Opinion: Bellator MMA and the Role of Competition

Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

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The word “monopoly” evokes a number of reactions. For some, it means the death of competition and the rise of bully businesses that can jack up prices at their sinister whims. For others, it means family squabbles and slammed game boards from landing on Boardwalk -- again -- after your little brother put a hotel on it. Either way, rarely does a positive reaction follow discussion of monopolies. Even monopolistic entities themselves try to avoid the term, lest they incur greater scrutiny from the angry masses who are still recovering from the previous night’s board game defeat.

Monopolies are tricky, though. In many instances, they’re better for both consumers and employees than competitive markets. A company that is constantly trying to outmaneuver competitors will likely have little ability or desire to truly take care of its workers. Rather, said workers become more replaceable and interchangeable in a state of perfect competition, since their salaries would be quick to put on the chopping block in the race to cut costs and increase profits. On the other hand, a business that has no real outside threats has the resources and ability to take care of its workers more comprehensively. It’s why Google -- which dominates search engine competitors like Yahoo and Microsoft’s Bing to the extent they can hardly be considered competitors -- is renowned for how well it treats its employees.

As for the consumer, look no further than sports markets. The NFL, NBA and MLB are all beloved monopolies, mostly because competition would directly dilute the product. If Lebron James, Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant all played in different basketball leagues, there would certainly be more organizational competition in the world of basketball, but it would make the game worse. This is especially pertinent to mixed martial arts, since it wasn’t too long ago that promotions other than the Ultimate Fighting Championship hosted enough talent to water down several divisions. Once Pride Fighting Championships and Strikeforce got absorbed, the heavyweight, light heavyweight and middleweight rosters in particular went through much-needed refurbishing.

There’s one key difference between those traditional sports leagues and the UFC, and I’m sure you see it coming already: collective bargaining. In the NBA, NFL and MLB, players receive around half of all company profits, while UFC fighters get less than 20 percent. There are meaningful structural differences between the UFC and those leagues to consider, but ultimately the pie is smaller for fighters because nothing has forced the UFC’s hand to do something differently.

Enter Bellator MMA. In the absence of a fighter’s union, competition is essential for fighters to get their bread buttered more equitably. Bellator is more vital now than it ever was, especially with the draconian measures attached to the Reebok deal and United States Anti-Doping Agency testing.

It’s worth saying that Bellator will not be a threat to the UFC’s dominance in the MMA market unless the UFC makes monumental mistakes. The UFC is simply ingrained in culture in a way that Bellator never will be. Although it’s fodder for jokes and memes from hardcore fans, there’s a reason why people claim to “train UFC.” The branding of the UFC is so effective that the company is the sport in the eyes of many. You don’t, for instance, hear people say “let’s go play NBA” when they mean basketball. That’s a powerful conflation to own. It’s the same thing with Google. The word “google” is a recognized word by Merriam Webster as a verb. Don’t hold your breath for “bing” to achieve the same status.

However, the slow leak of upper-crust talent has the potential to make the UFC start to reconsider some of its business practices. Phil Davis, Benson Henderson, Rory MacDonald and Matt Mitrione have all made the jump, citing financial reasons as the primary motivator for leaving the most prestigious MMA company in the world. Mitrione was a top-10 heavyweight in the UFC at one point; Davis was as high as the top 5 at 205 pounds; MacDonald was a title challenger; and Henderson was a titleholder. That’s not nothing. Bellator has freed them up to find more lucrative sponsorship deals and still fight meaningful competition. Yes, there’s also One Championship in Asia and the perpetually misfiring World Series of Fighting, but Bellator is the most sound, American-based alternative to the UFC.

Now Ryan Bader is a free agent. He is second only to Jon Jones when it comes to all-time light heavyweight UFC wins after defeating Antonio Rogerio Nogueira at UFC Fight Night 100 on Saturday in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Though he has stated he wants to remain in the UFC, he qualified that statement by saying it’s “gotta make sense.” Translation: It’s time for Ryan DuWayne Bader’s bank account to more accurately reflect his talent. A shot at the light heavyweight title wouldn’t hurt, either.

Whatever you may feel about Bader, he is undeniably one of the best light heavyweights in the world. He may not sell PPVs, but that can’t be the only metric the UFC brass cares about. The meritocratic infrastructure is as vital to the company as PPV sales. Even with fighters like Bader, who is generally not the most exciting personality or fighter and is unlikely to become the champion, his résumé contributes to the legitimacy of the stars who may one day beat him. The same can be said of Davis or Jon Fitch. It’s no coincidence that the biggest stars the UFC has had, going back to Tito Ortiz and Chuck Liddell, have also been legitimately good, accomplished fighters for their times. Now it’s Ronda Rousey and Conor McGregor, but again, their stardom was achieved due in no small part to their in-cage success. A championship belt provides promotional opportunities that brash personalities or attractive faces alone do not.

Bellator benefits from the UFC’s burden of legitimacy. It’s true that it will never have the McGregors or Rouseys, but on the other hand, the UFC will never have the Dada 5000s or Herschel Walkers. That doesn’t sound like much, but the freak show fights help pay the bills, and they are increasingly harder to justify under the UFC banner. Bellator, however, has free range to put on whatever slapstick showcase it wants, because nobody expects it to be the arbiter of competitive purism. By adding legitimate talent to its roster, even if it’s the UFC’s leftovers, Bellator is building a brand of its own and providing a viable career path for fighters at every rung of the rankings.

Plus, as Henderson’s post-UFC career has shown, Bellator has legit talent, too. The man has a defensible claim as one of the best lightweights ever in the UFC; he went 16-4 in the UFC and World Extreme Cagefighting, but after his loss to Michael Chandler on Saturday, he has gone 1-2 in Bellator. His lone win, it’s worth noting, could have easily gone the other way had Patricio Freire not injured his leg mid-fight. The idea that leaving the UFC means smashing scrubs for a paycheck is not categorically true.

Put simply: Bellator is not just a triviality in the MMA landscape. It provides real competition and real compensation for fighters who aren’t getting what they want or should from the UFC. In a perfect world, we’d see the UFC monopolize MMA in the same way the NBA and NFL have monopolized basketball and football. In other words, all the talent would be in one place and well-compensated through unionization. Meanwhile, the other major leagues would act as retirement plans for fading fighters and steppingstones between the UFC and regional promotions for up-and-coming prospects. Until that happens, though, Bellator is an important player, and it is doing a service to the fighters by giving them another employment opportunity.

Hailing from Kailua, Hawai’i, Eric Stinton has been contributing to Sherdog since 2014. He received his BFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University and graduate degree in Special Education from University of Hawai’i. He is an occasional columnist for Honolulu Civil Beat, and his work has also appeared in The Classical. You can find his writing at ericstinton.com. He currently lives in Seoul with his fiancé and dachshund.
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