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Bellator MMA President Scott Coker and Ultimate Fighting Championship President Dana White have more mutual respect than is common for rival combat sport promoters, so it was something of a surprise when they got into a bit of a war of words over the weekend when it came to the respective qualities of their light heavyweight divisions. It certainly wasn’t filled with the sort of animus we see when White gets into it with boxing promoters Bob Arum or Oscar De La Hoya, but there was no mistaking the disrespect from White after Coker spoke up for the quality of his division in relation to that of his rival.
The points put forward by both men are understandable given their respective positions. For Coker, Jon Jones’ abdication of the UFC light heavyweight crown offered an opportunity to trumpet the strength of his fighter and division. Without Jones in the mix at 205 pounds, there was a good-faith argument to be made that Ryan Bader deserved to be considered the top light heavyweight in the world. He hadn’t lost in four and a half years and owned knockout wins over a string of name fighters, while Jones’ domination inside the Octagon meant all the UFC’s top contenders had more recent defeats.
The argument that Bellator’s 205-pound weight class is the best light heavyweight division in the sport is a much harder one to make. However, if you don’t put a premium on depth, the top mix of Bader, Vadim Nemkov, Phil Davis and Corey Anderson is strong. Bellator has much deeper divisions but that’s a stronger group than most at the top, and Coker was trying to put the spotlight on that truth.
White’s dismissive response of “that’s cute” was perhaps undeservedly flippant given that the UFC’s light heavyweight division isn’t exactly a murderer’s row compared to what it has been in the past and what other divisions look like today. With that said, White is ultimately right that he has the stronger division, and it isn’t particularly close. The closer argument was always going to be about Bader individually as compared to Jan Blachowicz or Dominick Reyes. Unfortunately for Coker, that argument about having the best light heavyweight fighter went up in smoke when Bader was demolished by Nemkov at Bellator 244.
That isn’t to say that Nemkov might not be able to defeat Blachowicz or Reyes. The problem is that he just doesn’t have the overall resume to rally public perception for his being the best. His Rizin Fighting Federation losses linger, and his second-best win was a narrow split decision against Davis. As such, Bader and Nemkov outline the problem now and moving forward for fighters competing outside the UFC when they try to stake their claim as the best in the world.
There should be no question that elite fighters from outside the UFC can come into the Octagon and fight at the top level. Eddie Alvarez, Justin Gaethje, Daniel Cormier, Tyron Woodley and a host of others have demonstrated that over the years. The problem for these fighters? It is exceedingly difficult for anyone to be taken as the best until they come to the UFC.
Logically, that shouldn’t necessarily be the case. In boxing, Top Rank, Golden Boy, Premier Boxing Champions and Matchroom all have their own champions. No promotional banner is just assumed to have the best fighters. Before a playoff was created in college football, press and coaches would champion different teams from different conferences as the best. Yet in MMA, few ever make the case for non-UFC fighters.
This isn’t an accident, nor is it the result of bias or lack of fairness. The issue is the way the sport is structured. Most high-quality fighters end up in the UFC before long. The UFC isn’t in the habit of letting fighters with a claim to being the best go, and it has a champion’s clause that prevents champions from leaving before they lose their titles. When veteran fighters leave the UFC, they pretty much always have suffered key losses shortly before leaving. No matter how many wins they then accumulate outside the UFC, there’s always the easy narrative that they are winning against softer competition and their previous losses—even years in the past—are the truer measure of their quality as a fighter. At the point they lose, their claim goes up in smoke, and unlike in the UFC, the person who beats them isn’t necessarily elevated to the same level.
The other path a fighter could potentially take to be viewed as the best fighter in the world outside the UFC is by never going to the UFC in the first place. This is what happened with the last fighters to reach that stature, like Fedor Emelianenko. That path is easier in the sense that the fighter will not have lost in the UFC and might not have lost at all. However, there is a different challenge, which is that it is tough to accumulate enough big wins in promotions with less depth of talent. Moreover, the UFC title fight is the de facto method of proof.
Take, for example, the case of Israel Adesanya. Imagine after building up an 11-0 resume that he signed with an organization other than UFC. He then accumulated six wins along the lines of what he did inside the Octagon: Rob Wilkinson, Marvin Vettori, Brad Tavares, Derek Brunson, a 43-year-old Anderson Silva and Kelvin Gastelum. That’s not a markedly tougher lineup of opponents than he might fight in Bellator. At that point, it’s hard to know what he could do to be taken as the best without fighting Robert Whittaker. He could keep winning and winning outside the UFC, but without fighting the top guy, he would likely be stuck in the minds of most.
Or would he? The one fighter lurking that could put that theory to the test is A.J. McKee. Already 16-0 at the age of 25, he has everything you could want in a future pound-for-pound star: family pedigree, athleticism, high fight IQ and well-rounded skills. He also fights in a Bellator division that has depth, as evidenced by the current 16-man grand prix. He can keep fighting quality opponents and building his reputation.
It’s not hard to imagine McKee beating Alexander Volkanovski if they fought in two years. The big question is if McKee can rally fans to believe him to be the best without that fight taking place. If McKee keeps winning against the best fighters in the Bellator featherweight division, it will be hard to deny he’s one of the best. Still, that’s different than being the best. If that isn’t attainable for McKee, it may be that non-UFC fighters just can’t break that invisible barrier as long as the UFC remains in its current state.