To close out 2018, many mixed martial arts outfits went a little crazy with their year-end shows. The UFC up and moved a whole pay-per-view event from Las Vegas to Los Angeles on a week’s notice after discovering that Nevada wouldn’t license its primary draw, Jon Jones. Rizin, Japan’s big MMA promotion, paid Floyd Mayweather an absurd amount of money—$9 million, to believe Floyd’s humblebrag—to put a beating on the undersized, under-experienced Tenshin Nasukawa in a boxing match. Why would a Japanese promotion do that to a burgeoning Japanese star? Well, to enjoy combat sports is to not ask too many questions.
Meanwhile the smaller Professional Fighters League utilized a Cinderella trick by turning six ordinary 1099 fighters into millionaires. The PFL caught the darling treatment in the MMA media ranks for rewarding its championship-winning fighters—mostly castoffs, second-chancers, mercenaries, last-go MMA veterans, and a few scattered up-and-comers who’d navigated the PFL’s inaugural “season”—so handsomely. Not only did the PFL send out a smoke signal for fighters looking to cash in in 2019, it made prizefighting feel like college basketball with payouts.
As for Bellator, America’s perennial no. 2 promotion behind the UFC? Bellator just kind of sat back and watched all the madness with a bemused smile. Bellator’s president, Scott Coker, has been relaxing and enjoying himself, taking in all the shufflings and panic decisions going on around him with a particular kind of relish. While Dana White is busy defending his decision to give banished NFL player Greg Hardy a second chance to the “douchey” media, Coker is eating popcorn with his feet up.
Why not? In early December, there was a lot of chatter about Bellator and the UFC going head-to-head with shows in the same market (Los Angeles) on the exact same night (January 26). Bellator had its Heavyweight Grand Prix finale at the Forum, featuring a title bout between Fedor Emelianenko and Ryan Bader, while the UFC was slated to hold a superfight between flyweight champion Henry Cejudo and bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw at UFC 233 at the Honda Center in Anaheim. Upon first glance this looked like classic UFC counterprogramming.
Ten years ago, when the apparel brand Affliction was putting on MMA shows—led by a money team that involved a shareholder named Donald Trump—the UFC booked an impromptu event featuring a prime Anderson Silva against James Irvin to broadcast at the same time as the first event, which also featured Emelianenko. The card aired on Spike TV, and was put together for one reason and one reason only: To cripple Affliction’s pay-per-view. The UFC wanted to kill Affliction in one fell swoop. A year after that shrewd bit of business, Affliction’s MMA promotion was out of business.
A decade later, things have changed. In mid-December, just days after abruptly redirecting Dillashaw and Cejudo to Brooklyn, the UFC opted to back out of its January 26 date, which wasn’t so much a surprise as it was a concession. To anybody who pays attention to how thin the UFC spreads itself with 40-plus events a year, the move looked very much like a poker player folding a bad hand. UFC 233 didn’t have enough stars available to make it PPV-worthy. Given the ceaseless schedule, the rash of injuries, the ever-growing demands of its champions, and everything else, the UFC took the L in this particular head-to-head matchup with Bellator. The press release said that UFC 233 was being “postponed,” but everyone knew this was a sugary way of saying the event had been canceled.
What did Coker do? He trolled. Without gloating (exactly), he made it known that this particular skirmish went to Bellator. He subtweeted the UFC similarly in December by taking Bellator to Hawaii, a state where Dana White—who has popular Hawaiian champion Max Holloway on his roster—said he couldn’t schedule a card due to a stubborn tourist bureau (read: a money snag). Coker seems to be building a franchise through all of the UFC’s can’ts and won’ts, and snapping up attention by doing what the UFC’s not willing to.
Over the past year, Coker has gone about the business of distinguishing his promotion as not a no. 2 in MMA, but as a sane alternative to the UFC. In July, Bellator signed 22 fighters in the European market, and then added nine more in August. It is quietly making a stronghold in the United Kingdom and in Western Europe, areas seen as underserved by the UFC. The promotion has struck local television deals to go along with the hub network (Paramount), as well as a major, nine-figure deal with the streaming service DAZN, which kicked off in September with a fight between Gegard Mousasi and Rory MacDonald (both ex-UFC fighters).
In that case, Bellator beat the UFC to MMA’s future; the UFC began its five-year, $1.5 billion deal with ESPN this past Saturday by streaming its inaugural fight night on ESPN+, the first event to fall behind a non-Zuffa paywall (the UFC introduced its own streaming service, Fight Pass, back in 2013, in response to the WWE Network). The card inherited the Dillashaw-Cejudo flyweight title fight, which was likely chased out of Los Angeles by circumstances and, though the UFC will never admit it, Bellator’s presence.
