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Bellator strikes it big in signing free agent Benson Henderson

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

If Benson Henderson was gambling on his career by fighting out his UFC contract, it paid off — and you are likely to see more and more fighters follow suit. The former UFC lightweight champion announced he inked a multi-fight deal to compete in Bellator on Monday, becoming one of the biggest free agent UFC defections since Dan Henderson bounced to Strikeforce after UFC 100.

Something about the Henderson’s brings out the pitchman in Scott Coker.

Yet unlike some of the castoffs, relics and crash test dummies that Bellator has scooped up over the last couple of years, this was a big signing for the Viacom-owned promotion. Henderson is 32 years old, and has won back-to-back main events in the Other Org. One of them, against Brandon Thatch, was an inspirational late-notice job that won a lot of people over. He can compete in two weight classes, and hoist current champion Will Brooks’ star to a higher position in the sky. With the partition down, that fight becomes big business. Same thing if he goes to welterweright for a fight with Andrey Koreshkov. Bendo can become a ruler of the tent poles just by showing up.

And he can do all of this with a toothpick in his mouth. 

In other words, Viacom brought in a commodity very much still in his prime, which is a major boon for a league that has for so long trailed behind the beating of the drums. In a sport where market value has traditionally been hard to determine, this opens things up a bit. Who could be next to follow? Will a burgeoning star like Aljamain Sterling end up on Spike? What about Alistair Overeem, or Matt Mitrione?

How many others in 2016 will play out their UFC contracts just to see what they are worth on the open market?

The thing is, most brand name fighters that the UFC doesn’t necessarily covet are the kinds they don’t want fighting in a rival promotion. There are a few exceptions. When Phil Davis signed with Bellator, it felt more like the UFC saying "sayonara." Jon Fitch and Yushin Okami, both who ended up at WSOF, same thing. Yet when Gilbert Melendez was jumping ship, the UFC had to come correct with a contract. Because Bellator was out there driving up the market, Melendez became the highest paid lightweight on the UFC’s roster. In turn, fighters saw the power of leverage. They also had something to compare their own deals with.

People are starting to get it. Either Bellator will pay hefty ransoms for free agents, or force the UFC to open up their wallets to match. In the case of Henderson, the UFC opted not to spend what Bellator was willing to give. Fighters now have reasons to dip their toes into the marketplace, rather than re-up on the hunch of a good deal.

Prizefighting is all about the prizes, after all.

As with everything in the mixed techniques, the landscape is always changing, too. For a long time the end of the night and discretionary bonuses were enough to hold people’s attention in the UFC. So were the sponsorship opportunities. With Reebok now the exclusive sponsor of the UFC and a tier-system in place for sponsorship dollars, the outlook on this begins to change. Individuality comes in to play, personality, choice. Couple these things with other evolutions, such as USADA’s out-of-competition testing — which is a bigger deal for some than others — and incentive spreads to see what else exists. 

No matter the reason, Benson Henderson is a banner signing for Bellator, which has forged an entirely new identity from the days of Bjorn Rebney’s tournament pyramid schemes. This wasn’t Josh Koscheck, where fighter and promotion alike believe they can squeeze a few last fumes from a name. Nor is it a grab at novelty shticks built for one-offs. This is a sports move with the big picture in mind. It’s a declaration that there’s a player on the lurk, which right now is positioning itself from a unique place — a place with the athlete’s interest in mind.

Coker appeared on The MMA Hour on Monday and said that the Henderson signing was just the "tip of the iceberg," that more and more fighters will be looking to find out their own value. So long as Coker has some leeway in assigning that value, the world of MMA is about to get a lot more interesting.