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It has been a rough stretch for Bellator MMA.
Since Scott Coker arrived to run the show in June 2014, the business strategy has been to use tentpole events featuring legendary fighters to get fans to notice and care about homegrown Bellator talent. Coker has certainly done a phenomenal job acquiring legends in free agency or luring them out of retirement. In this manner, he has probably surpassed even the wildest expectations, getting Chael Sonnen, Fedor Emelianenko, Tito Ortiz, Stephan Bonnar, Royce Gracie, Ken Shamrock and Kevin Ferguson to grace the Bellator cage.
However, when these legends are not fighting, fans have increasingly not tuned in. Ratings have plummeted in 2018, reaching World Series of Fighting levels of bad recently. Only 401,000 tuned in for Bellator 197. Fans simply haven’t connected with Bellator beyond the previously established legends.
Part of that may be due to the failure of the second half of Coker’s strategy: getting people to care about homegrown Bellator talent. For all of Bjorn Rebney’s faults as a fight promoter, his tournaments found virtually all of Bellator’s homegrown stars, from Michael Chandler and the Pitbull brothers to Alexander Shlemenko. A strict tournament format isn’t the way to run a fight promotion for a lot of reasons, but Rebney undeniably found talent.
He certainly did a better job than Coker has in Bellator, as the latter’s strategy of signing top prospects and having them make their professional debuts on main cards hasn’t yet panned out. The Fab Five -- a group of highly touted wrestling prospects -- hasn’t become anything more than card-fillers thus far. Ed Ruth and Tyrell Fortune’s talents have risen with their opposition level, but they have been fairly inactive; Joey Davis and Jarod Trice haven’t advanced beyond fighting opponents with losing records; and Aaron Pico’s career is still largely defined by his debut at Bellator 180, an early submission loss to a larger and more experienced Zach Freeman in a fight he had no business taking. He certainly looks like he could be a star, but, as the Freeman fight demonstrated, he needs to work his way to larger fights.
While Michael Page and James Gallagher have seemed like stars for brief moments, they’ve been on the shelf for months now, sapping all of their momentum. The most promising young Bellator prospect may actually be A.J. McKee, who has quietly amassed a Bellator record 11 consecutive wins. Fans have got to see McKee’s progression as a fighter, from his professional MMA debut to his recent clash with Ultimate Fighting Championship castoff Justin Lawrence. He’s ready for more prominent opponents and bigger fights that will help him resonate with fans, but that hasn’t happened yet.
The failure of Bellator’s young prospects to take that next step has placed considerably more pressure on the heavyweight grand prix to deliver. It’s a motley crew of fighters, featuring Sonnen, Emelianenko, Muhammad Lawal, reigning Bellator light heavyweight champion Ryan Bader, Quinton Jackson, Frank Mir, Matt Mitrione and Roy Nelson. The only common threads between them is that they all are legends of the sport and happened to answer Coker’s calls. It certainly is a weird tournament, unprecedented even. It’s just weird enough to work, though, and certainly weird enough to get the fans buzzing in a manner usually reserved for the UFC.
It’s more than needed. To put it bluntly, the grand prix is about the only thing going for Bellator at the moment. Solid main events like Chandler-Brandon Girtz at Bellator 197 or Darrion Caldwell defending his bantamweight championship against Leandro Higo at Bellator 195 have been met with little more than yawns. An old Bellator promotional staple -- matching UFC veterans like Benson Henderson or Rory McDonald against current Bellator stalwarts -- also isn’t moving the needle much anymore. Even Bellator 200, which is supposed to be a showcase event featuring Gegard Mousasi against middleweight champion Rafael Carvalho and a stacked undercard, is overshadowed by Bellator 198 and Bellator 199 cards headlined by grand prix fights.
While not ideal for Bellator to have all its eggs in the grand prix basket, there are worse fates for Coker than relying on events like Bellator 198 to carry the promotion. Bellator 198 features potentially the most anticipated matchup in the whole tournament, as Emelianenko meets Mir in another Pride Fighting Championships vs. UFC battle. Time may have sapped their athleticism, but it has done little to diminish their promotional power. Both still resonate with fans in a way that few fighters ever have.
Maybe after all the craziness of the Bellator grand prix dies down and a new heavyweight champion has been crowned, Coker’s grand plan will bear fruit and fans will care about the fighters they saw on the undercards. Bellator 198 certainly features some glimmers of hope, with Conor McGregor’s jiu-jitsu coach and emulator Dillon Danis making his debut and Emmanuel Sanchez, somehow only 27 years old, facing UFC veteran Sam Sicilia. It might be just enough to turn around Bellator’s fortunes.
Pressley Nietering is a third-year student at Clemson University.