Bellator’s plan is becoming more and more clear by the day. With the signing of Anthony Johnson today, it seems as if Bellator is hitting their stride finally. Is this a new-found mission? I think not, honestly. Bellator seems to have been planting the seed for the current state of the promotion’s new look and crop of talent. While this is conjecture, I believe signing the old UFC has-beens was a strategic move by Scott Coker and company to build a profile that would attract new talent and build value in their product.
Phase 1: Sign Old UFC Fighters
That was the running joke about Bellator for a long time. Bellator was a place for UFC fighters to go to fight out their days against lesser competition. They signed names like Rampage Jackson, Gegard Mousasi, Rory MacDonald, Roy Nelson, Loyoto Machida and more. This seemed to be a desperate attempt at attention from the mainstream fans to get people to tune in to their events to see their favorite old fighters fight. But I believe they were setting up something else.
These fighters have not had it easy in Bellator in the least bit. Rory MacDonald is probably the most notable. MacDonald came as a title challenger in the UFC, and he was one of the best prospects coming through the ranks. Since joining Bellator, Macdonald is a paltry 3-2-1. His losses to Gegard Mousasi and Douglas Lima. Mousasi, another UFC product, lost his title to Rafael Lovato Jr., a Bellator product.
The list goes on of Bellator fighters giving former UFC talent hell. Roy Nelson lost five fights in bellator. Matt Mitrione lost to Sergei Kharitonov. Most recently, Ryan Bader was run through by Vadim Nemkov. Bellator has done a good job getting the former UFC guys in their promotion with promise of more freedom and pay only to have them met with the best talent Bellator has to offer. When the Bellator talent wins, it’s a boost to the profile of Bellator’s roster and home grown talent. If the Bellator talent loses, no big deal, to the average fan, that was supposed to happen.
What this has done is raise the stock of fighters outside the UFC. Pitting the former UFC fighters against real talent has boosted the profile of Bellator. And Bellator isn’t the only one doing this either. ONE Championship has done this as well, albeit more predatory in nature, when they matched Sage Northcutt up with Cosmo Alexandre and former UFC champion Eddie Alvarez up with Timofey Nastyuken. It makes their product better. This proves that the UFC doesn’t have a stranglehold on all the best talent in the world any longer, which leads us to Phase 2…
Phase 2: Sign Prospects
Bellator has been on a rampage signing prospects in recent years. They’ve been quietly acquiring assets slightly before they’re ripe, how the UFC likes to get them. Bellator signed AJ McKee in 2015 for his first ever professional fight, Cage Warriors champion Soren Bak, and of course wrestling phenom, Aaron Pico.
The only reason Scott Coker and company has the ability to sign such prospects who seemed UFC bound was because of the opportunity to fight former UFC fighters while proving that they have the ability to compete there without the Reebok contract, without the politics and without the stress of fighting for Dana White. This has snowballed because of the fact that their homegrown talent has proved to be quality, giving their fighters an opportunity to actually compete against the best.
While Bellator has a hard time in matchmaking at times, babying prospects too long some times, we’ve seen in the lightweight and welterweight division of actual fights that should be made. Lima and MacDonald, Pitbull and Chandler, and more. It’s not always limited to those two divisions either. Namkov and Bader was a fight that should have happened and it proved that Nemkov was absolutely the best.
Bellator will continue to gobble up young talent from under the nose of the UFC before the UFC is ready to pick the fruit yet. The financial strain from the UFC’s loan from the $4 billion sale to WME-IMG only exacerbates the problem. I look for Bellator to get closer and closer to the level of talent in the UFC in the coming years.