It doesn't quite seem like it, but it's been four months since Scott Coker took over from Bjorn Rebney as the CEO of Bellator MMA.
With one exception, changes when watching Bellator aren't that evident. But the feeling is there will be a different look come the new year.
There has been one obvious immediate change. The tournament concept Bellator was built around from its inception in 2009 was done away with. The constant promotion of the brand with its catch phrase, "The toughest tournament in sports," is now on the scrap heap. While no tournaments are scheduled today, as opposed to them being the focal point of the promotion, Coker also makes it clear that he's far from anti-tournament, having been weaned in the business working with K-1 in Japan.
"I like tournaments," he said. "I love tournaments, but it has to be the right tournament with the right athletes. We will revisit them at some point."
When he came in, plans were already made for a weekly fall season, and the real start of the new vision for Bellator, behind Coker and Spike President Kevin Kay, would really become evident in January. There is nothing concrete about what that entails past a very different idea of a scheduling concept.
The company has two shows left this year. The final Friday show of the year, and last of the weekly shows, will be Oct. 24, in Mulvane, Kan., with Emanuel Newton (24-7-1) vs. Linton Vassell (14-3) for the light heavyweight title, and pro wrestling star Bobby Lashley (11-2) vs. Karl Etherington (9-0).
Right now there is a basic battle plan. Once per month, on Friday nights, year around, there will be a live show on Spike. Three or four times a year, also on Spike, there will be big shows on Saturday nights, loaded up with stars and heavily promoted.
The final show of the year, on Nov. 15 show in San Diego, will be the prototype of the Saturday night major show concept.
The show features UFC Hall of Famers Tito Ortiz (17-11-1) vs. Stephan Bonnar (15-8) in the main event. Will Brooks (14-1) vs. Michael Chandler (12-2) will have a five-round rematch for the company's lightweight title. King Mo Lawal (13-4, 1 no contest) faces Tom DeBlass (9-2). And the show opens with a Coker favorite fight, Melvin Manhoef (29-11-1, 1 no contest) vs. Joe Schilling.
The show is a mix of things. The main event pits big stars from the UFC boom period who have well known names to the casual viewer. It's been proven in recent years that the guys with name value from the days when MMA did its highest ratings are usually good when it comes to getting an audience to watch a television show. Paired with it are two of Bellator's best fighters rematching after a controversial decision win by Brooks in their first outing for what up to this point has been Bellator's flagship championship. Next is one of the company's most promoted stars in Lawal in a showcase fight. And it opens with two knockout artists who are champions from kickboxing, the sport Coker originally came from.
The promoting of Schilling, who won the Glory middleweight tournament in 2013, into a big fight is part of the Coker strategy of finding people with a skill set and bringing them in, but being careful with the matchmaking. Manhoef is also primarily a kickboxer, who was recruited into MMA in Holland and became a name fighter in Japan. This speaks to two different concepts: debuting new fighters who have proven to be exciting in other combat disciplines, and showcasing them with people who theoretically will allow them to be able to best show their strengths, since the feeling is with Manhoef as the opponent, there will be little if any grappling.
"If you think about Manhoef vs. Schilling, fight fans are going to want to see it," he said. "To me, it made so much sense. That might be the fight of the night on Nov. 15. We're going to do some fun fights, but also some hardcore MMA fights that the hardcore fans are going to want to see. We've got no restrictions. We'll do it all.
"If we have a show every week, sometimes you have to get fighters to fill the card because there's nobody left," he said. "That's what you're not going to be seeing next year. You'll see big fights that people will want to see, starting in January."
He noted championship fights will be a regular thing on the monthly shows. The plan is for the big Saturday shows to be even more loaded to draw the largest audiences. They will be built like Nov. 15, using big names to casual fans to draw an audience, but also feature the company's best actual current fighters paired with them on the main event stage. They will also showcase name fighters and deliver what they hope to see as exciting style fights as well.
Being on Saturdays, they will often be faced with major competition, whether it be UFC or other MMA events, as well as boxing. Nov. 15 in particular, goes head-to-head with UFC 180, the Cain Velasquez vs. Fabricio Werdum UFC heavyweight title fight in UFC's debut in Mexico City. There will also be a World Series of Fighting event that night on NBC Sports.
Coker noted in his days at the helm of Strikeforce, one of the things they did was find new talent and give them their first exposure with a major promotion, dating back to early parts of the careers of Cain Velasquez, Daniel Cormier, Tyron Woodley, Gina Carano, Ronda Rousey, Cung Le, Nate Diaz and Luke Rockhold. That's part of the strategy for next year, which includes trying to establish a themselves a grassroots following in key markets and a pipeline to getting the next generation of currently undiscovered talent.
