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Nearly a year and a half in the making, Bellator 232 marked the final of the Bellator MMA welterweight grand prix. The last bout of the tournament saw a highly anticipated rematch between reigning champion Rory MacDonald and the man he beat for the strap: former welterweight titleholder Douglas Lima. Although it was not exactly the most exciting fight to watch, Lima managed to handily beat “The Red King” in a lopsided decision and become a three-time Bellator welterweight champion. Despite winning the tournament’s $1 million grand prize, “The Phenom” said in his post-fight press conference that the title was more important to him: “It is important for me to be a champion.”
In the days following his victory, Lima claimed he could beat any contender out there, including current Ultimate Fighting Championship welterweight titleholder Kamaru Usman. During an interview with TMZ, the 31-year-old Brazilian said that should he and “The Nigerian Nightmare” ever cross paths, he would knock him out, making sure to point out that while Usman is a superior wrestler, he would only need one punch to end a fight.
“I’d beat him. I’d probably KO him,” Lima said. “He’s a great wrestler for sure -- he wrestles a lot -- but man, at any point in that fight if I connect, I can put him away. I’m not talking bad about the guy. He’s a champion there. He’s doing his thing, but, I just know it, man.”
In that same vein, “The Phenom” also explained his distaste for the way many fans viewed his abilities as a fighter just because he was not plying them under the UFC banner.
“I know real MMA fans. They recognize. They know I’m up there with those guys. They know I can beat … I can fight any of them. But [with] most of [the fans], it’s like, ‘Man, you’re not in the UFC. You’re a nobody,’” he said. “Man, I hate that. That’s people who don’t understand the sport. It’s not the name UFC or Bellator or One [Championship]. There’s killers everywhere.”
While it’s safe to say that those who intently follow MMA realize Lima is definitely not a “nobody,” you’d be hard-pressed to find the newly crowned Bellator welterweight champion at the top of any media outlet’s rankings list, let alone their Top 5. Despite consistently improving holes in his game and avenging two of his three professional losses, “The Phenom” tends to trend towards the bottom end of the Top 10 for most sets of rankings. This is through no fault of his own, however, as the biggest issue that most pundits and fans seem to have with Lima isn’t his skillset but rather the competition he has faced.
It’s an obstacle that any champion or elite-tier fighter faces outside the UFC. Although a fighter may be dominant and even undefeated in another promotion with high-level competition, they are often precluded from talks of being the best in the sport in their respective division unless they work for the Endeavor-owned organization. The reasoning behind this phenomenon is that the UFC has built a reputation of signing the majority of the best fighters in the world and as such has the strongest competition for anyone trying to make the claim that he should be atop the rankings of any particular weight class. This logic is not entirely faulty, as previously undefeated former Bellator and One champion Ben Askren has gone 1-2 since signing with the UFC, and former unbeaten World Series of Fighting lightweight champion Justin Gaethje suffered back-to-back losses not long after joining the promotion.
That being said, not all fighters that have joined the UFC after proving themselves dominant elsewhere were met with such setbacks. Although he lost his first fight in the promotion after vacating his belt in Bellator, Eddie Alvarez managed to go on a three-fight winning streak that saw him claim the UFC lightweight championship in his fourth fight with the organization. When the UFC acquired Strikeforce back in 2011, many of its champions and elite talent ended up holding belts in the new promotion, including Luke Rockhold, Daniel Cormier and Tyron Woodley. In fact, many fighters who were renowned and actually got a chance to compete in the UFC found a great deal of success once they were there. However, in all of those scenarios, the issue remained that in order to be recognized in the conversation for the best of the best, those fighters had to compete under the UFC’s banner at some point. That ties into the core of the antitrust suit currently being leveraged against the UFC.
While the most recent news tied to the half-decade-old case came in revelations from evidentiary hearings, those findings mostly related to promotion financials and whether or not the complaint against the UFC would receive class certification. As expressed by Pepperdine University economics professor Dr. Paul Gift back in 2018, the heart of the complaint revolves around whether or not the UFC maintained a competitive and economic advantage over its rivals by signing top-ranked fighters to exclusive long-term contracts. According to court documents, the plaintiffs allege that the company obtained a “critical mass of marquee fighters,” which ended up rendering other promotions “‘minor leagues,’” giving the UFC monopoly and monopsony power in the industry.
According to the plaintiffs, the UFC was well aware of how important it was to keep certain fighters in order to maintain its market position. In a filing to oppose a motion by the UFC for summary judgment in the case, they reference several depositions, emails and texts as proof of this, although they are mostly redacted at this time. A specific example that Gift points to in the filing is the UFC matching a contract offer that Gilbert Melendez received from Bellator in 2014, which prevented him from leaving the organization. The plaintiffs also reference a network effect that occurs in several sports leagues as a result of consumers wanting to see the top athletes compete against each other, and in order for another promotion to compete with the UFC, it would have to somehow acquire a comparable number of top-ranked fighters.
It is not hard to see the effect about which the plaintiffs are talking. In almost any sport, the most financially successful organizations are the ones that hold the highest concentration of top talent. Not only that, but the remaining leagues are indeed often viewed at a lower tier, with up-and-coming players moving through them to get to the biggest league and players whose skill may be waning in the premier organization moving to them. Whether it’s the NFL and CFL, NHL and KHL or NBA and EuroLeague, this type of dynamic exists in almost every major sport.
Which brings us back to Lima. The fact that “The Phenom” finds himself outside of the Top 10 rankings in most media outlets and fan polls after beating the best that Bellator has to offer further strengthens the idea that the UFC is the major leagues for MMA in the mind of the consumer. No matter how many opponents Lima defeats, he won’t receive the recognition he may very well deserve unless he fights in the UFC, where the perceived top competition resides.
While it’s theoretically possible that Bellator manages to secure enough marquee fighters to rival the UFC, as of right now, it’s extremely unlikely. As long as the UFC is allowed to continue automatically extending champions’ contracts, match offers from outside promotions and keep its multi-year contracts, it will continue to have a chokehold on the sport’s top talent. While Lima doesn’t believe he’ll leave Bellator to sign with the promotion for which his brother currently fights, he has hope that one day the UFC may co-promote with other organizations and afford him his chance to shine. Unfortunately, as another famous fighter has found out, there’s a fat chance of that happening.