Opinion: How Bellator can Fight the UFC

Photo Credit: Bellator MMA/Lucas Noonan

UFC Fight Night 223 attracted a lot of commentary for all the wrong reasons. It finally caused many to call out the promotion for how pitifully weak its main events and overall cards have become, especially for fight nights relegated to the ESPN+ app. I first wrote about this trend three years ago after UFC on ESPN 10, which was headlined by Cynthia Calvillo vs. Jessica Eye. I argued that that was a new low point for a UFC main event and time hasn't altered that judgment, as neither combatant has won in the three years since, with Eye going 0-3 before retiring and Calvillo currently on a five-fight losing streak. With this increasing dissatisfaction, is there an opportunity for the second largest MMA organization, Bellator MMA, to take some ground from the UFC? Surely, all they have to do is put on better events with better fighters? No.

Say what you will about the UFC, but they know what they're doing. As I noted a few weeks ago, the plan is ingenious from a business perspective. All the UFC needs in order to fulfill its lucrative ESPN deal is a certain amount of content. Quality doesn't factor into it. Sure, there is an incentive to sell pay-per-views and tickets for their bigger shows, but even then, past the main card, or in some cases, just the top two fights, it is as generic and forgettable as any Fight Night. However, for the shows at the Apex or in smaller markets there is no incentive to put on any quality fights, and we can observe the results.

This also applies to individual champions. It doesn't matter that Bellator's Vadim Nemkov is the best active light heavyweight in the world and would be a significant favorite against his UFC counterpart, Jamahal Hill. The power of the UFC brand and logo mean Hill's fights will be watched by far more people, and the event Hill headlines will make a bigger gate than a Nemkov match in Bellator, never mind the PPV buys, a market that the No. 2 promotion can't even crack. Why else do you think the UFC was so comfortable allowing their reigning heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou to leave? They could have anointed previous champion Stipe Miocic as the new belt holder and his next fight would be more successful than Ngannou's debut in any rival promotion. The value of the UFC logo surpasses the individual value of all but maybe one or two fighters, Conor McGregor and Jon Jones.

So if card quality and fighter quality don't matter or change anything, what the hell can Bellator do? Are they doomed to lose to the UFC the same way that Scott Coker's previous promotion Strikeforce did, despite what turned out to be fantastic talent with a slew of future UFC champions and legends, including Daniel Cormier and Ronda Rousey? I have two ideas, both centered around the same theme; namely, to separate itself from the UFC as much as possible.

Change the Way you Market and Present Your Product

The way the UFC presents its product is stale. It's uptight, trying to ape the coverage of mainstream sports like football and basketball. It's also lazy, with the same dull video packages featuring a fighter training in the gym, talking about their life struggles, and/or love of their family. It's corny, with some crappy cover of a played-out, popular song for their pay-per-view commercials. Most of all, it's more boring than the rematch between Carla Esparza and Rose Namajunas.

I've written before about how the UFC can fix this, but Bellator can steal those same ideas. Look at what Pride Fighting Championships did back in the day and how they presented legends like Wanderlei Silva and Fedor Emelianenko. Did we EVER see video segments featuring those men's families, or looking sad when talking about their upbringing? No, because the goal was not to make them normal or relatable. That s--- is for ordinary mortals! I want top fighters presented as larger-than-life, cool bad asses, and that's exactly what Pride did. Silva was “The Axe Murderer,” an intimidating destroyer who would head-stomp you into oblivion if you looked at him funny. Emelianenko was a cyborg, an unflappable killing machine. Compare that to how differently the UFC would depict the great Russian heavyweight. They would show off what a nice, mild-mannered family man he was and perhaps his devotion to the Eastern Orthodox church. That may be a lot closer to the truth, but the whole point of MMA promotion is to sell us on a fantasy. Why do you think McGregor is so damn popular? Bellator's current marketing is too similar to the UFC's. It needs a complete overhaul.

Do Unique Things the UFC Doesn't

To Bellator's credit, they understand this and are doing it to a certain degree. They hold grand prix tournaments, calling to mind the glory days of Pride. Similarly, they cross-promote with Rizin Fighting Federation for New Year's Eve cards. They hold events in unique locales like Hawaii. This is all very good. However, it's not enough.

How about holding some cards not in a cage, but a ring or experimenting with different round lengths? What about holding events in Asia where knees to a downed opponent, soccer kicks, and head stomps are all legal? This may all sound crazy, but that's because so many promotions are stuck in the rigid, “serious sport” mindset that the UFC is using. Smaller rivals, however, can't afford to do this, or else they will be dismissed as ersatz copies of the genuine article—and yes, that includes Bellator. Above all, one should remember that MMA is the greatest sport ever invented and thus deserves to be depicted in the most amazing, thrilling, and fun manner possible. If one wants to take some territory from the UFC, they should seek to bring that out in their product, contrasting it with the increasing dullness of the largest MMA promotion.

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