He noted the company has existing contracts with some of the Native American reservations that they've run regularly over the last few years, in some cases through 2016, but the goal starting next year is to run more at major arenas.
"We would like to develop a few cities that we'll go back to, like we did with St. Louis and San Jose in Strikeforce. One will be the (San Francisco) Bay Area, maybe not just San Jose. We want a strong foothold in the Bay Area. After 30 years, I've helped built the marketplace there for MMA fights. Why wouldn't we come here where we've had a good history?
"We're looking at Los Angeles and San Diego, Southern California markets. We're looking at something on the East Coast. The Mohegan Sun is a beautiful venue, and we've drawn well there. St. Louis, and maybe one more city. Those markets we'll go back to several times a year."
Coker also lives in the Bay Area.
"We're looking for the next T-Wood (Woodley) or Ronda Rousey or Daniel Cormier or Luke Rockhold," he said. "If we never went to St. Louis, we'd have never found T-Wood. When you come into a market and get a good working relationship with local promoters and say, `Put your best guy on,' we've found a lot of gold -- Rousey, Cormier -- that way."
"You also develop a fan base of loyal supporters," he said. "That's what I've found. And there's something about continuity. If you go to a city two times a year, if fans know you'll be there every April and October, they'll expect it, put it on their calendar, and support it."
His goal is for the last four fights on the shows to be a national television product, and for the undercards to work with those in the local area to find the best prospects and feature them on Spike.com.
He also spoke of going after the top fighters from other groups, if they can do deals that make sense, when their contracts are up. "We will look at every opportunity individually and make a decision at that point," he said.
Coker also had strong praise for the team at Spike TV.
"I have never in my 30 years of being in the fight business been surrounded by the brain power and the passion in every department, from P.R. to digital to consumer products. Every department in Spike is behind this project. I walked into a meeting in New York and there's an army of people saying, `How can we help you? What can we do to help you?'"
One thing that has changed in just a few months is the feeling of more synergy between Bellator and Spike.
"They've been working with our team," he said. "It's like one big team. Before, I felt there was separation when I walked into the building, a division between Bellator and Viacom. Now, everyone is working on the same page for the same goal and I think you'll be seeing the results of that. I talked to Kevin (Kay) and we came to the consensus that we're taking this company to the next level. Let's build some stars. We've been very successful at identification and star building in the past. We'll have some legends fights. And we'll put them all on free television before 100 million households. We thought that was a better model than going into the pay-per-view business. That doesn't mean pay-per-view is out. If the situation is right, we'll do it."
Coker noted the main difference with the relationship as compared to when Strikeforce was on Showtime is that Showtime had to approve of all the matchmaking, which could slow down the process.
"Our job is to put on the best fights," he said. "Showtime had the right to approve the matchmaking, which is completely different. We can match make our own fights here. Their infrastructure is much bigger than Showtime's. It's a different animal. At Showtime, we were really a vendor. We provided a product for them. Viacom owns Bellator, it's fully integrated, and they are going to use all their assets to grow the product. It's a different animal than the last opportunity. I've never had so many people in the room working on one thing, which is to grow this company."
While there may be a prestige difference being on Showtime in some people's eyes, Spike is in more than triple the number of homes. In addition, Spike will devote a number of resources to promoting the major shows. The station has produced three different special shows that will air in the days before Nov. 15, promoting the key matches and personalities on the show. The network is also set to expand into the United Kingdom, which could then open up as a live event market.
Coker also noted a huge facet of the business going forward will be international television distribution. They already have a deal with Fox Latin America, and he expects to do a show in Latin America in 2015, and they are considering Brazil. They have no distribution in Japan, but that's also a goal.
The advantages of moving away from weekly fights is that there is more time to build the shows, and to allow for more creativity in matchmaking.
"I think we've done more fights since June (when he started with the company) than in my first two years of Strikeforce," he said. "That'll put it into perspective. I think things are going well. The numbers (ratings) are solid and the growing peak numbers are fantastic. We've been having some good fights. The Joe Warren fight last week was really something. I thought Joe would have a shot, but he took it. That Dantas kid is a tough, young stud. Joe Warren proved once again he's the baddest man on the planet.
"Everything from the knockout of Joey Beltran by Emanuel Newton, that was one of the best knockouts I've seen in a long time the [Brandon] Halsey upset of [Alexander Shlemennko], the fights we've been putting on have been solid fight cards. Pitbull [Patricio Freire] vs. [Pat] Curran was an unbelievable match-up. [Bobby] Lashley proved he belongs in MMA and he's here to stay.
"There are a lot of things I feel good about," Coker contended.