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After nearly seven years in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, Rory MacDonald is off to Bellator MMA. No one is surprised. In fact, with MacDonald's recent comments about wanting to test free agency even prior to his embarrassing 25-minute loss to Stephen Thompson in June, this was perhaps an even more likely outcome than the British Columbia native re-signing with the UFC. But as with many things surrounding Rory MacDonald, from his perpetually bizarre affect to his friendship with Mike Ricci, I am a bit puzzled.
I'm not quizzical about MacDonald's decision, mind you. Like I said, most people saw this jump as probable if not a mortal lock. One of the reasons it was so easy to identify MacDonald as a potential Bellator signee is that it made sense for him and the UFC.
MacDonald's last UFC deal had him making between $50,000 and $60,000 to show and again to win over his last six fights, not a traditionally escalating deal were those figures often double or add 50 percent from bout to bout over the agreement term. On top of that, MacDonald has had title fight and lost, albeit in a classic, and it's not as though he's a pay-per-view main event draw who is going to reap the rewards of bonus dollars on his PPV buys. MacDonald's got an individual Reebok sponsorship, but even without being a Conor McGregor-level draw can probably drum up far more in free market sponsors working in Bellator.
As for the UFC, MacDonald already fought for a title in a jam-packed division and while he produced a classic and 2015's unanimous “Fight of the Year” with Robbie Lawler at UFC 189, he lost and suffered a brutal beating many are wondering if he'll ever fully recover from physically and competitively. The last fight on his deal was jaw-dropping, as it almost seemed like MacDonald was intentionally hurting his own bargaining power by sliding for inane leglocks against Thompson for most of five rounds. Then, when MacDonald opened up just briefly in round five, Thompson re-broke his now-perpetually crushed nose in what is becoming a troubling theme. MacDonald is not a legitimate draw for the UFC, they've got more welterweight contenders than they know what to do with now and certainly the company doesn't want to set a precedent on overpaying for talent on losing streaks that could be on the backside of the career, especially at 27. And of course, if MacDonald resurrects himself in Bellator and returns to earlier form, the UFC can always try to lure him home again.
No, what doesn't make sense is Bellator's particular interest in MacDonald. If Bellator was trying to be a promotion that strictly competed against the UFC in a more head-to-head fashion, genuinely competing to build the greatest and deepest roster of MMA fighters it could, I would be more understanding. However, that is not the modern Bellator product; Scott Coker is no longer running Strikeforce and he is now dealing with a different animal.
Back in 2009, the MMA landscape was vastly different. The UFC ran 20 cards that year and were just beginning to get into the swing of international expansion, with a roster of under 200 fighters. Not only was there more legitimate talent to sign, from established stars to up-and-coming prospects, but when Strikeforce landed on Showtime, the promotion Coker was running had the perfect product for the premium cable landscape.
Coker had fighters with legitimate claims to No. 1 status in their divisions, like Gilbert Melendez and Cristiane Justino plus organically popular draws like Nick Diaz and Cung Le. At one point, Strikeforce had a middleweight division better than the UFC's, outside of Anderson Silva. While the big-money contracts given to Fedor Emelianenko and Dan Henderson eventually backfired and proved to be the final nail in the coffin, precipitating Strikeforce's sale to Zuffa -- excuse me, Forza LLC – they drummed up real mainstream interest and produced fascinating fights. Coker put women on the map in the game, introducing the world to Gina Carano and Ronda Rousey. When Coker pulled sensational stunts, like using former football star Herschel Walker in an MMA fight, they were offset by truly great and compelling MMA.
For Showtime, the roster and booking style of Coker meant people bought Showtime subscriptions and frankly, Strikeforce pulled a lot of good ratings. Even if big-ticket contracts ultimately killed Strikeforce, it was still a great MMA promotion that produced great fights and was blessed with the roster to do so. Most importantly to MacDonald and Bellator MMA now: Strikeforce's broadcast partner needed a product that would make people spend $10 on their channel and could pop a rating and Scott Coker knew how to deliver both.
