone was waiting for the floodgates to open to the UFC. The ones who hadn’t been plucked away already wanted out. It was all very awkward. The belts were vacating, the divisions were shrinking (or had long been exterminated), and poor Tarec Saffiedine looked emaciated…as if the food supply had run out.
It was a wasteland.
Scott Coker, the man who took the regional California-based show to the broader reaches of Hoffman Estates (and beyond), was sort of a milquetoast presence through these end times. He was forever circling back to the question at hand, procrastinating as long as he could, always with a promise that the answers would just as assuredly be "ready to be announced" in a couple of weeks.
Those answers never came.
Strikeforce closed up shop in early-2013 in Oklahoma City. The final show felt like nothing more than a necessary evil, just a merciful surrender to the inevitable. Daniel Cormier handed somebody named Dion Staring his ass that night, and blew a big adios kiss in the direction of…nobody in particular. I remember ESPN’s Brett Okamoto comparing its demise to that of Pride, which had long fostered a cult following. His comparison was that they weren’t comparable. "Nobody is going to wear a 'Strikeforce Never Die' t-shirt," he said. I told him he was cold. And he is.
But he was right.
It all got very ugly before Coker, who’s been a sphinx ever since, disappeared into the evil corridors of Zuffa headquarters to carry out something being dubbed as "business as usual." What that entailed is a life mystery. If you ask Coker, you will not get far. You will only end up more confused than you were before you asked. (Personally? I like to imagine Milton Waddams from Office Space, with Coker complaining that the ratio of people to cake is simply too big).
But I bring all this up because the fact that Coker is being considered a savior to Bellator tells you everything you need to know about the state of the exited regime.
On Wednesday it was announced that founder/chairman Bjorn Rebney, along with COO Tim Danaher, were leaving Bellator, the tournament-based promotion that through five-plus years has never formed a complete identity. It’s always felt like a stubborn work in progress. And though it came to the surprise of no one who’d heard the grumbling from behind closed doors for the last couple of years, there was a collective sigh let out from the community when it was revealed Rebney was out.
Enter Coker Wednesday afternoon who, by comparison, felt like an upgrade. The times they are a-changing. Hallelujah. Out with the old, in with the new and all that. Spike TV's Kevin Kay called it a very exciting day. Coker said "Bellator 2.0." Nobody wanted to address Rebney yet.
Fair or not, people didn’t jibe with the one-time boxing promoter Rebney, and in most cases actively grew to despise him. He was too smug, too unbending, too shrewd, too politician-like, too un-UFC, too…something unfamiliar. But he also, like Coker, burst the seams on his original idea. Under his guidance -- and his wallet -- Bellator went from an ESPN Deportes entity to ending up a Viacom property that ended up on Spike. He took the promotion everywhere on this continent, even if you complained that they were rinky-dink casino spots, and eventually put on a pay-per-view event in May.
Rebney, who stood by his ideology of a tournament-based structure -- a troubled format that required a handful of conditional amendments over the years to enhance title aspects -- did a lot with a little (then a little with a lot). His time with Bellator and Viacom came to end because of strategic differences, it said in the press release. What that means exactly is left to the bigwigs at Viacom and Coker, who knows how to handle "wait and see" like no man before him.
I don’t know what it all means. Just as I don’t try and understand everything Dana White says, or what Coker doesn’t say, or the things Rebney buries in (scintillating, otherworldly) adjectives. Fight promoters bumble along best they can, and you’d trust them less if they didn’t lie so blissfully unaware of themselves. We appreciate the skew, short and simple. Hypocrisy, drama, haste, hustle, all very lovable in the fight game.
But a change was needed at Bellator, and if there’s ever been a man with a game plan to a steady build, it’s Coker. He took his regionally-locked San Jose promotion to pretty unheard of heights. So many on the UFC’s current roster are former Strikeforce matter. Just look at the middleweight division alone. Look at the heavyweights, and the women’s bantamweight division, and Robbie Lawler and Gilbert Melendez. Coker and his team knew how to assess talent. He knew how to grow talent. He knew how to make the UFC nervous, which in some ways remains his greatest feat. He inherits a gig that needs a fresh coat of optimism, with Viacom behind him, right at a time when people aren’t as gleeful to embrace everything the UFC says or does. He was in good standing with his fighters. He says that Bellator's roster will, in six months or so, become "robust."
And for all those reasons, Coker looks like gold following in Rebney’s footsteps.
Now it’s up to him to once again redefine No. 2, which is an intriguing challenge. How does he intend to do it? The tournament structure, by and large, will likely be done away with. As will the concept of "seasons." As for everything else, there will be conversations. We’ll have to circle back and hopefully get some answers in the next couple of weeks or so, but right now safe to say any change is welcome change.