Can free agents level the MMA playing field?

A few years ago, when it was time for free agency in the NBA, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh all decided to each take a little less money and play together for the Miami Heat. How did that turn out? Oh, not too bad. While they failed to live up to the expectations placed upon them, they still managed to win back-to-back championships and made the NBA Finals four years in a row.

What does this have to do with mixed martial arts?

Much like James, Wade and Bosh are considered three of the very best players in the NBA, there are currently three MMA fighters on the free agent market that have the opportunity to introduce a sea change to the sport.

Those three fighters are Benson Henderson (no. 13 welterweight, no. 15 lightweight), Aljamain Sterling (no. 5 bantamweight) and Alistair Overeem (no. 3 heavyweight). Before his victory over Junior Dos Santos in December of last year, Overeem stated his intent to test the free agent market when his UFC contract was up.

These three have been a part of the UFC, and why wouldn’t they want to stay? After all, the UFC is the biggest game in town, by far. Bellator is increasing their profile under Scott Coker and was able to snatch away former UFC light heavyweight contender Phil Davis. World Series of Fighting is still lurking out there, and is home to a few former UFC fighters – Jake Shields, Jon Fitch, Rousimar Palhares (currently serving a suspension) and Yushin Okami. However, these fighters were cut from the UFC.

Let’s also not forget One FC in Asia, which counts former UFC fighter Brandon Vera as its heavyweight champion and Ben Askren, probably the best fighter in the world who’s never competed in the UFC, as its welterweight champion.

The point is, even if the UFC is the biggest game in town, it’s not the ONLY game in town. You can debate the merits of the product that Bellator and WSOF put forth, but despite putting on cards with main events like Ken Shamrock vs. Kimbo Slice and Kimbo Slice vs. DaDa 5000, many of the world’s best fighters prefer to call Bellator home.

Henderson, Sterling and Overeem have a real opportunity here. They obviously have the right to make whatever choice they feel is best for their careers. But imagine if all three decided to pull a “Big Three” like James, Wade and Bosh in the NBA and sign with Bellator? The organization’s profile instantly rises 10-fold and at least enters the same neighborhood as the UFC.

Despite the many issues WSOF faces internally and behind-the-scenes, successfully bringing in fighters like Henderson, Sterling and Overeem – however a long shot it may be – gives that organization a badly-needed shot in the arm.

Imagine Henderson facing the likes of Michael Chandler, Will Brooks or Michael “Venom” Page in Bellator. Imagine Sterling squaring off with WSOF bantamweight champion Marlon Moraes; talk about fireworks. Neither heavyweight division in Bellator or WSOF is particularly strong or established right now. Overeem would have a golden opportunity to have a division, or even an organization, revolve around him in a way in never truly has in the UFC.

While it’s likely Henderson, Sterling and Overeem will all re-sign with the UFC, it is interesting to play fantasy booking and imagine the possibilities if they decide to “take their talents” elsewhere, to quote King James.

I mean, I don’t know about the rest of you. But I’m absolutely dying to see Scott Coker announce the next Bellator “tent pole” card will feature Overeem facing Kimbo Slice in the main event. Imagine the ratings!

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Chris Huntemann
Chris Huntemann writes about mixed martial arts in the state of Maryland. He also opines on all things UFC, Bellator, World Series of Fighting and any other MMA topics he cares to bloviate about. You should check out his blog, or his Twitter. Or both. When he's not watching MMA, he's an avid fan of other sports, such as football, baseball and college basketball. He may or may not do other, non-sports-related things as well.

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