Now, Coker is under the Viacom umbrella and peddling MMA on Spike. When Coker took the Bellator reigns in June 2014, the company moved to its tentpole format, focusing on a handful of bigger shows in their calendar. Word in the industry was that Spike's long-term goal was to average around 1 million viewers per show; as a regular cable entity, popping that rating is everything to Spike. Functionally speaking, if getting eyeballs on a channel that most cable consumers has is really the only goal, you're going to see a different product. Showtime being subscription-based meant that Strikeforce had to have a certain kind of roster in order to entice someone to throw down money monthly, believing that event-to-event, the company would deliver with an enticing cadre of fighters. When you're just trying to ensnare folks channel surfing on a Friday night, that's when you get Kevin “Kimbo Slice” Ferguson facing Dhafir “Dada 5000” Harris.
Really, MacDonald is a signing that made sense for Scott Coker six or seven years ago and less so now. As I said earlier, the talent pool is different now and the UFC has ways of competing that make certain talent much harder to access for Bellator; Conor McGregor or Jon Jones are not going to want to sacrifice the UFC spotlight and the millions in PPV incentive bonuses that come with it. This makes Bellator, at least in the free agent market, reliant on signing away successful and tenured UFC veterans, but ultimately ones without any major ratings impact, which is now Coker's entire raison d'etre.
Look at former UFC lightweight champ Benson Henderson's recent Bellator debut and for a moment, set aside the fact that he absolutely got his ass whooped in one of the year's most lopsided fights against Andrey Koreshkov. That main event peaked with 1.1 million viewers, with a 618,000 average and an estimated 686,000 viewers after DVR was factored in. Henderson is probably one of the five best lightweights in MMA history, has headlined UFC pay-per-views and just under four years ago, his title defense on Fox peaked at 5.7 million viewers. Under the Bellator banner, he drew nowhere near the average number Spike and Coker want and the actual main event peaked just above what they dream of as an average, as Spike continued to romanticize its MMA salad days with the UFC during “The Ultimate Fighter” boom.
I don't necessarily expect MacDonald's Bellator foray to start as disastrously as Henderson's has and as mentioned, it's possible that he finds some vintage form. While Koreshkov continues to improve every fight and emerge as a legitimate top 10 welterweight, MacDonald taking his strap is not a controversial conclusion. As I've said, this move makes total sense for MacDonald. But for Bellator, is MacDonald going to draw those ratings and what does it mean if signing these kinds of UFC veterans doesn't help them achieve the goals they want?
Henderson had the benefit of PPV headliners, a UFC championship run and notching a huge rating on network TV. MacDonald's June bout with Thompson on cable with Fox Sports 1 averaged 964,000 viewers, and his previous cable main event against Tarec Saffiedine on FX averaged 799,000. These are not bad numbers by any means, but they're obviously inflated by the UFC brand attached to it.
There's a paucity of fights they can make for MacDonald at 170 pounds. If they don't want to thrust him immediately into a Koreshkov fight, which is probably a good idea given MacDonald's last performance and Henderson's embarrassment, they can give him a Paul Daley or Douglas Lima. If he beat either, a Koreshkov title clash is only natural. But, if he loses tidily, he's directionless unless he moves up to 185 pounds and if he wins, he's stuck in the same small cycle of opponents unless Michael Page bolsters his skills quickly. Hell, even in Bellator's signed quartet of great amateur wrestlers they're hoping to turn into stars -- Tyrell Fortune, Aaron Pico, Ed Ruth and Jarod Trice -- they don't have a natural welterweight. Even if he wins in the Bellator cage, if MacDonald can't draw a big rating on his own, repetitive or inferior opponents aren't going to help Bellator's cause.
I don't envy Scott Coker. Trying to draw big ratings at a time when the UFC has nearly every outstanding or well-drawing fighter is difficult and there's no shortcuts or hacks for turning amateur wrestlers or flashy kickboxers into world-class MMA fighters overnight. If Bellator is going to make a gangbusters play for recent UFC free agents like Donald Cerrone (who re-signed with the UFC Thursday) and Lorenz Larkin and try to stock the cupboards at 170 pounds, the MacDonald move is far more rational. But, if this is simply a signing predicated on the tired idea that a perennially elite fighter with UFC tenure can fundamentally draw, it seems like a miscue for Bellator. It's just not 2009 any more.