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In the twilight of his career with the Ultimate Fighting Championship, former light heavyweight champion Vitor Belfort had an idea: create a “Legends League” where older athletes who were past their prime or even retired could fight each other. According to Belfort, the league would be held within the promotion, giving “more opportunities so [older athletes] can make more revenue.” UFC Hall of Famer Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira supported the idea so long as there were no rule changes, stating that the concept “makes sense” for those close to hanging up the gloves and even for those who have already hung up the gloves but who still wish to compete for the financial incentives that are now available in the sport. The idea never gained any traction among UFC executives, however, fading into the background as nothing more than a blurb from an interview with an MMA legend.
While the UFC may have passed on Belfort’s vision, another promotion is essentially making it a reality. Bellator MMA hosted its last event of the year, Bellator Japan, on Dec. 28. The card featured a main event between two longtime veterans of the sport, Fedor Emelianenko and Quinton Jackson. Unsurprisingly, the bout lasted just under three minutes, with “The Last Emperor” landing a devastating right hand that sent Jackson to the canvas. While it first appeared that Emelianenko was hanging up the gloves after the match—again—he clarified that it would merely be his last bout in Japan and that he was planning on competing once more in the United States before ideally retiring in Russia in 2021.
The main event of Bellator’s end of the year event wasn’t the first time in the past few years that the promotion had two old warhorses go at it. In 2017, the organization renewed the rivalry between Wanderlei Silva and Chael Sonnen in a headlining bout at Bellator 180, a pay-per-view card which saw Douglas Lima defend the 170-pound belt in the show opener and Ryan Bader defend his light heavyweight championship on the prelims. Earlier that same year, Sonnen made his return to MMA after a four-year layoff in a match against Tito Ortiz, deemed a fight in the “'was relevant 5 years ago' division,” according to emails between UFC matchmakers. In 2018, Silva fought the aforementioned Jackson for their fourth bout spanning 15 years while Emelianenko faced off with former UFC heavyweight champion Frank Mir in the first round of the promotion’s heavyweight grand prix.
It may not be a formal league, but the amount of older name-value fighters who are still competing under the Bellator banner is certainly higher than most other organizations. All of the athletes mentioned so far in this article have stepped into the Bellator cage past the age of 40, and that doesn’t include other fighters on the promotion’s roster such as Roy Nelson, Matt Mitrione and former UFC light heavyweight champion Lyoto Machida. Although some of them have left the organization or seemingly retired for good this time around, many still plan on fighting into the next decade with no signs of stopping.
Bellator has opted to sign these fighters and put them against each other for two main reasons. The first reason is that, despite their age, many of these marquee fighters are still able to pull in above-average promotional ratings. Bellator 192 with Sonnen vs. Rampage as the headliner drew 1.3 million viewers in the main event, which marked the highest ratings for the company in 2018. In 2019, a year in which the promotion’s ratings had supposedly taken a hit from hosting bigger shows exclusively on Dazn, the highest-rated card of the year was the heavyweight grand prix finals between Emelianenko and light heavyweight champion Ryan Bader. They may be past their prime, but the name-value of fighters like Rampage and Emelianenko still helps bring viewers to Bellator shows.
That increased viewership brings us to the second reason Bellator signs these athletes, which is to showcase their up-and-coming talent on the undercard. Without recognizable names to draw viewers to the card in the first place, it would be difficult for promotional standouts like Michael Page, Adam Borics and A.J. McKee to gain the traction they need to make fans tune in for their fights in particular. By putting a fight like Sonnen vs. Silva in the headliner spot, the promotion hopes to bring attention to fighters like Neiman Gracie and Aaron Pico on the undercard, who they believe will be the future stars of the organization (although Pico hasn’t turned out to be the prospect that they had hoped).
While Belfort has indeed come out of retirement to fight again, the Brazilian legend opted in February to sign with another organization looking to add UFC veterans, One Championship. Bellator may have the highest concentration of notable aging athletes at the moment, but other promotions have certainly begun a push to sign bigger names as they attempt to break into the U.S. market, even if the names are a bit past their “Sell by” date. The end game for the Viacom-backed company is to use the older legends to build up the young bucks, but whether this will work long-term remains to be seen. In the meantime, fans can enjoy the nostalgia of watching fights like this one in 2019.