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The Ultimate Fighting Championship’s decision to allow a number of prominent older fighters to leave the company over the past year or so has opened up opportunities for its competitors. While the UFC once seemed determined to lock up as many elite fighters in each division as possible, it seems more willing at present to cede more expensive athletes to other companies. This is particularly true when it comes to fighters who appear to be on the downside of their careers.
This has happened enough at this point that it’s clearly part of a concerted strategy, albeit one the UFC downplays rather than highlights. Time will tell the effect it has, but it has not led to significant backlash to this point. A big part of that is older fighters let go by the UFC are assumed by many, rightly or wrongly, to be no longer in their fighting prime. Just a loss or two on the outside, and that perception becomes even more entrenched. Well-known fighters in turn can become albatrosses for other companies: highly paid but unable to drive interest in the way they once were.
The danger for the UFC is that much of its brand is built on the idea that it has the best fighters in each division. At the point that starts to be thrown in doubt, its titles have less value and its champions less credibility. This has been a problem for the men’s flyweight division, in particular, with Demetrious Johnson, Henry Cejudo and Kyoji Horiguchi all leaving the division and/or the company. It also may be in the process of becoming an issue at light heavyweight.
Light heavyweight was for a long time the UFC’s marquee division. Many of the company’s biggest superstars fought at light heavyweight, with Tito Ortiz, Chuck Liddell, Randy Couture, Quinton Jackson, Lyoto Machida, Jon Jones and Daniel Cormier among them. That time is long gone. The biggest stars are past their prime, while Jones has left for the heavyweight division. Compounding the problem is that the UFC let arguably the biggest star remaining in the division—Anthony Johnson—leave for Bellator MMA. He joins a number of other key former UFC stars in the Bellator 205-pound division.
As the company’s light heavyweight division grew in stature, Bellator President Scott Coker began to consider how to further highlight its strength. That was part of the decision-making process in signing Yoel Romero to fight at 205 pounds, a short time after Bellator indicated it was not interested in the elite middleweight. There has also been discussion about staging a grand prix at 205 pounds, which would be the MMA tournament with the most star power in many years.
Another Bellator signee from the UFC, Corey Anderson, upped the ante by arguing that the Bellator division has surpassed the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s 205-pound weight class as the best in the sport. Anderson is of course not the most impartial observer, but the question is absolutely a fair one: Which company’s light heavyweight division is the best?
In order to put this question up for debate, one has to first establish the criteria. If one views depth as a paramount consideration, it becomes difficult to argue against the UFC. The UFC runs so many more fights than any other major company that it has greater depth everywhere. By the time you run through every significant Bellator light heavyweight, there are still another 10 UFC light heavyweights of some consequence. Thus, the argument comes down to whether the Bellator grand prix field is better than what a UFC grand prix field would look like.
The optimal field for a Bellator grand prix is pretty obvious on paper: Vadim Nemkov, Anthony Johnson, Ryan Bader, Corey Anderson, Yoel Romero, Phil Davis, Lyoto Machida and Liam McGeary. Bader is Bellator’s heavyweight champion, but he fought at 205 pounds last time out and it feels unlikely Coker would leave him out of the clear highlight of the Bellator calendar.
A UFC field is much harder to parse, so let’s just go with the Top 8 in the UFC’s rankings: Jan Blachowicz, Glover Teixeira, Thiago Santos, Dominick Reyes, Aleksandar Rakic, Jiri Prochazka, Anthony Smith and Volkan Oezdemir. Obviously, Jon Jones or Israel Adesanya would add significant juice to the equation, but Jones seems intent on heavyweight. Adesanya has not yet fought at light heavyweight and appears much more likely to fight at middleweight over time given his body frame.
There are so many wrinkles when it comes to comparing the two fields. It’s difficult to compare the two champions. Both have fought very well recently, but neither has a title defense to his credit. Nemkov is a decade younger. I tend to think he would be favored by the oddsmakers against Blachowicz given his recent performances and the lingering perception of the latter as more of a journeyman. However, Prochazka is in the UFC group, and he handed Nemkov the only clear loss of his career.
The UFC field is younger than the Bellator field, although perhaps not by as much as you’d think, averaging a little over 33 years of age compared to a little over 36. Both divisions are full of fighters who fell short in title fights. Bellator’s division has accumulated one UFC title and five Bellator titles, while the UFC only has one UFC title and one Rizin Fighting Federation title collectively. The two sides haven’t fought all that often, with Bellator holding a narrow 4-3 edge in head-to-head competition.
The biggest strength for the UFC may be greater depth. If you were to seed all 16 fighters, Bellator would likely have the last two seeds in Machida and McGeary. The strongest argument in favor for Bellator probably boils down to Johnson’s status. “Rumble” is still only 36, and he has taken a break that might have freshened up his body; at his best, he has an ability to dominate like few others. His only losses since 2012 have come to Cormier, a legend of the sport. If Johnson is back in top form, it’s not hard to imagine him knocking out fighters in both fields left and right.
So, which field is better? It’s awfully close. At the least, Bellator has made it a viable point of debate. That’s not something you can say about basically any other division in the sport where the UFC fields fighters, so Bellator has every right to raise the querstion. I’d give Bellator the narrowest of edges right now when it comes to the eight-person field, but it’s a tenuous one given Romero can only compete at the top level for so much longer. Meanwhile, the UFC could find itself bolstered soon enough by Adesanya, a returning Jones or the emergence of a few stars from its deeper and younger reserves.
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