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Click Debate: Is Bellator gaining ground on the UFC?

Bellator 170 Media Day
Chael Sonnen was perhaps Bellator’s most high-profile signing yet.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Whenever one of Mike Roberts’ UFC clients gets closer to the end of his or her contract, the manager poses a question to them.

“Do you want to be a mixed martial artist and get paid as much as you can or do you want to be a UFC fighter?” Roberts said he asks. “Sometimes it ends up being the same and sometimes it doesn’t.”

Many fighters, not just Roberts’ clients, choose the latter. They would rather stay in the UFC, where the majority of the best fighters in the world still compete.

Others, though, are willing to try something new and seek out what could be greener pastures. That means, now more than ever, departing the UFC for Bellator.

In the past few weeks, Ryan Bader, Lorenz Larkin and Michael McDonald have made the jump from UFC to Bellator, joining the likes of Chael Sonnen, Matt Mitrione, Rory MacDonald, Benson Henderson, Phil Davis and others. Dillon Danis, a popular Brazilian jiu-jitsu ace well known as Conor McGregor’s grappling training partner, also inked a deal with Bellator last month.

Sonnen is one of Roberts’ more high-profile athletes. The former UFC title challenger and top draw will meet rival Wanderlei Silva in the main event of the Bellator NYC pay-per-view event June 24 at Madison Square Garden.

That card will also include Fedor Emelianenko taking on Mitrione, Larkin challenging Douglas Lima for the Bellator welterweight title and Michael Chandler defending his lightweight belt against Brent Primus. Just announced Friday night was Bader’s Bellator debut against Muhammed Lawal on the Bellator NYC undercard, which will be a Spike TV broadcast named Bellator 180.

Meanwhile, Bellator has already put together bigger cards more regularly this year than ever before, including ones featuring Sonnen vs. Tito Ortiz, Lawal vs. Rampage Jackson and the upcoming MacDonald vs. Paul Daley headliner in London.

If Bellator seems to have some momentum to those on the outside, it is also readily apparent to those in the industry.

“I definitely think there is [a change],” Roberts said. “The UFC is still the juggernaut. It’s a great company with great people and smart people and people that built the business. But I think Bellator is stepping their game up and creating opportunities for people to do something different and still make good money.

“I think a lot of it has to do with Viacom letting Bellator expand and [promoter] Scott Coker is a very smart person. And I think Dana is also being financially responsible to the company, to the UFC.”

The UFC is still surely the world leader in MMA and there still isn’t a competitor that most would classify as being close. At least in the United States, the sport of mixed martial arts is synonymous with the UFC, which is why Roberts poses that question to his fighters prior to free agency.

Bellator, though, is making incremental steps closer and there is surely a difference between Bellator in 2014 when Coker took over and Bellator now. That is indisputable.

Much of it has to do with the commitment from parent company Viacom and the work of Coker and matchmaker Rich Chou. A lot is also owed to the UFC. Coker himself acknowledges that the UFC brokering a uniform deal with Reebok and being sold for more than $4 billion to WME-IMG has accelerated Bellator’s growth.

Coker told Ariel Helwani on Monday’s edition of The MMA Hour that Bellator is two years ahead of where he thought it would be when he first arrived, replacing Bjorn Rebney. Reebok and WME-IMG are big reasons why.

“I think there were some bitter athletes out there, saying ‘Hey, you guys made all this money — $4 billion — and we’re still stuck here in this contract,’” Coker said. “I think that changed people’s mind. It made the phone start ringing. The Reebok deal was the original one that made the phone start ringing. And then the sale of the company, that was the next one. I’ve noticed a difference.”

UFC fighters who were making in the six figures or high five figures per fight in sponsorship money lost a major chunk of revenue since the Reebok deal went into effect in July 2015. Fighters can no longer wear their own sponsors on their clothing in the cage or during fight week. And the sponsorship money from that apparel contract tops out at $40,000 per fight for champions and drops from there.

Just about every athlete who has bolted the UFC for Bellator has mentioned getting to wear their own sponsors again as a major part of the decision.

The effect that the UFC selling to powerhouse Hollywood talent agency WME-IMG for a staggering amount of money has been two-fold. Some fighters have felt disenfranchised now that they know how much the promotion was actually worth compared to what they are getting paid. Others have seemingly been deemed expendable with WME trying to hit earning goals by established deadlines and cutting costs (and laying off employees) in the process. The UFC has let a surprising amount of talented, ranked fighters leave recently, and not just to Bellator.

“[The UFC] is still the biggest company and the biggest fight promotion that there is, but they’ve gotta be financially responsible now, especially with the new ownership,” Roberts said. “Just be responsible in how they spend their money. I think they’re handling it more as a business now than a personal thing.

“They built MMA. It’s a different dynamic now. Things change. The UFC is always going to be big.”

That doesn’t mean Bellator cannot rise, even while the UFC thrives. I’d be remiss if I also didn’t mention the potential effect the antitrust lawsuit against the UFC, which is currently in litigation, has had. It is certainly possible that the UFC has not been as ruthless in trying to retain fighters to demonstrate that it is not a monopoly, as the ex-UFC fighter plaintiffs have alleged.

Some of Bellator’s moves have been panned, too. Sonnen and Silva are both in the twilight of their careers and coming off lengthy doping suspensions. Emelianenko vs. Mitrione was a fight Bellator was going to put on cable in February before Mitrione had to withdraw due to kidney stones just hours before the event started.

Is the time really right for a pay-per-view now? Wouldn’t it make more sense to spread these fights out on Spike and continue building this momentum gradually?

This is a chance to make a big splash in New York, though. And make some revenue in the process. This is still only one step in a broader plan Coker and company have to bridge the gap with big names from years past until prospects like Aaron Pico, A.J. McKee, James Gallagher, Ed Rush, Jarod Trice, Tyrell Fortune, Joey Davis, Ilima-Lei Macfarlane and Danis are ready to become the faces of the promotion.

Pico and Gallagher, by the way, will both be a part of the Bellator show in New York. Gallagher, a teammate of Conor McGregor, meets Chinzo Machida, the brother of Lyoto, on the Spike portion of the event.

Bellator NYC won’t draw the numbers of UFC 205. It might not even reach the more modest buys of UFC 208, which were estimated to be somewhere in the range of 200,000. But even the most ardent Bellator critic must acknowledge that there has been an improvement in the product and its visibility.

Those with knowledge of the inner-workings of the industry certainly have recognized it. And that fact does not have to be any kind of knock on the UFC, which will always be the $4 billion gold gorilla in the room. Legitimate competition is certainly not a bad thing for the sport, its fighters and its followers.

“I think what it’ll take is time,” Roberts said. “Do I think Bellator will ever be as big as the UFC? Who knows. But the only thing that will tell that is time.

“I definitely think it’s going to make the UFC even better. Who that really benefits is the fans. I think Dana is the kind of guy that loves that challenge.”

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