Opinion: Bellator Marches Forward In Battle With UFC
By Jesse Heitz
Things continue to heat up between the goliath of MMA promotions, the UFC and the clear runner-up in the MMA world, Bellator. While the UFC is still the undisputed king of all promotions, having gobbled up two of its historic rivals—which also happened to be two of the largest promotions the sport has ever seen in Pride and Strikeforce, it would appear that Bellator is making up ground at a breakneck pace.
I can honestly admit that I underestimated Bellator. I had anticipated that they would surely reach the number two spot in the MMA world, perhaps along with the likes of the World Series of Fighting, as distant second tier promotions. Yet, as of late Bellator has followed in the footsteps of the UFC, from hiring former Zuffa-controlled talent like Randy Couture, to signing a TV deal with Spike, making massive developmental strides that greatly enhanced its mainstream exposure and viewership.
As if that weren’t enough to put Dana White and the Fertitta brothers into a frenzy, Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney has stated that Bellator will soon be entering the pay-per-view arena, stating to MMAJunkie.com that,
“If we can figure that out [Alvarez’s contract], I think we’d be on a fast track to being able to put [a pay-per-view card] in motion. It’s [Alvarez vs. Chandler] the best fight I’ve ever seen live, pay-per-view or free. I think the rematch of that fight would be epic.”
What’s even more startling is that it’s evident that the UFC brass is beginning to take notice. Dana White’s recent comments regarding Viacom and the Eddie Alvarez debacle, which were posted by several MMA outlets and was written on masterfully by my colleague Joshua Molina, reveal that the UFC is no longer the only big fish in the pond.
“[Bellator] have the right to Eddie Alvarez. He did his deal, but if you look at the way that this thing goes down, Eddie Alvarez paid his dues there. He honored his deal. He honored his contract with them. When your contract is up and you have the right to match, that’s where a fighter truly finds out what he is worth. Well, he found out what he was worth, now pay him the money.”
“Bjorn doesn’t run Bellator. They’re Viacom, one of the most powerful media companies on Earth. What is the number they sit on, 5.5 billion in cash? 5.5 billion in cash, break some off for Eddie (expletive) Alvarez and pay him what he deserves.”
Yes, it’s rather clear that the days of the UFC’s undisputed dominance within MMA are coming to a rapid close. And while I don’t generally question the marketing strategy of one of the world’s largest media conglomerates, I have to question if Bellator, in a race to wrestle market share away from the UFC, has over-saturated itself.
During any given Bellator season, they typically hold 10 or more events in a three to three and a half month time frame. That’s approximately one card per week. Not only is their tournament format straining for the fighters, but perhaps for the viewership. Indeed, most diehard fans will watch week in and week out, but the casual fan may be hard-pressed to do the same. Part of what makes MMA so thrilling is the buildup to incredible cards loaded with top fighters. Bellator is missing out on this aspect, while the UFC keeps its fans wanting, looking forward to the next big thing.
There can be no doubts that Bellator is nipping at the boot heels of the UFC, but I’m not sold on its over abundance of events, at least as a long term strategy. Who knows, maybe Bellator’s oft-rumored pay-per-view inaugural, the Alvarez vs. Chandler II card, is a clear signal that they’ll be scaling back on the number of events they offer. Either way a Bellator backed by Viacom could make for an interesting new Cold War in MMA, which as I’ve always stated, is good for the fans and the fighters.