The end of the Bjorn Rebney era in Bellator arrived in June 2014, at least officially, when Viacom executives rang the death knell on the tournament format and cast Rebney off into his self-imposed exile to Mexico (or somewhere else far away from watchful eyes). But in many ways, the discord within Bellator began much sooner -- just think of Muhammed Lawal's infamous explosion on Bellator's first and only pay-per-view.
You remember. Things were said, mics were cut, accusations of "dick-riding" were thrown around willy-nilly. By the end of the night, Lawal wasn't quite sure he wanted to fight for Bellator any longer, and Rebney wasn't quite sure how to quash the hurricane Lawal had started.
So it must seem strange, then, for Lawal to fast-forward just eight months and see how vastly changed the world is around him. Under the leadership of new president Scott Coker, Bellator's reputation has flipped from one of tourneys and treachery, to one of spectacle and transparency. And for fighters like Lawal who saw both sides, the difference in perception between Bellator's two eras couldn't be more pronounced.
"It's night and day," Lawal told MMAFighting.com. "Night and day. Even the media coverage. You can see it all, how people treat us now. We have more respect."
Coker's philosophy has always revolved around the big show. It's how he worked as the wizard of Strikeforce, and it's how he's already begun shaping his vision of Bellator 2.0. That vision was first put on display this past November, when Bellator invaded San Diego with a bombastic season finale unlike any other in the promotion's history.
The show, Bellator 131, drew the highest ratings for a Bellator event ever. And now that the public has a sense of the direction Coker is headed, Lawal says the reception he's begun receiving as one of Bellator's biggest names is miles ahead of how things felt at this time last year.
"You see us in the crowd now," Lawal said. "You can see it in the media. People saw Bjorn, but I don't think they really respected him. Everyone looked at him like [he was fake], kinda like they didn't feel like he was honest and they felt like he was always hiding something. But Coker, when he says something, it means something. He doesn't really get out in the public that much, so when he speaks, it actually means something.
"When people asked [Rebney] a question, he really never answered them. He just answered them by dancing around. He was a politician."
Bellator's next tentpole event takes place this upcoming Friday in Uncasville, Connecticut. Dubbed ‘The British Invasion', the card features a slew of Britain's finest fighters competing against their foreign counterparts, and of course Lawal is part of it as well. He'll move up a weight class to take on veteran UFC heavyweight Cheick Kongo in bout that typifies Coker's brand of entertainment-above-all-else matchmaking.
As for what happens after that, Lawal isn't sure -- though he's more excited by the possibilities than ever before.
"Coker brings a credibility to the organization," Lawal said. "I like it, and I think everybody else does too."