Coker has nipped at the UFC’s heels since the mid-aughts. His Strikeforce promotion, which partnered with Showtime in the early-2010s and produced some of the biggest stars in MMA (including Ronda Rousey and Daniel Cormier), was purchased and absorbed by Zuffa in 2011. Once Coker was legally able to do so, he went back to work building up another competitive brand. This time he took over at Bellator, which had all the appeal of the Black Plague under its previous steward, Bjorn Rebney.
Slowly, Coker has once again carved himself a niche in the world of MMA. He has mostly scrubbed Bellator of its initial tournament structure—with the exceptions being the current heavyweight and welterweight grand prix events—and cleverly assembled his roster. Getting free agents like Mousasi and MacDonald was smart, but Coker’s largest creative edge is in identifying potential.
The signings of Aaron Pico (a 22-year-old wrestling standout who is on the verge of stardom), Ed Ruth (a blue-chip wrestling prospect), and Ilima-Lei MacFarlane (a current women’s flyweight champion) are examples of his best work. He also has Michael “Venom” Page on the roster, a kind of warbling boogeyman who put a dent in Evangelista Santos’s head with a flying knee. Page is compelling theater, and Bellator knows it.
It was Coker, more than a decade ago, who identified the surge in women’s MMA before the UFC caught on, and it was Coker who groomed future champions like Tyron Woodley and Cormier on his Strikeforce Challengers vehicle. He’s not afraid to take chances. Sometimes he falls on his face, like he did with the Kimbo Slice versus Dada 5000 fiasco in 2016.
(Even that travesty did a record-setting 2 million viewers.)
This Saturday night is the perfect representation of what Bellator hopes to achieve more regularly in the new year. It offers the full gamut of tenses—the then, the now, and the future. In the main event, the consensus heavyweight GOAT Emelianenko is fighting current light heavyweight champion Bader. Fedor’s mystique is grandfathered back to his 28-fight unbeaten streak between 2001 and 2009, making him one of the rare MMA unicorns from the day when unicorns existed. His star has faded over the years, but this fight, which plays heavily on nostalgia, sells itself.
Having Pico in the co-main is a stroke of genius, especially against a gamer like Henry Corrales. That’s the showcase of the future right there; Pico is among MMA’s Next Big Things.
And having Jake Hager make his debut on a big card is a textbook Cokerian move. Hager—better known as “Jack Swagger” from his pro wrestling days, a two-time world champion in WWE and currently a foil (going by “Jake Strong”) in Lucha Underground—was a wrestling standout at the University of Oklahoma. Like Brock Lesnar (who wrestled at the University of Minnesota), Hager has an actual scaffolding in combat sports. And the possibility that he will fail colossally has been remedied in advance by Bellator: He’s fighting someone named J.W. Kiser (0-1), who sounds like a character on Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!.
It’s a good card, and it’s a Coker card—and it was enough to make the UFC rethink going up against it. That’s a small victory for Bellator as it gets rolling in 2019. Like he did in Strikeforce when he had names like Cristiane “Cyborg” and Nick Diaz on his cards, Coker is splicing merit with novelty, and novelty with genuine articles. Back in the day, Coker had Herschel Walker and Bobby Lashley fighting alongside Robbie Lawler and Paul Daley, with people like Cormier and Rousey coming up. Now he has Fedor, Pico, and Hager, a little triptych of talent that all appeal to different tastes.
Bellator isn’t going to overtake the UFC as the most popular MMA promotion—not this year, not ever. It knows that. But what it can do is give a certain sect of MMA fans exactly what they need—that is, a counter to the UFC. The best Bellator is the trolling Bellator, the one that doesn’t let the UFC forget its mistakes and presents itself as a stable league when the UFC goes off the rails, and that says it has the best welterweights in the world because Rory MacDonald (the current Bellator champ) beat Tyron Woodley (the current UFC champ). The best Bellator is the one that joins in on the chorus of boos whenever the UFC is acting up.
When the UFC unveiled its new, gem-studded “legacy belt” at UFC Brooklyn this past weekend, which Cejudo ultimately won, there were many moans from traditionalists who didn’t like the idea of change. Seeing the negative response, the first thing Coker did was tweet out a message with a picture of the Bellator belt that read, “some things are better left alone.”
Nearly 10 years ago, when Fedor lost for the first time in ages to Fabricio Werdum in Strikeforce, it was Dana White who tweeted out a smiley face with no words. These days Coker is returning the favor. And all the underdogs who follow along are favoriting the shit out of it.